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Gaṇeśa 歡喜天

Gaṇeśa 歡喜天


A deity depicted with an elephant’s head and man’s body 象頭人身, and usually as fat and dwarf-like. His figure is found across south, east and southeast Asia, appearing in the pantheons of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. He is known for having a dual-nature: the creator of obstacles (vighna-kartā) and their remover (vighna-hartā), though in Hinduism his benevolence is emphasized as he is known as Siddhidātā, Buddhidātā and Vṛiddhidātā or the grantor of success, wisdom and wealth, while having priority of worship (agrapūjā) and being invoked ahead of other rituals. There are both positive and negative interpretations of him in Buddhism. Sanskrit: Gaṇapati, Gaṇādhipa, Vināyaka, Nandikeśvara, *Mahārya-nandikeśvara, Vighneśa, Vighneśvara, Vighnahartā, Vighnāyaka, Vighnarāja, Gajānana, Vakratuṇḍa, Ekadanta, Mahodara, Lambodara, Vikaṭa, Vighnarāja, Dhūmravarṇa, Malapuruṣa, Gāṅgeya, Heramba, Gaṇavighneśa, Hastimukha. Tamil: Piḷḷaiyar. Chinese: 大聖歡喜天, 大聖歡喜自在天, 難提自在, 歡喜自在天, 聖天, 大聖天, 天尊, 佉那鉢底, 伽那鉢底, 迦那鉢底, 誐那鉢底, 毘那夜迦, 頻那夜迦, 毘那怛迦, 障礙神, 常隨魔, 象鼻. Tibetan: tshogs bdag.

The appellation Gaṇapati (leader of a gaṇa or group) occurs in the Ṛgveda (2.23.1 and 10.112.9), but as an attribute of Bṛhaspati and Indra. In the Maitrāyaṇīya Saṃhitā (2.9.1) of the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda there is mention of a Danti (tusked one) and Hastimukha (elephant face). The Taittrīya Āraṇyaka (10.1) mentions a Vakratuṇḍa (“with a curved trunk”). Although this is not specifically Gaṇeśa, Sāyaṇa (d. 1387), the author of the Vedārtha Prakāśa, makes this identification in his commentary on the Āraṇyaka. The term vināyaka originally referred to a class of malignant creatures who harassed people and caused illness. The Mānava Gṛhyasūtra (2.14) describes four vināyakas and the suffering they bring as well as rites to placate them such as offerings of meat and fish, though these do not appear connected to Gaṇeśa. There are similar verses in the Yājñavalkyasmṛti (1.271–94), a dharmaśāstra text attributed to mythical ṛṣi Yājñavalkya, but dating to the third or fourth centuries. The vināyakas, however, are stated to be separate manifestations of a single Vināyaka and the prescribed offerings include radishes (mūlaka), sweet meats (modaka) and cakes (offerings often associated with the later Gaṇeśa). He is said to have been appointed by Brahmā and Rudra as ‘lord of gaṇas’ (gaṇāṇām ādhipatye) and the remover of obstacles with the title of Mahāgaṇapati. His mother is Ambikā. This is possibly the ‘proto-Gaṇeśa’. Gaṇeśa does not appear in the Rāmāyana or the original Mahābhārata, though in an eighth century interpolation he is assigned the role of scribe for Vyāsa’s dictation of the latter text (Rocher 1991).

Getty (1936) and Narain (1991) assert the emergence of an independent Gaṇeśa cult in the fifth century at the earliest, though Dhavalikar (1991) states his popularity can be traced back to Mathurā in the Kuṣāṇa period. The earliest uncontested images of him date to the fifth century, though earlier images of elephant-headed figures appear in the art record. In Sanskrit literature the Hindu Gaṇeśa’s emergence is primarily found in the Purāṇas starting from around the late fifth century CE. His earlier form though appears to have been baneful. In the Ellora caves (seventh century) he is depicted alongside the Saptamātṛkā or 'Seven Mothers' who are goddesses of pestilence. He was also associated with the nine planets 九曜 (navagraha). Later in theistic Hinduism, Gaṇeśa is either worshipped in relation to other deities such as Śiva and Viṣṇu or as a principal deity (iṣṭadevatā). He is one of the five deities of the pañcāyatana in the Smārta tradition. In the texts of his cult he is regarded as a cosmic deity. His cult the Gāṇapatyas emerged around the ninth century (Dhavalikar 1991: 49). In the twentieth century his worship spread across all of India and at present he is likely the most widely worshipped god in India.

