When the cowherdesses complained to Yashoda about the many pranks of her son Krishna, Yashoda vowed to Lord Ganesha that she would observe the fast of the dark fourth of the lunar month if he would keep Krishna on good behaviour. Having found her son's conduct exemplary for a whole month, Yashoda waited until the following dark phase to honour her vow. Fasting throughout its fourth day, she prepared sweets to offer to Ganesha just before the rising of the moon. In all their moist and aromatic abundance, they were kept in the place of worship, where, as evening deepened, Krishna's eyes increasingly strayed. Growing impatient, he asked his mother when she would give him the delectables, to which she replied that they would be his only after she had worshipped Ganesha. Yashoda then left to make further preparations for the holy rite and was profoundly shocked to find the sweets missing upon her return. She questioned Krishna, who sat quietly observing her shock, but he protested that during her absence about a thousand mice had invaded the house. He claimed that they had come in a horde and that Lord Ganesha had been riding atop one of the biggest of them as he gulped down all the sweets with his trunk. Understandably wrathful, Yashoda began to beat her mischievous offspring, but Krishna opened his mouth, revealing Vinayaka Ganesha sitting there, and the whole episode abruptly came to an end.
It would seem from this that even the gods and sages seek their temporal ends through the wily agency of Ganesha. Called Vighneshvara, the Overcomer of Obstacles, he is invoked before all religious ceremonies (except funerals) as well as before any new undertaking and prayers to the other gods or goddesses in the Hindu pantheon are often preceded by his worship. Honorary salutations to him are printed at the beginning of various texts in the belief that if he is slighted, he will become irascible and thwart men's aspirations. It is said that even Surya (at the Surya Vinayak Temple near Bhadgaon) petitions Ganesha to remove any obstacles that may come in the way of his daily circling of the globe by casting his first rays in the morning upon the elephant-headed god's image. Several of the Puranas place him above even the sacred trimurti, a lofty designation affirmed in the character ascribed to the Sveta Vinayaka deity at the Tiruvalanjuli Temple near Kumbakonam, where it is thought that only after having worshipped Ganesha can the gods successfully churn the Ocean of Milk. Similarly, the Vinayaka at Vedarraniyam in the same district is believed to have afforded King Rama protection from the ghosts of the rakshasas when he came there after the holocaust at Lanka.
Though the worship of Ganesha's brother, Karttikeya, flourished in North India from the sixth century B.C.E., it was eventually eclipsed by that focussed upon Ganesha. In the south he appeared frequently in the architecture of the Pallavas, and later, among the Cholas and Hoysalas, he came to occupy a central place at the entranceways to Shaiva temples. In Maharashtra and Gujarat his importance grew, culminating in a major religious cult that profoundly affected the culture of that area. One of its most important ritual observances is illustrated in a story depicting Ganapati's (Ganesha's) inordinate love of rice sweets. One evening the beloved pot-bellied deity travelled from one temple to another consuming great stacks of modaka at each. After hours of such indulgence he could barely balance his enormous girth upon the poor rodent who struggled beneath him as his vahan. Distended like a global sphere, he teetered back and forth on his overwhelmed mount, when the Moon, watching the spectacle from above, had the audacity to titter. Even as he fell from his trusty mouse, Ganesha heard the laughter and vented his wrath in a curse upon its perpetrator. He inflicted upon the Moon a malevolent influence so disturbing to the gods that they urged him to retract the curse altogether. This he did with the exception of the day, consecrated to himself, known as Ganesh Chaturthi.
Irascible if ignored or scorned, Ganesha inspires more devotion and affection in worshippers than fear. His disposable form carried on a palanquin into the sea at the conclusion of Ganesh Chaturthi in Bombay, or his sublimely carved figure at Chidambaram, Madurai or a thousand other places, is greeted with joy and hope by devotees rather than with trepidation. His many names reflect aspects which are highly desirable in their symbolic connotations and which petitioners hope to awaken in themselves through worship of him. As Ganesha (gana + isha), he is the Lord of Shiva's hosts. Ganapati means the same thing, as also Gananatha, and Gajanana, Karimukha and Gajavukthra all refer to his elephant face. In the Vamana Purana the name Vinayaka is said to mean 'one who is created without a father', referring to the fact that Parvati created him 'without a husband', or vinanayakena. As Vighneshvara, Ganesha is the Lord of Obstacles, creating them and destroying them according to the situation. He is Herambha because he roared at Shiva when the latter tried to disturb his mother, one of whose names results in his also being known as Gauriputra (son of Gauri). He is also Akhuratha because he is attended by a mouse, Lambodara because he is pendant-bellied, Lambakarna because he is long-eared, Ekadanta because he is single-tusked, and Siddhidata because he is the Giver of Success, the tangible manifestation of the manas of Lord Shiva.
