upanishads

A New Year’s Exegesis of the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa

By Sadhana member Shashank Rao

This exegesis utilizes Nagesh D. Sonde’s translation, which I have modified slightly by consulting with the language used in the Vedic Center of Greenville’s translation, and also partially rewritten for readability and poetic fit. I am grateful for the work of the translators and the scholarship of those who come before me. I beseech Saraswati, goddess of learning and scholarship, to bless this endeavor and allow me to assist my communities through it.

Text and translation of the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa available here.

Image credit: Yohanna Jessup

Introduction

In the coming new year, we at Sadhana meditate on constructive ways to be of use to our communities, and do justice where injustice prevails. As a Hindu group, we look to our spiritual traditions for guidance, ranging from remembering the tremendous labors and feats of bhakti saints to reading the Upaniṣads. The text examined in this article is the one of the minor Upanishadic texts, embedded in the Atharvaveda: the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa.

The Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa expresses radical concepts of the self within the all-pervasive Brahman, and can be read as an Upaniṣad written for all of our communities, rather than just a learned few. The Upaniṣad describes the nature of Gaṇeśa as a god of diverse communities, being the lord of the fearsome hosts of Shiva as well as a benevolent deity that watches over His devotees. He is the son of Shiva and Parvati, as well as the very embodiment of Brahman, transcending his parents. The Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa is an important bridge between the transcendent and immanent strands of Hinduism, between the seers and the laity, between the sanyāsi (renunciant) and the gṛhasta (householder).

I interpret this text in light of the work of Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, and our shared Advaita Vedanta lineage. His work has been indispensable in building my own understanding of theology, and I also give thanks to Nagesh Sonde, without whose translation and commentary I would not be able to write this exegesis. I hope to offer useful readings of the Atharvśīrṣa that motivate Hindus in our communities and others beyond to seek spiritual guidance that enriches the self and others.

The reason I emphasize this particular Upaniṣad is because it is less visible in Vedanta scholarship and has value as a scriptural text that affirms self-worth, devotion, and a commitment to social justice. Gaṇeśa’s immense popularity across Hindu denominations has great potential to bridge the gap in knowledge and create a foundation for communal harmony in Hindu communities. This resonates with the oft-quoted imperative set out in the Īśāvasya Upaniṣad:

“One who sees all beings in the self alone and the self in all beings, feels no hatred by virtue of that understanding. For the seer of oneness, who knows all beings to be the self, where is delusion (mohaḥ) and sorrow (śokaḥ)?”

Īśāvasya Upaniṣad 6-7 (Rambachan 79)

Situating the Self in Communities

The Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa opens with a śāṃti pāṭha, a traditional invocation for peace and hopes for understanding. This exegesis, too, seeks the understanding of those join us in the discourse seeking peace, understanding, and self-knowledge. Here, we acknowledge the Self (Atman) as sacred and illuminating of all senses. The Self is the underlying cause of all things, and so we pray for all the limbs and sense organs to be aware of auspicious things. This naturally includes the ability to perceive injustice when it arises, and to combat it; for this too, we pray the body is strong enough to do.

In the śāṃti pāṭha, the four Vedic deities: Indra, Vayu, Tarkśya, and Bṛhaspati are invoked for blessings. Rather than as deities proper, I understand them as the forces of nature. In this way, the Atharvaśīrṣa is quite literally acknowledging the physical environment around us. This prepares us for self-inquiry by rooting us in the moment and awareness of our personal circumstances, while also reminding us to be mindful of the systems that threaten to harm us and others. Brahman (as transcendent self) and the world (as the immanent self) are thus connected.

It is fitting then, that the Atharvaśīrṣa then proceeds to blur the lines between the immanent and transcendent:

“Let my speech, breath, ears, and eyes be strong

As all the limbs in my body.

Let the wisdom of the Vedas and Upaniṣads seep in me

And the wisdom of the wise never denied to me for any reason.

Let Dharma have an unbroken bond with my Self.

