Friday, 1 July 2011

Ganesh : forms and symbols

The color of Ganesh

Ancient scriptures teach us that Ganesh is of a bright red color. This is the reason why a lot of Ganesh murti (statues) are painted in a bright red color, between a true red hue, an orange-colored one like minium or a flesh pink. But black, blue, or even yellow Ganesh representations are known.

Various aspects and functions assumed under the leadership of Ganesh are called by different names and it is said that each of these forms has one particular color, for instance :

 Dvija Ganapati would be colored like the moon,  Dvimukha Ganapati would be bluish-green,  Dhoomravarna Ganapati would have a smoke-colored body,  Haridra Ganapati displays a bright yellow,  Runamochana Ganapati is white just like the crystal stone,  Heramba Ganapati is of a dark green color, etc.

In some cases, the color of the Ganesh head and of his body are different; for instance his head is brick red with a flesh-colored body.

Ganesh arms and emblems

Ganesh has generally four arms. But sometimes he may have only two or six , eight, ten , twelve, and even sixteen.

Rare two-armed Ganesh are very ancient ones ; however, one can see a lot among the present handicraft production. During older periods, from the Gupta period (5-8th century), four-armed Ganesh are already known. The number of arms of hindu gods, at least four, is one of the main features which allows anybody to differenciate them from other divine images, Dvârapâla, Devadâsî, Yaksha etc., carved by the side of gods and godesses on the temple walls. This characteristic of divine images, although not systematic, indicates the Power of the god.

Ganesh forms with more than four arms are often found in Nepal.

Being the King of the Universe, Ganapati (another name for Ganesh) has four arms because He created the four kinds of living creatures. He has also established the four basic casts (varna) and He has given to men the four paths to knowledge, the four Veda. P CLASS="textitalic">"This Holy child will settle the predominance of the gods in the sky, and on earth the predominance of men and in the underground realms the predominance of semi-gods (Asura) and serpents (Naga). Ô priest, He is the One able to move the four principles of the elements. Therefore, He has four arms. Many things are four in number, He created all of them.".

The four arms represent the four tools of the subtle body in man, i.e. :

  manas     buddhi   ahamkara   chitta

Ganesh represents the Pure Consciousness, the Atman which makes these tools able to work within us.
The mudrâ

The boon-giving hand, or varada mudrâ (28 ko) shows His liberality towards those who call upon Him (in the picture shown, the hand displaying the varada mudra holds also a mâlâ). The hand who removes fear and grant the divine protection, or abhaya mudrâ (17 ko) indicates that Ganesh is beyond time and death.

The abhaya mudrâ shows the hand palm open with fingers up. The varada mudrâ shows the hand palm open with fingers down.

In Tibetan Budhhism, there is a specific Ganesh mudra.

Emblems and weapons

Ganesh hands usually hold objects named attributes or emblems.

One assigns to these objects particular symbolic meanings related to the powers or functions of the god. Some of these emblems can also be considered as weapons, used by Ganesh to fight negative forces, i.e. ignorance forces, depicted as demons (Asura).

Traditional scriptures describe Ganesh with four arms raising His broken tusk, an axe, a closed lotus and a plate of sweet (modaka).

Other scriptures quote, for instance, a goad (to control an elephant), a snake, a trident (trishula). The Kâsyapa-Silpa mentions a noose or lasso, as well as the mâlâ, or the snake.
From time to time, Ganesh holds a fruit in one hand, for instance a mango (Srî Lankâ, South India), a lime, a jambose fruit.

It seems that the most usual emblems are :

 The axe (parashu) is a very usual emblem of Ganesh. Most times, he holds it in the upper right hand. The axe comes originally from Shiva and is vested in the Shaiva deities (except for Parashurâma, a Vishnu avatar, who receives it from Shiva).

As the "Lord of Obstacles", Ganesh needs a powerful weapon able to cut and to put down. The axe symbolizes the destruction of desires and attachments, and all their results like troubles and sorrows.

 Ganesh holds a lasso or a noose (pasha) , in order to catch delusions (moha), which is prejudicial to Truth seekers. The noose means also eagerness (raga), soul slavery, and also hearing. Like a knot, eagerness binds us. This noose permits the spiritual seeker to lift himself up, beyond his human limitations, and connects him to the everlasting bliss of his own Self.

This noose is sometimes shown like a tightly coiled snake.

 His elephant goad or hook (ankusha) to conduct elephants is the symbol of his sovereignty over the world. This goad symbolizes also anger (krodha). Anger injures us like a hook. Anger represents also touch and, surprisingly, the higher knowledge which permits to set oneself free from passions.

