Deep Mining the Mythology of Ganesha and the Ancient Temple Well
According to Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987), the famed U.S. American Professor of Literature who wrote extensively about comparative mythology and religion:
“Myths express characters and stories that are encoded into the human species in prehistory, and therefore express universal concerns.”
Campbell invites us to dig into myths to find universal concerns. A particular myth of India, surrounding the Varasiddhi Vinayakar Temple (hereafter referred to as the Temple) provides a startling example of universality when we carefully trace oral tradition and its connection to a sacred place and Hindu doctrine.
Lord Ganesh sculpture adorning a Temple of India. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Mythology surrounds village Temple
The Temple is situated in Kanipakam village of Irala mandal, in the Chittoor district of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Dedicated to ‘Ganesha,’ sometimes ‘Ekadanta’ or ‘Vinayaka,’ the most beloved god of the Hindus, the Karpaga Vinakar Temple was established in the early 11th century AD by the pandian king Kulothunga Chola I and enhanced in 1336 AD by the Emperors of Vijayanagara dynasty.
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Mythology connected with the temple explains how this most beloved of Indian gods, Ganesha, came into existence from the Earth. It is told:
“About a 1000 years ago, three disadvantaged farmers; blind, dumb and deaf, cultivating land close to Viharapuri village, were called to action when the local well became blocked and the fields had dried up. To remove the obstacle blocking the well one of the brothers, the bravest one, was lowered into the watery darkness where he discovered a large stone buried deep in the mud.
Upon later inspection the three brothers found blood oozing from the stone and they were magically relieved of their physical defects. When news of this apparent miracle reached the villagers, they rushed to the well and began deepening it. Lord Ganesha, the elephant headed god, manifested to the villagers as an idol and they offered him coconuts and other offerings of love. Coconut water began flowing from the well, a phenomenon which gave Kanipakam village its name; ‘Kani’ means wetland and ‘Pakam’ means flow of water into wetland.”
Water being lifted with a bucket from a traditional well . ( CC BY- SA 3.0 )
Further mining the Mythology
Let’s get stuck in. What we have in this story is matrix of mythological concepts, a sheer abundance of archetypes, and while this is not specifically a creation myth telling of the beginnings of the universe, it holds within it the story of the birth of a divine force. Ganesha, the elephant headed god, manifests from the Earth in contrast to having been created by a supreme sky deity. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, mythological emergences such as this, from under the earth, “represent the maturing of the world from its embryonic state into a repository of all potential form, corresponding to the growth of a child in the womb and its birth.”
The myth imparts ideas of ‘eternal birth’ and ‘growth’ being generated by Earth and the promise of divine power to those who worship in accordance with Hindu doctrine. They are universal ideas given form, the instantaneous healing of each brother and the reversal of a single well blockage, tangible human events.
The Temple refreshes Ancient Mythology
Today Ganesha inspires faith in Earth’s regenerative powers and the promise of divine power to devotees of the Hindu doctrine throughout the world: The idol of Lord Vinayak, kept at the Temple, is believed by millions of Hindus to be growing in size. Presently, only the knees and abdomen are visible, and this is taken by millions of the faithful as visual proof that the silver armor offered to the idol about fifty years ago does not fit the idol today. The temple is a myth generator and lies at the pulsing heart of Hindu beliefs about the birth of divine forces on earth.
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A view of Kanipakam Temple Gopuram in Chittor district of Andhra Pradesh. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Mythology penetrates hearts and minds
Skepticism holds that an inanimate object would probably not physically grow in size. What matters about the widespread belief that the idol has grown is the sweeping power of a universal idea in Earth’s miraculous power to grow and regenerate life. One indication of the universal nature of a myth is its popularity. The fondness for and perpetuation of a story by vast numbers of ordinary people points to intangible, universal meanings at play in the hearts and minds of humankind.
Pilgrims and local worshippers claim to have had their ailments healed after bathing in the Temple tank, where they swear before the self-manifested idol of Ganpati of Kanipakam. Some people report that their sins are absolved even before stepping into the “court of justice” or the inner chambers of the temple.
In the ancient world water sources were often lethally polluted. Water sources protected by temple monks were assured to be pure, adding greatly to their perceived holiness. Many tests have been conducted on the alleged healing waters at Indian temples, and never has a scientist published the headline “Divine Healing Waters Proven,” suggesting the placebo effect is hard at work, healing around 50 percent of physical ailments. But again, this story about pure waters spilling from the earth with divinely charged healing powers is a reference back to the myth of the three brothers who were healed. The religious and cosmological ideas that Earth sustains life are embedded.
