Buddhist Ganesha: popular Ganapati’s many forms include enlightened emanation of Avalokiteshvara, worldly protector, Bodhisattva, wrathful Tantric deity and many more…

Ganesh’s appeal is wide-reaching, not just amongst the spiritual. Ganesha tatoos and t-shirts are very popular worldwide. There is, a “life-affirming” quality about his image, even for the non-religious. Ganesha has star power. He even appears in brands, marketing, pop culture and fashion. And, of course, to a billion or more people, he is a precious deity.

To many Mahayana Buddhists, Ganesha is more than just a guardian at the entrance of home or temple; he is a Bodhisattva, a wrathful protector deity — and he takes on many other roles.

Important: This is a “wiki-like” feature, with Ganesh’s many aspects introduced. However, only your own tradition or teacher or school should ultimately define how you view Ganesh. We collected all references in a Buddhist context. Ganesh would only appear in various Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. In some Buddhist traditions Ganesh is worldly, period. In others, he’s never spoken of. In one tradition, Buddhist Ganesh and Hindu Ganesh are not even related. In others, a Buddha might manifest as Ganesh (emanate as). In some Mahayana traditions he is viewed as a god. Sometimes as a demon. In others as a Bodhisattva. There is no universality. We’re highlighting all the various aspects. In other words, there is no right, or wrong, in these various views, and ultimately, for practice, one should only be guided by your own tradition and teacher.

 

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A very old Tibetan Buddhist Ganesha Tangkha.

 

Why is Ganesh so popular? Is it because he appears so lovable, his appearance wise, friendly and charming. (Not always, some of his forms are chillingly wrathful.) Is it because his head is symbolically an elephant, one of the most popular of animals? Is it his association with removing obstacles that face us, or his role as the “wealth deity?”

 

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One of Ganesha’s forms in Tibetan Buddhism as a wealth deity associated with Jambhala.

 

Origins of Ganesh

Of course, Ganesh originated with Brahmanism (Vedism). In Buddhism, there are two sutras that mention Ganapati, and one with his “Dharani” (mantra) which can be chanted by anyone. In the sutra, Buddha says:

“Any son or daughter of high birth, whether monk or nun, lay brother or sister who undertakes any matter [such as] accomplishing the [rites to call a sacred being by means of] mantras, worshipping the Three Jewels, travelling to another country, going to the royal court or concealing [from view] should upon worshipping the Blessed Buddha, practice seven times the Arya Ganapati Hrdaya [mantras]: for him all tasks will be accomplished; no doubt about this!

[The full Arya Maha Ganapati Hrdaya Dharani is at the end of this article.] The two sutras on Ganapati that which contains Dharani of Ganapati. One is the Dharani Sutra of the Golden Ganapati, found in the T. XXI 1269, which was delivered by the Buddha to his disciple Shariputra when the Buddha was residing at Shravasti. The Dharani recorded is very much corrupted. The Dharani, as presented in this Sutra, is somewhat a variant of the Dharani, in the Ganapati Heart Sutra. At the end of the Sutra, Ganapati himself appears and assures that he will protect and bestow wishes of those who uphold this Dharani. The other text, the one that is presented here is the “Arya Maha Ganapati Hridaya Dharani” [Heart Dharani of Maha Ganapati] — in full at the bottom of this features..

 

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Tibetan White Ganapati.

 

In Buddhism, sometimes Ganesh is seen as a worldly deity dedicated to protecting Buddhism (often under Vajrapani), but in some Mahayana stories he is a Bodhisattva and consort of Avalokiteshvara, and in some Tantric forms — in some lineages — he is an Enlightened deity.

In most tantric traditions, Genesha appears as a worldly deity or protector. However, Ganapati, Maha Rakta (Tibetan: ཚོགས་བདག tsog gi dag po, mar chen. English: The Great Red Lord of Hosts or Ganas) is a Tantric Buddhist form of Ganapati (Ganesha) related to the Chakrasamvara Cycle of Tantras. This form of Ganapati is regarded as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara.

