The Ganapathya Sect

Ganesha or Ganapathi

Ancient historic images of Lord Ganesha

by Jayaram V

Ganapathi is one of the most popular gods of Hinduism. He is worshipped by almost everyone who follows or practices the traditional forms of Hindu worship. Almost all Hindu religious ceremonies and sacrifices begin with an invocation or offering to Ganesha. There are a few festivals in Hinduism where people congregate in public places to declare their love and devotion. Ganesh Chathurthi or Vinayaka Chaviti is one of them. In main stream Hinduism, Ganesha is worshipped as the first among the gods, or the leader of the Shiva ganas. He is also worshipped in conjunction with Lakshmi as Lakshmi Ganapathi. Historically, it appears that as early as the days of the Mahabharatha he was perceived as the lord of obstacles and destructive power and ritually worshipped for protection against evil influences.

The Ganapathi Khanda of of Brahma Vaivartha Purana mentions the first worship (agra-puja) of Ganesha by Vishnu, Radha and othe deities offering prayers and hymns extolling him as Para Brahman and Paramesvara. The Ganesha Purana refers to a confrontation between Ganesha and Indra during a sacrifice performed by Parvathi in honor of Indra, in which the latter was defeated, ridiculed, and forced to acknowledge the superiority of Ganesha seeking his refuge. Such stories allude to the early struggles, and the process of integration by which the deities of Shaivism became part of Hindu and Vedic pantheon.

Ganesha has numerous forms and goes by hundreds of names. In the state of Maharashtra (India), where he is the most popular, he is worshipped in eight forms, which are known as Ashatavinayakas. The state is also home to the eight sacred Vinayaka temples, which are popular pilgrim centers, where each of the deities is worshipped. The following verse from the Sarada-tilaka reflects the esteem in which Ganesha is held by his devotees.

Vedantha geetham pusham bhaje'ham atmanaam aanandaghanam hrdistham, Gajananam yam-mahasaa janaanam mahaandhakaaro vilayam prayaathi.

"I pray to the elephant faced God who is extolled in the Upanishads as the Purusha, the Self of abundant bliss established in the heart, and by worshipping whom the great darkness that envelops the people goes away. It is possible that the growing popularity of Shaivism, Tantrism and Shaktism contributed to the origin of Ganapathya sect."

While, people are familiar with Ganesha and his methods of worship, not many know the sect which at one time was totally dedicated to his worship. The sect was known as the Ganapathya sect, whose followers worshipped Ganesha as the highest supreme Brahman or an incarnation of Shiva, and the rest of the gods as his manifestations. The origins of the sect are not clearly known. As stated by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya in his book A Social History of Early India, the Ganapathya the sect seemed to have surfaced after the 6th Century AD since the tradition of worshipping Vinayaka as the lord of obstacles gained momentum during this period.

However, Ganesha himself seems to be an ancient deity worshipped in prehistoric times. The Mahabharatha mentions followers of Ganesha known as Ganeshvaras and Vinayakas who worshipped Ganesha and wore specific marks. It appears that during this periond the Vinayakas were associated with destructive influence. For example, the Manava Grihya Sutras mentions the number of Vinayakas as four and describes their "obstructive activities." It also prescribes an elaborate ceremony to free people afflicted by their destructive influences. The Yajnavalkya Smriti hints at the assimilative process by which Vinayaka was elevated into the Hindu pantheon by Rudra-Siva as the leader of the gods and how the god became associated with obstructive power.

According to John Nicol Farquhar, the Ganapathya sect was active during the 12th Century AD but faded away by the end of it. Its ususal sectarian mantra was Sri Ganeshayaa Namaha and the followers wore the sect mark of red tilak on their foreheads. Its principal texts were Ganesha Purana and the Ganapathi Upanishad. The sect believed that realization of Ganesha as supreme Brahman could be known through contemplation while his grace could be secured through rituals and worship. A journal article printed in the Journal of Nepalese Literature, Art, and Culture states that the followers of Ganapathya sect worshipped Ganapathya Lingam which was considered second only to Swayambhu lingam and was never directly looked at by the worshippers.

References to the sect are also found in other ancient texts. Followers of the sect worshipped Ganesha in five forms, each associated with a specific shakti or goddess principle. They were Ucchishta Ganapathi, Maha Ganapathi, Urdhva Ganapathi, Pingala Ganapathi, and Lakshmi Ganapathi.

The Shakara Digvijaya, by the noted scholar Anandagiri (or Anantanandagir), and the commentary on the work of Madhava by Dhanapathi mention six branches of the Ganapathya sect. Although they regarded Ganesha as the highest supreme Brahman, each of them worshipped a different form of Ganesha and followed different methods of worship as stated below.

1. Maha Ganapathi: This group worships Ganapathi as red in color with ten arms with a Shakti or goddess by his side, extolling him as the highest Supreme Self and creator of all gods.

2. Haridra Ganapathi: This group worships Ganapthi as yellow in color, having four arms and a third eye, extolling him as the leader of all gods. Worshippers also bear a mark of Ganpathi's elephant face with one tusk on their forearms.

3. Ucchistha Ganapathi: This group worships Ganapathi as blue in color, having four or six arims, with a shakti by his side, and holding a fruit, lotuses, musical instrument and rosary in each of his arms. They wear a red mark on their foreheads and worship Ganapathi with the five elements (pancha tattva) according to the left hand practice (vamachara). They also disregard caste rules and admit members of all castes into their group.

Not much is known about the other three groups, who worshipped Navanitha Ganapathi, Svarna Ganapathi and Santana Ganapathi. Probably they worshipped Ganapathi according to the Vedic tradition, regarding him as the highest god, and the other gods as his aspects or manifestations. These sects disappeared during the medieval period or even before the birth of Adi Shankaracharya, but the images of Ganpathi in his various forms, his methods of worship, and his popularity remained intact in various parts of the Indian subcontinent until the present times.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Outlines of Hinduism by T.M.P Mahadevan

2. An Outline of the Religious Literature of India by John Nicol Farquhar.

3. A Social History of Early India by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya

4. Journal of Nepalese Literature, Art, and Culture, Volume 4, 2001.

5. Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems (Routledge Revivals) by R G Bhandarkar

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