Yuvraj Krishan on whether Siva-Ganesa fight is Oedipal conflict - chapter 14
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The purãnic legend of the combat between Siva and Ganesa, resulting in the decapitation of Ganesa’s head and its replacement by the head of an elephant, has been interpreted by Freudian scholars in terms of the Oedipus complex and the castration complex. In this legend Ganesa bars the entry of his father Siva into the chamber of his spouse, Pãrvati, and this leads to a conflict between the father and the son. It is this conflict, which is deemed to represent the hostility of the son towards the father and the libidinal or sexual impulse of the son towards the mother: attraction towards the parent of the opposite sex and antagonism towards the parent of the same sex. Beheading is considered a regular symbol for castration, both in dreams and fantasies: the elephant head (of Ganesa) “is a relic of the conflict in the ritual system between father and son and of the marriage of the son to the mother”.
Another episode in the mythology of Ganesa, in which he loses one of his tusks, is also interpreted as castration.
Goldman elaborates: “The legend of Ganesa . . . is a much clearer example of a story representing the primal oedipal triangle of son, father and mother and the son’s attempts to possess the mother to the exclusion of the father, an attempt that leads to violent conflict and the final symbolic castration of the son”. (For more on the re-interpretation of the Oedipal complex by western scholars in the Indian context, please read page 146 and 147, chapter 14)
At the outset, it is essential to know the significant differences in the legends of Ganesa and Oedipus.
In the legend of Ganesa’s conflict with Siva, the father (Siva) is not killed as in the legend of Oedipus; on the other hand, it is the son (Ganesa) who is beheaded, killed, and later revived with an animal’s head. It is the father who eliminated the son. Thus, there is a reversal of the direction of aggression or desire, from that in the Oedipus legend, from son to father.
As regards to the loss of one tusk, Ganesa loses his tusk in a combat not with his father Siva but with Parasurãma or Balarãma. In some of the paurãnic legends, Ganesa is born ab-initio with an elephant form but with only one tusk. This will be dealt with in greater detail while discussing the paurãnic legends.
We shall first deal with the question whether the concept of oedipal conflict is a valid psychological truth and whether it can be applied to the Siva–Ganesa conflict.
While Freud believed that the oedipal situation is universal, “Most anthropologists now question its universality, since there are many cultures in which it does not appear.” In fact Horney claims that, “it was neither normal nor universal” and that it is “symptomatic of a neurotic behaviour on the part of the parents.” (For more, please read page 148, chapter 14)
In fact, some eminent psychologists have disputed the validity of the Oedipus complex as adumbrated by Freud. Erich Fromm in an analysis of Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex has explained that the attachment of a man to his mother is not sexual in its nature, that it is a longing for a situation in which the child is protected and has no responsibility to bear—it is a paradisiacal existence for the child under the mother’s protective custody. He emphasizes that sexuality is fickle and is not characterized by great stability. According to Fromm, Freud’s assumption that the child-mother relationship is sexual was his ‘great error’ and is ‘nothing short of absurd’. He further explains the hostile relationship between the father and son as a feature only of a patriarchal society. He goes on to point out that Sophocles had expressed his philosophy or ideas in a trilogy—Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone which together gives the whole Oedipus myth. Fromm points out: “If we look at the trilogy as a whole we discover that Sophocles is speaking of the conflict between the patriarchal and the earlier matriarchal world”. In other words, Freud built his concept of Oedipus complex on a fragmentary study of Sophocles limited to Oedipus Rex.
Again some Indian psychologists have doubted the relevance of the oedipal conflict in Indian social ethics. As regards the suggestion that the Siva-Ganesa conflict represents more precisely negative oedipal complex because of its variations from the classical concept, positive oedipal complex, it is pointed out that according to modern psychology, in negative oedipal complex, or the Reversed Oedipus complex also known as the Inverted Oedipus complex, the son desires the father and regards the mother as a rival; it is not aware of a new category of libidinal situation in which there is a reversal of the flow of aggression: the father suppresses or eliminates the son and the mother desiring the son.
Further, the Oedipus complex is not a bilateral phenomenon; it is unilateral—the sexual instinct of son or daughter towards the parent of the opposite sex. It is only a stage in the development of infantile sexuality and not a feature of adult sexuality. It sets in at the phallic stage of psycho-sexual development of a child between the ages of three and six so that parents do not suffer from the complex.
Again the substitution of the elephant’s head over the decapitated trunk in the case of Ganesa is not the substitution, symbolic or actual, of the genitalia lost through the attack of a father figure—Ganesa’s genitals were not involved in the conflict with Siva. To identify the elephant’s trunk as a genital, as a phallic nose, a displaced phallus is erroneous. Elephant’s trunk is his proboscis, a sensory organ of the oral region, the nose and not the organ of reproduction.
An analysis of the paurãnic legends as to how Ganesa comes to acquire an elephant’s head shows that the oedipal conflict explanation is based on tenuous evidence. (For more on this, please read page 149 and 150, chapter 14)
It would be evident that there is no unanimity among the purãnas as to how Ganesa came to acquire an elephant’s head. Only in the three purãnas, Siva, Skanda, and Mahãbhãgavata is
there a combat between Ganesa and his father Siva in which Ganesa is beheaded and given an elephant’s head in replacement.
There is thus overwhelming evidence that the legend of combat between Siva and Ganesa leading to the decapitation of the latter’s head and its replacement by an elephant’s head is not a representative paurãnic legend.
Consequently, the explanation of the combat in terms of the oedipal conflict is of severely limited value. More importantly, as has been explained earlier, the Siva–Ganesa combat is radically different from the classic oedipal conflict and it is nothing but semantic jugglery to characterize it as an Indian Oedipus conflict.
The Freudian oedipal situation is said to be enacted in the loss of one of the tusks of Ganesa described as ‘displaced castration’ by modern psychologists. But the paurãnic legends regarding the loss of one tusk do not support the proposition that the loss was due to an oedipal conflict. Firstly, in the legends, Ganesa does not lose his tusk in a combat with Siva. Secondly, the tusk is lost in an entirely different cycle of legends—the combat between Parasurãma and Ganesa when the former tried to enter Siva’s (and not Ganesa’s mother’s) apartment and Ganesa barred his entry (Brahmavaivarta Purãna 3.43), or in the combat between Ganesa and Balarãma (Padma Purãna, Uttarakhanda 277.25.35), or in the combat between Mahotkata and Ganesa in Krtayuga (first time cycle) and the demon Devãntaka when the latter tried to pull out the tusks of Mahotkata after he had assumed the form of an elephant-headed being (Ganesa Purana 2.70.2).
None of the legends ascribe the loss of the tusk to an oedipal conflict between the father (Siva) and the son (Ganesa).
Read entire chapter 14 from page 146 to 151
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