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Ganapati variations: the Ganapatyas

Hail to the Lord of Vows, hail to Ganapati, hail to the First Lord, hail unto you, to the Big-Bellied, One-tusked, Obstacle-destroyer, the Son of Shiva, to the Boon-Giver, Hail, hail.
Ganesa Upanisad

Inspired after a recent Ganesa Puja in Wales, and reflecting on the fact that I have been a devotee of Ganapati for well over 20 years now, I thought it would be appropriate to write a short series of posts on some of the more obscure aspects of this much-beloved devata. For now, I’m going to focus on the Ganapatyes, and perhaps look at other issues – such as the specifically Tantric modes of Ganesa worship; the tricky questions related to Ganesa’s consorts or Saktis – and the Female forms of Ganesa – in successive posts.

The term Ganapatyas is generally used to denote the “orders” of devotees who considered Ganesa to be the Supreme Being – the first cause, through whose Maya all other gods exist. One of the principal textual sources on the Ganapatyas is the Sankaravijaya (circa 10th or 14th century, depending on whom you read) attributed to Anandatirtha from which can be determined that there were six sub-orders of Ganapatyas, worshipping Mahaganapati, Haridraganapati, Ucchistaganapati, Navanitaganapati, Svarna Ganapati, and Santana Ganapati respectively. (The Ganapatyas are also mentioned in the Skanda Purana). In the Sankaravijaya, Sankara engages in debate with the proponents of various schools and defeats them. One of the sub-orders mentioned is the Uchchhista-Ganapatyas, led by one Herambusata, who declares that “Ganapati and Devi are part of one another; just as, though the self is smaller than the lord, even so they are one.” Herambusata also asserts that there is no such institution as marriage, that all castes are the same, and that if (man and woman) “are united in intercourse whilst she is menstruous, there is greater bliss (ananda) to be experienced” (see Cohen, p121, in Brown).

The Ganapatyas produced texts which elevated the status of Ganesa such as the Ganesa Upanisad, the Ganesagita, the Mugdala Purana and the Ganesa Purana – which includes the Ganesa Sahasranama. Scholars (Paul Courtright for example) tend to the view that the Ganapatyas emerged between the 6th-8th centuries and their main centre of activity was eastern Maharashtra.

At least three of the Ganapatya-streams adopted tantric modes of practice such as the worship of Ganapati embracing his consorts (Buddhi, Siddhi) or his sakti Lakshmi. The devotees of Ucchistaganapati are particularly associated with vama marga practices and are said to have abrogated all caste & ritual distinctions. Ucchistaganapati is sometimes described as drinking wine, and images depict him touching the yoni of his Sakti.

There are several references to the Ganapatyas in orientalist texts. The Rev. T. Philips for example, in his The Missionary’s Vade Mecum: or a condensed account of the religious literature, sects, schools and customs of the Hindus in the North West of India (1847) lists the Ganapatyas as “one of the five great orthodox sects of the Hindus” (p143). H.H. Wilson and other writers of the period tend to follow this view. James Hastings (1852-1922) in vol.11 of his Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics mentions a “human shrine” of Ganesa at the village of Chinchvad, near Poona, and recounts the story that three hundred years ago, Moroba (more widely known as Moraya Gosavi), an ardent devotee of Ganesa, was rewarded by the god visiting him in a dream and promising to live in him and his descendents for seven generations. The family, says Hastings, became known for their miraculous powers, and a temple founded by Moroba was “richly endowed” and given a hereditary grant of tithe from eight villages by the emperor Aurangrab (for further discussion, see here and the wikipedia entry on Morya Gosavi .J.N. Farquhar, in Outline of the Religious Literature of India (1920) outlines the division of the Ganapatyas into six “sub-sects”, notes the Mugdala Purana and the Ganesa Purana as Ganapatya works, and says that “the Uchchhista-Ganapatyas revered Heramba-Ganapati and had very foul rites” (i.e. that they were Saktas – see p270).

Gane┼Ťa: unravelling an enigma Hinduism and Its Sources Series, Yuvraj Krishan, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1999
Outline of the Religious Literature of India By J.N. Farquhar, Motilal 1984
Ganesh: studies of an Asian god, Robert L. Brown (editor), SUNY 1991
Ganapati: song of the self, John A. Grimes, SUNY 1995
Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, Paul B. Courtright, Oxford University Press, 1989