The Birth of Lord Ganesha
(e-mail March 24, 2010)
My fascination with Hinduism, and its mythology, and the corresponding influence it has on the cultures of Southeast Asia began with a puppet show in Bangkok. We had already traveled for a week in Myanmar and seen lots of Buddhist statues (more about that later) but it was a simple puppet show in Bangkok that was just awesome.
Each puppet is perhaps 4' tall and its movements are manipulated by three puppeteers all in synchronization. The stage is dark but not so dark that you can not see the synchronized dance of each puppeteer as the puppet is moved across the stage and engages in his role in the story. You see six bare feet run, play, dance, and even engage in battle as they move the puppet about the stage.
The play is performed to appropriate music and no concession is made to the English speaking audience by attempting to show the script in subtitles (like the Chinese opera we saw in Beijing). The audience is provided a pamphlet with a synopsis of the story so it is easy to follow the action.
After the play we were able to view the puppets close-up and see how delicately the puppeteers were able to manipulate the movements of each character.
Grand Master Puppeteer Sakorn Yangkhloesot
The Walt Disney of Thai Theatrical Puppetry
Hanuman, the Monkey King and
The show has been spinning around in my head since that night and now I am going to share with you the fantastic story of "The Birth of Ganesha" the beloved elephant headed Hindu god. This show won first prize at the World Festival of Puppet Art in Prague in 2006 and 2008.
The first thing to remember is that every boy and girl over the age of 6 knows this story and all the characters just like we know that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, couldn't tell a lie, and threw an Eisenhower silver dollar across the Potomac River or Abraham Lincoln grew up in a log cabin. In Thailand, we, on the other hand, had to learn these stories with very little cultural background to fall back on. Keeping an open mind is helpful. I will try my best to tell you what you need to know and give you a link to a web page which will give more information if you seek it.
Shiva's consort Parvati
The information you find italicized is not part of the story but will develop the characters or provide some historical background which is necessary to understand the play. Hopefully it will make the whole story more interesting.
(e-mail March 25, 2010)
I guess we have to go back to Daksha to find out who is to blame for Ganesha having the head of an elephant.
As I explored these tales I found that the same gods had many different names depending upon what country you were in. e.g. Shiva is called Isuan in Thailand. I am going to keep it simple and use the same name all the time so you can keep it all straight. You don't have to read the links to my web pages to follow the story. They have been created for those of you who want to learn more than what I have written in my short e-mail messages. By the time I am done I am certain you will be sucked into looking at the links as well.
If you have read my summary of Hinduism you will already know there is a trilogy of Hindu gods:
Lord Shiva, our hero for the moment, is the god of destruction - not bad destruction because he destroys in order to rebuild -- sort of like imploding a casino in Los Vegas to build one bigger and better. But Shiva is also somewhat of a recluse which causes all sorts of problems in heaven. It also means he doesn't have time for such trivial things as love, marriage, children and family. Frequently he has to be pushed or goaded into action. But that is all about to change, and not necessarily for the better.
Sati is the daughter of Daksha who happens to be the son of
Lord Brahma. (Are you keeping this straight now? That's why I like these stories, they make you think and keep guessing.) This means Sati is the granddaughter of Brahma and it is Brahma's wish that Sati marry Lord Shiva. Daksha, on the other hand, wants her to marry someone else. To make a long story short, Sati goes the forest and by her persistence and devotion arouses Lord Shiva and he agrees to marry her. Sati is the perfect wife, devoted explicitly to her husband Lord Shiva. She is looked upon in Hinduism as the perfect example of how married women should conduct themselves. Whenever you see a picture of Sati you will always see Lord Shiva at her side.
But, Lord Shiva's father-in-law, Daksha, is not so happy about this union and things start to get ugly.
(e-mail March 25, 2010)
Daksha was so mad at Sati for marrying Lord Shiva that he threw a party to which he invited all his fellow gods. Part of the party's program included a sacrificial fire where the gods could throw items in sacrifice to Brahma, Daksha's father and, of course Sati's grandfather. Out of spite he didn't invite his daughter Sati or Lord Shiva. Sati just figured he forgot to send them an invitation because they were family and would naturally be welcome and not need a formal invitation. She told Lord Shiva she was going to the party and Shiva tried unsuccessfully to change her mind.
Sati went to the party and Daksha heaped insult upon insult upon Lord Shiva when talking to the other gods at the party. Sati, being the loyal and perfect wife, was horrified at what was happening. She prayed to the gods that she could be reborn to another father who would appreciate her husband for the greatness he was. She then threw herself into the sacrificial fire and was burned to death.
