An Independent Review of Paul Courtright's book on Ganesa - Chapter 17 part 3
Go to Chapter 17 part 2
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Inventing an Incestuous Rape (Devibhagavata Purana 7.30)
Courtright narrates two tales in order to elaborate upon the erotic power of the paarijaata (Coral Tree) flower. He cites the first from supposedly related accounts in the Brahmavaivarta Purana 3.20.41–62 and the Devibhagavata Purana (DBP) 9.403–23. In this tale, Sage Durvasa presents a beautiful paarijaata flower, with the ability to make its possessor powerful and wealthy, to Indra. The Sage says that the powers of the flower are manifest only when it is placed on his head by its possessor with reverence. When the Sage arrives, Indra is busy making love with a heavenly nymph named Rambha. When the Sage leaves, Indra continues his lovemaking and throws the flower on the head of Airavata, his elephant mount. According to Courtright, Airavata immediately transforms into ‘a form of Vishnu’, abandons Indra and runs into the forest, whereas Indra is completely deprived of his power and glory. When the Durvasa learns that Indra has insulted and has defiled his holy gift to him, the sage curses Indra and he loses all his powers.
Courtright then continues his analysis:
This story also concerns the rivalry between Indra and Siva, who here takes the form of Durvasas. The powers of the sage make short work of Indra’s wealth and sexual prowess. The parijata flower is an emblem of riches and erotic power, one of the flowers from the five coral trees that arose out of the churning of the ocean at the beginning of the cosmic cycle. In another story the goddess gave this flower to Durvasas who in turn gave it to Daksa, who became so aroused by the scent of the flower that he made love to his daughter Sati ‘in the manner of a mere beast’. This shameful action drove her to burn her body, that is, commit sati, and provoked Siva to such a rage that he beheaded Daksa 7.30).
The author thus links the two stories through the supposed common motif of the paarijaata flower. However, when the relevant passages of the Devibhagavata Purana are checked, there is no mention of the paarijaata flower at all. Verse 7.30.28 of the text reads,
tatah prasannaa devesii nijakanthagataam srajam
bhramabhradamarasamsaktaam makarandamadaakulaam |
The verse merely means that pleased with the Muni, the Devi gives him the fragrant garland that is on her neck, attracting clusters of bumblebees with its fragrant juice (makaranda). Now the word “makaranda” is typically used for the juice of the jasmine flower, which is also very fragrant and attracts the bees, wasps, insects, and bumblebees that can be seen in the gardens of India. No other verse in the chapter indicates that the paarijaata flowers were in her garland, and so the artificial linkage between the two stories by Courtright is brought about by an unjustifiable insertion of ‘paarijaata’ flowers into the text by him. (For the story about Daksha’s incestuous behavior as alleged by Courtright, please read page 216. Chapter 17)
Now, the Devibhagavata Purana is a Shakta sectarian text extolling the Devi primarily, and secondarily Shiva, her consort. It narrates this entire episode in a distinctive manner. After Sage Durvasa receives the divine garland from the Devi, he reverentially places it on his head and
proceeds to meet Daksha. In Daksha’s home the Sage offers his homage and Daksha asks for the garland. Sage Durvasa, thinking that Daksha himself is a devotee of the Devi, gives the garland to him. The text then says (Devibhagavata Purana 7.30.34cd–35ab):
grhiitaa sirasaa maalaa munina nijamandire
sthaapitaa sayanam yatra dampatyoratisundaram
(Receiving the garland given by the Sage on his head, in his own chamber, Daksa then places it reverentially on the beautiful bed prepared for the couple.)
It is very important to pay attention to the word ‘dampati’ in this verse because the word normally stands for husband and wife. It seems implausible that he would have placed the garland on a bed meant for Sati and her husband Shiva, whose presence is not even mentioned so far, although verse 23 does mention her betrothal with Shiva – an incident that is clearly not contemporaneous with the yajna of Daksha. It is more likely that it was the bed meant for Daksha and his wife, Sati’s mother. There is no evidence in the text that the bed was meant to be shared by Daksha and his married daughter!
What happens then is very evil (verse 35cd),
pasukarmarato raatrau maalaagandhena moditah |
(Aroused by the fragrance of the garland, Daksa was engrossed in animal-acts during the night.)
There is no hint what these bestial acts were, but it is reasonable to conclude that Daksha engaged in sex, and perhaps other activities such as imbibing liquor. The text certainly does not say that, “he made love to his daughter Sati in the manner of a mere animal” as Courtright claims (Courtright, p.37).
