Symbolic representation of nature and deities has been a practice throughout the world, but it is extensively used in India. Understanding meanings of such representations requires deep understanding the culture, and also scientific approach of objectivity and unbiasedness.
The culture, traditions, symbolism, language, communications, etc. are living elements of life for people, that includes living under or creating a political system for governance. A majority of the countries in the world today practices of some form of democracy, even in the mode of monarchy, such as Britain. Of course oldest (United States of America) and largest (India) are representative republic democracies. According to Wikipedia (accessed on January 24, 2020), a republic (Latin: res publica, meaning “public affair”) is a form of government in which the country is considered a “public matter”, not the private concern or property of the rulers. The primary positions of power within a republic are attained, through democracy, oligarchy, autocracy, or a mix thereof, rather than being unalterably occupied.
India became Republic of India (bharatiya ganarajya; भारतीय गणराज्य) on January 26, 1950, when it adopted the constitution of India, the largest constitution document in the entire world. Interestingly, the gaṇa (used in gaṇarājya to mean kingdom or state of gaṇas) in Sanskrit means flock, troop, multitude, number, tribe, series, or class. While gaṇas are variously described in the history and culture of India, referring to them as members of governing assembly, warriors, farmers, etc. Vrātam Vrātam gaṇam gaṇam (व्रातं व्रातं गणम् गणम् ) Rigveda 3-26-6, these all are ultimately derived from or are linked to Shiva gaṇas, Gaṇapati, and Ganesha.
The gaṇas are in fact Shiva gaṇas, and Ganesha being his son was chosen as their leader by Shiva, hence Ganesha’s title gaṇa-īśa or gaṇa-pati, “lord of the gaṇas” (Wikipedia –https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva, accessed January 24, 2020).
According to legends, Shiva gaṇas are attendants of Shiva and live in Kailāśa. They are often referred to as the bhutagaṇas, or ghostly hosts, on account of their nature. Generally benign, except when their lord is transgressed against, they are often invoked to intercede with the lord on behalf of the devotee. The Shiva gaṇas also include nāgās, yakśas, pramathis, pisācās, rākśa gaṇas, vināyakas, guhyākas, manuṣya and deva gandharvas, vidhyādharas, and siddhas. Sadhguru describes gaṇas are described as distorted, demented beings. It is said that they had limbs without bones coming out of odd parts of their bodies, so they are described as distorted and demented beings. (Shiva’s Gaṇas – Demented or Celestial? https://isha.sadhguru.org/in/en/wisdom/article/shivas-gaṇas-demented-or-celestial). According to Sadhguru, Shiva meaning the Yakkśaswarūpa (a celestial being), and the gaṇas, Shiva’s friends, were not like human beings, and it is clearly said that they never spoke any of the human languages. They spoke in utter cacophony when Shiva and his friends communicated. They spoke a language that nobody understood, so human beings described it as total, chaotic cacophony. But the gaṇas were the ones that Shiva was really close with.
The bottom line of the description of gaṇas is that it basically addresses a wide group of people from ghosts and globulins to warrior, rulers, and celestial beings, thus essentially expressing the group as everything seen or perceived in the universe. In other words, they represent Shiva himself, who is the lord of expressed physical world, with Brahmā as the lord of the subtle and creative world, and Viṣṇu as the lord of the causal world, to complete the trilogy concept of Hindu tradition. Ganesha being Shiva’s son despite the legend suggesting he was created by Pārvatī alone, and he being appointed as the lord of the gaṇas, it is important to understand the symbolic features represented by Ganesha. Ganesha is the ideal of gaṇas, meaning that gaṇas are supposed to attain the traits possessed by Ganesha. What are the major traits of Ganesha? Let us consider the following features amongst others shown in the symbolic diagram of Ganesha – large stomach, elephant head, large ears, the hidden mouth, long trunk, and mouse as his vehicle. Interestingly he was not referred to as a Gajesha despite having the head of a gaja or elephant), one can proceed to understand the traits/features of Ganesha in the form of symbolism.
The large head represents the use of wisdom in approaching any problem or hurdles, the large ears mean that one must listen to issues of the day as much as possible, the small hidden mouth symbolizes less need to speak, and the large stomach means big churning or digestion of the information received before making any decisions. The trunk represents flexibility and adaptability of one’s personality for efficient operations. Elephant trunk is the only known organ that can perceive an ant on the ground with its subtle nerve receptors, and it possesses such a gross strength that it can uproot a tree. Such a dynamic range of sense and strength can overcome any obstacle in any person or organism. Finally, the mouse at the feet of Ganesha represents the complete control over one’s mind and desires for success.
Thus, gaṇatantra or gaṇarājya that is celebrated every year on January 26 must remind people of at least India that they need to aspire to the qualities of gaṇas, with the goal of acquiring and achieving the qualities of Ganesha. This will more than anything help people with their trials and tribulations of life and place their nation above all in the comity of nations of the world today!!
Symbols have been the earliest for way of communications throughout the world, and even today’s writings are basically symbols we put together and call them words, and attach meanings to those words in the context of human experience and observations. This is pretty similar to how we put together atoms to depict molecules, like H2O as water. There is solid understanding behind H2O being written as water in Chemistry, and unless one understands that meaning, it makes no sense to an uninitiated reader. Many of the early scripts, such as Indus script, have not been deciphered even today. Interesting, the Devanāgari script reading activates different and more comprehensive parts of the brain that for example reading Roman script, as demonstrated by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies.
To understand the symbols of Ganesha, for any other deity for that matter, is critical to understand the meaning, and more importantly imbibe the values. Thus, Ganesha is not a religious symbol to divide people, rather a universal symbol to unite people from all walks of life. A nation or the entire world empowered with such self-knowledge can only be prosperous and peaceful!
Jay Bharat Gaṇarājya!!
Happy Republic Day!!!
-Prof. Bal Ram Singh, President, Institute of Advances Sciences, Dartmouth, MA, USA and Fellow, Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study, JNU, Delhi, India