The invocation of Lord Ganesha requests him to grace the image of worship. The puja thus begins in tiny alcoves and corners of homes, at humble crossroad shrines and in the courtyards of mighty temples. At Chidambaram priests chant at the feet of an enormous and beautifully refined stone image of the god, which attendants dress with exquisitely wrought silver emblems and jewellery. His is the first mandapam visited before approaching the central complex housing the sacred sanctuary of Shiva Nataraja. Here the crowds of worshippers make offerings, hoping to enlist the help of their beloved Pillaiyer in clearing the way leading to Mahadeva. In the wondrous Minakshi Temple at Madurai pilgrims come from near and far to supplicate Ganapati. His great image rests in its own alcove, which they pass when moving from the sanctuary of Minakshi (Parvati) to that of her Lord. Night or day, there are always groups of people clustered at his feet, offering prasad through his priests and praying for success in a new venture. A family preparing to move to Singapore, a graduate about to take exams, a merchant hoping to open a new business or a writer dedicating a scholarly work – all bow to Ganesha and entreat him to remove the obstacles that may obstruct the realization of their hoped-for goals. Seated with book in hand, a young girl utters the mantrams of invocation. Her head and that of her mother are bowed in the effort, their faces suffused with reverence and faith. The hopes of a life rest here in the balance – graduation, promotion, entrance to medical school, all the keys to worldly success believed to be obtainable through communion with the unmoving mover of fortune, Ganesha.
For the deeper success, the way may not be so simple. The bent branches of Ganesha's svastika emblem suggest that one may not reach the central unity directly through the outer forms of the world. Hence the old saying that "the way is crooked". The svastika, symbolizing the development of multiplicity from basic unity, is rightly an attribute of a god who is involved in the realm of particulars but whose nature continually reduces them to essentials. In one of his four hands he holds a goad with which he continually propels events. He also holds a noose to catch and remove delusions (non-essentials), a yogin's rosary and a broken tusk, which is said to represent the mayavic source of all manifested forms and was used to inscribe the Mahabharata on palm leaves. Ganesha's limbs, though human, are enlarged to enable the mind of man to partake in some of the immense wisdom of the elephant, and his ears, resembling winnowing fans, denote the power to sift out the dust of vice from virtue in the words addressed to him, leaving only the real values to be apprehended. The path to unity may be crooked, but all paths are contained in his huge belly, which accommodates the innumerable beings in space, and his great elephant head symbolizes the macrocosm rightly seated atop the manifest body of man, the microcosm.
In the Theosophical Glossary, Ganesha is likened to Thoth-Hermes, the revealer of the Mysteries, a similarity which has been unconsciously stressed by devotees who have identified Ganesha as the Lord of buddhi. As such, it is natural that he should have Buddhi and Siddhi (his shakti of success) as consorts and be closely identified with intelligence and literary undertakings. Just as Thoth-Hermes is a scribe, so too Ganesha performed this role, taking the dictation of the Sage Vyasa as he uttered the entire epic Mahabharata. It was stipulated between them that the Sage would pour forth the epic into a lakh of stanzas for as long as Ganesha could record them at the same speed. If the Sage stuttered in his dictation, the writing faculty of Ganesha would be impaired. If the scribe faltered or halted in the composition, the Sage would become dumb. The idea was that nothing should interrupt the flow, nothing should obstruct the perfect translation of words into writing. Ganesha commenced his recording on palm leaves with a fine iron stylus. When three-fourths of the work had been completed, the stylus snapped and Ganapati instantly broke off the tip of his right tusk, using it to finish the task. In recognition of this famous deed it is often asserted that knowledge and dharma are well worth the sacrifice of pride and beauty. It can also be said that the resourceful know no impediments.
