(A 5-minute read)
The Shanmatha traditions
Hindu religion, as we know it today, is mostly an aggregation of what used to be six independent sects called the Shanmatha, which included the worship of the Sun (Saura), Vishnu (Vaishnava), Shiva (Shaiva), Kumara or Skanda-Karthikeya (Kaumara), Devi (Shakta) and of course, Ganapati (Ganapatya).
The Missing Deity of the epic
The third and the fourth parvans of the Mahabharata namely the Vana parvan and the Virata parvan refer to the worship of many of these deities. But there is one deity, whose worship references are conspicuously absent in the epic. Which deity is that?
Let’s first start with the deities that the epic knew.
Vishnu: As everyone knows, Krishna, considered an avatar of Vishnu, plays an overarching role in the epic. The Bhagawad Gita clearly presents Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, as the supreme god.
That is not to say the other equally large Shaivite tradition does not find representation in the text.
Shiva: References to Shiva can be found in the Vana parvan where Arjuna performs a penance to please Shiva and obtains divine weapons such as the Pashupathastra from him. Of course, who else, but the destroyer God, to grant Arjuna weapons of mass destruction!
Shakti: While Shakti, as Parvati, does make a cameo appearance in the Pashupatastra episode of the Vana parvan, she finds greater representation in the Virata parvan. Just before the Pandavas enter the kingdom of Virata to complete the last year of their exile incognito, they pray to Durga, the goddess of war. The Pandavas, led by Yudhishtra, sings praises of goddess Durga seeking success in their mission. She appears before them and blesses them with successful completion of the incognito year without being recognised by the Kauravas and eventual victory over them in the war.
Surya: While in exile in the forest, Yudhishtra is faced with the responsibility of not just feeding his brothers and their wife, Draupadi, but with also ensuring that all the Rishis and Brahmins who have followed him into the forest are fed. So, he performs several austerities to the Sun god, Surya, who blesses him with the Akshaya patra, the vessel that ensured unending supply of food for the Pandavas and their retinue through their stint in the forest. Yudhishtra knew very well, which God to please, when it came to asking for bountiful food!
Karthikeya: The story of the birth of Skanda, the son of Shiva, his childhood exploits and his slaying of Tarakasura are narrated by sage Markandeya in detail in the Vana parvan. Stories about the exploits of Karthikeya, the war God, may have inspired the Pandavas to prepare themselves for the impending war.
Thus, we find that the epic, through its period of evolution, accommodated several existing and emerging religious sects in the form of stories about their chief deities. All deities of the Shanmatha, except one!
So, which deity is absent from the epic’s narrative?
It is Ganesha!
Why are there no stories about his worship in the epic?
One reason may be that for a long time, Ganapati worship was concentrated in the Western parts of India where he was considered a farmer’s god. Ganapati worship became more mainstream and widespread only around the 5-6th century CE by when it started to emerge as a large and independent sect. Interestingly, by this time, the Mahabharata, as a text, had more or less completed its period of evolution and had reached its final written form. That can explain why stories of Ganesha did not find themselves into the epic.
However, as the worship of Ganesha became popular over time, his devotees could not be disappointed. So, the story about how Vyasa requested Ganesha to be his scribe while composing his magnum opus, was inserted as a frame story in a later-period manuscript, written in Devanagari and belonging to India’s North-Central region.
Who knows? The clever interpolator who inserted the story, may have been a Ganpati devotee himself. But as an elephant-headed God of wisdom, he could not have found a better scribe to pen down Vyasa’s magnum opus!
Om Ganeshaya Namaha!
For more on the Vyasa and Ganesha story, watch this 2-minute video!