An Independent Review of Paul Courtright's book on Ganesa - Chapter 17 part 4
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Courtright’s ‘Limp Phallus’ not attested in texts of Ganapatya Sect
Anyway, his fiction of limp trunks and phalluses is not exactly supported by the Hindu texts. For instance, the Ganesha Purana (Upasana Khanda 12.38) states that the trunk of Ganesha is so strong that it is more powerful than that of Airavata and other elephants who are guardians of the eight quarters of the Universe. Courtright thus misses a good opportunity to discuss ‘Penis-Envy’. The Tantric texts, which Courtright ignores, distinguish clearly between the trunk and his phallus, and the latter does perform its intended functions according to these texts. In short, data from the texts ignored by Courtright completely negates his own fantasy about Ganesha’s trunk.
Numerous depictions of the deity actually show him with a raised or an erect trunk. Courtright has ignored the diversity of the Hindu tradition with regard to the deity and has chosen only those aspects that fit his predetermined thesis.
Courtright should have considered the fact that in Indian culture, the lifted trunk of an elephant represents a salute by the animal. The deity is not really supposed to salute us, which is why He may have a lowered trunk in most of His iconic representations so as to symbolize His benevolence and omnipotence.
Ekadantin of Hindu Tradition—Courtright Castrates Ganesha Thrice
Now we have another curious fact regarding Lord Ganesha. One of the tusks of the deity is broken, or missing. How does Courtright unravel this mystery? As expected, under the subject ‘The Tusk’ in his book, all kinds of disjointed, unrelated, disparate Puranic narratives are brought together in an artificial manner by Courtright to lay the ground for discussions on beheading, decapitation, amorous play and all such sexual, Freudian materials in Chapter III. Ignored of course are the mystical and spiritual interpretations of his single tusk in Hindu tradition (e.g., Mudgala Purana 2.52.13–14) wherein the tusk is related to maayaa.
It is definitely worth investigating what meaning Hindu tradition itself accords to the broken tusk of the deity. To determine the traditional meanings of the broken tusk, we explored a wide range of Hindu texts, from Kaavyas to the Puranas, and found the following explanations. In a major Purana text, Lord Vishnu explains the word ekadanta as follows: The word eka means ‘supreme’ or pradhana, and the word danta denotes strength. “To Him (Ganesha) who is supremely powerful/strong, I (Lord Vishnu) offer homage”.
Far from being a castrated phallus, the broken tusk of Ganesha is a potent weapon. The Ganesha Purana, Kridakhanda (chapters 62–70) describes a battle waged between Devàntaka and Ganesha, the latter assisted by his spouses. Devàntaka uproots the tusk of Ganesha, but the deity uses this very broken tusk to penetrate the demon’s chest and thus kills him. (For more on this please read page 230, chapter 17)
Courtright considers Ganesha’s beheading as a castration, his trunk as a symbol of a limp phallus and now his broken tusk as another castration. It is therefore legitimate to ask if one person can
be castrated and emasculated thrice! And from a psychoanalytical perspective, one may wonder who it is that has actually demonstrated a Penis Envy in this entire episode!
Indian Males in relation to Ganesha’s Sexuality, Celibacy and Incest:
Courtright summarizes his Freudian interpretations on Ganesha in the following manner:
Iconographically Ganesa’s body is that of a plump infant. Although at least one Puranic source has an account of his marriage, Ganesa is generally represented as celibate, a celibacy suggested visually and perhaps caricatured by his exaggerated but perpetually flaccid trunk. Finally, his insatiable appetite for sweetmeats [modaka]—a source of many amusing tales—raises the question (from a psychoanalytical perspective) of whether this tendency toward oral erotic gratification may not serve as compensation for his arrested development at not reaching the phallic stage as well as the severing of the maternal bond he underwent at the beheading hand of his father. Gananath Obeyesekere interprets Ganesa’s celibacy, like his broken tusk, as the punishment he receives for incestuous fixation on his mother.
This generalization of Ganesha is preceded by something even more sinister. Indians as a whole are force-fit into a stereotypical category by Courtright, and then this stereotype is subjected to a demeaning Freudian analysis. Courtright is not alone in treating the stereotyped Indian male as a subject of Psychoanalyses. In fact, he draws upon the works of Sudhir Kakar and the like repeatedly in this chapter.
Ganesa’s celibacy links him both to his father and his mother, but for opposite reasons. He remains celibate so as not to compete erotically with his father, a notorious womanizer, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter.
There is nothing in the tradition to defend this portrayal of Ganesha as an incestuous son. So, anecdotes that none can verify, are used to bolster the case.