Invoked at the commencement of books, epic or otherwise, and supplicated before any new beginning, Ganesha himself had a seemingly humble start in existence. Fatherless, in that Shiva did not directly procreate him, Ganapati is said to have emerged from his mother's scurf. Parvati rubbed the old skin from her body and shaped it into the form of a beautiful young man, whom she wished to act as guardian at the door to her chambers. In thwarting his father's entrance therein, Ganesha initially became an obstruction to his father, but his deeper relationship with Shiva provides many keys to understanding his own esoteric character. It is significant that the morning after Ganesh Chaturthi is Rishi Panchami Day, representing the Rishi (Shiva Prajapati) who remains aloof from the hosts (ganas) and conquers them, withdrawing his power into his own centre. The two festivals thus conjoined complement one another, juxtaposing the nirukta (definable) with the anirukta (undefinable).
Another interesting link with Shiva lies in Ganapati's relation to the mysteries of the earth, including those pertaining to procreation. It is said that Ganapati possesses the strength and power of the libido associated with the elephant, manifesting its shadow of craving even while negating its false objectives. In this he echoes his father, whose relentless creativity is eternally paralleled by the negation of desire for non-essentials. And like his glorious parent, Ganesha never ceases in this activity nor does he recognize its limits in space. Thus his vahan, the mouse (or rat), is most appropriate, for there is no place into which a mouse cannot penetrate. It is the master of the inside of everything, the "all-pervading" that lives in "the hole called Intellect" It is a thief who, like Ganesha himself, steals away all that people think they possess, acting thus as the real enjoyer of all pleasures. Where there is abundance, there is the mouse. There can be no obstacle capable of preventing it from getting into the granary. This pervasive, relentless omnipresence well reflects the tamasic indifference of Shiva to all external life as well as his unalterable concentration upon its potent essence. In harmony with this tamasic quality is the weight, girth and identification with gravity associated with Vinayaka. When Ganesha was struggling with the ganas, Vishnu observed that it would be necessary to resort to trickery in order to kill him, "for he is hard to reach and full of tamas". Undeterred, the young doorkeeper could not be deflected from the duty assigned him by his mother. He fought with the force of gravity belonging to him and which acts with instantaneous effect upon any celestial body moving anywhere in the galaxy. His action was automatic and unstoppable and, like that of gravity, immediately adjusted all other bodies, thus sustaining the basis of ordered existence.
The significance of possessing an elephant's head lies in its macrocosmic symbolism. The elephant is identified with wisdom, eternity and compassion. Its great power of smell relates it firmly to the earth, but its size, longevity, nobility and intelligence clearly establish its place in heavenly lore, where long memory transcends the barriers of time and space. Ganesha acquired his remarkable head in the battle which ensued when he forbade Lord Shiva entrance into Parvati's rooms. Incensed with such effrontery, Shiva unleashed his ganas upon the boy, hardly suspecting who he was. But the ganas were repeatedly rebuffed, prompting Vishnu to assist Shiva by creating a diversion which enabled the angered god to cut off Ganapati's head with his trident. When Parvati saw what had transpired, she was so furious that she commanded all the shaktis to devastate the three worlds. The gods and seers were overcome with misery and attempted to placate her, urging Shiva to comply with her demands by bringing the boy back to life. Mortified, Shiva sent his hosts to the north with instructions to cut off the first head they encountered and return with it. This they did, bringing back with them the head of a great white elephant which, when placed upon Ganesha's shoulders, immediately restored him to his deific existence.
The magnitude of this mythic event suggests the central importance of Ganapati's role as doorkeeper. It is echoed in worldly terms in the use of the name Ganeshapatti given to the lintel at the entrance of a house or temple, but it points to something much more subtle related to the removal of obstacles. For Ganesha not only destroys stumbling-blocks, he also creates them and places them – like an unyielding doorkeeper _ squarely in the path of the seeker. Thus he is not only the protector of the Mysteries, but also the key which can open the door. This would seem to indicate that the way back to unity is not only crooked, like the svastika, but also subtle, requiring wonderful abilities capable of repeatedly transcending paradox. Ganesha's image, like the svastika, is often found at crossroads, requiring enlightened powers of choice to determine the correct path. He is thus the path and the pathfinder. He indicates the way but not easily, for he is as complicated and obfuscating as are those who approach him. Ganapati's methods are never obvious.
