Multiplicious Becomings: tantric theologies of the grotesque – II
“There is something demoniacal or demonic in a line of flight. Demons are different from gods, because gods have fixed attributes, properties and functions, territories and codes: they have to do with rails, boundaries and surveys. What demons do is jump across intervals, and leap from one interval to another.”
Gilles Deleuze, Clair Parnet Dialogues II p40
“Busy in making themselves felt, the ganas were the comparitively infinitesmal quantities replete with the impulsion of his presence that swelled the host of the Great God. … The demonism and density of Siva’s entourage, which throbbed with the invisible and varied texture of feeling alive, was tinged with grotesque and lugubrious hues.”
Stella Kramrisch, The Presence of Siva p395
In the previous post, I examined Karraikal Aimmaiyar – “the woman who became a ghoul” and joined Siva’s ganas. This time, I’m going to take a closer look at Siva’s ganas – the hooligans of heaven. The ganas – and by extension Siva, exemplify Bahktin’s twin poles of the grotesque. They are unruly bodies, blurring the distinction between self and other; and both embody the carnivalesque, irreverent and bodily-oriented play of clowns and fools. As Ronald Davidson points out (2003, p285) the ganas “generally resemble buffoons in their antics.” Siva also embodies the paradoxical comedic impulse. As Lee Seigel says (1987, p374):
Paradox is the power of Siva, the god who both sits still in enstatic trance and writhes in ecstatic dance. Covered with ashes, Siva is said to be light on the outside, but dark within – he is, in that respect, like comedy itself.
Laughter is one of the eight great bhavas (“sentiments”) of the Natyashastra. The laughter of the gods is often an act of creation – Ganesa, the grotesque elephant-headed god (around which are woven many humorous tales) is born from Lalita’s laughter. And what do the gods do but play? Let’s not forget that Maya – so often translated as world-denying “illusion” can also be the marvellous power-play of the gods, and at the same time, a comic joke, a hoax.
A riotous assemblage
Siva’s ganas are the horde of ghouls, demons, ghosts and goblins who accompany him, particularly in the cremation grounds.
Descriptions of the Ganas vary from the wholly abstract, when they represent the fundamental categories of existence (ganascan be interpreted as “categories” or “parts”) to descriptions which emphasise their hybridity and grotesque nature: they are said to be dwarfish or night-walking spirits of gross and lustful appetite – some are headless, some are covered in eyes, whilst others have the heads of animals. They are often described as being found of music and dance and continually changing shape. They are warlike, often fighting alongside Siva, and sometimes appear as a discordant pack, mocking the formalised ceremonies in which Siva is called to participate in by the other gods (see for example the account of Siva’s wedding in the Matsyapurana). Stella Kramrisch (1981) describes them as “prognostications or caricatures of possibilities of the human condition”. Some of the ganas are asuras that Siva has defeated, others, like Karraikal Aimmaiyar, are devotees. Ganesa is, as is well-known, the captain of the ganas (having acquired, in some versions of his origin story, his elephant’s head from the ganas), as sometimes is Skanda.
The term gana when it appears in early texts (i.e. in the Vedas) refers simply to an “assembly”, “multitude” or “troop” (of warriors) and appear in reference to the “sons of Vayu” or the various allies of Indra. Ganapati the epithet given to Ganesa, seems originally to have been “troop leader”. The ganas are frequently associated with singing and dancing, as well as fighting. (see Sharma 1991, chapter 9 for discussion of the ganas as a clan unit).
Similarly, bhuta originally refers to a “spirit” or “being”, (and as a term, is sometimes applied to the gods) and it is only from the Epics that bhuta first comes to denote a malevolent spirit, or preta (the ghost of a person who has died a violent death). In the Mahabharata Siva is given the epithet Pramathanatha – “Lord of pramathas – pramathas referring to a class of beings known as “churn spirits”, “tormentors” or “teasers”. (Again, in the Natyashastra, the pramathas are described as presiding over the sentiment of humour). Also in the Mahabharata, Kubera is depicted surrounded by Ganas (Kubera too is often a comic figure). It is possible that the ganas gained their ambivalent reputation through their association with Rudra, and later, Siva (see Krishan, 1999, pp20-22). The Vedic-era Sankhayana Srautasutra for example, declares that the ganas are spirits which “howl, whistle and roar”. In iconographical depictions, the ganas are often portrayed comically or whimsically. There are also bhuta theatatrical traditions, particularly in southern India, in which particular bhutas’ deeds are eulogised, often involving possession, firewalking, etc.
