Goddess… or Demon? Hidden History of Vinayaki, the Mysterious Elephant-Headed Woman of Hindu Myth
In one of the shrines of the Thanumalayan temple in Kanyakumari district, India, is the stone sculpture of a four-armed deity sitting cross-legged in Sukhasana (“easy pose” - similar to sitting in a simple cross-legged position) holding a battle-axe, a large shell, a vase and a staff around which the deity entwines a long trunk. At first glance, one would think that this is the famous elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, except that this deity is clearly female.
Elephant-Headed Goddess: Black Stone, Circa 10th Century CE (Biswarup Ganguly/CC BY 3.0)
Every year, Hindus across the country celebrate the birth of Ganesha, revered as the remover of obstacles, in the Bhadrapada month of the Hindu calendar which usually begins at the end of August. But the same level of adulation has never been given to this goddess - Vinayaki.
The 16th century Shilparatna (“Sculptural Gems”), a classical text on traditional South Indian arts, gives a description of Vinayaki as having the head of an elephant and the body of a youthful woman. She is vermillion-colored, with large breasts, a corpulent belly, and beautiful hips.
Vinayaki (Kathie Brobeck/CC BY 3.0)
Independent Goddess Overshadowed
However, Vinayaki’s legends are so overshadowed by the popularity of Ganesha that she is either known by a wide variety of names and descriptions (which makes recognizing her in ancient texts difficult) or worse, ignored completely. In another stark contrast to the immense popularity of the images of Ganesha, Vinayaki is not often represented by an icon and she is also one of the least encountered deities in religious literature.
Ganesha (Sachinbatwal/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Variations of Vinayaki’s name are all feminine versions of the elephant god – Gajanani, Vighneshi, Gajarupa. She does not have a consistent name and is known by various names, Stri Ganesha ("female Ganesha"), Vinayaki, Vighneshvari ("Mistress of obstacles") and Ganeshani, and many more, all of them being feminine forms of Ganesha's epithets Vinayaka, Gajanana, Vighneshvara, and Ganesha itself. These identifications have resulted in her being assumed as the shakti (“feminine form”) of Ganesha. Here again lies another conflict as, although Vinayaki is generally related to Ganesha and the obvious theory is that Vinayaki is Ganesha’s shakti, at no historical period was she given as much personal adoration as is accorded to the feminine forms of other gods.
The Jain and Buddhist traditions offer another interpretation that Vinayaki is not one of Ganesa’s Shaktis or consorts, but an independent goddess. In Buddhist works, Vinayaki is called Ganapatihridaya ("heart of Ganesha") indicating her importance.
Goddess of Misfortune? The Trouble with Identifying Vinayaki Among the OTHER Elephant-Headed Goddesses in Ancient Texts
Vinayaki is not the only elephant-headed female in Hindu mythology! Elephant-headed females appearing in the Puranas are usually considered to be demonesses or cursed goddesses.
In a version of a tale about Ganesha's birth, the goddess Parvati took a bath at the banks of the river Ganga. After she had finished her bath, Parvati threw the used water into the flowing river which was then drank by the elephant-headed demoness, Malini, who then gave birth to a boy with the head of five elephants. What followed was a heated argument as the goddesses Ganga and Parvati appeared—each claiming this multiple elephant-headed infant as their own.
Goddess Parvati. India, Tamil Nadu, 11th century Sculpture Copper alloy (LACMA/Public Domain)
The two goddesses took the issue to Shiva and asked him for a solution. Shiva solved the problem by proclaiming Parvati as the mother of this five-headed infant. He then combined the five elephant heads into one and named the child Ganesha.
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Martini Fisher is a Mythographer and author of many books, including Time Maps: Evolution of Languages and Writings. For regular updates about Martini’s books, interviews, courses, and blog, check out MartiniFisher.com
Top Image: Elephant-headed goddess Vinayaki is often mistaken for a female Ganesha. Statue of Ganesha (Public Domain;Deriv)