But why is indulgence in sex by Daksha considered a pashukarma? First, he has defiled the divine garland given by the Devi (and remember that the Purana is a Shakta Purana, dedicated to the Devi) by allowing it to act as an aphrodisiac. Second, he is in the midst of a yajna, during which the yajmaana (sacrificer) and his wife are to remain celibate. Sex during the period of a yajna defiles the rite. And the third reason is clarified by the following verse (Devibhagavata Purana 7.30.36):
abhavatsa mahipaalastena paapena sankare
sive dveshamatirhaato devyaam satyaam tatha nrpa |
(O Great King! Owing to (or under the influence of) that sin (of sexual intercourse), Daksa spoke evil of Shiva, and he was filled with an intense enmity for Shiva as well as for his daughter Devi Sati.)
So we come to the standard narrative wherein Daksha speaks ill of Shiva and is filled with hatred for him (and here also for Sati, who is but an incarnation of the Devi).
The beginning verses of chapter 7.30 narrate how Daksha was a pious king who had pleased Devi by intense austerities in the Himalayas. When the Devi appears before him, he requested her to take birth in his family. The Devi granted Daksha his wish, and she was born in his family as Sati. The Daksha, a completely transformed man, insulted the same Devi he had worshipped in the past. He became filled with enmity for Sati, who was not only his own daughter, but also the incarnation of the Devi. Therefore Sati can no longer stay in the body that is born of her sinful father Daksha. The text continues (Devibhagavata Purana 7.30.37):
rajanastenaaparaadhena tajjanyo deha eva ca
satyaa yogaagninaa dagdhah satidharmadidrksayaa |
(O King! Because of Daksa’s crime, Sati immolated her body, that was generated from him (Daksa),with her yogic fire, so as to preserve the dignity of the eternal dharma of devotion to her
The crime of Daksha was that he had spoken ill of Shiva and that he was filled with enmity towards him and his own daughter under the influence of sin. The text then states that the shakti of Sati returned to the Himalayas (7.30.38ab), the abode of Devi where Daksha had meditated and had her darsana in the first place. The narrative continues in the standard manner—Shiva was infuriated with the death of Sati and he destroyed the yajna (7.43). Daksha was beheaded and his head was replaced with that of a goat.
So what we see here is a variant of the standard theme in which Sati commits suicide because she cannot bear the insult of her husband by her father.And since the text is a Shakta text, it adds its own details that Daksha had defiled the gift of Devi, and was filled with enmity towards her own essence in his daughter Sati. The text certainly does not say: “This shameful action [of Daksha’s incestuous rape of Sati—reviewers’ addition] drove her to burn her body”. This
‘scholarly’ version is but Courtright’s own invention. The manner in which Courtright gives sexual kink to Puranic passages reminds us of how his gurubandhu Jeffrey Kripal had interpreted the Kathamrita to make Ramakrishna Paramahamsa into a homosexual pedophile. (For more on Wendy Doniger’s mentorship and influence in Courtright’s work, please read page 219, chapter 17)
The Remover of Obstacles or the Creator of Obstacles?
Ganesha is also known as Vighneshvara that Courtright translates as, ‘the Lord of obstacles’. The name is generally understood to mean ‘remover of obstacles’ by lay Hindus. Hindu tradition itself, however, associates some ambiguity with the name. In some Hindu texts, Ganesha is actually stated to be the creator of obstacles. Courtright cites a version of the Skanda Purana (VII.1.38.1–34), according to which the heavens become crowded with people when even sinners start attaining salvation by visiting the temple of Somanatha. The gods then become alarmed and approach Shiva for a way out of this quagmire. He is unable to help them and therefore Parvati creates Ganesha out of the dirt of her body. She remarks that Ganesha will place obstacles before (sinful or undeserving) men so that they will get deluded, and will go to the hell instead of to Somanatha.
The notion that Ganesha creates obstacles without a just cause is merely meant to demonstrate his power, as well as the fact that he does not allow sinners to take short cuts to reach the heavens—this is what the above story from the Skanda Purana also demonstrates. (For more on this, please read page 220, chapter 17)
Courtright too is aware of Shiva Purana 2.4.15–18 in which Parvati declares that Ganesha shall receive the worship of all and remove all obstacles. Yet, how could a deity, whose morality Doniger has judged as ambivalent, and whose father Shiva is labeled by Courtright as a notorious womanizer, be depicted in such an exalted manner? Thus Ganesha is presented as the Lord of Obstacles, turning him into a malevolent deity. Apart from adorning the cover of Courtright’s book, this label is later used as a tool to psychoanalyze Ganesha’s supposed sexual ambivalence. Courtright would portray Ganesha as a jealous deity who inflicts severe punishments on those who dare ignore his immanent manifestations.