In the Vayu Purana, Lord Shiva is said to have desired an abode at Kashi and entrusted Ganapati with the job of overcoming the resistance of its people to him and of setting up his shrine. Ganesha's first move was to appear in a barber's dream, ordering him to construct a temple dedicated to Vinayaka. This was a very humble structure when built, but one which became famous for granting sons to childless couples. The queen of Kashi became an ardent devotee, but when she failed to have a son, the king angrily uprooted the shrine and destroyed its image. Ganesha Vinayaka became wild with emotion and devastated the entire city. Shiva now had the opportunity to gain favour with the people by assisting them and was subsequently installed in the same spot that had been inhabited by Ganesha. Such roundabout steps typify the action of Ganesha, but there is nothing circuitous about his results. He acted, according to circumstances, as the doorkeeper, ultimately removing the obstacles preventing those outside from entering the door.
Analogously, Ganesha performs this role as gatekeeper at the muladhara chakra, where he rules over memory and thereby over knowledge expressed through the sense of smell, the sense of channelled experience par excellence. This is the root-centre of the mortal body, involving the earth, cohesion, obstruction and solid matter. It lies at the bottom of the chakras, the place of elimination and the entrance to the Path upward. Ganesha thus stands at the beginning of the spiritual pilgrimage through the chakra centres and must be propitiated to remove the stumbling-blocks along the way. It is significant that the other senses are said to be fused in the sense of smell, the last in the series to evolve, for it represents the last leg of the descent of the immortal One Life into the mortal world. Ganesha embraces the powers of the highest Akashic reflection of this oneness but reaches down with his trunk to the lower astral realm of the psychic centres governed by the muladhara. Bridging heaven and earth in this way, Ganesha is the antaskaranic link between divine and worldly wisdom and the timely manifestation of the Word in daily affairs.
As Gajanana, Ganesha represents the state reached by the yogin from which the AUM is issued "through a process of multifold reflection" Possessing the Word, conjoined with his unique genius and his link with the earth, he is the natural scribe capable of rendering the most abstract philosophical Truth into variegated symbolic form, as he did in the case of the Mahabharata. Here the translation process involving categorization and diversification was at issue, not to be confused with the flow of comprehension and learning associated with Sarasvati. The crucial element distinguishing Ganesha from this learned goddess, as well as from Lord Brahmā (who is also identified as the antaskarana in some texts), is the nature of Ganesha's rulership over the gana involving the power of mind, as well as his relation to the mahayogin Shiva. The ganas are the host or retinue of Shiva and literally refer to a class, troop or group of roots (words) to which a grammatical rule can be applied. The term can also describe a metrical foot while ganana describes counting, calculation or enumeration, and ganaya means to count, impute to or reckon among. Shiva, who is Universal Ideation before it becomes the 'I' (ahankara) of the secondary creation, is the source of all contradictory qualities, all the opposites. He is also the eternal support of mind and prana in the world. It can be said that the cosmos, from the most ethereal to the most concrete level, manifests through Shiva. He fills the created universe with his immanence and his sentience, and this is the basis of the ganas over which Ganapati rules.
A gana is also a bhuta, a rakshasa, a yaksha, a pramatha – that which is deformed, deviating and abnormal. There are two aspects to being: one is straight, stable and unchanging (sthanu), the other is unstable, tortuous, fleeting and inconstant (pramatha). The latter distorts and nullifies the vertical axis of life. It is conceived of as vighna, a word which describes all obstacles, hurdles, interruptions, impediments and troubles – the inevitable distorted shadows and appearances that galumph along behind creation and assume 'deformed' shapes in the scheme of things. These are the reflections and inversions of the original Truth which vibrates as the primary impulse of intelligence in manifestation. Thus can it be said that when the primeval principle of mind filled the whole of space, it did so by assuming the qualities of the gana, whose capering is out of step with the axial rhythm of Shiva's dance because it is at variance with the normal balance of the whole. The greatness of this gana, which is, after all, the whole manifested cosmos, presented an enormous problem. Somehow it had to be brought into a measured rhythm and under control, for it seemed to have "opened its mouth to gulp down its maker as if food wanted to eat the eater of food".
