We now come to the central figure in the evolution of the elephant culture in India, the elephant-headed god, Ganesha (fig. 2.4). One of the most widely adored of Hindu gods in the subcontinent, Ganesha ranks almost on a par with the supreme gods of the Hindu triumvirate. His popularity and worship have not been confined to India, but have historically extended over a wide area to places as far as Afghanistan, Central Asia, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Japan, and even the islands of Java, Bali, and Borneo.
The present therianthropomorphic divinity of Ganesha has a relatively late origin, perhaps as late as the fifth century a.d. according to Alice Getty, although
The elephant-headed god, Ganesha, depicted in a temple (twelfth century A.D.) at Jalasangi, Karnataka, India. (Photo courtesy of D. K. Bhaskar.)
The elephant-headed god, Ganesha, depicted in a temple (twelfth century A.D.) at Jalasangi, Karnataka, India. (Photo courtesy of D. K. Bhaskar.)
other authorities, like M. K. Dhavalikar, believe that some images may date to the late second or early third century a.d. The earliest literary references to the modern Ganesha are also relatively recent, say around the fifth century a.d. There is no mention of Ganesha during the pre-Christian era; for instance, Ganesha does not appear in either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.
The classic Ganesha is actually the culmination of a complex and confusing process extending to pre-Vedic times in the subcontinent. A multiplicity of independent traditions relating to sacred symbols, spirits, deities, and cults seem to interact over a 2,000-year period before the almost sudden appearance of the fully developed classic Ganesha. Historians of religion have devoted considerable attention to the precise antecedents of this elephant-headed deity. As Wendy O'Flaherty has written, "Ganesa has everything that is fascinating to anyone who is interested in religion or India or both: charm, mystery, popular ity, sexual problems, moral ambivalence, political importance, the works. One can start from Ganesa and work from there in an unbroken line to almost any aspect of Indian culture" (Courtwright 1985). Thus, historians have delved into the ethnographical, linguistic, archaeological, numismatic, and art historical data—in short, all the conventional sources used by historians.
Conspicuous by its absence is any attempt to place this therianthropomor-phic deity in an ecological context. I believe that any attempt to provide a satisfactory and comprehensive theory of a deity linked to a species that has historically been one of the most dominant features of the biological landscape and has played a pivotal role in the political and economic (not to repeat socioreligious) life of the subcontinent has to be seen in the interface of culture and ecology. In this, I would differ from Paul Courtwright, who states that there is no need for a theoretical construct about Ganesha's origins. Indeed, an elephant-headed deity would beg for a satisfactory theory of its origin—unless one would like to believe that a 2,000-year history of intense conflict between animal and humans, the taming of the largest terrestrial mammal and its extensive deployment in political conflict, the imposition of a taboo on consumption of its flesh, the sacred symbolism of the beast albeit in a dualistic negative/ positive nature, and the ultimate rise of the classic deity are simply a series of independent, unconnected events.
Before attempting to place the antecedents in an ecological context, I now briefly trace these antecedents of Ganesha as discovered by historians of religion. Then, I also compare this with the cultural context of the African elephant, which took a rather different historical course in its relationship with people.
The representation of the elephant as an independent figure in the seals of the Harappan culture does not seem to have any connotation of sacredness. However, the elephant's inclusion among four animals surrounding a seated figure may indicate an association with a major deity according to A. K. Narain. Although no other visual representations of the elephant seem to have survived from the pre-Aryan cultures, it is generally agreed that the elephant was worshipped by the aboriginal populations of the subcontinent. An elephant-headed deity was possibly a totem of Dravidian tribes and associated with agrarian rites. Their primitive effigies often had animal heads, and it is certain that the elephant would have figured among these animals.
After the Harappan seals, the visual representation of the elephant as a sacred symbol is seen only about two millennia later, during the time of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who placed it in one of his pillars (the dharmastam-bhas). A drawing at Kalsi is labeled Gajamate, the supreme elephant. Thus, the sacredness of the elephant is included in Buddhist religious thinking much before orthodox Brahmanical Hinduism. During the Mauryan period, the elephant is also frequently represented in karshapanas or punch-marked coins.
The earliest attempts to create a therianthropomorphic elephant deity can be traced to the northwestern region under the patronage of the Greco-Bactrian and the Indo-Greek rulers. An important coin type of the Indo-Greek king
Eukratides, who ruled about 170-150 b.c. over a part of Alexander's territories in Asia, shows the Greek god Zeus on a throne with an elephant head to the right and a mountain to the left. Because the sacred elephant was associated with the mountains and was a symbol for rain and clouds, it is possible that the Greeks identified it with their own Zeus (worshipped as the sky deity, whose presence is marked with lightning, thunder, and rain). In the words of W. W. Tarn, to the Greeks "a mountain god could not well become anything but Zeus."
