Sri Lord Ganesha, the great god of India, is perhaps the most famous of all the Indian gods.1 He is the god with the head of an elephant (or three, or nine, or countless elephant heads), and one broken tusk, and four arms (or eight, or fourteen, or countless, but usually more than two), and an ample belly, with a rat as His familiar. He is the Mighty One, the Remover of Obstacles, the god of wisdom and knowledge and of the discrimination between truth and illusion, the patron of learning and literature, the scribe to whom the Mahabharata was dictated. Wikipedia has an excellent article on Lord Ganesha.
Lord Ganesha was the son of Lord Shiva and His consort Parvati. One day Shiva wanted to come in to Parvati for some consorting, and in proper Oedipal fashion His young son tried to stop Him. Enraged, Lord Shiva struck off His son’s head. Parvati demanded that Lord Shiva repair the damage by putting onto Her son’s body the head of the first creature Shiva encountered, which happened to be an elephant. So it will be seen that Lord Ganesha is not an elephant, but an anthropomorphic deity with an elephant’s head.
Lord Ganesha is both immensely powerful and immensely kind. He brings grace and prosperity to whoever asks. Lord Ganesha is the god to Whom we can come and ask blessings and protection – He occupies something of the same clement and merciful space Mary occupies for Christians.
In the 1990s I studied Hinduism with Baba Kali Das Acharya (the artist Michael Bowen (1937-2009)). I learned a lot from him – for more on this and my Hindu education see Chapter 19 of my Autobiography. Michael was a Kali bhakta, a devotee of Kali, the Goddess of Time and therefore also Death – although he honored Lord Ganesha, this worship was not an important part of his practice. But as a by-product of my exposure to the Hindu pantheon in Michael’s ashram, I began to have a very devout and uncomplicated relationship with Lord Ganesha. I leave offerings before His icon; I ask boons and protection in prayer; and what I ask is often granted to me. I have never prayed to any other god.2
I can offer gratitude to Lord Ganesha, gratitude for which without Him I would have no other outlet. This devotion, which I feel quite unreservedly, is far removed from my usual heavily intellectual approach to almost everything else. In Hindu terms this is bhakti, the yoga of adoration.
I cannot justify it intellectually, nor am I interested in trying. Is there really such a being? Is the belief in such a god not just a projection? As the million gods of Hinduism are just faces of the One God, what kind of existence can this elephant-headed divinity actually have? I am happy, indeed eager to answer such questions with regard to other gods such as Yahweh and Allah, but with the Hindu gods, including Kali and Krishna and Hanuman but especially Lord Ganesha, I don’t feel I have to answer. My relationship with Him is on a wholly different plane. “I contradict myself?” asked Whitman, who answered “very well, then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
So when I fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the road, and in the last possible instant awoke and forced the car back onto the road, avoiding death by a split second, my first impulse was to thank Lord Ganesha for saving my life, and not for the first time, either. When I was in the hospital in 2005 and it was unclear what was wrong with me, but the doctors were thinking I might need to take Prednisone, an awful drug, I asked Lord Ganesha to prevent this, and vowed to give $108 (a Hindu holy number) to charity in His name if He granted my wish. Sure enough, very soon afterward the doctors came to a different (and for the first time correct) conclusion about what was wrong with me, and no more was said about Prednisone. I paid my vow off gratefully. Did Lord Ganesha cause that result? If I hadn’t ever heard of Lord Ganesha, would the result have been different? I don’t have to answer that question.
- “But now that the gods’ indispensable function in human life has been delineated, there is still the residual question of their existence to be faced in all seriousness. Yet perhaps seriousness is the wrong frame of mind in which to approach the being of the gods. Perhaps what is wanted is a certain light-mindedness, a receptivity to Olympian grandeur and Olympian mischief, which is not a suspension of some prior rational disbelief, but a withdrawal from questions of belief in existence that force a yes or no answer, when existence – with its connotation of hard fact on earth and demonstrable necessity in the realm above – seems dissonant with the way of being attributed to Homer’s gods.”
The same may well be said of the Hindu gods. I once wrote about Lord Ganesha to a particularly rationalist friend, and I quote here from the e-mail exchange because it illuminates my thinking (feeling?) as a Ganesh bhakta.
Friend: I don’t believe any outside help is available from another, perhaps spiritual dimension. It’s on me to make my life what I want it to be. If you think Lord Ganesha has a say-so, hurray for you. I don’t.
David: Outside help may not be available, but inside help is. That’s a lot of what Ganesha and Kali worship is about. The distinction between the inside and the outside is very problematic. The Hindus say there is no difference if you look carefully enough; the Buddhists say the same thing although inside-out as it were – the Hindus saying if you look deep enough inside you will find everything there, and the Buddhists saying if you look deeply enough you will find nothing there. Same thing really.