Once Parvati asked Ganesa whom he would like to marry; he replied, ‘Someone exactly like you, Mummy.’ And Mummy got outraged by such an openly incestuous wish and cursed him with
Courtright quotes A.K. Ramanujan, who doesn’t name his source. In any event, Ramanujan’s version is very different from those that other South Indians are aware of. In that version, when Ganesha tells Parvati that he would want a bride just like her, she laughs at him, and jokingly tells him that he may never get married in that case, implying that there is none comparable to Shakti. It seems that Ramanujan has added his own spin to this tale in his amateurish attempt at psychoanalysis. The fact is that in a vast country such as India, with more than a billion people (or 700 million people in 1980s when Courtright wrote his book), there are literally thousands of tales and stories about different deities floating around orally amongst the Hindu masses. Should one bring together these stories with passages of older texts and then construct a psychoanalytical theory on them? Is this methodology sound?
Even though in this unverifiable tale, the child Ganesha alone is pronounced guilty of harboring incestuous thoughts, Courtright is quite eager to indict Parvati too on this count. He has no hesitation in invoking a tale that, by his own admission, does not find any mention in published editions of the Varaha Purana, but is only to be found in the writings of Abbe Dubois, the missionary that never concealed his hatred for Hinduism. In this invented and disparagingly
presented tale, the beauty of the newborn Ganesha fascinates all women and this triggers a supposedly incestuous jealousy in Parvati, who curses his beauties to vanish.
It is very common in India for sons when asked, what kind of girl they want to marry, to say that they would marry someone like their own mother. The Indian ethos emphasizes sacrifice, and the mother is often the embodiment of sacrifice.
Having unfairly declared Ganesha an incestuous son, Courtright proceeds to present even the most innocent events of Ganesha’s life as sordid tales of incest. In a Sri Lankan legend, Ganesha competes with his brother Skanda for a mango. While the latter circumambulates the world, Ganesha simply circumambulates his parents and wins the mango. Courtright quoting Obeyesekere concludes that the mango is a symbol for the vagina, and hence this episode of Ganesha eating the fruit symbolizes his incestuous possession his mother. (For more on this please read page 232 and 233, chapter 17)
In the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, the breasts of a woman are likened to bunches of grapes. Should we, following Courtright-Obeyesekere ‘methodology’, see hidden meanings every time a Christian or a Jew offers wine?
There is a Maharashtrian folk tale that narrates the intrigues between a Mahar soldier and a woman of the palace under Peshwa rule. The illicit liaison is exposed and the soldier, whose name is Ganapati, is punished by death. His spirit, according to the folklore, haunted the king. To propitiate it, he installed the effigy of the slain soldier at the gate of the palace in the form of the deity Ganapati and required everyone to pay obeisance to it. There is nothing in this story to compare with the legend of the deity Ganesha, except the name and the fact that the Mahar’s effigy was installed in the form of the deity, but Courtright sees striking parallels in this tale with the supposed incest of Ganesha with his mother. Such meaningless parallels promote
neither an understanding of the deity, nor do they promote knowledge. Instead they offer an insight into Courtright’s perverse mind.
Ganesha as a Eunuch
Several sacred stories pertaining to Ganesha describe him as a doorkeeper or guard outside his mother Parvati’s inner chambers. Courtright sees in this a parallel to an old Indian practice of posting eunuchs as guards of the doors to harems. He then quotes an Indologist to the effect that
these eunuchs had a reputation of being homosexuals, with a penchant for oral sex, and that they were frowned upon as the very dregs of society, implicitly ascribing the same qualities to the charming Ganesha and reducing his symbolism to ‘an explicit denial of adult male sexuality’. (For more on this please read page 233 and 234, chapter 17)
Courtright then quotes Edmund Leach, an anthropologist, in support of his own interpretations:
This combination of child-ascetic-eunuch in the symbolism of Ganesa—each an explicit denial of adult male sexuality—appears to embody a primal Indian male longing: to remain close to the mother and to do so in a way What will both protect her and yet be acceptable to the father. This means that the son must retain access to the mother but not attempt to possess her sexually. As a child, a renouncer, or a eunuch, he can legitimately maintain that precious but precarious intimacy with his mother because, although he is male, he is more like her then he is like his father. This may explain why Ganesa takes on these qualities through his own choice or why he willingly accepts them as mutilations from others—even from Parvati herself—so long as they will guarantee his continued proximity with her.