 The plate of sweet (modaka) is the most famous and most constant among Ganesh attributes (at least in India). Hold by the lower left hand, it's a cake called laddu; when left-turned, the trunk of Ganesh touches this sweet because it is said that Ganesh is fond of it. The modaka is also the joyful reward of the Truth seeker getting progress on the spiritual path.
In addition, for Gânapatîya devotees, offerings of modaka represent the germs of all the universes kept within the huge belly of Ganesh. At last, for the Padma-Purâna, the modaka would rather be the symbol of the supreme wisdom (mahâbuddhi).

 The broken tusk : in the lower right hand, Ganesh often holds an object which is identified as his right or left tusk.
Before the sixth century, but also more recently, during the 9th to 12th century period, one may find, mostly in Orissa and Bengal, representations of Ganesh holding an object which can be identified, without any doubt, as a radish or a turnip (moolakakanda). Some specialists have written that this vegetable would rather be a horse-radish and they have supposed that the broken tusk would always be a vegetable... We do not think so, since a broken tusk is not similar at all with a vegetable like a horse-radish.
However, some ancient scriptures like the Yâjñavalkyasmrti state that the radish is an appropriate emblem for Ganesh because this vegetable was an offering to Vinâyaka, like sweet are. In ancient times, the Vinâyaka were the names of demons of tantric nature and they were supposed to be very fond of tubers, like radish, but also onion and garlic, because they use to live underground.

For Brown (1992, p 194) the attributes hold by the early Indian Ganesh in his lower right hand (i.e. from the Gupta period, or before) are not always the same and look difficult to recognize. Even in some cases, like the oldest Ganesh statues from Mathurâ, there is no any emblem in the hand. Obviously, there is no certainty whether the broken tusk is an ancient emblem or not. Various experts have reference to texts :
  1. A text from the 5th century, the Brhat Samhita, mentions Ganesh holding a radish
  2. The Yâjñavalkyasmrti (about 300 BC) states that the radish is an adequate offering to Vinâyaka, another form of Ganesh
  3. The Grhyasutra too indicates the radish as an offering
Therefore, in a certain number of cases, we must be careful about the so-called broken tusk. In other cases, there is no doubt that the object is really a vegetable, considering his form. This happens in particular in Nepal.

 Many times also, Ganesh holds a mâlâ : or akshamâlâ made of 50 rudra grains in his lower right hand. It corresponds to the 50 letters of the sanskrit alphabet and symbolizes sound and hearing.

Attributes above-mentionned are the most usual ones. Sometimes they may be difficult to identify on ancient stone statues, or bronze statues strongly used by the daily pûjâ, chiefly those hold by the upper hands. Thus, axes may look like sticks or big clubs...

Other Ganesh emblems are:

 The only just open lotus, which represents the supreme goal of the human spiritual evolution that Ganesh, showing it, offers to his worshippers,  The raising blue lotus (utpala) associated with the moon,  The pomegranate,  The kamandalu (a pot for sacred water),  The lute (Vina),  Some rice ears,  The vajra,  A book, etc.

Esoteric forms of Ganesh hold also other emblems like the water pot called kalasha), the discus (chakra), the bow (dhanus) and the arrow (bâna).

The Ganesh head
The elephant head of Ganesh is, from the very early known representations of this god, its most constant characteristic. This elephant head has been, all along the centuries, quite similar.
Hindu gods are rarely seen with animal heads (there is some exceptions with Vishnu avatara, like Varaha or Narasimha). However an animal head can be also found in other countries like the bird-headed Assur in Babylone, the hawk-headed Horus and the jackal-headed Anubis in Egypt, the bull-headed Minos in Crete, as well as goddesses like lioness-headed Sekhmet and cow-headed Hera...

Ganesh has usually one head only (sometimes associated with the Lingam, like in one representation displayed in the Indian Museum in Calcutta.

One knows, in India and Nepal, Ganesh forms with several heads. However, they are mostly represented on rare statues and some miniatures.

But in modern present handicraft, it appears to be rather frequent to find wood or soft stone (soap stone) or bronze Ganesh statues with three or even five heads. One considers them as powerful tantric forms. These heads are on two (19 ko), or three levels.

In certain cases, the three or five heads are represented on the same level (26 ko).