Let it abide in me, let it abide in me.” (Sonde 8)

Sonde understands the śāṃti pāṭha as “bringing in communion the human form with the divine essence” (Sonde 9). This insight is particularly powerful because it affirms that humanity is rooted in divinity, and teaches us that absolute self-worth is in the nature of all beings. Also significant is that the Atharvaśīrṣa beseeches the Self as Gaṇeśa to never allow this wisdom, found in the Vedas and Upaniṣads, to be denied to us.

This challenges Brahminical notions of gatekeeping knowledge, denying it to the laity. It is not that the Upanishads deny knowledge to lower castes, but that upper caste individuals have denied them to others. We acknowledge the structural oppression that lower castes face, and recognize the cause as the human, phenomenal act of error. We at Sadhana believe that knowledge is sacred, and that it should not be kept from others. We resolve to spread knowledge, and help others share in its power to uplift people.

It should also be noted that the applications of the lessons of the Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa are applicable beyond just caste oppression; Gaṇeśa is present in and watches over the LGBTQ+ community, undocumented families, Hindus and non-Hindus alike. Gaṇeśa’s nature as lord of communities challenges clerical supremacy and impels the sādhaka (the practitioner of faith) to honor all equally, and hold them accountable in all spaces, especially shared ones.

Agency is an important aspect of this Upaniṣad, because it places the power to shape one’s world and communities in one’s own hands, which is both a grave and empowering responsibility. Error is fixable, and the illumination of Parabrahman is part of the process toward reconciliation of injustice and moving forward.

The role of the individual in dialogue

The Atharvaśīrṣa  repeatedly establishes that the divinity of Gaṇeśa as Parabrahman is ever-present in all things, keeping in with the Upaniṣadic tradition. The Truth as Gaṇeśa illuminates all senses, and empowers all beings to shape their own destiny and live in harmony with their communities.

“Let my Speech be established in my Mind,

Let my Mind be established in my Speech

Let the resplendent Divinity of God be made known within.

Let the wisdom of the Vedas heard by me never be lost.

That which is enjoined by day and night, that I speak.

I speak of the Truth; let that Truth make me responsive, and the speaker responsive.

Let me be made responsive to the truth, and the speaker as well, do make the speaker responsive.

Let the Truth be propitiously peaceful. Peace, peace, peace.” (Sonde 9)

This passage reminds us of the need and power of dialogic learning, by calling on Truth itself to make itself known to the “speaker” (our partners in discourse and dialogue). Sonde’s interpretation is toward the mystic, inner side of Hindu practice, but it is equally applicable to lay belief, especially considering the Atharvaveda is quite literally the “Veda of atharvāṇa” (atharvāṇa meaning everyday religious practices). Gaṇeśa as Brahman is equally present within and without.

Just as the truth of the Iśāvasya Upanishad eliminates hatred and delusion, the Atharvaśīrṣa speaks of hope that Gaṇeśa will provide the same to us and our communities. Rambachan’s own words echo this sentiment, by establishing that we cannot deny the world’s connection to Brahman, being expressed as Māya. Māya may be transient, but it has value nonetheless, as an expression of Brahman.

“In liberation, the world is not unseen but seen with new eyes; the many is seen as expressions of the One. Nature has an intrinsic value that derives from the fact of its connectedness to brahman.”( Rambachan 140-141)

Similarly, we cannot refute the power that Brahman has to inspire and illuminate, because it is described many times in Keṇa Upaniṣad as the “Eye of the Eye” and “Ear of the Ear” (Keṇa Upaniṣad 1.5-1.9). Without this self, our senses fail to apprehend anything.

We invoke Brahman as Gaṇeśa and Gaṇapati, which both roughly mean “lord of the assembly”. However, I choose translate it as “lord of communities”, because Gaṇeśa is a popular god among most Hindu communities and is invoked almost universally.  

The Atharvaśīrṣa calls on all members of the community, from the four directions and regions high and low to be a part of the journey inward to the Self:

“Let the one who comes from the west be receptive

And the one from the east

And the one from the north

And the one from the south.

Let the one who comes from high places be receptive.