There are numerous conflicting accounts of Gaṇeśa’s origins in the Purāṇas. He is known as the son of Śiva and Pārvatī, and brother to Skanda, though a Nepalese legend states he was not created but rather was self-manifest (svayambhū) and called Sūrya-Vināyaka. Texts such as the Skanda Purāṇa and Vāmana Purāṇa state Gaṇeśa was created by Pārvatī out of her bodily filth (hence the term mala-puruṣa or ‘filth-born person’), though the Linga Purāṇa states Śiva created him to combat the Asuras 阿修羅. The Purāṇas generally state that Gaṇeśa was not born with an elephant head, though again there are varying accounts about this. One well-known account from the Śiva Purāṇa states Pārvatī created Gaṇeśa to keep guard outside while she bathed, thus blocking Śiva’s access. Śiva responds by decapitating Gaṇeśa but later restores him to life and replaces his head with that of the first living being available which was an elephant. Conversely, the Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa states Śani (Saturn) 土星 reduced his head to ashes which was restored with an elephant head. Krishan notes that the Purāṇas make a conscious effort to justify his admission into the pantheon which indicates his earlier lowly origins (Krishan 1981: 285–287). There are differing beliefs about Gaṇeśa’s relationship status. The Śiva Purāṇa expressly states he is married, but throughout southern India he is understood to be a brahmacārin (Cohen 1991). In art he is generally depicted with one tusk. There are different myths explaining this: he threw one tusk at the moon or that it was cut off by Śiva. The earliest images do not have this feature (Brown 1991: 8). In later Hinduism he is depicted with a rat mount (vāhana). His representation with an elephant head is likely connected with the sacredness of elephants and earlier iconographic developments. Narain (1988) identifies the Indo-Greek coin of Hermaeus (dated to 50 BCE or earlier) as the earliest example of an elephant deity depicted. In the time of Aśoka the elephant was a popular symbol called gajatame. The term hastida[sa]ṇā (representations of elephants) in an Aśokan edict (Girnār Mag IV,B) suggests elephants were held as divine. Buddhist myth has an elephant heralding the birth of the Buddha. The Mahāniddesa mentions devotees of the sacred elephant (hatthivatika). Vinaya 戒律 literature expressly forbids bhikṣus 比丘 from eating elephant meat 象肉. In the northwest elephants were still held as sacred in later centuries. Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664) reports the worship of a deity Pīlusāra (*Piluśāra) 比羅娑洛 in Kapiśā 迦畢試國. Krishan (1981) suggests that the concept of an elephant-headed deity can be traced back to Egypt through Hellenistic and Indo-Greek communities.

This deity in Buddhism is not called Gaṇeśa. He is generally known by the earlier names of Gaṇapati or Vināyaka, though a vināyaka (obstacle) is also a class of malignant being and both definitions are present in the literature. A note in the *Mahāmāyūrī-vidyārājñī 大孔雀咒王經 (T 985) by Yijing 義淨 (635–713) defines Vināyaka as a ‘god of obstacles’ 障礙神 and notes his widespread worship in the west 西方 (India). The Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經 (T 848) mentions vināyakas 毘那夜迦 alongside other evil beings to be dispersed through the power of mantra 真言力 (fasc. 2). The Dari jing shu 大日經疏 (T 1796) defines vināyaka 毘那也迦 as hindrances which are produced from a deluded mind 從妄想心生 (East Asian Buddhist literature thus regards him as both as a subjective being and a symbolic representation of obstacles). This indicates that vināyaka was originally regarded as negative in early Tantra. He appears in the Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala 胎藏界曼荼羅 in the outer court 最外院. For illustration see the Taizō zuzō 胎藏圖像 (Chishō Daishi hon 智證大師本) of the National Nara Museum 奈良國立博物館. See also TZ.01.028.178 and TZ.02.057.78.

The Vināyaka of Indian texts in Chinese and Tibetan translation is described as having an elephant head, though he is a different character from the Purāṇic Gaṇeśa and likely an earlier version of the deity. His worship promises wealth and worldly pleasures including women, suggesting a non-monastic context. Although he is sometimes directly associated with Buddhist aims in these texts and described as protecting the Triple Gem 三寶, the archaeological record includes specimens depicting Gaṇeśa or Vināyaka subjugated by Buddhist figures such as Aparājitā, Parṇaśabarī and Vighnāntaka, especially in Bihar when images displaying violence appear in the ninth to tenth centuries (Verardi 2013: 17–18). One text in Chinese (T 1270) expressly states his image is not to be placed in a Buddhist altar room 佛堂. The Vajrasattva Teaches the Vināyaka Attainment Rites Sūtra 金剛薩埵頻那夜迦天成就儀軌經 (T 1272), a manual of Buddhist black magic (translated c.1000), prescribes creation of Vināyaka images in various rites including those for murderous magic. There were thus various interpretations of the god in Indian Buddhism and he was often regarded as a tīrthika god 外道神.