Lord Shiva instantly knew what had happened and went to the party and started killing everyone who was there. He even chopped off the head of Daksha. He was weeping and grieving so much at his loss that he covered himself with the ashes of his beloved and then, loosing control of himself, started the Dance of Death - which meant the Universe would come to an end.
Lord Shiva does the
Lord Shiva was besides himself and all the gods were terrified because if he finished the dance everything would be destroyed (remember, Shiva is the god of destruction). The gods finally convinced Lord Shiva to stop dancing and the universe was saved. Lord Shiva realized what he had done and restored all the dead people to life. He had a problem with restoring Daksha, however, because his head had flown off so far that it couldn't be found. So Lord Shiva gave him a goat's head instead. Daksha realized how wrong he had been about Lord Shivea that he became one of Lord Shiva's most ardent worshipers.
Sati became worshipped as one of the goddesses of marriage because of her devotion and self sacrifice she made in support of her husband. Her sacrifice was so well known that within India it was often the practice of Hindu women to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. In fact, I think, at one time it was mandatory, and the living wife was sacrificed as a matter of course. The British outlawed the practice when they took over the country but it is unknown if they were totally successful. (I'm not making this up. It was a real religious practice)
Anyway, if you ever see a Hindu god with a goat's head you will know it is Daksha.
Okay folks, I have just told you the story about Lord Shiva and Sati. It has nothing to do with the puppet show except that it is a cultural background story that every child over the age of 5 in Thailand knows - just like you know that Davy Crockett wore a coon skinned cap and died at the Alamo fighting for Texas independence. Maybe you can understand how limited my understanding of the Puppet show was when I saw it.
Now that you have the background, I will pick up this story from the point where the Puppet show started.
Dance of Death
(e-mail March 26, 2010)
After his beloved Sati died and Lord Shiva calmed down he headed deep into the forest where he could be left alone and mourn his loss. He becomes more of a recluse than ever before and didn't pay attention to anything that was going on.
Meanwhile, it doesn't take the demon Taraka long to notice that Lord Shiva is overcome with grief and thus develops a plan to dislodge Lord Shiva as master of the universe.
Taraka the Demon
(Taraka had never been a "nice guy" and on the day he was been born there were many terrible omens which indicated he would cause a lot of trouble. To boil down a couple hundred years, it is sufficient for you to know that Taraka had long wanted to be king of heaven. When he noticed Lord Shiva was incapacitated with grief he decided to nuzzle up to Lord Brahma. So Taraka prayed and worshipped Lord Brahma like no one had done before. Finally Lord Brahma took note of this fidelity and granted Taraka's request to be the mightiest god in all the universe. The only condition placed on this grant was that Taraka could be defeated in battle by Lord Shiva's son. Well, Taraka knew that Lord Shiva's wife Sati had immolated herself in the sacred fire and Lord Shiva had no sons. Calculating that Lord Shiva would remain a recluse Taraka figured he would be safe. "A sure bet" we might say. So he agreed to Lord Brahma's condition.)
Lord Brahma had no more than closed his eyes and Taraka gathered his army and invaded heaven. A terrible battle took place and Indra, god of the winds, defender of the heavens is loosing the battle.
Indra goes to Lord Brahma and pleads for help. Brahma discloses to Indra the one restriction put on Taraka's power. So now it is up to Indra to figure out a way for Lord Shiva to have a son.
(Meanwhile Sati is reborn as Parvati, daughter of Himavan, King of the mountains, who worshipped Lord Shiva. Sati's last wish of being born to a father who could respect and appreciate her husband had been granted. Naturally, Parvati set out to capture Lord Shiva as her husband. Is she going to be successful in her attempt to attract the love of the remorseful and recluse Lord Shiva?)
How on earth will the gods pull this one off?
(March 25, 2010)
I am always amazed at the propensity of the human race to develop similar stories and mythology thousands of years and half a world apart. The Greeks had Cupid and on the other side of the world in India the Hindus have Krishna. The names may be different and the stories have a slightly different twist but basically the themes are the same.
Krishna, god of love
(Krishna , the Hindu god of love, is represented as a young and handsome man who wields a bow and arrows. His bow is made of sugarcane and his arrows are decorated with five kinds of fragrant flowers. The string of the bow is made of a chain of honeybees.
