There are exclusive texts in the Hindu mythology that are dedicated to Ganesha. Apart from the mention of Lord Ganesha in the Shiva Purana the religious texts that are solely dedicated to him are Ganesha Purana and the Mudgala Purana. These are believed to be the core scriptures for Lord Ganesha’s devotees. It is these scriptures that bear the detailed description of Lord Ganesha’s incarnations.
The Ganesha Purana describes four incarnations of Ganesha that have appeared over four eras. The first incarnation is called the Mahotkata Vinayak that has a red skin and ten arms. This incarnation is not shown with the humble mouse as a vehicle but a lion. Some depictions show an elephant instead of a lion. The incarnation killed the demons Narantaka, Devantaka and Dhumraksha. The second incarnation born in the Treta Yuga (era) is called Mayuresvara. The complexion is white unlike its predecessor and the Lord is shown mounted on a peacock. This incarnation was born to Shiva and Parvati for killing the demon Sindhu. The peacock was then given by Ganesha to his brother Kartikeyan (also known as Skanda). The third incarnation is again shown in red and with mouse as his vehicle. The incarnation was born Dvapara Yuga and is called Gajanana. The purpose of this incarnation was to destroy the demon Sindura. The fourth incarnation Dhumraketu is yet to be born and will end the Kali Yuga (the era of vice). He is shown mounted on a blue horse and is grey in colour.
As per the Mudgala Purana there are eight incarnations of Ganesha that are different from the ones mentioned above. The purpose of these incarnations was also to destroy demons in different lifetime of Lord Ganesha. The first incarnation with a twisted trunk was Vakratunda whose purpose was to overcome the demon Matsaryasura (Jealousy). Ekadanta or Ganesha with a single tusk was born to destroy Madasura. His mount was a mouse. Symbolically both these incarnations are considered to overcome jealousy and arrogance. The third incarnation or Mahodar, killed the demons Mohasur, Durbuddhi and Jnanari. The fourth incarnation, Gajanan, is also shown mounting a mouse. This personification destroyed Lobha, son of Kuber. Lobha was also the demon of greed. Lambodar, the fifth embodiment of Lord Ganesha with a long belly, represents Shakti. The purpose of this demon is to overcome anger or the demon Krodhasur. The sixth incarnation finished the demon Kamasur, the demon of desire. It is called Vikata. In this incarnation Ganesha is shown riding a peacock. The seventh incarnation Vighnaraja is the most popular one. It is the remover of all obstacles and rides a snake. The demon that he slay in this form was Mamasur (the demon of ego). The last incarnation is called Dhumravana and is grey in colour. Unlike all the other incarnations representing Brahmin (the sage), this one embodies the destructive nature of Brahman. This form of Ganesha killed Abhimanasur or the demon of pride.
Interestingly all the forms of Ganesha though different in countenance have the elephants head. All the incarnations exist to triumph demons. The 12 incarnations together form the 12 zodiac signs in astrology.
Discovery of trade routes and the quest for land has contributed to inter mingling of cultures in the world. It is because of commercial and cultural contacts that Hinduism has had a huge effect particularly on East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Ganesha is one of the Hindu deities who landed in foreign land and became a popular figure. His teachings have now become universal because of globalization.
Trade not just help built economies but also evolved cultures. The popularity of Lord Ganesha spread across different parts of the world because of the traders and the merchants. It is known that any auspicious work marked by Lord Ganesha in the beginning turns out to be fruitful. Hence the significance of Lord Ganesha holds importance in the matters of trade. Migration of Hindus in search of promised lands also contributed to the spread of Lord Ganesha’s popularity. The period from 10th century was marked by the development of new networks of trade and exchange. Evidence of the deity in the 5th and 6th century (the Gupta period) has been found but it is through merchants that the popularity of Lord Ganesha spread across borders. The merchant community’s earliest inscription is that of Lord Ganesha, before any other deity.
The globalization of the Lord Ganesha is further substantiated by the close association of some religious sects with trade. It is through this connection of commerce that the ideas of worship of this deity were exchanged. For instance, Ganesha is worshiped by Jainas because the connection of Jainas to the trading community is strong. In Buddhism the popularity of this deity was mainly because of the Gupta. The Gupta built sculptures that depict confluence of Buddhism and Hinduism through Ganesha. In some sects and countries such as Japan, Ganesha is believed to be an avatar of Buddha.
In the modern era it is the exchange of ideas through migration that has resulted in spread of Lord Ganesha’s affluence in places other then the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. Southern and Central America, Mexico, Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany and even parts of the Malay peninsula have seen a rise in Hindu population. Hence one can see many temples in these countries which are extremely popular. The region of Angkor Vat for instance thrives on Hindu temples and has elaborate temples and caves depicting Hinduism. We can also find idols and carvings of Lord Ganesha in this region.
It is not just the spread of Hindus in the modern era that has contributed to the popularity of Lord Ganesha. Lord Ganesha’s teachings are more universal than any other deity in Hinduism. Although various religions may not practice the act of worship of this deity but they still hold his spiritual significance in high regard. It is the acceptance of this deity’s values that has led to the global status of Lord Ganesha.