“The motley crowd of the freakish retinue of Siva is part of his ambience. Indefinitely variable in its monstrosity, wit and vitality, it includes the misshapen as possibilities within his orbit. Rudra refused to create mortals because they were imperfect. The retinue of Siva, Bhutas, ganas, pramathas, parisadas, khumbandas, raksasas and pisacas – different types of spirits, sprites, ghosts and ghouls – do not belong to the pitiable class of mortals; they are part of Rudra’s being, tremors, resonances of his nature, tensions that sustain his contradictory wholeness. They are scintillations of the Rudras, smithereens of the terrifying glory of Rudra-Siva himself.”
(Kramrisch, 1981 pp298-299)
This interdependence between Siva and his horde of riotous hybrids is brought out in the story of Andhaka. Andhaka is a son of Shiva & Parvati, born when Parvati, in play, placed her hands over Shiva’s eyes. The contact of her hands over his eyes brought forth perspiration, from which was born a terrifying-looking creature. Ungrateful, with a bad temper, blind, deformed, and black in colour. He had hair all over his body, matted locks, and behaved like a madman. Shiva named this being Andhaka and ordered his ganas to guard him. Shiva was later approached by the daitya Hiranyasksha, who performed many penances in order that Shiva grant him the boon of a son. Shiva gave Hiranyaksha Andhaka to be his adopted son. Vishnu, in his form of Varaha the Boar, warred with and finally destroyed Hiranyaksha, crowning Andhaka as chief of the daityas. In some versions of the story, Siva eventually kills Andhaka, but in others he makes him a leader amongst the ganas.
The goofball god
In the famous story of the major falling out between Siva and Daksa (as recounted in the Mahabharata for example) one of the reasons that Daksa gives for not considering Siva a worthy son-in-law is that Siva surrounds himself with ganas, and, worse, behaves like one:
“If he really is an ascetic like he’s supposed to be, why does he carry weapons? And he’s supposedly married, but he’s not really a householder since he lives in the burning grounds> He has no caste. He’s neither male nor female, and yet he can’t be said to be a eunuch either, since everybody worships his penis”. (Seigel, 1987, p374)
It’s Siva’s contrary nature which particularly seems to offend Daksa. He does not get the joke. A Bengali popular song expresses Siva’s comic nature:
Siva won’t grow old – he spends all his time
High on bhang and datura – and making love.
he takes bhang, datura and balls of siddhi
And rolls about day and night in the harlots’ houses,
Siva, the lord of deception, among 1600 whores,
Wasting no time in fulfilling their insatiable desires.
Or else you’ll find him in some cremation-ground or such,
His body covered with ashes.
—Everyone says hes’s gone quite mad.
Sitting there, surrounded by ghouls.
This is how he fritters away the year,
Then pulling on his tigerskin and climbing onto his bull
Off he goes again to the brothel quarter.
(quoted from McLean, 1998, p62)
In the myth of the Daitya king Jalandhara, Jalandhara sends Rahu with a message to Shiva, demanding that he surrender Parvati to Jalandhara. Shiva was angry at this message, and this anger took the form of a terrible creature which sprang from his brow. It had the face of a lion, flaming eyes, a body which was dry and rough to the touch, long arms and a tongue which lolled with anger. The creature rushed at Rahu, ready to devour him. Shiva apparently said something along the lines of “we don’t shoot the messenger” whereon the gana pleaded to Shiva that it was tortured by hunger. Shiva told the gana that if it was so hungry, it should eat its own flesh. This the gana did, until only its head was left. Shiva, pleased with such devotion, appointed the gana as his door-keeper, ordering that it create terror for all wicked people. Shiva also ordained that the gana be worshipped along with his worship, and gave it the name Kirtimukha.
