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Ganapati variations: an eighteenth-century interpretation

“But the obvious forms and ceremonies of a religion are not always to be understood in their obvious sense; but are to be considered as symbolical representations of some hidden meaning, which may be extremely wise and just, though the symbols themselves, to those who know not their true significance may appear in the highest degree absurd and extravagant.”
Richard Payne Knight, A Discourse on the worship of Priapus

In the midst of Richard Payne Knight’s A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and its connection with the mystic Theology of the Ancients (first published in 1786) there is an early European analysis of Ganesa:

plate from "A Discourse on the worship of Priapus"

Upon this Indian monument the head of the elephant is placed upon the body of a man with four hands, two of which are held up as prepared to strike with the instruments they hold, and the other two pointed down as in adoration of the Lingam. This figure is called Gonnis and Pollear by the modern Hindoos; but neither of these names is to be found in the Geeta, where the deity only says, that the learned behold him alike in the reverend Brahman perfected in knowledge, in the ox, and in the elephant. What peculiar attributes the elephant was meant to express, the ancient writer has not told us; but, as the characteristic properties of this animal are strength and sagacity, we may conclude that his image was intended to represent ideas somewhat similar to those which the Greeks represented by that of Minerva, who was worshipped as the goddess of force and wisdom, of war and counsel. The Indian Gonnis is indeed male, and Minerva female; but this difference of sexes, however important it may be in a physical, is of very little consequence in metaphysical beings, Minerva being, like the other Greek deities, either male or female, or both.

Knight goes on to conjecture that the battle-axe, held by Gonnis (sic) denotes the “destroying power equally belonging to divine wisdom, as does the creative or preserving” – and has a similar meaning to the spear of Minerva. He also holds that the lotus held by Gonnis is an indication of the “passive powers” of production; that his headgear represents flames – which the Indians, as well as the Greeks held to be the “essence of all active power” and that on his head is the moon – “the great nutritive element”. He continues in much the same vein, and goes on to explain why he equates Brahma (left) with Pan, and the female figure seated next to Gonnis as a female personification of “the divine attributes represented by the Gonnis or Pollear.”

Knight is generally positive about Hinduism, and is referencing the Bhagavad Gita which had recently been translated by Charles Wilkins (1785). He does though, assert that Indians do not really understand the principles underlying their rituals and beliefs – although he makes the same assertion when referring to the “common women of Italy” (whose enactment of a priapic rite was the theme of Sir William Hamilton’s letter, which prefaces Knight’s work in Discourse) and the ancient traditions of Egypt or Greece. A central theme in Discourse is Knight’s assertion that:

It is observable in all modern religions, that men are superstitious in proportion as they are ignorant, and that those who know least of the principles of religion are the most earnest and fervent in the practice of its exterior rites and ceremonies. We may suppose from analogy, that this was the case with the Egyptians. The learned and rational merely respected and revered the sacred animals, whilst the vulgar worshipped and adored them. The greatest part of the former being, as is natural to suppose, destroyed by the persecution of the Persians, this worship and adoration became general; different cities adopting different animals as their tutelar deities, in the same manner as the Catholics now put themselves under the protection of different saints and martyrs. Like them, too, in the fervency of their devotion for the imaginary agent, they forgot the original cause.

Discourse is also a early example of the comparative approach to religion – in the manner which Jonathan Z Smith describes as: “x (which they have happened to have noticed) reminds them of y (which they happen to have already known), therefore x must be in some way like y.” This is an interesting example of eighteenth century romantic orientalism – although Knight does not make the contrast often found in later orientalists between the backwardness of Indians against the civilised “western” world. Several scholars, notably Partha Mitter (see Much Maligned Monsters: a history of European reactions to Indian art, University of Chicago Press, 1977) have argued that Knight’s mythological speculations led to a new appreciation of Indian art.

Finally (for now) one can discern, in Discourse the first stirrings of the theme which drove much orientalist scholarship and occult enthusiasms in the nineteenth century – the theory that folk customs, religious practices and traditions, had “lost” their originary meanings, and required the “correct” interpretation of the initiate or expert – be it Madame Blavatsky’s corrective reading of esoteric Buddhism or Max Muller’s translation of the “sacred books of the East” in order to reacquaint contemporary Indians with their religious roots.