Nevertheless I asked Lord Ganesha to protect me from having to take Prednisone, and sure enough I didn’t have to take it. A rigorous scientific analysis would prevent my feeling gratitude about this, but the gratitude feels so good I don’t want to give it up, plus it would be ungrateful. I paid out $108 in alms to fulfill a vow I made on this issue, and I was glad to do it – cheap at the price. Scientifically is not the only useful way to look at some things.
Friend: Whatever works for you. I don’t quarrel with other people’s faiths. Just doesn’t work for me.
David: Not a faith so much as a parallel technique for operating the brain. Faith asserts an unprovable truth – for example, that Lord Ganesha actually exists as more than a projection and answers prayers. I am not saying that, quite – but I find it enriches my life to act as if it were so, without taking a position one way or the other on whether it “really” is or not. (Really is as tricky a concept philosophically as inside and outside.) It is a delicate equilibrium for a rationally educated person to maintain, but it feels really natural to me. I have always had more religion in me than you could tolerate for you. Could be all that acid, except I had it before acid too, but just didn’t understand what it was.
Friend: “I have always had more religion in me than you could tolerate for you” – and your brothers as well. I just never got it. I just can’t believe that there is any mystical unreal force out there determining things, or even influencing things. That is always my dilemma. If there is a god who is in control of things, why doesn’t he do a better job, and if he can’t change things what good is he? Ultimately I think that life is more random than that. The evidence seems to confirm my point of view.
David: But ez I hef been zayink, the kind of “religion” I’ve been talking about works just as well with inside forces as outside. For example Kali worship can work effectively to transform our view of our own impending decay and destruction without requiring any actual belief in an external Kali or indeed in any god determining things. The same with bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion) such as I have been directing to Lord Ganesha, with prayers and vows and offerings and so on – it accomplishes useful inner transformation without actually requiring belief that a four-armed elephant-headed god (sometimes dozens of arms and three heads – but who’s counting?) sits up in Hindu Heaven pulling the strings and deciding what happens downstairs. It is not only possible but rewarding (for me anyway) to take a less literal and (dare I say it?) primitive view of things, and use a more esoteric approach instead. The same stubborn literalism that keeps you from taking satisfaction in the Hindu gods keeps me from having anything to do with Judaism no matter how reformed or reconstructed. It’s all a matter of taste and approach, and which pathways happen to be blocked and which are open. “In my father’s house [which need not be in Valhalla somewhere – a house being as in dreams a symbol of the self] are many mansions.” John 14:2. I know how you love it when I quote Scripture to you.
- As a footnote to this exchange I add this from Swami Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism (1994): “Personal God (ishwara) is no other than Impersonal God or Nirguna Brahman experienced through the veil of time, space and causation.”
A modest gallery of twelve images of Sri Lord Ganesha appears here. A large selection of Ganesh images can be found here. And here is a litany of the 108 names of Lord Ganesha, the Large-Eared Lord, the Mighty, the Invincible, the Auspicious, the Ageless and Gigantic, the Moon-Complected One. Just reading it through is a powerful act of devotion. There is also a litany of 1008 names.
Although I am basically a Buddhist, I am still a Ganesh bhakta. I make an offering before an icon of Lord Ganesha just about every day (usually a banana or a piece of candy – LG loves sweets), and make a short prayer to Him often except when I am neglectful. I always travel with a Ganesh icon – I would no more go on a trip without it than I would go without my passport.3 I have prayer wheels in my house, which help – I made one by writing the Ganesh mantra the blades of an old refrigerator fan I mounted on the wall, and spin when I pass it, and on a ball bearing assembly from an old car, mounted on another wall, which works the same way.4 Icons in every room remind me. The worship of, and reliance on, Lord Ganesha is a highly positive and deeply treasured element in my life – its irrationality is just one of its attractions for me.
I carry a devotion to Lord Ganesha in my heart, and speak to Him, and make puja to Him, and gratefully accept His protection and bounty. As noted, there is nothing rational about this, and it is not un-Buddhist, and contradicts nothing, and proves nothing, it just is.
- The Sanskrit word Sri (श्री), now meaning colloquially Mister or Sir, is also used as an honorific title for deities and as such is usually translated Holy, if translation is needed. ↩
- Well, once. I must admit that many years ago as an experiment I prayed to Aphrodite for the love of a particular woman, which She did not grant me. It was worth a try, anyway. ↩
- My traveling icon is shown in Chapter 30.E of my Autobiography. ↩
- The Ganesh mantra: Om Gang Ganipatiye Nemaha. ↩