In the course of this discussion, Courtright compares Ganesha to St. Peter, who is the keeper of the gate to the heaven as per Biblical texts. The author is quick to point out one difference though: Ganesha is comparable to the devious St. Peter of folklore, not to the sober and austere St. Peter of the New Testament and early Christian hagiography. It becomes imperative for Courtright to differentiate between folklore and literature to present St. Peter in a positive light, but such scruples are dispensed with when it comes to using unreliable anecdotes to taint the Hindu deity Ganesha.
Referring to the story of the Skanda Purana, Courtright suggests that “the pattern of Ganesa’s ambivalent behavior at the threshold links him with the actions of demons . . . ” This is a rather poor choice of words, and an unfair demonizing of the deity. Hindus interpret the deity predominantly as an embodiment of auspiciousness, benevolence and the like.218 He is invoked at the beginning of all endeavors, religious or secular, because He is the remover of obstacles. (For more on this, please read page 221, chapter 17)
The Puranas and Conspiracy Theories
Courtright revisits the theme of the problem of the Vedic origins of Ganesha. It is true that there are not many unambiguous references to Ganesha in the ancient Vedic texts, in contrast with the exalted manner in which he is referred to in the texts of classical Hinduism, the Puranas. To explain this discrepancy, Courtright comes up with a conspiracy theory. He argues that the Puranas attempt to cover-up his demon ancestry and are uncomfortably aware of the discrepancy between the malevolent, obstacle-creating powers of Vinayaka and the positive, obstacle-removing actions of Ganesha. According to him, the Puranas seek to resolve this contradiction by various mechanisms such as “clever use of false etymologies for the name ‘Vinayaka’”.
In one case, when Siva saw, much to his surprise, that Ganesa appeared out of the mixture of his and Parvati’s sweat and bathwater, he exclaimed to her, ‘A son has been born to you without [vinà] a husband [nàyakena]; therefore this son shall be named Vinàyaka’ (Vàm P 28.71–72). This etymological sleight of hand obscures the association of Vinàyaka with “those who lead astray” which is its etymologically prior meaning, and connects it with another meaning of nàyaka as leader or husband.
The Purana has really not indulged in any subterfuge because in the second half of this very verse (28.72cd), Lord Shiva clearly says that Ganesha will create thousands of obstacles for devatas and others (esha vighnasahasraani suradiinaam karishyati). The meaning of the word vinaayaka given by the Purana is definitely possible grammatically, without any strain at all. The appropriate question pertaining to historiography is whether the meaning ‘creator of obstacles’ for ‘vinaayaka’ was in vogue or the norm at the time the Vamana Purana was compiled. If not, then we cannot accuse the author of the Purana with a proverbial sleight of hand.
It may be noted that creation of such ad-hoc etymologies, mythologies, and cosmologies is seen very frequently in Hindu texts such as the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, and the Puranas, amongst other genres. These ad-hoc etymologies serve various purposes at hand, such as providing impromptu explanations or justification for a ritual act, or thematic completion of the narrative. One need not come up with conspiracy theories, as Courtright has done, to describe this phenomenon.
Maternal Aggression of Parvati against Ganesha—Dubious Passage of Varaha Purana
The theme of maternal aggression in the myths of Ganesa is more veiled; but it is there—as we have seen in the myth where Parvati curses Ganesa to be ugly and as we shall see in the myth where she places him at the doorway to be cut down to size by Siva . . .
We are not aware of any Puranic text where Parvati curses Ganesha to be ugly. Courtright himself admits that this story is not found in any printed edition of the Varaha Purana. He, however, attributes the above text to a Christian missionary traveler to India, and to an illinformed author writing from the first half of 1800s who may have relied himself on the missionary’s work for this piece of information.
Who is older: Ganesha or Skanda?
Hindu tradition is not unanimous on who is the elder brother of the two. Courtright, however, states that Ganesha is the younger brother in a somewhat absolute manner.
The iconography is clear enough; Ganesa is a child, a baby. So he remains, never growing into the full youthful stage of his elder brother Skanda or the maturity of his father.
Later (p.123), he contradicts himself and states that in most areas, Skanda is considered the younger brother. So we see that even incorrect and inconsistent facts do not prevent Courtright from inventing psychological analyses. The point is that if a matter is not settled within the Hindu tradition itself, then why does Courtright select one version alone to retrofit his preconceived thesis?
Imaginary Blackie in the Matsya Purana
A recent review of his book makes the following additional remarks, which we reproduce below for the benefit of the reader. Further while dealing with the mythology he states, “Once in jest
Siva called Parvati ‘Blackie’ [Kali] because her skin looked black like a serpent. She was offended . . . and so went away to practice asceticism to obtain a golden skin. Viraka begged her to take him with her . . . But she told him to stay at Siva’s door . . . for Siva is a notorious womanizer. The references given to the passage quoted are Skp. 1.2.27–29; cf. Matsya P. 154.542–78. See also Kramrisch 1981, pp. 364–65; O’Flaherty 1975, pp. 252–61.