Two-headed forms are called Dvimukha Ganesh. Thses two heads symbolize the microcosmic and macrocosmic aspects known in the philosophy and religion as pindânda (or sukshmânda) and brahmânda (huge cosmic egg which is the origin of everything) respectively. Indeed, the esoteric hinduism considers the human body a a replica (a copy) of the macrocosmos, i.e. the Universe. Same forces are working on and ruling these two levels of the phenomenal Reality and this has consequences on the targets of yogic practices.

Similar to Dvimukha Ganesh are the twin Ganesh representations (20 ko).

Three-headed Ganesh (Trimukha Ganesh) depict the three states of being inherent in any manifestation, which are named the Guna, that is to say
 râjas  tamas  sattva.

For exemple, in any human being, tamas in excess leads to depression, sadness, rajas in excess produces excitement, anger, greediness, etc.

Four-headed Ganesh (Chathurmukha Ganesh) may be considered as psychic aspects adopted by Brahmâ to manifest Himself in the world (remember that Brahmâ often owns four heads) : they are manas , chitta , buddhi and ahamkara. The same words are used to name the four arms...

Five-headed Ganesh (Pañchamukha Ganesh) are rather usual, while four-headed ones look to be outstanding. The signification of the five-headed Ganesh may be explained by various manners since the number five frequently occurs in esoteric matters. They may remind the five Maha Bhûta of the Tattva theory in the Sâmkhya with their corresponding organs.

But the most relevant meaning of the five-headed Ganesh is certainly that these heads symbolize the five kosha in the subtile anatomy experienced by the yogi :

 annamaya kosha : the flesh body made of matter  pranamaya kosha : the breath body, or energy body  manomayakosha : the mental body  vighnânamayakosha : the body of the Upper Consciousness  anandamayakosha : the body of Cosmic Bless.

Thus, the fifth head of Ganesh symbolizes the highest level of yogic experience, called anandamayakosha, or Sat-Chit-Ananda, the Pure Consciousness without qualification. This fifth head is located above the four others, which are displayed on the same level, each of them watching a cardinal point.

The Nepalese Ganesh often own several heads, as well as numerous arms. An influence of the tantric art of the Vajrayana (the particular tibetan aspect of the Mahâyâna) Buddhism) explains this rich and diversified iconography.

Besides, a threatening Nepalese tantric form of Ganesh, displaying twelve arms and five heads, is seen dancing in a halo of red flames, like the other terrifying Mahâyâna deities (Mahâkâla, Heramba, Hayagriva, etc. ) do.

Ganesh owns two eyes but, many times, the third one is designed on His forehead, betweens the eyebrows.
The trunk of Ganesh is generally curved, twisted (vaktra). Ancient scriptures say :

"While the external forms of the world look understandable for the mind and the parole and utterance, the Divine cannot be directly approached; thus, He is "twisted". One says also that His (Ganesh) trunk is curved because He uses to turn round obstacles".
This Ganapati trunk is sometimes curved to the left side (Idamburi Vinâyaka), more rarely to the right side (Valamburi Vinâyaka 31 ko), the latter being considered as very auspicious. These two directions correspond to both ways through which obstacles may be turned round and the Supreme goal attained. These two paths are called the right hand path and the left hand path. This difference also applies to the svastika of which branches can be curved to the right direction or to the left one.

However, in certain cases, the trunk is totally unrolled and stretches over the forepart of the body; or, on the contrary, it makes a twisted movement, rolled on itself in the lowest part. The tip of the trunk is most often dipped in the bowl (or the plate) of sweet (modaka). But when the trunk looks unrolled, the emblem is rather a pot of nectar.
The shape of the curved trunk suggests the writing of the sound AUM (=OM). Thus, it's also a representation of Omkâra or Prânava, the symbol of Brahman, the Absolute Reality. So, the trunk of Ganapati means that He is also the Supreme Brahman. In fact, either in sanskrit or in Tamoul, the writing of OM remembers the elephant trunk or the side face of this animal.

Another understanding is suggested by the trunk unrolled on the forepart of the body, a rare representation of Ganesh : the orientation of the trunk would give an image of the predominant action of the three main Nadi:

 the left curved trunk would symbolize Ida Nadi, related to Tamas,  the right curved trunk would represent Pingala Nadi, related to Râjas  and the totally unrolled trunk would be Sushumna related to Sattva.

The left-turned trunk, generally plunged in the plate of sweet, means that the mind is immersed in the world experience; on the other hand, the unrolled trunk symbolizes the perfect balance of the mind.

The broken tusk is one of the most peculiar features about Ganesh. Most times, this broken tusk is held by the right hand. Usual explanations about the missing tusk of Ganesh look strange, because the traditional iconographic rules (leading to depict the Perfection on a visible level) are supposed not to allow a divine being displaying one tusk only.