“…beside a lapis lazuli rock mountain is a red lotus with eight petals, in the middle a blue rat expelling various jewels, [above] Shri Ganapati with a body red in colour, having an elephant face with sharp white tusks and possessing three eyes, black hair tied in a topknot with a wishing-gem and a red silk ribbon [all] in a bundle on the crown of the head. With twelve hands, the six right hold an axe, arrow, hook, vajra, sword and spear. The six left [hold] a pestle, bow, khatvanga, skullcup filled with blood, skullcup filled with human flesh and a shield together with a spear and banner. The peaceful right and left hands are signified by the vajra and skullcup filled with blood held to the heart. The remaining hands are displayed in a threatening manner. Wearing various silks as a lower garment and adorned with a variety of jewel ornaments, the left foot is extended in a dancing manner, standing in the middle of the bright rays of red flickering light.” (Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrup, 1497–1557).

This form of Ganapati belongs to a set of three powerful deities known as the ‘mar chen kor sum’ or the Three Great Red Deities included in a larger set called ‘The Thirteen Golden Dharmas’ of Sakya. The other two deities are Kurukulle and Takkiraja. (See 18th century Thangka of Hayagriva Sangrup below wih Ganapati and Kurukulle both featured below.)

 

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A magnificent 1800-1899 Tangkha (Sakya lineage) of Hayagriva Sangdrup in the Rubin Museum of Art. On his crown is Amitayus, the long-life aspect of Amitabha. To his top left is Maharaklta Ganapti (Wrathful Gasesha), dancing atop a rat. On the right is the power goddess Kurukulla, red (see below), with one face and four hands holding a bow and arrow, hook and lasso. At the bottom center is Begtse Chen (Red Mahakala: see below), red in colour. On the left is Legden Mahakala (left, see below), blue in colour and right is Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo (Palden Lhamo, the protector of the Dalai Lama).

 

Vinayaka Ganesh

In the Arya Maha Ganapati tradition, Avaolikeshvara takes on the form of a woman to seduce the wordly Vinayaka (Ganesh) — after which, he is considered, in essence, none other than an emanation of Avalokiteshvara.  It depends on the tradition and teacher. In one tradition, Mahanirvana Tantra, he was converted by the protector Mahakala, and symbolically appears under his feet.

 

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Red Ganapati in Tibetan Buddhism.

 

Less worship, more practice

From the Buddhist perspective on deities, there is less “worship” of deities and more “practice” of deities as a path. In Tantric Buddhism, for example, we visualize ourselves as the perfect forms of Enlightenment — as the deities — this, as practice for our mindstreams. It’s not about worship.

That doesn’t mean we don’t make offerings or honour deities. Offerings and prostrations help us develop positive karmic imprints — merits, as they are often called.

Wonderful voice of Tibetan Buddhist nun Ani Choying Drolma, chanting Ganesha mantra:

 

 

Ganesh Mantra

The simplest form of his practice is simply chanting his mantra. There are many, many mantras of this popular deity — and, of course, most of us should be guided by our teachers on this. However, the easiest “Buddhist” version of the mantra is:

Om Ganapataye Soha

Pronounced

Ahm Gahn-ah-pah-tey Yea So Ha

Another version, the most populr Hindu mantra, contains Ganeshe’s “seed syllable” Gam as a praise:

Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha

A modern version, with beat, of the simplified mantra Om Ganapataye Soha:


His Dharani, according to the Blessed Shakyamuni Buddha, will “obtain and propagate … the accomplishments of his [Ganesha’s] tasks.” The sutra-based Dharani, requiring no permission (see the full Sutra at end of this feature) is:

oṃ namo ‘stu te mahāgaṇapataye svāhā |
oṃ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ |
oṃ namo gaṇapataye svāhā |
oṃ gaṇādhipataye svāhā |
oṃ gaṇeśvarāya svāhā |
oṃ gaṇapatipūjitāya svāhā |
oṃ kaṭa kaṭa maṭa maṭa dara dara vidara vidara hana hana gṛhṇa gṛhṇa dhāva dhāva bhañja bhañja jambha jambha tambha tambha stambha stambha moha moha deha deha dadāpaya dadāpaya dhanasiddhi me prayaccha |

oṃ rudrāvatārāya svāhā |
oṃ adbhutavindukṣubhitacittamahāhāsam āgacchati |
mahābhayamahābalaparākramāya mahāhastidakṣiṇāya dadāpaya svāhā |
oṃ namo ‘stu te mahāgaṇapataye svāhā |
oṃ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ |
oṃ namo gaṇapataye svāhā |
oṃ gaṇeśvarāya svāhā |
oṃ gaṇādhipataye svāhā |
oṃ gaṇapatipūjitāya svāhā |
oṃ suru suru svāhā | oṃ turu turu svāhā | oṃ muru muru svāhā |

 

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Very olld Mongolian tangkha of Ganesha.