Krishna plays the flute - particularly at night - exuding sweet fragrances of sandalwood and jasmine and glowing in divine splendor. [As an aside, the odor of jasmine is everywhere in Myanmar - often the hotels will have incense burning outside its front doors so when you go out at night there is a wonderful sweet small of flowers.] This symbolizes Krishna calling out to all free souls who are lost and are attached to sensory objects. So this god assumes a form that captivates and attracts the senses of all beings. The result is a sacred love and ardent devotion that purifies and illumines.
Krishna one of the most commonly worshipped deities in the Hindu faith. He is the most popular and perhaps the one closest to the heart of the masses. This blue-skinned deity has influenced the Indian thought, life and culture in myriad ways -- not only its religion and philosophy, but also into its mysticism and literature, painting and sculpture, dance and music, and all aspects of Indian folklore.
He is the subject of
"The Greatest Love Story of All Times."
Krishna and Radha
You will have to read that story on your own later; for now I have to help the gods defeat the the evil demon Taraka.)
You will remember that being tormented by the demon Taraka all the gods went to Lord Brahma. The Creator advised them that only a child of Lord Shiva could produce a fighter who can defeat the demon.
Lord Shiva, naturally, was still lost in deep meditation over the death of Sati. Kirshna, was approached by the gods for help and so highly flattered at the request for assistance that he boasted that he could conquer the mind of Lord Shiva in no time. Kirshna pulled an arrow and shot it at Lord Shiva.
The great Lord awoke and shouted "Who has dared to interrupt my meditation!"
Looking towards the south he spotted Kirshna. In anger Shiva opened his third eye (in the center of his forehead) and reduced Kirshna to ashes. The fire which came out from Lord Shiva destroyed LOVE.
Kirshna lay dead and love and sexual desire disappeared from everywhere and the entire universe turned into a desert. The gods, fearing extinction, sucessfully petitioned Lord Shiva, the hot-headed but normally benign god, to have Kirshna reborn. Thus desire returned to the universe and it flowered again to its former state. But, when Lord Shiva restored Kirshna it was only as a mental image, representing true love and affection and not just physical lust. [Shucks])
But Kirshna's flowered arrow had hit true to its mark. When Pavati approached Lord Shiva and offered him a garland of flowers their eyes meet and they instantly fall in love.
[I'll bet you are sitting on the edge of your computer chair just holding your breath wondering what will happen.]
(e-mail March 28, 2010)
When we last left our story Kirshna had shot his flowered arrow of love at Lord Shiva causing him to fall in love with the devoted Pavati, the reincarnated Sati who had loved Lord Shiva so much.
(Parvati is the second consort of Lord Shiva and known as the Mother Goddess. Whenever Parvati is present, she is always at his side. Their relationship is one of equality. They are held up as the perfect example of marital bliss and one is rarely depicted without the other. Parvati when depicted alongside Shiva appears with two arms, but when alone, she is shown having four arms. Their union allows him to be an ascetic and a lover, but within the bounds of marriage.)
Kirshna shoots his arrow of love at Lord Shiva
Parvati and Lord Shiva
(Parvati is consistently depicted with bare breasts and wearing a sacred thread. Bare breasts were considered a mark of divinity in ancient India and only those Goddesses who were exclusively divine may go about "sky clad", as it were. Clothes symbolized the body and earthly attachments whereas nudity was indicative of unfettered divinity.)
(The relationship with Parvati is so strong that Lord Shiva is sometimes represented as half man, half woman. His figure is split half way down the body, one half showing his body and the second half that of Parvati's.)
Back to our story:
One day Shiva decides that he has to go on a retreat -- remember he is a recluse by nature -- and he gives his trident to Parvati. Soon after the demons invade heaven again. Parvati and her lady-in-waiting see that the gods are being defeated. Parvati withdraws to her boudoir and from the perspiration of her body she creates a child, Kumam, while being blessed with water from Kongka, goddess of the waters. Parvati gives the trident to Kuman and tells him to guard the palace doors.
Kumam does as he is told and when Lord Shiva comes home from his retreat he is prevented from entering the palace by Kumam. The child refuses to leave and almost beats up Hanuman, the monkey god who was accompaning Lort Shiva (more about him later...). Now Shiva is really furious . . . (Remember, Lord Shiva doesn't know who Kumam is, also remember what he did to Krishna the god of love when he was shot with the arrow; and what happened when Sati died. In short, when he gets mad, Lord Shiva looses control.) . . . and throws his trident at Kumam. Kaman's head is completely severed by the blow and destroyed.
Lord Shiva severs the head of Kumam
You can not imagine what is going to happen next. Oh the anguish and terror of a mother ...