The Modaka as a (Sexual) ‘Toy’
Hindus fondly depict Lord Ganesha as devouring a sweetmeat called modaka. Courtright applies the ‘oral’ and ‘anal’ paradigms of Freudian ideology to interpret this in a sexualized manner:
The perpetual son desiring to remain close to his mother and having an insatiable appetite for sweets evokes associations of oral eroticism. Denied the possibility of reaching the stage of full
genital masculine power by the omnipotent force of the father, the son seeks gratification in some acceptable way. As long as he remains stuffed full he is content and benign, like a satisfied infant at its mother’s breast. If Ganesa should go hungry because of the devotee’s failure to feed and worship him first before all other gods, then his primordial hostility is aroused, to the detriment of all. Feeding Ganesa copious quantities of modakas, satisfying his oral/erotic desires, also keeps him from becoming genitally erotic like his father . . . Ganesa’s impatience for food suggests an anxiety, a hunger that is never completely fed no matter how many modakas he consumes. He is the child forever longing for the mother’s breast—that fountain of life-giving elixir he once enjoyed without distress in infancy but is now denied because of the father’s intrusion . . . Ganesa’s story is, in part, the story of maternal attachment, loss, and indirect but incomplete compensation. As a celibate child, and resembling the ambiguous figure of the eunuch, Ganesa is one whose masculinity remains partial, trimmed, and contained. Unable to take full possession of his mother in the face of his father’s beheading/castrating power, Ganesa lives a threshold existence—near but nor far enough— seeking his own fulfillment in dutiful service to his parents and taking pleasure in an endless flow of sweetmeats from adoring devotees. He is the mythical expression of the male wish for maternal intimacy denied in real life in the course of growing up, a fantasy in which the defeats of the son must suffer at the hands the father are compensated indirectly by an orally erotic celibate proximity to the mother. (For story on the moon and Ganesha’s tusk please read page 235 and 236, chapter 17)
As we extracted these and similar passages from Courtright’s book for our review, we felt a lot of mental agony seeing that he could use words such as ‘limp-phallus’, ‘castration’, ‘orally erotic’, ‘eunuch’, ‘amorous play’ and so on in the context of a child, even if it be mythical
for a Christian such as Courtright (but Divine for us). Our American readers could perhaps feel our pain by imagining a situation in which Courtright would use such language for the baby Jesus, or if you are not religious, an all-American anthropomorphic child-character such as Mickey Mouse.
Hindus invoke the presence of and blessings of Lord Ganesha at the start of all our prayers. Mickey Mouse is not worshipped of course, but he continues to delight millions of adults and children all over the world with his delightful antics. If someone were to obsessively and insistently see genitalia and other kinds of sexual stuff in the character or persona of the baby Jesus or Mickey Mouse, we would normally conclude that he is suffering from some pathological disorder requiring medical attention. While reading his book on Ganesha, the thought that kept repeating in our mind page after page was—how could he have written this? Why did he do this?
Sexualizing the Hindu Child: The Initiation Ceremony (Upanayana):
In her two-page Foreword, Wendy Doniger refers to the use of Freudian analysis in the following words:
The episode of beheading by the father cries out for (and has been given by others) a party-line Freudian analysis; Courtright does, indeed, sail through this particular strait, but though he listens with unwaxed ears to the song of the psychoanalytical sirens, he is not seduced. He offsets the Freudian analysis with his own striking model of the parallels between the Ganesa story and the Hindu ritual of the initiation of a young boy . . .
And what are these parallels that deserved a special acknowledgment by Wendy Doniger? While describing his sexualized version of Ganesha and the stories associated with Him, Courtright takes a step forward and transplants erotica onto the solemn Hindu ceremony of upanayana
in which young Hindu males are initiated into their student life. In effect, after demeaning the Hindu male, Courtright targets the innocent Hindu child. The upanayana ceremony involves a symbolic transformation of the would-be teacher of the student into his new father. This father-son relationship between teacher-student is maintained for a lifetime and does not sever the relationship of the student with his biological father. However, Courtright sees something sexual in this whole affair.
This new father/son, guru/disciple. Acarya/brahmacarin relationship creates a new bond of affection in the context of absolute domination by the authority figure and utter dependence of the disciple. The sexual nuances of this relationship are well hidden, but it is significant that in the myth Siva gives Ganesa his weapons and in the ritual the acarya gives the brahmacarin the ascetic’s staff [yogadanda]—symbols, like the broken tusk, of the detached phallus. Carstairs notes further ‘There is also a powerfully repressed homosexual fixation on the father. This is shown . . . in indirect and sublimated form, in a man’s feeling toward his Guru—in one context in which a warm affectionate relationship (although a passive and dependent one) is given free expression.’