 

Ganesh comes first

When a practitioner honours Ganesh, he is normally the first deity practiced or honoured? Why? Because he is known as the “remover of obstacles.” It is symbolically important to remove obstacles before, for example, moving on to deeper practices. Many deities are known as “obstacle removers” in Tantric Buddhism, and often these are practiced first in daily sadhanas — although it varies by tradition. It is for this reason, too, that Ganesha is often at the door of every temple, or home. He removes obstacles and is, by this definition, a guardian.

 

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Ganesha is popular on t shirts and in tattoos.

 

Obstruction-remover

Importantly, in Buddhism, Ganapati (Ganesha) is “remover of obstacles.” All Buddhist deities are, removers or obstacles, but Ganesha is particularly venerated for this role. Since poverty is a major obstacle — if we are fighting to survive, we have no time to practice Dharma — Ganesha also takes on a “wealth deity” role. Some of his depictions overlap with Jambhala (another wealth deity, and also another Hindu deity), complete with depictions of gold and jewels falling from the mouth of his rat (it’s a different animal for Jambhala: a mongoose). Red Jambala, especially, is usually thought of as none other than Ganesha, Red Ganapati, with the head of an elephant.

 

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Red Ganesha depiction.

 

Many forms of Ganesha

Importantly, Red Ganapati is an emantation of Avalokiteshvara in Tibetan Buddhism. In Chinese Buddhism, where Guanyin (Kuan Yin, Avalokiteshvara) is female, Ganesh is her consort in one tradition. The symbolism — the association with compassion — is similar in both depictions (emanation or consort).

Ganesh’s Buddhist enlightened forms are many: overcoming obstacles and bringing success (similar to Hinduism); fierce protector at the gate of many mandala palaces; high-form tantric deity; and, even, in Chinese Buddhism, a legendary consort to Guan Yin. In Shingon, he is popular as Kankiten. In Japan there are 250 stand-alone Ganesh temples, where he is the god of prosperity and happiness. As Nrtta Ganapti, the dancing Ganesha, he is the destroyer of obstacles in Tibet and Nepal. In Thailand he is called Phra Phikanet, a deity of fortune and success. In Indonesia he is associated with wisdom. He is also the Buddhist deity Vinayaka, popular in Tibet.

 

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Fierce, many-armed Ganesha.

 

He is worshiped widely in India (by both Buddhists and Hindus) and by Buddhists in China, Thailand — where Ganesh amulets are very popular — Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal (basically all of Japan, China, Central Asia, and southeast Asia) — and around the world. In India, he is in every temple, regardless of the main deity, and he is in nearly every home. In Chinese Buddhism, he is extremely popular. He is even a “fix” for homes with bad “feng shui.”

 

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Aspects of Buddhist Ganesha

There are, as with all deities in Buddhism, many symbolic forms in Tantric practices. Each pose, arm, implement and gesture triggers recognition as archetypes by our minds. Ganesha, in Buddhism, can be elephant faced, dancing, with matted locks of hair and many arms an implements. He can be red and fierce, as with Maha Rakta Ganapati (Great Red Lord of the Ganas). He can look very nearly like Hindu Ganesha. He can have three eyes — symbolic of wisdom and Enlightenment. He can carry a kapala filled with blood, symbolic of bliss and emptiness. In most forms, the “mouse” mount is carried over from Hinduism symbolism.

Some of his forms:

  • Lord Ganesh, pale of complexion with a mouse mount (similar to Hindu form).
  • Maha Rakta Ganapati: red and fierce tantric form with many arms, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara (related to the Chakrasamvara tantras)
  • Nrtta Ganapati, the dancing god.
  • He is one of the Three Great Red Deities (Mar Chen Kor Sum), which is part of the Thirteen Golden Dharmas of the Sakyas.
  • He can be Vinayaka (which is both the name of an enlightened deity and a demon) —  and in this form he is sometimes seen being stepped on by Mahakala.
  • Kangiten in Japan, a wealth and success god.
  • Ragavajra: Three-faced, six hands (Atisha tradition)
  • One-face- four hands (white, red or blue)
  • Maharakta Red, one-face-twelve hands
  • One face, two hands (white)
  • Nyingma forms of Ganapati, such as Maha Ganesha or Vajra Ganesha

 

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Maharakti Ganesha.

