Ganesha is an image of the supreme Self as deity; and, he is an image of enlightenment as the divine child.
In the painting above, we see the Ganesha Panchayatana. The Pañcāyatana pūja is a form of worship introduced by Adi Shankara, in the 8th century. In the center of the image, we find Ganesha surrounded by four deities: Shiva, Devi (Parvati), Vishnu and Surya. Adi Shankara, philosopher and theologian, understood that all deities are images or forms of the supreme Self (known as Brahman). In this painting, Ganesha is the central image and thus an image of the supreme Self.
In Panchayatana worship, any deity can be at the center, all being equal images of the supreme Self. With Ganesha in the center of the Panchayatana, the worship takes on a specific archetypal significance. Being the divine child of the god Shiva and the goddess Parvati, Ganesha is not only an image of the deity as supreme Self, but is also an image the divine child as spiritual wholeness and the potential for enlightenment.
As divine child, Ganesha represents the integration of opposites. He is part the spirit of this father Shiva and part the earth or body of his mother (Parvati). In the Shiva Purana, it is said that Parvati made Ganesha as “an idol from the dirt of her body.” Ganesha’s body is a representation the earthly element of the Goddess Parvati. Ganesha’s soul (atman) is an image of the supreme Self, as the shared identity with Shiva. Ganesha’s elephant head is an image of wholeness as Self-realization. His head symbolizes the Atman (the True Self or immortal soul), which is the source of wisdom .
Ganesha is an image of the unification of cosmic forces: god and goddess, eternal and temporal, infinite and finite, Self and form. As image of the divine child, Ganesha represents the potential for Self-realization through the unity of opposites within ourselves.
Carl Jung theorized that the child archetype symbolizes “the pre-conscious and the post-conscious essence of man” . Ganesha, as child archetype and as image of wholeness, expresses the unity of opposites as the pre-conscious and post-conscious aspect of being. Jung says:
“His pre-conscious essence is the unconscious state of earliest childhood; his post-conscious essence is an anticipation by analogy of life after death ” (ibid).
From a Vedic perspective, the potential of enlightenment is there with us in every moment, as essence or knowledge. The potential is not only pre-conscious and post-conscious, but there in each moment as the unmodified state of awareness .
Mixing Jung and Vedanta, we might say that Ganesha represents wholeness as the unification of not only spirit and body, but also the unmodified and modified states of awareness. This state of wholeness is not something that the consciousness can grasp. In part, because it is by nature an experience beyond the grasp of consciousness. Jung has is own way of talking about this, for the most part focusing on the relation between the conscious and unconscious. For example he says:
“Wholeness is never comprised within the compass of the conscious mind-it includes the indefinite and indefinable extent of the unconscious as well. Wholeness, empirically speaking, is therefore of immeasurable extent, older and younger than consciousness and enfolding it in time and space.”
From Jung’s perspective, wholeness is the unification of the conscious and the unconscious. From this perspective, spiritual wholeness is not solely comprised of the conscious, modified mind. Nor is it comprised solely of the the unmodified, indefinite and indeterminate. Spiritual wholeness, as enlightenment, is inclusive of both the modified and the unmodified, the conscious and the unconscious. Ganesha, as image of enlightenment, realizes this perspective in both image and myth.
- Hinduism by James B. Robinson, p. 126
- Shankara commentary on the Isa Upanishad
- The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1)
- The Shiva Purana, Internet Archives Creative Commons