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Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings

by Paul B Courtright

Oxford University Press, 1985, Motilal, 2001, 274pp

Paul B Courtright's Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings has recently become a subject of controversy. Although the book was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1985, it was reissued by the Indian publishing company Motilal in 2001. It was this latter edition - which had a front cover depicting Ganesa naked - that led to a storm of protest. Over 4,500 Hindus in India and America signed an online petition posted by the Hindu Students’ Council of the University of Louisiana:

Against the Book insulting Lord Ganesha and Hinduism

Sign the Petition

To: President James W. Wagner of Emory University, Governor Sunny Perdue of Georgia, President George W Bush of U.S.A, Prime Minister Atal B. Vajpayee of India, Members of India’s Parliament, Members US-India Congressional Caucus, and US Attorney General, Ashcroft.

There is a Book titled: "Ganesa - Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings" by Professor Paul Courtright, Department of Religion, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. First Edition in USA published in 1985 by Oxford University Press, Inc. First Indian Edition, Published in 2001 by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd., with a nude cover picture and insulting interpretations directly from the book.

For nude cover picture of the 2001 edition of the book please visit : (Please copy and paste the link)
Here are some of the author’s vulgar interpretations:
• "Its (Ganesa's) trunk is the displaced phallus, a caricature of Siva's linga. It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid, and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purposes." (Page 121)

• “He [Ganesa] 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.” (Page 110)

• "So Ganesa takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated limp phallus-ascetic and benign- whereas Siva is a "hard" (ur-dhvalinga), erotic and destructive." (Page121)

• "Both in his behavior and iconographic form Ganesa resembles in some aspects, the figure of the eunuch, ……. Ganesha is like eunuch guarding the women of the harem.” (Page 111)

• "Although there seems to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesa explicitly performs oral sex; his insatiable appetite for sweets may be interpreted as an effort to satisfy a hunger that seems inappropriate in an otherwise ascetic disposition, a hunger having clear erotic overtones." (Page 111)

• "Ganesa's broken tusk, his guardian's staff, and displaced head can be interpreted as symbols of castration" (page 111)

• "Feeding Ganesa copious quantities of modakas, satisfying his oral/erotic desires, also keeps him from becoming genitally erotic like his father." (Page 113)

• "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." (Page 113)

There are plenty of other insidious passages in this book aimed at tarnishing not only the image of Ganesha, but Shiva and Parvati as well:
“After Shiva has insulted Parvati by calling her Blackie [Kali], she vows to leave him and return to her father’s home and then she stations her other son, Viraka—the one Siva had made—at the door way to spy on her husband’s extramarital amorous exploits.” (Page 105-106).

We believe these are clear-cut examples of hate-crimes inflicted on innocent Hindus who worship Ganesha, Shiva and Parvati.

We the undersigned strongly ask you to take the necessary actions to achieve the following:

1) The author and the publisher(s) to give an unequivocal apology to Hindus.
2) The author expunges the above and other offensive passages and revises the book with clarifications and corrections.
3) Publisher(s) to immediately withdraw this book from circulation and the author to stop use of this book in academics.


Some protesters summed the book up as "pornographic affront to a key Hindu god" and added death threats to their calls for it to be withdrawn. A letter was sent to President Bush by members of the Indian Shiv Sena (one of India's nationalist political parties) demanding that the book be immediately withdrawn from circulation and that "the author must be asked to tender an unqualified apology to the bilions of Hindus for hurting their faith and religious sensibility. In the wake of the controversy, Motilal withdrew the book from circulation in 2003, and circulated an expression of apology for any offense caused.

In defending his work, Prof. Courtright has pointed out that he had no role in the selection of the cover image (a photograph of a 14th Century bronze Ganesa) and that he wrote to the publishers requesting that they change it, in deference to those who sensibilities have been offended (another incident where Hindu feelings were 'outraged' at the same time as the protests against Courtright's book flowered, was in Canada where a newspaper published a naked photograph of the Goddess Durga.)

The controversy centres around Courtright's use of Freudian psychoanalysis as an interpretive strategy in order to analyse or illuminate aspects of Ganesa's interactions with both his mother, Parvati, and his father, Shiva. Of thiese methods, Courtright said:

"Specifically, my use of psychoanalytic insights emerged from the Ganesa stories themselves. The various versions of the story of Ganesa’s creation by Parvati (Ganesa’s mother), his confrontation with Siva (Ganesa’s father) at the door, and his decapitation and acquisition of his elephant head opened, for me, as it has for other scholars both Indian and non-Indian a remarkable and profound insight into the nature of family relations, competitions, and desires. No responsible scholar, writing in the West for an audience well-acquainted with psychoanalytic methods and insights, could not engage the issues of Ganesa’s story as offering an opportunity to reflect on the deeper, and often hidden, dimensions of human relations."

I have given some space to the controversy surrounding Courtright's book as he is not the only Western scholar who has come under fire for presenting psychoanalytic interpretations of Hindu religious themes. The article Wendy's Child Syndrome by Rajiv Malhotra is a thorough criticism of how Western academics have misrepresented Hinduism, and Malhotra pays particular attention to the works of Wendy Doniger, Jeffrey J Kripal, Sarah Caldwell and Paul B Courtright. There is a growing awareness in magical circles (at least in the ones I'm a part of) over both the thorny issue of cultural appropriation, and the tendency to make simple judgements of what are, after all, highly complex situations. The Controversy over Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings and the mobilisation of protest over the internet is not an isolated incident - and it's my contention as a practitioner of a hybridised form of Tantra that those of us who are interested in forms of South Asian religiosity would do well to be aware of it.

So what do I think of the book? I personally found Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings to be a solid and excellent contribution to the field of Ganesa studies. Paul B. Courtright presents a thorough overview of the complex mythological themes in which Ganesa appears. He also examines the worship of Ganesa in both the domestic and public spheres. Of particular interest to me was his examination of the well-known Ganesa Caturthi festival and its nineteenth-century revival as a public festival in Maharashtra as a public festival with the political aim of unifying the Hindu population against British rule and the encroachment of the Muslim community.I actually found this more fascinating and challenging than the section subjecting Ganesa to Freudian analysis, but that's more to do with the fact that I am not particularly enamoured of the Freudian analysis of texts.

Courtright also examines the rise of the Ganapatyas Samprayadas - the lineages of devotees for whom Ganesa was the supreme deity - which included at least one Tantric lineage. Courtright also provides a translation of one of the key texts of the Ganapatyas - the Sri Ganapati Arthavasira (a.k.a The Ganesa Upanisad

Overall, this is an excellent book and one I would highly reccomend to any Western devotee of the Elephant-headed god. - Phil Hine