 

Maharakta Ganapati — emanation of Avalokiteshvara

Perhaps the most exotic of the Ganapati forms is Maharakta, instantly recognizable by his red form, surrounded by red tantric flames on a red lotus. This form is related to the Chakrasamvara tantras. The description from Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrub (1497-1557):

 

“…beside a lapis lazuli rock mountain is a red lotus with eight petals, in the middle a blue rat expelling various jewels, [above] Shri Ganapati with a body red in colour, having an elephant face with sharp white tusks and possessing three eyes, black hair tied in a topknot with a wishing-gem and a red silk ribbon [all] in a bundle on the crown of the head. With twelve hands, the six right hold an axe, arrow, hook, vajra, sword and spear. The six left [hold] a pestle, bow, katvanga, skullcup filled with blood, skullcup filled with human flesh and a shield together with a spear and banner. The peaceful right and left hands are signified by the vajra and skullcup filled with blood held to the heart. The remaining hands are displayed in a threatening manner. Wearing various silks as a lower garment and adorned with a variety of jewel ornaments, the left foot is extended in a dancing manner, standing in the middle of the bright rays of red flickering light.”

Maharakta blongs to the “Three Great Red Deities” (mar chen kor sum), along with red Kurukulla and Takkiraja.

 

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Buddhist Ganesha.

 

Offerings to Ganesh

There isn’t much difference between offering recommendations for Buddhist Ganesh or Hindu Ganesh. They are the same deity. Typically, in Buddhism, water bowls are always a perfect offering for any deity.

But, symbolically, Ganesh prefers “sweet treats” and “sweet smells” and “sweet flowers.” Why? Because Ganesh is just plain “sweet.” Ganesh loves flower garlands. (Because he’s sweet!). The best offering of all is his mantras. (Depending on the form you are honouring, the mantra may vary.)

Normally, the offerings are placed before a picture or statue of Ganesh, but in Tantric Buddhism, this can be just projected mentally through visualization (as always, with Tantric Buddhist deities.)

Pujas or sadhanas of Ganesh will differ in a few ways between Buddhist and Hindu. Key to any Buddhist sadhana or ritual is:

  • Taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the Three Jewels

  • Making the Bodhisattva vow (with each practice)

  • Dedicating the merit of the practice to the cause for Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

 

Ārya Mahā Gaṇapati Hṛdaya

namo bhagavate āryamahāgaṇapatihṛdayāya |

namo ratnatrayāya ||

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Thus I have heard. Upon a time, the Blessed One was staying at Rajagriha, on the Vulture Peak, together with a great assembly of monks: forty-five hundreds of monks and numerous great Bodhisattvas. On that occasion the Blessed One told the Venerable Ananda:

“Ananda, whoever, son or daughter of high birth, would keep [in mind], recite, obtain and propagate these “heart” [mantras] of Ganapati, his will be the accomplishments of all his tasks”

oṃ namo ‘stu te mahāgaṇapataye svāhā |
oṃ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ |
oṃ namo gaṇapataye svāhā |
oṃ gaṇādhipataye svāhā |
oṃ gaṇeśvarāya svāhā |
oṃ gaṇapatipūjitāya svāhā |
oṃ kaṭa kaṭa maṭa maṭa dara dara vidara vidara hana hana gṛhṇa gṛhṇa dhāva dhāva bhañja bhañja jambha jambha tambha tambha stambha stambha moha moha deha deha dadāpaya dadāpaya dhanasiddhi me prayaccha |

oṃ rudrāvatārāya svāhā |
oṃ adbhutavindukṣubhitacittamahāhāsam āgacchati |
mahābhayamahābalaparākramāya mahāhastidakṣiṇāya dadāpaya svāhā |
oṃ namo ‘stu te mahāgaṇapataye svāhā |
oṃ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ gaḥ |
oṃ namo gaṇapataye svāhā |
oṃ gaṇeśvarāya svāhā |
oṃ gaṇādhipataye svāhā |
oṃ gaṇapatipūjitāya svāhā |
oṃ suru suru svāhā | oṃ turu turu svāhā | oṃ muru muru svāhā |