In the ancient world water sources were often lethally polluted, for example, in this 1949 photograph of a diseased man in India bathing near a well and polluting the drinking water. Water sources protected by temple monks were assured to be pure, adding greatly to their perceived holiness, in that they didn’t kill. ( Public Domain )
A similar myth, same universal ideas
The same universal concerns are also reflected in another famous myth associated with the Temple. Two brothers, Sankha and Likhita, were making pilgrimage to Kanipakam when the later became hungry. Ignoring the advice and warnings of his elder sibling, Likhita plucked a mango without permission from the farmer. Feeling duty-bound to maintaining truth, Sankha reported his brother to the king. Unfortunately, the king was unaware of the idea of “punishments befitting sins”, evident in that he had both of Likhita’s arms chopped off at the shoulders. Only when taking a dip in the sacred waters of the Kanipakam well did Likhita’s arms grow back; subsequently the river was named Bahuda (“Bahu” means ‘arms’ and “Da” means ‘giver’).
Ganesha, an elephant-like God with the power to remove obstacles. ( Public Domain )
Ganesha mythology, digging deeper
At the sanctum sanctorum of the Temple is an idol of the elephant -headed god Ganesha with his consort Siddhi. Lord Ganesha, also known as Ganapati, Vinayaka, Pillaiyar and Binayak, is one of the best-known and most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon, extending to both Jains and Buddhists, and he ‘emerged’ in the 2nd century AD with traits from Vedic and pre-Vedic precursors. This elephant-headed god is primarily revered as being the ‘remover of obstacles’ but also the ruler of arts and sciences and a deva of wisdom, intellect, learning and writing. As the ‘god of beginnings’ Ganesha is honored at the beginning of all Hindu rituals and ceremonies. You can think of him as a gateway god.
Ganesha.Heramba-Ganesha with consort, 18th century Nepal. ‘ Heramba Ganapati’ was another popular mode of Ganesah in which the deity was depicted as a five-headed iconographical form. Particularly popular in Nepal this form is important in Tantric worship of Ganesha. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Temple gateway god, Lord Ganesha
According to scholar Jayanythi Subramanian, in an article titled Kanipakam: The abode of Magnificent & Mysterious Vinayaka , “The first letter of all the mantras is ‘Om’ symbolizing ‘Ganapathi’ the God of the Ganas” He went on to say that Lord Vishnu qualified the worship of any god. It would prove futile if not framed within the blessings of Lord Vinayaka (Ganesha.)
The worship of Ganesha covered most of India. He was most popularly worshiped as a three-headed deity called Trimuhkti Ganapati. Among other things this form represented the three ‘states of being’ known as the Gunas. ‘Sattva’ represents goodness and equilibrium and ‘rajas’ denotes passion, effort and action, while ‘tamas’ is ignorance and inertia. When in its purest form, the mind is thought of as being ‘sattva’ and the two sources of mental disturbances are rajas (excess activity) and tamas (excess inactivity). The triple aspects of Ganesha as the ‘Lord of Obstacles’ meant that he controlled both material and spiritual occurrences. Author Paul Courtright explains this clearly in his book Gaṇeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, when he wrote that “Ganesha's dharma, his raison d’etre, is to create and remove obstacles” on the road to spiritual enlightenment.
This soapstone carving of Lord Ganesha was created in India between 900-1000 AD. Fitchburg Art Museum. ( Public Domain )
Mythology is generous, imparting wisdom
With new-found understanding about Hindu myths, we are better suited to interpret the story of 'the three men being healed by unblocking that well,’ told at the beginning of the article. The 3 brothers represent the 3 aspects of Ganesha: one brother representing sattva (goodness and equilibrium) was lowered into a dark well by his two brothers who represent rajas and tamas (excesses of activity and inactivity.) The brother who showed fearlessness, a primary component of Ganesha, ‘removed a stone’ that he found blocking the flow of life-giving water.
How does the Indian myth of the three brothers strike you after our discussion? For some of us, the ‘three brothers’ embody what is contained within each of us. Only when you put your Sattva first and show strength and fearlessness can you safely enter the darkest aspects of your mind and face whatever dangers, and monsters, one might find. Another interpretation: only when fearlessly mining the deepest parts of your own mind (well) will you find the ‘stone’ blocking the flow of divinity from your life (water).
Top image: Ganesha ( Niks Ads / Fotolia)
By Ashley Cowie
Courtright, Paul B. 1985. Gaṇeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings . New York: Oxford University Press. Available at: http://www.knowap.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1869&Itemid=200008
Long, Charles H. Creation Myth . Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/creation-myth
Resham Sengar. 2013. The shocking history of Kanipakam Ganesha Temple is a must-know this Ganesha Chaturthi. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/travel/destinations/the-shocking-history-of-kanipakam-ganesha-temple-is-a-must-know-this-ganesha-chaturthi/as60307086.cms
Young-Eisendrath, Polly. 2010. The Cambridge Companion To Jung . Cambridge University. pp. 24–30.