So, the scholarly pair of Carstairs and Courtright have debased even the ‘teacher–student relationship’ in Hindu society (perhaps privileging the Western version indirectly) by imparting perverse sexual connotations to it. We are indeed curious to know how Courtright would
psychoanalyze his relationships with his own students. (For more on this please read page 237, chapter 17)
In the Indian ascetic tradition, there is a long-standing controversy on whether the staff should be single or if it should be a triple-staff (tridanda). One wonders what would be Courtright’s perspective on this controversy. Hindu tradition sees the danda as a symbol of chastisement or discipline, whether inflicted or self-enforced. When a young student assumes a danda, he is in effect vowing that he will live according to the prescribed rigors of student life.
It may be pointed out here that Hindus have been performing the upanayana ceremony for their children, often aged five to eight years, for several thousand years now. If there is any reality to Courtright’s imaginative interpretation that danda = penis, then the inescapable conclusion is that millions of Hindu children have been subjected unconsciously (or consciously) to sexual abuse by being handed a pseudo-penis in their hand by a male elder during the ceremony. While we find such sexualized interpretations of the upanayana defamatory and degrading, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty finds it so apt and insightful that she made a special mention of it in her Foreword to Courtright. The consequences of such essentializing can indeed be grave for an American minority. One wonders how Doniger and Courtright (and the Prize committees that lionize these scholars) view Hindu-American parents who have celebrated their seven year-old’s upanayana—as potential perverts who should be kept away from white children? (For more on the upanayana ceremony please read page 238 and 239, chapter 17)
This interpretation is supported by explanations in numerous traditional commentaries.The staff is seen to be a reminder and a symbol of Dharmic authority, or Dharmic discipline with which the teacher invests the student and motivates him to pursue his divinely ordained duty of studying the sacred texts before he gets married.
The staff is widely used to symbolize authority and discipline in numerous cultures all over the world, and Hindu texts are no exception. Perhaps Courtright could explain to us what the staff of Moses, which parted the Red Sea, stands for in his Freudian world.
Courtright does not even make the pretense of acknowledging how the Hindu tradition itself interprets the staff of a celibate student, something that he could have found out by referring to even basic works on Hindu samskaras or sacraments. He would have found that according to some authorities, studentship was considered as a long sacrifice, and therefore, a student was expected to bear the staff just as a scholar would in a long sacrifice. Paraskara Grihyasutra 2.6.26 suggests that the purpose of the staff was to protect against human and non-human attackers. According to Manava Grihyasutra 1.22.11, the student is a traveler on the long road of knowledge. When this paradigm is considered, the staff assumed by the student then becomes reminiscent of the staff used by a traveler. According to the Varaha Grihyasutra, the staff was the symbol of the watchman. Apararka in the Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.29 states that bearing the staff makes the student self-confident and self-reliant when he goes out to the forest to collect fire-sticks for yajnas, for tending the cattle of his teacher, or when he travels in darkness. In other words, while the Indian tradition takes the staff as a symbol of authority, discipline, protection and so on, Courtright sees just a Penis.
Marriage of Ganesha
Hindu tradition is not uniform on the marital status of the deity. While the dominant view depicts him as a son devoted to his mother and as a bachelor, other traditions state that he has two wives. Courtright expends a lot of energy in depicting the ‘eunuch’ and ‘oral’ nature of Ganesha, in keeping with his Freudian paradigms. So when conflicting textual evidence relating to his marital status emerges, it has to be explained away in some way. Courtright does this with the following
Iconographically he is sometimes represented sitting between Siddhi and Buddhi, but there is little in the way of mythology about his marriage in the textual tradition. These women appear more like feminine emanations of his androgynous nature, saktis rather than spouses having their own characters and stories. (For more on this please read page 240, chapter 17)
The celibate character of his marriage is evoked by the seventh century poet, Bana, who wrote of Ganesa and his bride as the fusedandrogyne, lacking sufficient separateness from one another to
engage in the erotic possibilities of marriage. ‘May the single tusked Ganesa guard the universe, who imitates his parent’s custom in that his bride, it seems, has been allowed to take that half of
him wherein his face is tuskless.’
Banabhatta is in fact referring to the concept of ardhnaariishvara283 that depicts Siva and Parvati (who definitely are not a celibate couple) as two halves of one deity, and suggests that the wife of Ganesha, being tusk-less, represents a similar conception with her constituting that side of his which does not have the tusk (since one of his tusks is broken). (For more please read page 241, chapter 17)
Read chapter 17 part 4 from page 229 to 241
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Go to Chapter 17 part 5