The reviewer then criticizes Courtright in the following words: The MatsyaP. does not contain the word Kali or any word similar to womanizer. The Skanda Purana has the word krsna for black complexioned one. Similarly what Parvati tells Viraka about Siva is gaurangilampato hyesah…1(2).28.8 ‘enamoured of woman of white complexion’) (as is translated by Tagore), and not ‘a notorious womanizer’ as the author says.
The Cigar Now Becomes a Phallus
The principal cause of the current controversy over Courtright’s book is his abuse of Freudian theories to impart perverse sexual meanings to the otherwise innocuous aspects of the narratives on the deity found in Hindu texts. Courtright’s defense, however, is that his detractors have
taken his quotes out of context. We find this explanation disingenuous because even outside Chapter III, where most of these sexual interpretations are found, one can find other instances where he has hinted at similar aspects. The previous sections of our review clearly demonstrate how Courtright has exaggerated and even has invented sexuality in several Puranic passages.
We have seen in our brief review of the textual analysis in the book how Courtright manages to kink the narratives of the Puranas by giving them numerous sexual twists. Completely unrelated
projectiles, missiles, electric poles, water pipes, tree trunks, elephant trunks, stone pillars, walking sticks, obelisks, spider legs and lotus stems were reduced to ‘cigars’ (to put it facetiously). Now Courtright asks us to see phalluses in all these ‘cigars’. Indeed, such a wide variety of choices that we are given makes his text very ‘insightful’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘wonderful’, ‘scholarly’, ‘objective’, ‘nuanced’, ‘sensitive’, ‘sympathetic’ etc., to use the buzz words of academic Hinduism studies. (For more on this, please read page 225, chapter 17)
One wonders how Wendy’s Children would interpret, using psychoanalysis as a façade, the episode of Parashurama beheading his mother Renuka at his father’s behest. Would they argue that it reveals a possible homosexual relationship between Sage Jamadagni233 and his son, and suggest that the beheading symbolizes the removal of the unwanted mother? Would he liken Renuka’s head to the sexual organ and equate her beheading with genital mutilation?
One may argue that Courtright is imposing Western interpretations on an Indian deity and so there is bound to be some bias. Courtright argues, however, that his methodology is ‘universal’ or ‘objective’ in the following words.
The myth of Ganesa parallels aspects of human experience beyond the restricted world of ritual initiation. It is a tale of family relations and reflects the unconscious ambivalences of early forgotten childhood experience. One need not be an ideological Freudian to see the fruitfulness of raising psychoanalytical questions about a myth that involves such a violent and complex account of father/son relations. The extent to which the myth of Ganesa explores these relations and the sensibilities that attend them, it reaches beyond its Indian context and takes on universal meaning and appeal.
We invite the reader to read our extracts from Courtright’s psychoanalysis and decide for him or herself whether there is anything worthwhile in this perverse verbal-jugglery. It appears that to give a ‘universal meaning and appeal’ to the persona of Ganesha, he started with his unflattering introduction of his protagonist Ganesha, of whom he says: “He appears tainted, trivial, perhaps even vulgar . . . In short Ganesa is too ordinary”. He wrote: “Repulsion at the form of the deity with an elephant head and suspicion that there may be more going on than meets the (Western) eye, is a good starting point for our inquiry . . . ” Ganesha’s mythology is also declared as: “an elaborate rationalization for an invented deity”. Now that really sounds universally appealing and meaningful!
Courtright Invents a ‘Limp Phallus’—Misrepresenting Vedanta and Tantra
Perhaps the most offensive statements made by Courtright relate to his description of Ganesha’s trunk as a limp phallus. Let us reproduce them here, for the information of our readers.
The elephant trunk, which perpetually hangs limp, and broken tusk are reminiscent of Siva’s own phallic character, but as these phallic analogs are either excessive or in the wrong place, they pose no threat to Siva’s power and his erotic claims on Parvati.
That the tradition or the texts never attach any sexual connotation to this legend doesn’t stop Courtright from thus trashing Ganesha. (For more on this, please read page 226, 227 and 228, chapter 17)
While we do not see any mask on Ganesha’s torso, we do get a hint of peek-a-boo pornography in Courtright’s ‘analyses’. We would let the readers decide if it is worth psychoanalyzing Courtright himself, based on his own statements in the book.
Read chapter 17 part 3 from page 215 to 228
Pdf of the book is available for free download here.
Go to Chapter 17 part 4