11: The Obstacle Remover
Welcome to Accession. Today we’re at the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado. Try not to get swept up as you enter the loby of the very pointy Hamilton building. Once inside, head up to the second floor and go to the right, away from the special exhibit space. Once through the glass doors, you’ll be give three options. Straight ahead of you is pictures of the American West, and one of my favorite paintings of Colorado, and to the left is the fashion illustrations of Jim Howard. But imidiately to your right is a gallery title that should read “Ganesha: The Playful Protector.” As you continue looking right from that, you’re going to see a small statue of a man’s body with an elephant head on top. And this is Ganesha, the subject of our episode, and a picece brought to the DAM specifically for this exhibit because it is touchable.
Yes. You heard me right. In this instance and this instance only, we are going to get to touch the sculpture on the pedestal. But! Uhn uhn uhhh. I see you reaching out to touch it with your snapchats and your instagrams ready. You don’t even know why we can touch it yet, or why we should touch it!?
Patience. To your left is a small room with a number of images of Ganesha. As as you walk around it, we're going to tell you a few stories about Ganesha, and some of his history, and then as you walk out, only then can you touch it, deal? Alright then. Everytime you see a new image, I want you to reflect on both the image you see infront of you and the story and information told to you. Lets begin.
It is said that Shakti, the godess who is the earth and all worldly delights, wanted nothing more than a child. But Shiva, her husband, was not interested in the homely life, and continued to meditate, refusing her pleas. One day, she decided to take a bath, but wished to do so without being disturbed, so she took the dirt and oils from her body and fashioned a guard. She called him Vinayaka, meaning child born without a man. Shakti told Vinayaka that no man was to enter the river where she was bathing, and gave him a stick to defend himself. When Shiva came to bathe with his wife, Vinayaka did not recognize him, and refused him entrance. But Shiva continued on towards the river, and so Vinayaka hit him with his stick. Shiva sent legions of dieties to defeat Vinayaka in combat, but none could best him. So Shiva took the work into his own hands and chopped off Vinayaka’s head. Shakti was enraged at the death of Vinayaka and demanded that Shiva restore him to life and have him worshiped. Shiva found the head of an elephant and affixed it to the body of Vinayaka, and so, Ganesha was born. And by giving the head to Ganesha, together Shakti and Shiva had made a child, and Shiva was the father, which made Shakti very pleased.
Ganesha is a ballance, between this material and the spiritual. His father, Shiva, is the hermit, the one concerned with spiritual matters and not interested in the tribulations of the world. His mother, Shakti, is the householder, who wants to engage with the world and all the delights it has to offer, but cannot do so without Shiva. Ganesha is the ballence between these two. This is represented in his form. His head, the head of an elephant, is the symbol of the material world. It is the animalistic part of us that wants material joys. But the animal is always afraid. That is the nature of the predater and prey, the snake and the rat. His body, the body of a human, is the symbol of the spiritual, and the imagination that humans have that allows them to both see a future in which they have abundance and a future in which they have nothing. He can imagine a world where the snake and the rat live in peace. This knowledge creates thankfulness and ambition in the human, which overcomes the fear of the animal. Ganesha’s dual nature brings attention to these two parts inside of us, and asks us to reflect on what we are and what we can be.
Shiva has two forms. One of those forms, called Shiva, is indifferent to the world around him. He closes his eyes. He meditates. The heat is trapped within his body and the world around him is covered in snow and ice. All is destroyed. It is therefore Shakti’s job to get Shiva to open his eyes. When his eyes open, Shiva becomes Shankara. The ice melts and the world around him is given life as heat radiates from his body. It is said that when Shankara opened his eyes, he laughed, and from that laugh came Ganesha. But he looked just like his father, and so Shakti gave him the head of an elephant, to distiguish him. Ganesha is born from the moment when the hermit, the inwards looker, looks out.
Shakti has two forms. Kali is the ferocious form, the life-taker. When Shiva’s eyes are shut, she dances across his body, trying to get him to open his eyes. When Shiva’s eyes are opened, Kali becomes Guari, and sits upon Shiva’s lap, nourishing him and taking care of him. Guari is the life-giver. It is said that to pacify Kali, Shiva made a cloth doll, with the head of an elephant, and gave it to Kali. When Kali held it to her breast, Ganesha came alive, and Kali was transformed into Guari. Ganesha is born from the moment when the worldy is satiated, and self care becomes care of others.
Ganesha is one of the most popular Hindu dieties, whose reach was so far spreading that he was worshiped in almost every southeast Asian country, and has worshipers in both Budhism and Jainism as well. And across all these iterations are any number of depictions and images of Ganesha. The most consistent part is the elephant head. If the trunk is pointing to the left side, over the heart, it is material, more worldy, and thus kept inside the house. If the trunk is pointing to the right, where there is nothing, it is spiritual, aescetic, and to be kept outside the house, in temples. One of its tusks is usually broken off. Who broke it is up to which ever story you wish to tell, but ultimately it relates to a sort of taming and domesticating of the wild animal side of Ganesha.
Originally the human body was depicted as fat with a large belly. But in some depictions, especially later depictions, Ganesha is thin. He is often seen with an axe, the symble of analysis, or breaking things down, and a noose, the symble of synthesis, or bringing things together. Or sometimes he has a goad, mans way of keeping the animal side in check.