A monster had been created, a Frankenstein, as it were. To solve the dilemma, Shiva Prajapati resorted to an arithmetical trick. He permitted the gana to inflate the circumference of its being as much as it liked but reserved the centre of it for himself. By denying himself the dimensions of length, breadth and thickness, Shiva became the centre, the invisible Point which is unpredictable, beyond limit or affirmation, but unalterable – qualities which were not possessed by the gana, the very root of whose puffed-out arrogance ceased to have meaning. As offspring of Shiva's shakti, Ganesha became the acting representative of that centre, the guardian of the controlling point around which all aspects of the manifest world necessarily revolved. Thus the gana found its Ganapati, the vighna was brought under Vighneshvara, whose enormous belly reflects the expanding circumference of his domain. In this sense as well as in his theriomorphic shape, Ganesha appears to be a gana among the ganas. When Shiva sent them to remove Ganesha from Parvati's door, the ganas recognized him as such. But they could never have outwitted or defeated him, for they knew he was their master, who could remove or destroy them at will.
Removal or destruction of obstacles is what most supplicants of Ganesha hope for, but when he blocks their plans, refusing to brush away obstructions in their path, the result may be temporary suffering and frustration. The lesser evil, however, often wards off the greater and obstructions to foolish deeds can eventually be recognized as blessings in disguise. Dwelling at the feet of Ganesha in faith and trust, one may seem to be abandoning the success of the moment, but an inner door may open, leading to a far more subtle and long-lasting victory. The story of Avvaiyar, an ancient Tamil Sage, illustrates the point. It seems that once when she was deeply engrossed in the worship of Vinayaka, she was interrupted by St. Sundaramurthy and Seraman Permal Nayanar, who were just starting on their holy pilgrimage to Kailash. They begged her to get her puja over with quickly so that she could accompany them on the journey. But Avvaiyar told them bluntly that she would not be hurried and that they could quite well proceed without her. And so they did. But lo, wonder of wonders, when she had finally completed her worship. Lord Ganesha presented himself before her, lifted her in his arms and deposited her at Kailash long before the arrival of the other two pilgrims. Like Avvaiyar, the enlightened man acts, hoping that it is in harmony with divine will and welcoming an obstruction if it is not. Through success or failure alike, he or she can learn and move forward along the path of liberation and self-determination rather than be driven by desire for the fruits of action.
As Lord of the ganas, Ganesha is the principle of all classes or categories. He is divinity in its perceptible manifestation, the visible form of the principle. Category is a fundamental element of existence, covering all that can be comprehended, counted, measured and compared. To act with the wisdom of an Avvaiyar requires an internalized mastery of the classifications through which the relationships between the different orders of things can be understood, a mastery gained only through knowledge of the principles behind them. The world is understood in terms of categories and our learning involves them and their interaction on all levels of manifestation. Language reflects this, representing categories of meaning ultimately derived from more noumenal levels of categories, all being symbols of that which is yet more abstract. The idea of category itself symbolizes something more causal, and as Lord of Categories, Ganesha is that more causal something. He is the ordering of the knowable, the source of divinity in the perceptible, classificatory manifestation of the microcosm, wherein the archetypal finds its analogy and correspondence. In the world, categories shift with human perception, carrying with them whole strings of associated meaning. But the factor which does not change is the mind's need to categorize, an innate characteristic of individualized mahat.
Through his son Ganesha, Shiva as mahat descends into the limiting realm of categories and becomes that aspect of Cosmic Intelligence which aids the awakening and spiritual growth of the divinely disposed. For those who can penetrate the principle behind categories, Ganesha provides access to the Akashic record, wherein all is seen and understood simultaneously and all relationships merge into a synthesis. All obstacles and nonessentials are eliminated from this perception; the categories of sound, language and being are all drawn up within the bosom of the Word. But to those who have not penetrated the mysteries of Ganesha, the way is only gradually made clear as the struggle to master the obstructions progresses. Understanding unfolds as relationships reveal themselves, not in their particulars, but in their structural patterns, their predictability and their capacity for growth or change. Behind and within these more abstract categories lie even more noumenal ganas (categories) or ways of perceiving relations. To one who sees the world from this perspective, the archetypal patterns of the macrocosm become readily observable in the relations between all forms in the manifest universe, including those within embodied man. This can be best expressed in terms of number both as ganana (the act of counting or calculation) as well as gana (the class, the measure, the increment recognized).