General meaning

In former times, ivory talismans were famous to ward off the evil eye and other impediments. Maybe, the tusk loss meant that the devotee could obtain a special protection thanks to this ivory amulet. The tusk can also be used as a club to be thrown against an ennemy (read legends about Ganesh)...

It's not impossible that the tusk could have particular meanings in relation with agricultural activities, considering its likeness with a plough... This assumption is based upon some other "agricultural" Ganesh emblems, like the sugarcane stalk, the wheat bundle and, lately, the cake of sweet made of semolina and sugar, which is an offering during the harvesting season.

Ganesh is often shown using his broken tusk, with its tip pointing down, held in His right hand like a writing tool. Images with Ganesh writing the Veda from Vyasa's dictation with His tusk (read the legends).

Another legend about Ganesh suggests that His tusk was used as a weapon.

Thus, three explanations can be considered about the broken tusk :

 it's a writing tool,  it's a weapon,  it's a swing-plough,
without forgetting the ivory talisman used by tantric people...

Esoteric meaning

The legend reporting that Ganesh broke His tusk when He fighted against the devil Gajamukhâsura has no other meaning : the demon is the ego of our daily life. When He breaks His tusk to conquer and destroy this demon, Ganesh, in the mean time, attains the Oneness state (Advaita).

Another myth says that Ganesh lost a tusk during a battle against Parashurâma; afterwards, He used this broken tusk as a pen to write the Mahâbhârata epic under the Wise Vyasa's dictation. Other legends report that the tusk was broken by Shiva or even other deities. Look also at the legend of Ganesh and the Moon.

Psychological meaning

An explanation less symbolic but more "psychoanalytical" of the broken tusk reminds the castration and mutilation concept (the same for the beheading at the very beginning of the Ganesh legend). But these interpretations are based on myths which have been themselves created to explain a pre-existent attribute of the god...

The ears of Ganesh are said to be huge ones. They are large enough to listen to all the prayers and supplications of everybody but, similar to the winnowing-basket of the reapers, they are able to separate what is good and what is not good for the worshipper. Therefore, the Ganesh ears shake the dust of vice and virtue, afterwards only the true virtue remains. Similarly, in the men's prayers, He is able to discriminate what is truth and what is lie, which words come from faith and which words are tarnished by impiety.

"Because, it's only when one is winnowing that wheat becomes free from dust and good for food making. This is why, ô pleasing man, this one who neglects to worship winnowing ears, will never discover the Absolute hidden behind the ever-changing forms of the world. Men are expecting protection granted by winnowing ears who reject the impurities of ever changing things, in order that the Ultimate Being may come among them and that they may identify themselves with Him."

(quoted in Bhagavat Tattva, translated in French by Danielou)

The head-dress

The Ganesh head-dress is very diversified and many details can be noted in. Sometimes, it's a jatâ-mukuta, which is a kind of chignon  .

The karanda-mukuta, a tall crown in the shape of a tiered troncated cone, is the most usual. In some cases, the head-dress is really conical.

In other cases too, Ganesh wears a multi-pointed crown. The kirîrita-mukuta is a crown of jewels.
With regard to the very ancient Ganesh, they generally have only a simple or double headband, sometimes ornamented with small bells, which surrounds His frontal humps.

The belly and torso

The Ganesh belly is of a generous size, often decorated with a belt made of a snake (See legend  about Ganesh and the Moon). He wears the sacred thread of the Brâhmine  (yajñopavita), either in cotton, either made of a snake too.

Ganapati is stout because all the Manifestation is within Him. Himself is contained in nothing.

"Without any doubt, a lot of boundless worlds are bron from His belly"

(Bhagavat Tattva, quoted by Danielou).

Obesity of the god is emphasized when one names Him Lambodara. For the Gânapatîya  devotees, who consider Ganesh as the Supreme God and the Master of the Universe, the sweet given as offerings are seen like seeds of innumerable worlds inhabited by innumerable living creatures, and the god's belly is large enough to contain within all these worlds and creatures.

This huge belly also means that a man who makes efforts to follow a path of spiritual progress, looking for Truth, may eat and digest all the needed experiences that he is living. Heat or coldness, war or peace, birth or death, as well as all the other concerns and misfortunes can't pull him down neither exalt him. Throughout all these changes, he maintains a balanced and unaffected attitude. In a figurative meaning, one can explain that as the ability to endure and digest all the kinds of experiences.

No comments:

Post a Comment