Like all Hindu dieties, Ganesha has a Vahana, an animal used as a vehicle or a mount to cary him from place to place. Ganesha has been recorded riding many different type of animals, but by far the most popular is that Ganesha rides on a rat. Sometimes Ganesha is depicted with a snake as well, wrapped around his belly and holding it all in, or draped over his shoulder. Through Ganesha, the imposible happens. The snake and the rat get along, one no longer prey and the other no longer predater.
Once, the gods had been cursed by the demons, and needed to churn the cosmic ocean of milk in order to obtain amrita, the sweet-tasting elixer of immortality. To do so, they had used Vasuki, the serpent king, as a churning rope. But before churning the cosmic ocean of milk, they forgot to propitiate Ganesha. Ganesha insists that prayers are said to him before anyone begins a task. So Ganesha made Vasuki spew forth a poison that stopped the gods from being able to breath. They prayed for Ganesha to remove the obstical before them, and Ganesha was pleased. He had his father, Shiva, drink all the poison so that they could continue their quest for amrita. This is why before undertaking any task, everyone starts with a prayer to Ganesha, asking him to remove the obstacles from the journey they have ahead of them. To begin something without first praying to Ganesha is foolish.
In his stories, he can be cruel; the obstacle creator. But he is also good; the obstacle remover. He often uses his cunning and intelligence to outsmart others and best his opponents with his wisdom and trickery, but it's allways in a playful way. He is not one to back down from a fight either. The form of Ganesha follows his function and vice versa. The large belly is indicative of one who is proseperous, who has had good fortune, but having had no obsticals get in the way of that prosperity. He rides around on a rat because he has conquered the pestillence that would have plagued early farmers and removed that obsicle from their success. It is also said that he used his broken tusk to scribe and write the epics of ancient India. As the god of writing and knowledge, he is also the god of creative arts, and is often scene in the childlike state of dancing, performing for this mother and father. His childlike love of creation and dancing is only obtained in a life free of hardships. He is a homely god, which he gets from his mother. But his connection to home forms it’s own sort of reclusiveness, which he gets from his father.
One day, Narada came to Mount Kailasa, the home of Shiva and Shakti, and offered the fruit of wisdom, a mango, to whichever of Shiva’s two sons was the fastest. To proove this, Narada wanted them to go around the world three times. Immidiately, Kartikeya, Ganesha’s brother, lept upon his peacock and began to fly around the world. He had made it around the world twice but Ganesha wouldn’t budge. He just sat by his parents, continuing to play and dance as he was known to do. Then, just as Kartikeya was making his third lap around the world, Ganesha lept up and ran around his parents three times and declared himself the winner. For while Kartikeya had made it around the literal, material world three times, Ganesha argued that his parents were his figurative, spiritual world, and that he had gone three times around the world that mattered more to him. Narada could not deny the wisdom of Ganesha, and so agreed that he was the winner, and gave him the mango, the fruit of wisdom.
So now you’ve seen a couple of different versions of Ganesha, heard a couple of his stories, seen him from a few different angles, learned a few things about him, and with any luck, have a little bit more of an understanding of him. I'd like to think that I’ve removed the obstacles in your understanding of Ganesha. And now I’d like you to go to the oldest depiction of Ganesha that is here. He’s the one that’s seated cross legged, with his trunk in his hand to the left, and holding something in his right. He also has a very dark shiny belly.
Much like the history of Hinduism itself, the history of Ganesha is complicated, long reaching and hard to precisely pin down. Because of this ballance that he strikes, worship of him was popular across multiple religions and through much of Southeast Asia. And the traditions, stories, names, and practices involved with his worship changed from place to place and region to region. We have only really scratched the surface of Ganesha. There is much more to learn and talk about.
But for now, I'll leave you with this. In Cambodia, where this sculpture is from, it's a tradition to touch the belly of Ganesha, the part of him that represents prosperity without hardship, as a symbol of good luck. And as you leave this space, and pass the sculpture by the entry to this exhibit, you should touch that Ganesha’s belly for good luck, and the hope that the obstacles ahead of you will be removed. But as you do it, take out your phone and take a picture for snapchat or instagram, or have your friend or another gallery member take a picture of you. The good luck is the spiritual. The photo of the time you got to touch a sculpture in a museum is the material. I have a feeling Ganesha would want you to have both.
Information and stories on Ganesha came from 99 Thoughts on Ganehsa by Devdutt Pattanaik, and from the Shiva Purana accessed through Hindu Online.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
Are We Loose Yet from Bodytonic by Blue Dot Sessions
Mind Body Mind from Bodytonic by Blue Dot Sessions
Partly Sage from Bodytonic by Blue Dot Sessions
Liptis from One Such Village by Blue Dot Sessions
Thannoid from Bodytonic by Blue Dot Sessions
My special thanks this week goes out to Ely, who is @shomarq on Twitter. She is just an amazingly positive person in the podcasting community and seemingly tirelessly supports shows, all while writing a newsletter and a thesis! She just helps make the podcast world a better place. She's kinds like a podcast superhero! Early on she wrote a very nice review of episode 5 of Accession, and recently answered a question I had for her about press kits almost imidiately. If you could, go over ko-fi.com/audiodramatic and buy her a cup if coffee that would be stupendous!
Our theme music was performed by Mike Harmon, with recording, editing, and mixing from Casey Dawson. Our show art was made by V Silverman. The script is turned into a transcript by Amanda Borglund. This episode was produced, written, recorded, and edited by T.H. Ponders.