The earliest representation of an elephant-headed deity, an "incipient Ganesa," comes from a coin of Hermaeus (about 75-55 b.c.), probably the last of the Indo-Greek kings. A. K. Narain was the first to point out that the seated figure in this coin is clearly endowed with the trunk of an elephant. A fascination for the elephant can also be seen among the Greeks of Bactria, whose rulers (like Demetrius and others) used the elephant scalp as a headdress.
During the early centuries of the Christian era, there are few surviving examples of elephant-headed deities prior to the emergence of the classic Ganesha. One of these is a frieze of ganas (attendants) on a Buddhist stupa near Mihintale in Sri Lanka. One of the ganas clearly has the face of an elephant with trunk and tusk. Interestingly, the elephant-headed figure is seen crouching between two rows of ganas bringing him food and drink, one of them holding sheaves of rice or sugarcane, while five others carry jugs of (his favorite) beverage. This is similar in style to an image on one of the Amaravati railings dated as first century a.d. in central India.
There are also several Ganesha-like images in red sandstone from the Mathura region in northern India. In these, the elephant-headed god holds in his left hand a bowl of sweets (which incidentally he is eating with his trunk) and in his right hand a radish or a broken tusk. These figures are dated as late second or early third century a.d. during the reign of the Kushans.
There also is an interesting Mathura frieze of this period that depicts six arches showing worshippers and five elephant-headed figures. Some scholars identify this with the malevolent deities, vinayakas who, as discussed below, eventually participate in defining Ganesha.
Finally, our discussion turns to the classic Ganesha sculptures of the Gupta period, which appear around the fifth century a.d. The best known of these are from the Bhumara temple, Udayagiri, and Ramgarh hill in central India. In these, the elephant-headed deity has a potbelly and two or four arms and is holding the axe, the broken tusk (or was this a misrepresentation of a radish?), and a bowl of sweetmeats. This is the "real" Ganesha recognized by historians, an icon that has persisted with all its classic attributes to the present day.
There is no mention of an elephant-headed deity that can be connected to Ganesha in the early Vedic literature associated with the Aryans. The two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, also do not mention this deity. The Mahabharata, however, speaks of two classes of ganas of Shiva (one of the supreme Hindu gods): a group of benevolent deities and another group of malevolent deities (vinayakas), who could be propitiated. Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata mention propitiatory rites and ceremonies.
These spirits are encountered again in the Manava Grhyasutra, dated at about the second century b.c., which gives the names of four vinayakas and prescribes rites for pacifying them. In later texts, such as the Yajnavalkyasmrti and the Baudhayana Grhyaparisesasutra (both from the second or third century a.d.), the group of four vinayakas is merged into a single Vinayaka, appointed by Shiva as Ganapati-vinayakas or the leader of the ganas, who could create difficulties and obstacles if not properly propitiated. Related to Vinayaka are names such as Vighnesa and Vighnesvara, commonly used for Ganesha. These are derived from vighna (meaning obstacle), which is used to personify a demigod who is a destroyer. In the vighna-related epithets, a dual role, the negative one of malevolence (vighna-karta, creator of obstacles) and the positive one of benevolence (vighna-harta, remover of obstacles), is indicated.
Some of the later Vedic texts also mention deities related to the elephant, such as Dantin (one with tusks), Hastimukha (one with the face of an elephant), Ekadanta (he of one tusk), and Vakratunda (he of the twisted trunk). However, these seem to be theriomorphic cult deities with an independent existence, possibly derived originally from the non-Vedic or Dravidian tradition, which were incorporated as a result of the interactions between the Vedic and non-Vedic cultures. Some scholars like M. K. Dhavalikar connect the above epithets to Vinayaka and Vighna through their mention in certain texts, an interpretation not accepted by others like A. K. Narain, who considers these references to be of doubtful authenticity. However, this does not deny the eventual identification of a malevolent Vinayaka with the benevolent Ganesha in the early centuries of the Christian era. As G. S. Ghurye writes, "Only one step further, and that a very radical transformation, was needed to enthrone Ganesa being the 'Lord of Obstacles,' as the 'Destroyer or Remover of Obstacles.' Such transformations inhere in the very nature of early religio-magical systems of beliefs. One who is the lord of anything can be trusted to control and subdue the thing he is lord of. . . . So Vinayaka, the trouble-maker, becomes the much-prayed-to trouble-averter Ganesa" (1962, p. 61). This transformation was probably completed much before the occurrence of Ganesha images of the fourth or fifth century a.d.