“These Ananda, are the “hearts” of Ganapati”

“Any son or daughter of high birth, whether monk or nun, lay brother or sister who undertakes any matter [such as] accomplishing the [rites to call a sacred being by means of] mantra, worshipping the Three Jewels, travelling to another country, going to the royal court or concealing [from view] should upon worshipping the Blessed Buddha, practice seven times the Arya Ganapati Hrdaya [spells]: for him all tasks will be accomplished; no doubt about this!. He should forever put an end to all strifes and quarrels , violence and envy, and become entirely calm. Day upon day abiding the rules and practicing a full seven times: it will come out into the fortune of this great one! Upon his coming to the royal court there will be great kindness (prasada). He will become “Keeper of hearing [1]” (Shruti-Dhara). There wil be no major illness to his body. Never will he assume the descent as a tara-praksina or the descent as a humble bee: nothing ellse will occur to him that the Mind of Awakening. In every birth he will be remembering [his previous] births.”

Thus spoke the Blessed One, and upon receiving [his teaching] these monks, these great Bodhisattvas and whole attendance, the world with the gods, the humans, the asuras, the garudas and the gandarvas rejoiced at the words of the Blessed One.

 

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Josephine Nolan

Author | Buddha Weekly

Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly. She is Editor-in-Chief for Blogertize Publications.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Padmashambhava on April 20, 2019 at 12:10 am

    Hi where is this Sutra from? Also the enlightened Ganesh in Chod what text of Chod you are getting this from or what reference (text, teacher anything)? Thank you!

  2. Lee Kane Lee Kane on April 20, 2019 at 9:21 am

    For the Tantric reference: A Gift of Dharma to Kublai Khan By Chogyal Phagpa, Seventh Patriarch of Sakya. Ngorchen Konchog Lhundup, Ngor chos ‘byung, folia 323?328. Translated by Jared Rhoton, 1976). Ganapati, Maha Rakta (Tibetan: ཚོགས་བདག tsog gi dag po, mar chen. English: The Great Red Lord of Hosts or Ganas) is a Tantric Buddhist form of Ganapati (Ganesha) related to the Chakrasamvara Cycle of Tantras. This form of Ganapati is regarded as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara.

    “…beside a lapis lazuli rock mountain is a red lotus with eight petals, in the middle a blue rat expelling various jewels, [above] Shri Ganapati with a body red in colour, having an elephant face with sharp white tusks and possessing three eyes, black hair tied in a topknot with a wishing-gem and a red silk ribbon [all] in a bundle on the crown of the head. With twelve hands, the six right hold an axe, arrow, hook, vajra, sword and spear. The six left [hold] a pestle, bow, khatvanga, skullcup filled with blood, skullcup filled with human flesh and a shield together with a spear and banner. The peaceful right and left hands are signified by the vajra and skullcup filled with blood held to the heart. The remaining hands are displayed in a threatening manner. Wearing various silks as a lower garment and adorned with a variety of jewel ornaments, the left foot is extended in a dancing manner, standing in the middle of the bright rays of red flickering light.” (Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrup, 1497–1557).
    This form of Ganapati belongs to a set of three powerful deities known as the ‘mar chen kor sum’ or the Three Great Red Deities included in a larger set called ‘The Thirteen Golden Dharmas’ of Sakya. The other two deities are Kurukulle and Takkiraja.

    There are two sutras on Ganapati that which contains Dharani of Ganapati. One is the Dharani Sutra of the Golden Ganapati, found in the T. XXI 1269, which was delivered by the Buddha to his disciple Shariputra when the Buddha was residing at Shravasti. The Dharani recorded is very much corrupted. The Dharani, as presented in this Sutra, is somewhat a variant of the Dharani, in the Ganapati Heart Sutra. At the end of the Sutra, Ganapati himself appears and assures that he will protect and bestow wishes of those who uphold this Dharani.

    The other text, the one that is presented here is the “Arya Maha Ganapati Hridaya Dharani” [Heart Dharani of Maha Ganapati].

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