[Editor's comment: You can see why I would have enjoyed not only the puppet show but also all of Thailand and Cambodia so much more if I had known these things before I left. But the joy I get on my return home is continuing to learn. Maybe I will have to go back.]
(e-mail March 25, 2010)
Kumam had his head chopped off by Lord Shiva -- of course Lord Shiva did not know that Kumam was his son because he was born of Parvati, his wife, when he was off on a retreat. Having children was the furthest thing from Lord Shiva's mind. When Kumam's head was chopped off and scattered to the winds Parvati arrives and, horrified by what she sees, begins to weep. She tells Lord Shiva that Kumam was her child - thus his son. As she continues to weep her sorrow gradually changes to anger. Finely the exquisitely beautiful Parvati is metamorphosed into Kali, the goddess of death, a frighteningly hideous and monstrous woman with four arms.
(Kali is represented with perhaps the fiercest features among all the world's deities. Fierce, black in color (destructive energy), her body is bathed in sacred ash. She has large wild red eyes, her tongue protrudes from her mouth, and her face and breasts are stained with blood. She stands destructive, triumphantly smiling amidst the slaughter of billions of demons, wearing a necklace of skulls and a skirt of severed arms, glowing brightly like the full moon in the night sky, holding the head of a demon, a Trident that flashes like lightning and a knife etched with sacred mantras and infused with Divine Shakti. She is often depicted as standing with one foot on the thigh and another on the chest of her husband, Lord Shiva.
Kali the Terrible
Lord Shiva is as shocked by the metamorphosis as he is frightened by Kali's appearance and menacing demeanor. He consoles her by promising he will bring Kumam back to life.
How do you suppose he is going to do this? I can't stand the suspense any longer!
(March 29, 2010)
Lord Shiva, faced with the necessity of placating Parvati and calming Kali, devises a plan to restore Kumam to life. But Kumam's head had been blown apart.... Shiva calls upon his trusted and loyal companion Lord Hanuman, the monkey god.
The monkey god
(Hanuman is the son of the goddess Anjana. She was once a celestial maiden & was born as a monkey-woman as a result of a curse. She was living happily with her husband Kesari. When king Dasaratha performed a yagna praying for off-springs, he was yielded a pot of pudding from the fire. A portion of this pudding was carried by the Lord of Winds and fell in the hands of Anjana and she gave birth to a lovely & strong son, Hanuman. Since the Lord of the Winds was responsible for the pudding reaching Anjana, he is also considered the father of Hanuman and gave him the ability to fly.
Hanuman grew up as a strong and mischievous young lad. He could travel as fast as the wind. As soon as Hanuman was born he felt hungry and his mother could not satisfy him. Then he caught sight of the Sun and thinking it was a fruit he leapt after it. The Sun took flight but Hanuman chased him as far as Indra's heaven. Here however, Indra intervened and injured Hanuman's jaw with his thunderbolt. The Lord of the Winds was upset that his son had been attacked and stopped blowing. The whole world was in trouble without winds. All the Gods offered various powerful boons to Hanuman, thus making him more powerful and invincible than before. The Lord of the Winds was pleased & started blowing the winds again.)
Hanuman is given clear instructions from Lord Shiva. "Travel north and bring me the head of the first living thing you find facing west." Hanuman did as he was told and found an elephant with its head pointed in a westerly direction. The elephant's head is severed and taken back to Shiva. By magic Shiva moves the head and connects it with Kumam's body. Kumam comes back to life and Lord Shiva renames him Ganesha.
(Ganesha is the Ever-Blissful, elephant-headed god who is lovingly worshipped and revered by millions of people worldwide. Although Ganesha is known through the Hindu religion, Shri Ganesha transcends religion and is loved by many non-Hindu's. The son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha, is the God of Good Luck and Auspiciousness and is the Dispeller of problems and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the God of wisdom, wealth, health, celibacy, fertility and happiness. Ganesha is glorified as one of the five prime Hindu deities Shiva, Shakti and Ganesha) whose worship confers immortality and liberation." Known as Vinayaka, he "is the deity who removes all bad qualities, instills good qualities and confers peace on the devotee who meditates on him. Vinayaka means that he is totally master of himself. He has no master above him. He does not depend on anyone. He is also called Ganapathi. This term means he is the lord of the ganas, a class of divine entities. This term also means that he is the master of the intellect and discriminating power in man. He possesses great intelligence and knowledge. Such knowledge issues from a pure and sacred mind.)