The iconography and literary evidences thus broadly point to the emergence of the benevolent Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, by the fifth century a.d. at the latest in central or northern India. From here, the Puranas record in greater detail the worship of Ganesha in Brahmanical Hinduism. The Puranas refer to a particular group of Sanskrit poetical works dating to around a.d. 300, but elevated to sacral status in Hindu Brahmanism only during the sixth century or later. The detailed narratives of Ganesha's life and character are usually in the later texts (about a.d. 600-1300). Robert Brown points out that some of the confused etymology related to Ganesha can be traced to the Pura-nic texts.
Ganesha worship spread to the south of the country by the sixth or seventh century. A sculpture of this god at Badami in Bijapur dated at a.d. 578 is considered the earliest representation in the south (a possible exception may be a fragmentary terra-cotta image at Veerapuram in Andhra Pradesh dated prior to a.d. 300). By the end of the seventh century, an independent shrine was consecrated to Ganesha at Tiruchirapalli, further south in Tamilnadu. The seventh century was the period when the Pallavas ruled the south, and their rock-cut works provide some of the most impressive visual accounts of the elephant.
From the Indian subcontinent, Ganesha spread eastward to become a truly pan-Asian god. By the sixth century, he appears in China and soon after in Southeast Asia, a process first traced by Alice Getty and later updated by Robert Brown. Over a large geographical range from Burma, through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia to Indonesia, the image of Ganesha spread with the migration of Hindu culture. A seventh century Ganesha from Prasat Prei Kuk in Cambodia seems to imply that he was also regarded as a supreme deity. The Southeast Asian iconography, however, tends to resemble the earliest forms of Indian Ganesha, being closer to the imagery of the fifth century or earlier and not the latter-day Puranic Ganesha. For instance, the older images of Ganesha that I have examined in Cambodia resemble more a seated elephant than the classic deity. Ganesha is also incorporated into Buddhist worship in Southeast Asia, although he never attains the same importance here as in Buddhist Nepal or Tibet.
The oldest elephant-faced icon in China is surprisingly dated as early as a.d. 531. This "Vinayaka form of Ganesha" in the Buddhist grotto-temple of Kung-hsien is labeled the "Spirit King of Elephants." Buddhist monks in China translated Indian texts dealing with Ganesha by the seventh and eighth centuries. The evolution of Ganesha in China and Japan took unique forms, including that of a "dual Ganesha," a fused male and female form, not seen in India. An important characteristic of the Buddhist Ganesha in Tibet, China, and Japan not shared in the Southeast Asian region is his tantric character—a malevolent spirit demanding propitiation. This tantric nature actually derives from poorly understood antecedents stretching back to the Harappan culture. This important aspect of the evolution of Ganesha demands an explanation: In the Hindu context, the post-sixth-century Ganesha is regarded as a positive force, while in the Buddhist context, he is negative. Thus, a malevolent elephant-headed spirit ultimately rises to supreme, benevolent godhead in the Indian subcontinent, while the positive, sacred elephant of Buddhist Ashoka fails to define the (tantric) elephant-headed deity in China.
The evolution of the elephant culture is thus a complex process of interactions spread over time and extending from northwestern India over a large area in East and Southeast Asia. Several independent traditions come together in the Indian subcontinent, and from a process of eclecticism and syncretism, the benevolent, elephant-headed god of learning, the remover of all obstacles, who has persisted for fifteen centuries emerges. The salient features of this evolution can be summarized as follows:
1. The Harappan culture of about 2000 b.c. commonly featured the elephant in seals, and a hint of sacredness is seen in one of the figures.
2. During the second millennium b.c., the Dravidian cultures had tamed the elephant. Elephant-headed spirits were totems.
3. The elephant was used as a war machine during the first half of the first millennium b.c. by Dravidian tribes and then increasingly by the Aryan immigrants. This period saw the emergence of republics and kingdoms in the north. By the second half of the millennium, large numbers of captive elephants were held by emperors, primarily for use in their armies.
4. Several important traditions emerged during the Mauryan period (from about 300 b.c.). Sanctuaries were set up for the protection of wild elephants, presumably to supply the king's army. The elephant was considered sacred by Emperor Ashoka and was incorporated into Buddhist traditions. In the northeast, the Indo-Greeks depicted an elephant-headed deity on coins, and an independent tradition of worship of an elephant god of the mountains seems to have been established.
5. In the early centuries of the Christian era, a taboo on consumption of elephant meat was recorded in northern India. Several representations of an elephant-headed deity were also seen in north-central India before the emergence of the classic, benevolent Ganesha around the fifth century. This is a transformation of an earlier tradition of propitiation of a malevolent Vinayaka (or vinayakas).
6. The worship of Ganesha spread to East and Southeast Asian countries. In Buddhist China and Japan, Ganesha retained its basic tantric or malevolent character.
Was this article helpful?