From all of the deities of the Hindu pantheon, Ganesha is for me the most mysterious one. Only after my trip to India, I realized how religiously he is worshiped on every corner, by the millions. The roots of Ganesha worship are ancient and obscure. According to Wikipedia, “Ganesha” is a Sanskrit compound. Gana means “group/multitude” and isha “lord/master.”
In short, Ganesha would be the “lord of everything”. But this strange name does not tell us much about his origin and purpose. However, I might have some rather different, original ideas…
Ganesha the Sun god
The Turkish word for Sun is “Güneş” (read Gunesh). Gunesh is also a Turkic personal name. The Sun in Turkish? Could there be any connection with Ganesh? And how could such a connection be possible? The first thing that came to my mind is the typical representation of Ganesha in Indian art.
Ganesha’s birth – spring equinox
Intrigued by the discovery, I went back to Ganesha mythology. This time I read it as a Sun-myth. Indeed, a common representation shows the young Ganesha in the lap of his mother, goddess Parvati. The iconography is very similar to that of Mary and young Jesus, or Isis and young Horus.
In all these cases, the symbolism is clearly astronomical. The mother goddess represents the constellation Virgo, and the young god is the Sun of the spring equinox. On Indian imagery, we also see a lion – a constellation that comes before Virgo. Phrygian goddess Cybele has similar iconography. She sits on a throne of lions, or sometimes lions pull her chariots. She does not have a child in her lap, but she was the mother goddess of Rome just before the introduction of Christianity.
During the spring equinox of the last two millennia BC, Virgo traveled across the night sky, starting from the east on sunset. It set on the west, just before the sunrise – symbolically giving birth to Sun. In the myth, Parvati made Ganesha by rubbing golden turmeric (or sandalwood) of her body. This is an obvious allusion to Virgo and the rays of the Sun. Also, the fact that she created Ganesha herself, without Shiva’s help, implies that Parvati was a virgin. And as for Ganesha’s connection to the Sun, the ancient texts call him “golden boy“
Ganesha’s broken tusk – the Moon
Ganesha had one broken tusk. There are a few different myths that explain this. According to one version, he got angry with the Moon, broke his tusk, and threw it at it. But regardless of the version, I believe that the broken tusk represents the (new) Moon. In this way, Ganesha can also dominate the night sky, not only the realm of day. During the spring equinox, the day and night are of equal length. And just like with Easter, the new Moon is a crucial element for determining the right time for the festivities.
The goddess Parvati wanted to take a bath. She asked the bull-headed Nandi to guard her doors. At first, he agreed, but he retreated in front of Shiva, his master, and Parvati’s husband. Angry Parvati created Ganesha – a being that will obey only her wishes. The next time she took a bath, Shiva came again. This time he met Ganesha who refused to let him pass. Shiva was offended and in his anger he decapitated Ganesha.
Seeing Parvati’s anger, Shiva admitted his mistake and decided to bring him back to life. For this, he needed the new head. He took it off the first dead animal he saw. This is how Ganesha ended up with his elephant head.
Hydra – the elephant constellation?
Now, the half human-half animal form is a clear allusion to the zodiac, where most of the signs are human-animal hybrids. However, there is no elephant constellation that we know of. For a long time, this was for me one of the most enigmatic clues. But this changed recently.
The myth of Indra is much older than that of Ganesha. And Indra’s mount is a multi-headed elephant Airavata. Vedas call him “the sky elephant” and the “brother of the Sun”. But curiously, in Mahabharata, he is “the great serpent“.
The multi-headed serpent is a clear association to Hydra of the Greek myth. Hercules kills her by decapitating each of her heads. He then burns them with a torch – Sun. Hydra is also a constellation, and in the last two millennia BC, it marked the summer solstice.
Indeed, the constellation Hydra looks like a giant snake. But it can also look like the trunk of an elephant.
Shiva – Orion
Shiva is another important character of the Ganesha myth. I will not waste space on explaining his astronomical symbolism in detail, as I already did that in other articles. But let us just say that he represents Orion. His faithful bull (or bull-men) Nandi is Taurus.