The popularity of this deity is well established not just in India but world over. Being the most powerful God after Vishnu, Shiva and Parvati and Laxmi, the Lord of wisdom has been represented in many ways. There are certain attributes of Lord Ganesha that are common in the all the idols. From the ambivalent form in a temple in Tibet or the elaborate idol in a temple in Maharashtra, Lord Ganesha has universal attributes that is seen everywhere.
In his earliest depictions he was shown as a simple elephant that evolved into what we know today. In some depictions he has been shown with up to five heads and four to sixteen arms. Some idols also show him with eights hands. He is shown standing, sitting and even crawling (as a child) in his statues. The elephant head and the big round belly are characteristic of Lord Ganesha that remains unchanged. This distinctive feature is the reason two of Ganesha’s name was coined (Lambodara and Mahodara). Also, his mount or vehicle, the mouse, also remains unchanged in his depictions. Stories surrounding his elephant head may remain constant but his broken tusk has many myths. Some of the earlier depictions show Lord Ganesha holding his broken tusk.
The snake is also one of the most common features of Ganesha. The most popular depiction is the serpent wrapped around his belly as a belt. It is also seen coiled in his arms, around his neck or even around his head. Ganesha also bears the crescent moon on his forehead and even the third eye. Though he shares these features with his father Lord Shiva, it is still distinctive in his sculptures. Red is the colour often associated with Lord Ganesha and is believed to be his favourite. Perhaps this is the reason some of his idols are completely red in colour. The Ekdanta Ganesha and the meditating Ganesha is shown in blue.
Ganesha also holds his favourite sweet- the modaka, in his lower left hand. There are depictions of him holding a laddoo (another sweet) in his trunk. He also holds the rosary in his other hand. All these distinctive features hold a specific meaning. As mentioned, in his many idols Ganesha is shown with as many as 20 hands. Each hand holds an artefact. The modaka, the broken tusk, the rosary and the lotus are few of the common artefacts of Ganesha. He also holds an axe and a goad in his hands. Apart from Lord Ganesha’s countenance and the artefacts in his hands, the things around him also hold a meaning. His vehicle, a humble mouse, a bowl of fruits by his feet and the coconut, the pineapple and the mango as part of the basket also teach us significant lessons.
The elaborate depictions of Lord Ganesha are unique and have a lot to teach. The popularity and acceptance of Ganesha worldwide has a lot do with the way he looks. The Lord of wisdom perhaps has the ideal idol.
As a culture Hinduism is perhaps the most widely accepted religions. Lord Ganesha is an extremely important God in Hinduism. Lord Ganesha has 108 names, each holding a specific meaning. He is also the most worshiped Hindu deities and is particularly popular in India and Nepal. The devotion to Lord Ganesha is widely diffused across other cultures also. Historically Ganesha emerged as an important deity in the 4th and 5th century, during the reign of the Guptas. The earliest known idol of Lord Ganesha is located in the Shiva temple at Bhumra. His following strengthened around the 10th century in India. The name Vinayaka for Lord Ganesha is not just mentioned in the Puranas but also the Buddhist mantras. Lord Ganesha is also known as the Lord of the Ganas in Sri Lanka.
Ancient temples and excavations show that the worship of the God of wisdom is spread across the globe. The physical attributes of Lord Ganesha vary in Java, Bali, Borneo, Vietnam, Bangkok and Burma. Here Lord Ganesha is mainly thought of as a remover of obstacles and also as the God of success. Worship of Ganesha was in vogue before Islam arrived in Afghanistan but no conclusive evidence exists to prove the statement. A few sculptures discovered between 5th and 7th century is proof of the same. In northern China statues with inscription dated to 531 exist in many parts. Presence of Lord Ganesha is also there in Tibet. The beliefs are ambivalent in nature, which is depicted by various idols across Tibet. Sri Lanka which is dominantly a Buddhist country has about 14 ancient temples of Lord Ganesha.
There is a strong influence of Lord Ganesha in the Malay Peninsula also. Temples were built around the 6th century in various locations including Petaling Java, Kuala Lumpur, Jalan Pudu and Melaka. A dancing Ganesha is evident in the Malay Archipelago in the temple of Candi Sukuh. Other countries, that have Ganesha temples, are Mauritius (in Riviere du Rempart) and Singapore.
The popularity of Lord Ganesha not just spreads across Asia but also South and Central America and Mexico. In the modern times a significant following of Lord Ganesha exists in Britain, Australia Germany, France and Canada. Some of the popular temples of Ganesha stand tall in London, New York, Paris, Durban, Hamburg, Melbourne and Edmonton. Comparisons of Lord Ganesha to Janus, the two headed Roman God, also exist. No conclusive evidence of Lord Ganesha’s worship in Roman culture has been found despite the similarity.
It is not just globally that Ganesha is worshiped but also in various other cultures. Where Ganesha appears as an avatar of Budhdha in Ganesha Purana, he is also shown as a different idol in Tibet. Ganesha is even represented as an idol with one to five heads. Ganesh Chaturthi in India is more of a universal festival then a festival celebrated by Hindus. The popularity of this deity not just spreads across borders but also spreads across hearts.