A New Being has descended upon us. It is a noxious alloy which combines within itself the revival of that dead genre named M.F. Hussain Apologetics and the Devdutt Pattnaik School of Epidemic Distortion. Over the last six-plus years, it has gained prominence, which none should envy but none should forget what a Malabar Congressman said at the height of Mohandas Gandhi’s power: “truth is infinitely more powerful than non-violence or Hindu-Muslim unity.” A major contributor to this New Being’s rise to prominence is something called Being Hindu, which justifies its title via negation. It’s a fine specimen of what W.T. Stead memorably termed, the “musty platitudinizing of third-rate essayists.” The subtitle of this something by itself is a giveaway: Old Faith, New World and You. “Sanatana Dharma” is translated as “Old Faith.” But we’ll let that go for now. In the wake of this year’s Ganesha Chaturthi, this New Being found the following monstrous aberration of art and aesthetics as “By far the coolest version of Lord Ganesha I have seen.”
This “painting” or whatever it’s called is beneath contempt to even say anything. But to call it “Ganesha” takes perversity to a wholly new low. The excrescence assaults your sight right away: a “Ganesha” with two tusks? This among others is one chief reason I called it the attempted revival of the dead school of M.F. Hussain Apologetics (for a detailed treatment of this topic, read the chapter titled Decoding M.F. Hussain’s Art in my book, 70 Years of Secularism). While the New Being is fully within its rights to praise anything that appeals to it, mischaracterization and distortion will invite criticism.
Perhaps there is no Sanatani who hasn’t heard of the timeless Vedic invocatory mantra, Gananam Tva Ganapatim chanted at the beginning of every Puja or ritual. The centrality of Ganapati both in the Vedic and Tantric pantheons is both hoary and ancient. Equally, the other renowned śrī gaṇeśhātharvaśhīrśham or Ganapati Upanishad, whichholds the same pristine place beautifully unfolds what is known as the Ganapati-Tattva or the Philosophy of Ganapati, loosely speaking. This Tattva also includes some elements of Ganapati’s physical appearance.
There’s a reason why Rishis from the ancient past to today’s time were so fastidious about deriving the correct meaning of Vedic mantras, so to say. To cut a long story short, one needs to understand the Vedas at three levels: the Adhibhautika (literally, pertaining to the bhuta or living beings; or the physical world), Adhidaivika (literally, pertaining to the daiva or fate, unseen forces and gods), and Adhyatmika (pertaining to the Atman). Confounding these will culminate in disaster.
At the Adhibhautika level, the form of Ganapati represents both agriculture and culture. Agriculture was the beginning of all culture. Indeed, Ganapati was conceived out of the mud on Devi Parvati’s body, denoting Mother Earth or in plain words, soil. Ganapati’s single tusk [ekadanta] represents the Hala or plough. His ears represent the winnowing basket meant for collecting the harvested grain.
At the Adhidaivika level, he is the Devata (Presiding Deity) of the Muladhara Chakra: this is what the Ganapati Atharvashirsha says, “tvaṃ mūlādhārasthito”si nityam” (You constantly Reside in the Muladhara Chakra). Ganapati is also the combined embodiment of Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Indra, Agni, Vayu, Surya, and Chandra. He is the one whom the Yogis incessantly contemplate. Ganapati is compassionate towards his Bhaktas and is the Indestructible One responsible for all Creation. And so it goes…
At the Adhyatmika level, Ganapati represents culture, knowledge (Jnana) and Darshana (Philosophy). After the dawn of civilization, the first major manifestation of culture was speech. Ganapati is the vāgdevata or the Deity of Speech. From speech derives the understanding, transmission, and preservation of all knowledge. Ganapati is the Deity of all gaNa-s or syllables. His four hands respectively represent the concepts of parA-paśyaṃti-madhyamā- vaikhari[i] that occur at the cusp of pure philosophy, thought, and sound. This is precisely what the Ganapati Atharvashirsha means when it hails Ganapati as “tvaṃ catvāri vāk parimitā padāni,” an exact parallel of which is found in the famous vAk-sUkta that begins with “devIM vAcha\’majanayanta devA.” As the pinnacle of Santana Darshana, Ganapati is also celebrated by attributing to him two of the greatest Upanishadic realisations: Tattvamasi and sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahmā.
When all of these profoundly grand philosophical conceptions and insights translate into daily cultural life of Bharatavarsha, how do they look like in practice? Nothing auspicious begins without first invoking Ganesha both as the destroyer of obstacles and the Giver of Speech, Writing, and Knowledge. There’s a reason why everyday phrases like, for example, in Hindi, “Toh Om Sri Ganesh karen?” have seeped into the Sanatana DNA. From Prayagraj in the North to Pandharpur in the West to Papanashanam in the South, the same thing is both visible and verifiable in lived experience. The specifics of language, dialect, custom, practice and tradition vary but Ganapati reigns supreme everywhere as the Invocatory Deity.
Perhaps Ganesha among all Sanatana Deities, has found innumerable creative representations in art and sculpture throughout history. Of late, these have ranged from such things like “Kargil” Ganesha, “Police” Ganesha, and “Bahubali” Ganesha among other such artistic quirks. What we see in these bizarre but creative representations is a kind of innocent fervor underscored by unsullied Bhakti towards Him.
In such people, there is none of the innate egomaniacal, intentional distortion by artistic psychopaths like M.F. Hussain…at least this barefooted dead pervert might have had a religious or ideological motive. What honest reasons do folks like Devdutt Pattnaik and the New Being have, given how vocal they are in declaring their expertise in “interpreting” Hinduism “for the new generation, millennials,” or whatever? More importantly, what are their exact qualifications to indulge in vandalizing the essentials of their own heritage? When you observe the fundamentals, folks like Devdutt Pattnaik et al are not “interpreting” or “reinterpreting.” They have haughtily arrogated to themselves the role of being the surgeons of Sanatana Dharma without knowing the ABC of anatomy. Perhaps the greatest riposte to the vandals of their own culture is this immortal scene in the classic movie, Sankarabharanam.
Perhaps our ancients lacked what’s now known as the “cool factor” but they were endowed with extraordinary foresight. They anticipated the arrival of people described in the selfsame Sankarabharanam as “those who sully the name of their own mother,” and laid down such immortal precepts in both life and art:
Art depicting Devas are of three sorts: pure [satvika], active [rajasika], and evil, limited by inertia and sloth[tamasika]…A Tamasika image is one of dread…Art made as directed [in this text and by the ancients], with all its elements complete, are attractive and merit-yielding; those otherwise are destructive of life and wealth, and ever increase sorrow… [Sukranitisara: 73-80]
“Coolest version of Lord Ganesha” eh?
[i] Generally speaking, parA manifests itself at the level of Prana or breath; paśyaṃti finds manifestation in the mind; madhyamā manifests itself at the level of the sense organs; vaikhari manifests itself in articulate expression or speech.