This article is one of a series, available here, that has been adapted from Searching for Ganesha: Collecting Images of the Sweet-Loving, Elephant-Headed Hindu Deity Everybody Admires. Available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.
ISBN: Print: 978–2–940573–37–0
How Marketing Geniuses Created the Most
Popular God in the Hindu Pantheon
Hindu Proselytizers Had a Problem; Ganesha, Pen in Hand, Came to the Rescue
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity that is the most popular deity in the vast Hindu pantheon, owes his existence, and his status, to 5th-century religious marketing geniuses.
The problem they faced was that rural villagers felt under-appreciated by the Hindu gods that served the urban upper classes. After long nights of brainstorming, and after sacrificing masses of Post-It notes, they came up with several strategies.
The Hindu marketing folks needed the buy-in of the farmers, so they adapted a popular elephant-headed Animistic goblin-deity who was a creator of obstacles, and turned him into a well-dressed, positive, super-god who was a remover of obstacles.
To make Ganesha’s impact even greater, the MadMen of the 5th century gave him the best parents possible, Shiva and Parvati, the ultimate power couple of Hindudom.
But a huge elephant-sized problem remained. While Ganesha was positioned as the ultimate populist god, he was a latecomer and did not have a starring role in either of the two major Hindu epics — the hugely important Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These two Cecil B. DeMille-worthy epics combine page-turning narratives, inspiring parables, and dramatic tales of war, love, and duty. The god-makers needed to create a suitably impressive back story for newcomer-god Ganesha.
While the Mahabharata can be viewed as a long war story, at its heart, beyond the Mahabharata’s constant battles lies a fundamental moral philosophy, with devotional teachings that provide the spiritual foundation for the Hindu world view. It includes the famous Bhagavad Gita, a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, arguably the most well-known and sacred of Hindu scriptures.
The problem was clear, and it seemed likely to threaten Ganesha’s coming-out party. Ganesha did not appear until around the 5th century CE, some 1,000 years after the Ramayana (written around the fifth century BCE) and 800 to 200 years after the Mahabharata (written some time between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE).
So, the Hindu spin doctors invented a new backstory for Ganesha in which Vyasa, a forest sage thought by believers to be the author of the Mahabharata, told Ganesha: “The gods have instructed me to dictate their story. It will be called the Mahabharata. It will be a mammoth epic poem. You will be my scribe.”
Ganesha agreed (for he had no choice in the matter). “Sure, even though this kills my vacation plans — I had intended to go up to Mount Kailash to meditate with my father.”
“Great, so it’s settled,” Vyasa said, relieved.
“Just one thing,” Ganesha added. “You have to share some of the responsibility. Once you start, you can’t stop your recitation.”
(This was quite a request. Did Ganesha realize when he started that the Mahabharata, which historian S. Sukthankar dubs the “Encylopaedia Brahmanica,” was going to run some 1.8 million words, roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and more than twice the length of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Even then, it’s a quick read compared to the 4 million words of the 2013 US tax code and the 11.5 million words of the Obamacare regulations.)
Then, like a senator making a last-minute alteration to an almost-approved bill, Vyasa added his own proviso to gain some breathing room. “Okay, but I will only begin a new couplet until I’m certain you fully understand the meaning of the previous verse.” This stipulation forced Ganesha to slow down and pause, ponder and reflect, since some of the couplets have as many as 108 meanings.
And so Vyasa started dictating, and Ganesha, the designated amanuensis, started writing. It was his first job.
Things were going swimmingly when, somewhere during one of the early battles (there are many) between the Kaurava and the Pandava cousins, Ganesha broke his pen. Not wanting to stop the flow of the story, he broke off one of his tusks, dipped it in ink, and carried on, an example of how Ganesha made a great sacrifice to aid mankind.
And hence he earned one of his more popular names, Ekadanta, or one-toothed — the god with the broken tusk.
The sage Vyasa dictating the Mahabharata to Ganesha. During the lengthy process, Ganesha broke his pen, and in order not to stop the flow of Vyasa’s thoughts, he broke off a tusk and used that to write the immortal tale. As a result, Ganesha is often shown with a broken tusk and holding a book, indicating his support of writers.
Ganesha holds a book in this brass rural statue from western India. This, and other statues pictured with this article, are from the author’s collection.
In this large, late 19th-century wood carving from Myanmar, Ganesha has an intact left tusk and a broken right tusk. He holds the broken part in his left hand.
Over time, Shiva became fond of Ganesha and accepted him as his son. Such is the kindness and generosity of Hindu gods. In this 19th-century wood carving from Nepal, Shiva is shown in his fierce Bhairava form, with Ganesha sitting on his knee.
Ganesha takes pride of place in this family portrait, carved in stone, from Thailand.
Paul near the summit of Gunung Gamalama, Ternate, Indonesia
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski first went to Southeast Asia in 1969 with the United States Peace Corps, where he was assigned to assist rural teachers in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. He remained in Asia for some 20 years, working in advertising and journalism, and those experiences have informed his writing on a wide variety of Asian-themed topics and quests.
He has lived and worked in some 85 countries and written 16 books and some 600 articles for publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, BBC Wildlife, Travel and Leisure, and Reader’s Digest. His latest book, Searching for Ganesha, has been published to generous reviews. During the first week, the book has become an Amazon #1 bestseller in three categories — Asian Travel Photography, Private Museums and Collections, and Biographies in Hinduism. For more on Paul’s background please click here.