Jalandhara was furious when he heard what had transpired and commanded his army of daityas to beseige Mt. Kailash. A fierce battle broke out between the diatyas and the ganas. But each time that a daitya was killed, it was revived immediately by their preceptor, Shukra. The ganas told Shiva about this and he was furious. A terrible form called Kritya came forth from his mouth. Her calves were as stout as trees and her mouth was huge and deep like a mountain cavern. She rushed upon the battlefield and began to devour the enemy. She was so big and strong that a push from her breasts uprooted trees and the earth split beneath her feet. She picked up Shukra, stuffed him into her vagina, and vanished. When Shukra was seized, the daityas were frightened and were scattered from the battlefield. In another version of the Jalandhara story, Shukra is swallowed by Shiva himself. Shukra spent hundreds of years wandering round in the belly of Shiva. Finally he resorted to the Yoga of Shiva and, after repetition of a special mantra, asssumed the form of Shiva’s semen and emerged out of the god’s body through his penis. He bowed to Shiva and Parvati accepted him as her son. Shiva made him a chief among his ganas.
Ganas are central to the 11th century Kathasaritsagara (“Ocean of the Streams of Stories”) attributed to Somadeva (first translated into English 1880-84). Parvati asks Siva to tell her a story that she has never heard before. Siva, in reply, relates the tale of the Vidyadhara princes. A gana named Pushpadanta overhears the telling, and repeats the tale to his wife, who is Parvati’s doorkeeper. She in turn, recounts the story to Parvati, who is annoyed that Siva told her a tale so common that one of her attendants knew it. When she discovers what has happened, Parvati curses Pushpadanta. Another gana, Malyavan tries to intercede on behalf of Pushpadanta and gets it in the neck from Parvati too. Both are doomed to be born as humans. Pushpadanta will only be released from the curse when he relates all the tales he overheard Siva tell Parvati to Malyavan, and he too can only be released by spreading the stories as far and wide as possible, making them “famous in the world”. The tales of the Kathasaritsagara are stories within stories, narratives multiply-authored; passing between the human and the divine realms.
One tale within the Kathasaritsagara concerns the princess Rupinika, who is told how to disguise herself as a gana:
“She had to shave her head with a razor in such a manner that five locks were to be left, then she was to wear a necklace round her neck of skulls and stripping off her clothes, paint one side of her body with lamp-black and the other with red lead so that in this way she could resemble a Gana and find it easy to gain admission into heaven.”(Saletore 2003, p34)
In her book Shiva Shakti M. Gupta provides a long description of the ritual of Mahashivaratri – the Festival of Repentance, which falls on the 14th night of the New Moon, during the dark half of the lunar month of Phalguna. It is said that one who performs this sacrifice successfully, with all the rituals & rules laid down, obtains his most cherished desires, achieves liberation, and is accepted as one of Shiva’s Ganas dwelling on Mt. Kailas.
In becoming a gana, everyone is invited to participate in Siva’s stand-up comedy turn, and share the delightful joke.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World (Indiana University Press 2009)
RM Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (Motilal, 2003)
Gilles Deleuze, Clair Parnet Dialogues II (Columbia University Press, revised edn 2007)
Shakti M Gupta Shiva (Somaiya Publications, 1993)
Geoffrey G. Harpham On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (The Davies Group Publishers, 2007)
Stella Kramrisch, The Presence of Siva (Princeton University Press, 1981)
Yuvraj Krishan, Ganesa: Unveiling an Enigma (Motilal, 1999)
Malcolm McLean, Devoted to the Goddess: The Life and Work of Ramprasad (SUNY, 1998)
RN Saletore Indian Witchcraft (Abhinav Publications, 2003)
Lee Seigel Laughing matters: comic tradition in India (University of Chicago Press, 1987)
RS Sharma Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India (Motilal, 1991)
Hugh Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (University of California Press, 2003)