Lord Shiva, Lord Ganesha & Parvati
Parvati is overjoyed that her son has been restored. (Gods and goddesses don't seem to cared if their relatives had strange appearances. Remember, a long time ago Shiva had restored Sati's father by giving him the head of a goat.)
Wild Applause and Cheering
But the story doesn't end here, remember Taraka and his demon army is still attacking heaven and there is only one person in all the universe that can defeat him. Do you suppose Ganesha the newly born boy with the head of an elephant is up to the task?
(e-mail March 25, 2010)
Hunaman leads the charge against Taraka and the demons
The celebration of Ganesha's recreation was short-lived, however because the purpose of his birth was yet to be fulfilled. The gods reminded Lord Shiva that only his son could defeat the cursed demon Taraka.
As the battle between the gods and the demons is raging Ganesha arrives to join the fight. Taraka arrives. Taraka and Ganesha engage in a war of words in which Taraka tries to find out who Ganesha is. (You can imagine that there is no family resemblance with Lord Shiva and Ganesha to give Taraka a clue.) Ganesha tells him he is the son of Lord Shiva but Taraka doesn't believe him because he knows Shiva was still mourning Sati's death and thus could not possibly have a child. Taraka insults Ganesha by telling him to go home and play with his toys. Ganesha gets mad and the two engage in battle. Ganesha calls upon Naga for assistance.
(Naga is a deity taking the form of a very great snake - the King Cobra - or a serpent. It is not uncommon for the naga to have seven heads on one body. In India, nagas are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought. According to traditions nagas are only malevolent to humans when they have been mistreated. They are susceptible to mankind's disrespectful actions in relation to the environment. They are also associated with waters-rivers, lakes, seas, and wells-and are generally regarded as guardians of treasure.)
(To make things more complicated, you have to know about the great nemesis of the Nagas, the gigantic bird-man, Garuda. Garuda has nothing to do with this story but you see him everywhere. Garuda and the Nagas began life as cousins. The sage Kasyapa had two wives, Kadru and Vinata. Kadru desired many offspring. Vinata desired only a few, but powerful offspring. Each got her wish. Kadru laid 1000 eggs which hatched into snakes (nagas). Vinata laid two eggs one of which hatched into Garuda.)
(The exact size of the garuda is uncertain, but its wings are said to have a span of many miles. It is also said that when a garuda's wings flap, they create hurricane-like winds that darken the sky and blow down houses. A human being is so small compared to a garuda that a man can hide in the plumage of one without being noticed.
Through a foolish bet, Vinata became enslaved to her sister, and as a result Vinata's son Garuda was required to do the bidding of the snakes. Although compliant, Garuda chafed and built up a hatred that he would never forget. The nagas also carry the elixir of life and immortality. When Garuda asked the nagas what he would have to do in order to be released from his bondage, they told him he would have to bring them the elixir of immortality. Garuda stole the elixir from the gods and brought it to the serpents but it was taken away by Indra, god of the wind. However, few drops remained on the grass. The nagas licked up the drops, but in doing so, cut their tongues on the grass, and since then their tongues have been forked. From that point onward, Garuda regarded nagas as enemies and as food. The garudas at one time caught the nagas by seizing them by their heads; but the nagas learned that by swallowing large stones, they could make themselves too heavy to be carried by the garudas, wearing them out and killing them from exhaustion. This secret was divulged to one of the garudas by Karambiya, who taught him how to seize a naga by the tail and force him to vomit up his stone.) [I'm not making these stories up, they are all true!]
Back to our story:
Ganesha orders Naga to coil itself around Taraka and then strikes Taraka with his trident -- remember it is the one Lord Shiva had originally given to Parvati. [These stories get complicated]. Taraka dies and the gods regain control of heaven.
In the final scene of the puppet show Ganesha is seated on Naga. All the gods gather around to pay homage. From that day forward Ganesha is venerated as the god of success and the patron of learning.
See the little naga wrapped
And that's basically the puppet show's version of "The Birth of Ganesha".
[Editorial note: As you may be aware, every school child in southeast Asia knows all these characters and thus didn't need the sometimes lengthy description or explanation I have provided. Me?, on the other hand, I have found it really exciting to look up all of these characters, sort them out, and tell the story in a way you may find interesting and exciting but, most importantly, as you see my pictures from Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia try to remember the role these characters play in the local culture since you will see them popping up all the time.
around Ganesha's tummy?
(Editor's note, 13 June 2011: This page is now being construction so come back again.)
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