The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gajānana's Ānana

So, I was recently asked about the ethics behind murdering an elephant in order to resurrect Ganeśa. During my research, this is what I found out about the true source of Gajānana's Ānana.

At the outset, I would like to like to clarify some things:  
  • Yes,  Ganeśa is not a Vedic deity. He is however very much an integral part  of the Indic pantheon, and his cosmogony an integral part of Indic mythology.   
  • Yes,  there are varying accounts of Ganeśa's origins even within the 18  Mahapuranas, some of which may be mutually exclusive. This only serves  to prove that Ganeśa was of sufficient importance that multiple  attempts were made to integrate his story into the greater continuity of  Indic tradition.   
  • It  is vital to remember that all these multiple stories had to adhere to  the basic worldview of the Vedas in order to gain any traction among the scholars and the laity. Therefore it makes sense for us to analyze this  particular account within the larger Indic tradition.  
Now most stories that involve the alleged elephant murder tend to follow this generic pattern:
Gauri created an image and gave it life. She called him सूनु (sūnu, son), and gave him a mission. In the fulfilment of that mission, the child obstructed the path of Shiva. Shiva took exception to such obstruction, and beheaded him. His death caused untold grief to Gauri. Moved by mercy, his own grief and that of his wife, Shiva brought the child back to life by giving him the head of an elephant. 
I propose that the source of that elephant head was a sacrificial animal. The following sources strengthen this claim:

The act of beheading people and then restoring their lives by replacing their heads is a recurring theme attached to Shiva by various sources. Here are some key examples: 
Heads are not the only body parts of deities to be separated and replaced. Similar instances of "transplants" and are actually quite common:
  • In Valmiki Ramayana - Baala Kanda - Sarga 49, Indra receives a testicular implant from a sacrificial ram.  
  • In Sarga 10 of the Uttarakanda, we learn that Ravana sacrificed 9 of his ten heads to Brahma and was about to sacrifice the 10th when Brahma granted him an audience, and restored all the heads. 
  • In Chapter ३२९ of Shantiparva, Krishna Vasudeva refers to Indra's implant again, and also describes the story of Dadhichi's sacrifice, in which the Devatas ask Dadhichi to die and they construct the superweapon Vajra (Thunderbolt) from his bones.  
  • In the chapter of the Bhagavatam quoted above, various other deities and sages receive similar implants in place of body parts destroyed by Shiva, including a beard implant received by Sage Bhrigu, from the same goat that gave its head to Daksha (Verse 5) 
 Clearly, Ganeśa's "head transplant" is not an isolated case, and as such, must be seen in conjunction with all these other cases. And the one common theme here is animal sacrifice.  Observe that the Devatas have been uniformly portrayed in the Vedas and later literature as being nourished by sacrifices of both herbs and animals, as well as offerings of various body parts thereof.   Given this history, it is not a stretch to assume that the deity who is meant to be the foremost of all beings (literal meaning of Ganeśa) would also be similarly nourished and strengthened by a sacrifice. In fact, any scholar who would pitch for Ganesha's inclusion into the Pantheon would use this trope as proof of Ganeśa's divinity.  This theory further gains credence when we realize that elephants are indeed counted among animals fit for sacrifice. The primary sources which legitimize the sacrifice of elephants are the Kalika Purana (Sanskrit original in DLI archives) and Ishana Shiva Guru Deva's Tantra Paddhati. These texts date to the 10th and 12th century respectively, have important linkages to Ganeśa worship, and predate the Ganeśa and Mudgala Puranas which are the key texts related to the deity.   The Kalika Purana is related to the legends in which Gauri takes the form of Kali when Ganeśa is slain. In the Tantra Paddhati, we learn of bothe lephant sacrifice and Ganeśa worship. (See also the essay by A. Parpola in Ritual, State, and History in South Asia)   In contrast we have other sources in the Kurma and Varaha Puranas, both of which mention a demon-elephant slain/liberated by Shiva, who thereafter wears this elephant's skin. However, the iconography depicting this story unequivocally shows Shiva standing on top of this elephant's head. Therefore this elephant-demon cannot possibly be the source of Ganeśa's head.