An early example of Vināyaka in China is his depiction in Mogao cave 莫高窟 285 (535–556 CE). He is later mentioned frequently in esoteric Chinese texts, but those specifically dealing with him are T 1266 – T 1275. See also fasc. 11 of the Tuoluoni ji jing 陀羅尼集經 (items 49–51). Similar to the Purāṇas, Vināyaka is identified as the son of Mahêśvara 大自在天 and Umā 烏摩 (T 1270). Several of these texts describe the production an embracing pair of Vināyakas (夫婦二身, 雙身). The Japanese Asaba shō 阿娑縛抄 (fasc. 149) cites a “secret legend of Vināyaka” 毗那夜迦密傳 which explains the origin of this representation plus his association with Avalokitêśvara 觀音. It states that there was a Vināyaka Mountain 毗那夜迦山 where a *Nandi 歡喜 resided with an immeasurable retinue under the orders of Mahêśvara 大自在天, creating obstacles in the world. Avalokitêśvara Bodhisattva 觀自在菩薩 manifests as a female vināyaka 毗那夜迦女 which produced burning desire in *Nandi who sought to embrace her. She resists and he falls in love with her. She tells him he may touch her if he abides by her Buddhist teachings and protects the Dharma 護法 and her followers. He agrees and the pair embraces. The grammar of the Chinese in this account however is unorthodox and was likely composed by a Japanese hand. The text gives other alternate accounts of Vināyaka’s origins. See TZ 9.3190.486 and Sanford (1991).

Vināyaka became a common deity in Japanese Buddhism, known primarily as Kangiten 歡喜天, Shōten 聖天 and Tenson 天尊. It appears Kūkai 空海 introduced his worship to Japan as the Shizhou fa jing 使呪法經 (T 1267) is listed in his Goshōrai mokuroku 御請來目錄 (T 2161). He was regarded as a kōjin 荒神 or 'raging deity' who has a part in controlling human destiny. His worship was consequently kept secret. By the end of the Heian 平安時代 (794–1192) the deity had an important position in the imperial chapel. One account of his powers is in the Tenjin engi 天神緣起 (Kangiten reigenki 歡喜天靈驗記). The Shinsaru gakuki 新猿樂記 treats him as a buddha associated with romantic love. He became associated with onryō 怨靈 (vengeful spirits) and their placation by the Kamakura 鎌倉時代 period (1185–1333). The Godaigo Tennō 後醍醐天皇 personally carried out Shōten rites 聖天供 to deal with the Bakufu 幕府 (Yamanaka 1987: 74). Faure draws attention to his function as a ‘placenta kōjin’ (ena kōjin 胎衣荒神), i.e., a deity which protects the fetus and child, notably in the Shinkō musōki 真興夢想記 by Shinkō 真興 (934–1004). The Bikisho 鼻歸書 describes him as a transcendental god with major deities like Yama and Susanoo no Mikoto as his manifestations. These were factors in his becoming a ‘hidden buddha’ or hibutsu 秘佛. For details see Faure (2006). Shōten in Japan is represented either as the pair of Vināyakas or a single deity, sometimes with a pig head (Kurihara 1999). His worship was notably popular with prostitutes 遊女. His popularity extended into the twentieth century. Yamashita (1932) wrote a comprehensive devotional work on his worship. Shijō (1954) in the popular magazine Daihōrin 大法輪 described him as a ‘buddha of fortune’ and as an emanation of Dainichi Nyorai 大日如來. For a study of the deity in Northern Kantō see Yamanaka (1987).

There are thirty texts in the Tibetan canon directly related to Vināyaka. As in the Chinese texts, the practitioner seeks from the deity worldly gains such as sex, wealth and food. Although his relationship to Śiva is acknowledged, he is more identified as an emanation of Avalokitêśvara. The earliest authors of the works appear to be from the eighth and ninth centuries. One work entitled Gaṇapati-stotra (Tshogs kyi bDag po la bsTod pa; Peking 4991) was written by an Amoghavajra, though it is unclear if this is the same Amoghavajra of the Tang dynasty. Several other texts are attributed to the famous Atīśa (982–1054). Wilkinson notes that it was a small group of famous and important individuals who introduced the Gaṇapati texts into Tibet, which highlights the status and acceptance of the deity’s practice at the time in India. For translations and study see Wilkinson 1991.

Images of Gaṇeśa are found around southeast Asia. The earliest specimens date from 550 to 700 CE across Thailand to Vietnam. His widespread appearance especially from the eighth century suggests an important independent status. Archaeological evidence further suggests some such images possessed their own sanctuaries. Gaṇeśa still plays a prominent role in cultures like Buddhist Thailand as a remover of obstacles (Brown 1991).

In Jainism, Gaṇeśa is regarded as a remover of obstacles. Although he has a marginal role in the Digambara sect, he is worshipped in the Śvetāmbara sect. The worship of Gaṇeśa in Jainism commenced around the ninth or tenth century CE. The earliest known literary reference is in the Abhidhānacintāmaṇi of Hemacandra (late twelfth century). A related figure in Jainism is the elephant-headed Pārśva Yakṣa, who usually rides a tortoise while holding a snake (or mace), mongoose and fruit. See Tiwari and Giri (1991). Gaṇeśa appears in Central Asian Manichaen 摩尼教 art (IB 4979) alongside Śiva, Brahma and Viṣṇu in his boar form (Varāha), probably functioning as protective deities (Klimkeit 2000: 80).


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