Being Lord of Categories, Ganesha embodies that principle of intellect which sees differences, contrasts and sameness clearly and immediately and understands how they can interact to produce a greater harmony. This power, which is echoed in Ganesha's relationship to gravity and its instantaneous adjustment and readjustment of interacting forms, is dimly reflected in supercomputers which can see, in one sweep, all the categories in question, their interrelationships and their generation. It is even more dimly mirrored in the juggling of categories that goes on in the academic world, where the principle of categorization is reduced to self-serving exercises in reductionism. But in Ganesha the macrocosm and the microcosm meet, and the principle of categories declares itself in the words "As above, so below", offering the means of analogy and correspondence, the key to mastery and synthesis of numerical relations, the key that can unlock the inner sanctuary's door. The devotee who propitiates Ganapati at every new venture trusts in the law of analogy and correspondence and believes that somehow each new aspiration contains an Akashic germ of the archetypal beginning of life. They intuitively follow the old path leading back, as below, so above, attempting to place themselves in the categorical position of beginnings, at the place where the Word came into being and the mind principle first took visible form.
The wise devotee realizes that Ganesha has a genius for unweaving complicated situations and rendering them simple. When this occurs in an individual's life, it may be followed by difficulties which are the result of the unravelling of an accumulated congestion. The mixing of categories, the ill-fitting pieces people try to jam together when motivated by personal desire, leads to the enormous obstacles that repeatedly block the way. They are dark skeins of tangled likes, dislikes, hopes, fears and aspirations. Originally based upon misperceptions, they clog the path of vision with their seeming reality until the ability to function on the level of abstract principles is badly impaired. The Ganapati within ever points the way out of this through that higher faculty which eternally tends towards synthesis and simplicity. The elegance of his economy is wonderfully captured in the epithet describing him as "he who performs the maximum work with the minimum labour". Ganesha demonstrated this eloquently when Mahadeva (Shiva) wished to perform a great sacrifice and invite all thirty-three crores of gods as witnesses. The active Karttikeya was sent out on the long and tedious errand of invitation but could not possibly finish the task in the time allotted. Ganesha, remaining behind and thinking about the problem for a time, gathered himself up to complete the job. He approached his concerned father and went around him three times before prostrating at his feet. Then, invoking all thirty-three crores of gods in Shiva's name, he gave them the invitation to the sacrifice.
The svastika with its bent arms is the crooked way leading from outward distortions, which is the realm of appearances, to the central point. But the doorkeeper guarding the path to that still centre insists that each step of the way is won through a mastery of relationships, categories and principles. He is the Principle of Principles, the very germ of Mind's reflection upon itself as a basis of being. One cannot travel to the centre without fully becoming what one is. One cannot go beyond Ganesha until one has become Ganesha, just as one cannot understand anything until one has assimilated it into the essence of one's own conscious being. The way is crooked but necessarily so, for we have cluttered our horizon with a jungle of non-essentials, our minds functioning like giant swap meets where cast-off and decaying ephemera are endlessly circulated. The Vighneshvara within sees the clutter exactly for what it is and knows the strategy necessary for simplification and harmonious growth. Just as the muladhara chakra over which Ganesha rules is the place of elimination, so the entrance to the path he guards is where one must let go of all non-essentials in consciousness. Only then can one unlock the memory associated, not with the earthly sense of smell which is but a shadow, but with the immortal soul who knows the way to the goal.
By denying himself the dimensions of length, breadth and thickness, Shiva, through Ganesha, outwitted and mastered the ganas. It is the same process the true seeker must follow, for the Mysteries will ever be impenetrable to one who is captive to the distorted realm of appearances. If slighted, Ganesha will thwart the supplicant, for there is no trick or short-cut that will enable anyone to get around him. He and he alone is the synthesizer of all the contradictory qualities inherent in manifest mahat. He will overlook no gap along the way, for he ever works with a gravity-like power to sustain an ordered and articulated existence. Seated at the gateway to liberation, he is invincible, immovable and relentless, the Divine Obstacle showing the path to Mysteries unveiled.