Let the one who comes from low places be receptive.

Let me perceive those who come from all sides.” (Sonde 24)

The text is unequivocal in recognizing that knowledge-seeking and growth is a collective, communal effort. It cannot be done alone, for all parts and expressions of Brahman in Māya are connected to the all-pervasive One, manifest as Gaṇeśa. We can read these “ones” as both gods and people, for they are one in the assembly of Gaṇeśa. In the new year and years to come, let us resolve to listen, to be patient, and to grow with others. Let us invite people from all groups to join us, regardless of their gender, caste, race, or religion. We are enriched by practices of spiritual and cultural camaraderie, and so invite all to join us in this practice.

We cannot leave anyone behind, because wherever there is suffering, all experience it. Gaṇeśa, as the lord of communities (gaṇa), is ever-present in the four elements, the parts of speech, and is sat-cit-ānanda (truth-consciousness-bliss). He presents the opportunity to reconcile with our communities when wrongs have been wrought, and the power to heal. Sadhana resolves to undertake this effort, to help our communities and others heal together, because the sadhaka is para-duḥkha-duḥkhi (one who feels the pain of others as her own).

Transcendence and immanence as One

The Atharvaśīrṣa goes on to describe Gaṇeśa as manifest in the syllable गं (gaṃ) and then describes Him as clothed in red robes, having an elephant’s head, and decorated with red flowers (Sonde 38-40). This description is the acknowledgement of transcendent divinity in His immanence, but it also serves as the Gaṇeśa Gayatri Mantra, a powerful prayer to remind us that divinity, with and without form are equally present and important. The Sanskrit prayer is provided for your use.

ॐ गं गणपतये नमः (oṃ gaṃ gaṇapataye namaḥ)

एकदंताय विद्महे (ekadaṃtāya vidmahe)

वक्रतुंडाय धीमहि (vakratuṃḍāya dhīmahi)

तन्नो दंति प्रचोदयात्। (tanno daṃti pracodayāt)

Salutations to Ganapati, manifest as the syllable “gam”.

I know Them as the one-tusked one

I meditate on the one with a curved trunk

May They enlighten me (Sonde 38).

The phenomenal, apparent qualities of Gaṇeśa are suffused with His mystic qualities. They are not mutually exclusive, and exist together. Gaṇeśa is beyond all dualities, and as such all those who come before Him, regardless of gender, caste, creed, or any other social constructed category, are unmistakably equal. Gaṇeśa is not a purely mystical being, as the text recognizes him in the last verses as the son of Shiva, benevolent to his common believers and Yogis alike. He is a part of a family, He is a community leader, and as such he resonates with all of us. This inspires Sadhana’s belief in community-based activism and faith.

Rambachan’s writing on interdependent living affirms this interpretation:

“Human beings are part of a complex matrix that includes ancestors, teachers, other than human living beings, and the elements. Our dependence on this matrix for our well-being requires, as the Bhagavadgītā explains so eloquently, that we contribute to its sustenance through our generosity to others. This understanding of interdependence is deepened by the Advaita teaching that the self and world are not-two” (Rambachan 85).

Just as Gaṇeśa sustains all things through His very nature as Brahman, uniting and equalizing, we must always remember that we live in a community together and that no person is free of responsibility to it. That means that we must see learning and knowledge as the ultimate offering of justice, for justice cannot be done if our communities do not know themselves and others.

The Gaṇeśa Atharvaśīrṣa provides us with a way to challenge our existing prejudices and unjust systems, to acknowledge that our communities are diverse but united in life and the divinity of Gaṇeśa. In the new year, we invite Hindu communities and all communities to resolve to learn together, to honor individuals in diversity, and uphold universal access to wisdom.

Bibliography:

Sonde, Nagesh. Sri Ganapati Atharva Sheersha: Originals in Sanskrit, Translated in English with Commentary. Nagesh D. Sonde, 2004.

Rambachan, Anantanand. A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two Is Not One (SUNY Series in Religious Studies). State University of New York Press. Kindle Edition.