Summer solstice – bathing and decapitations
So far we have determined that the Ganesha myth is an astronomical allegory. His birth was in spring equinox, on the background of the Virgo constellation (goddess Parvati). The next important event is the summer solstice. And it just so happens that the summer solstice was in the Hydra constellation. (Actually, it was in Cancer, but as this constellation is too small, most of the Indo-European myths focus on the neighboring Hydra)
The summer solstice was an important date for many ancient cultures. For Slavs, the name of the festival was Kupala. The word comes from the verb *kupati – to take a bath. After Christianization, the festival name changed to that of John the Baptist. This was due to the similarity of Slavic rites with those of baptism in the Iordan river. But we must not forget that John the Baptist was also decapitated in the end.
Ganesha myth – connecting the dots
Now that we are familiar with the key concepts, it is not difficult to reconstruct this myth as an astronomical allegory. On the night before the summer solstice, the ancients would observe the eastern horizon. They would see the constellation Aquarius – Parvati taking a bath. To the left, there would be Orion and Taurus – Shiva and Nandi. And finally, the Sun would rise on the background of Cancer and Hydra – representing Ganesha.
Ganesh Chaturthi – Ganesha’s festival
Ganesh Chaturthi is one of the most important Hindu festivals. It lasts 10 days, between August and September. On the last day, a Ganesh figure is submerged in water. He returns to his parents, Parvati and Shiva, residing on Mount Kailash.
The autumn equinox falls between August and September. The Sun enters the “dark half” of the year and the days become shorter. This is also a point where it crosses on the other side of the Milky Way, hence the idea of submerging Ganesha in the “river”.
Another meaning of Ganesha’s elephant head
In Kundalini Yoga, Ganesha is the ruler of the first chakra, Muladhara, through which the snake-like Kundalini energy flows. As Wikipedia states:
He supports all other chakras, “governing the forces that propel the wheel of life”…
Therefore we see that Ganesha is more of a force, life energy. In celestial terms, he is best represented by the Sun, although he is not the Sun itself. The Sun is his head and the Moon is his broken tusk.
But the analogies go even further. In the human realm, Ganesha’s seat is in the Muladhara chakra, located beneath the sacrum. And this sacrum looks eerily similar to the elephant head. But I will stop elaborating on the mysticism here as it would take us in another direction.
On Turkic roots of Ganesha
Now that we have seen that the name of Ganesh and the Turkish word for Sun could be more than just two similarly sounding words, we should try to determine if such a connection has some historical background. And I believe that it has. The Turkish language belongs to the Oghuz languages spoken from Turkey to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Obviously, the word “Sun” is one of the oldest in any language, and it is not surprising that all Oghuz languages share it.
The area of influence of Oghuz languages today looks like this:
Göktürks were one of the first tribes in recorded history to use the Oghuz language. In the 6th century AD, their area of influence was much closer to Northern India. It included large parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan:
Göktürks in 570 AD, Wikipedia Commons
When I first saw the etymology of Ganesha’s name in Sanskrit, I found it unusual for one reason. If he was a local deity, why don’t the Sanskrit Vedas mention him? The title “Leader of the group” (Sanskrit: gaṇapati) occurs twice in the Rig Veda, but in neither case, it clearly refers to Ganesha.
In fact, it seems that the first records of Ganesha worship go back to 5th century Afganistan. Scholars are surprised how quickly he became popular in India, as there are no traces of similar gods before this period. According to Wikipedia, some of the Indian scholars even believe that his roots exist “outside of Brahnmanic and Sanskritic traditions, and perhaps even out of India.” In short, it seems that the connection between Turkish Gunesh and Indian Ganesh could be highly plausible after all.
The Danava connection
We saw that the Turkic connection has a historical justification. But do we have some proves for it in ancient India? Yes, we do, for example in the race of Danavas. Virtually all ancient texts of India mention them, from Vedas to Mahabharata. They also call them Turanians and Danavo-Tura. Apparently, this was an ancient label for Turkic people, a fact already noted by numerous scholars.
Danavas were offspring of the goddess Danu, goddess of rivers and water. And among her many children is also the elephant Airavata.
Therefore, I find it quite plausible that it was the Turkic people who brought the Ganesha myth to India, somewhere around the first half of the first millennia BC. But even more surprisingly, moving along the rivers Don, Dnieper, and Danube – all named after the river goddess Danu, they could have brought this idea to Europe too. Here, it first influenced the pagan religions, but later, these ideas even entered Christianity.