In one of the shrines of the Thanumalayan temple in Kanyakumari district, India, is the stone sculpture of a four-armed deity sitting cross-legged in Sukhasana (“easy pose” – similar to sitting in a simple cross-legged position) holding a battle-axe, a large shell, a vase and a staff around which the deity entwines a long trunk. At first glance, one would think that this is the famous elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha except that this deity is clearly female.
Every year, Hindus across the country celebrate the birth Ganesha, revered as the remover of obstacles, in the Bhadrapada month of the Hindu calendar which usually begins at the end of August. But the same level of adulation has never been given to this goddess – Vinayaki. The 16th century Shilparatna (“Sculptural Gems”), a classical text on traditional South Indian arts, gives a description of Vinayaki as having the head of an elephant and the body of a youthful woman. She is vermillion-coloured, with large breasts, a corpulent belly and beautiful hips.
However, Vinayaki’s legends are so overshadowed by the popularity of Ganesha that she is either known by a wide variety of names and descriptions (which makes recognizing her in ancient texts difficult) or worse, ignored completely. In another stark contrast to the immense popularity of the images of Ganesha, Vinayaki is not often represented by an icon and she is also one of the least encountered deities in religious literature. Variations of Vinayaki’s name are all feminine versions of the elephant god – Gajanani, Vighneshi, Gajarupa. She does not have a consistent name and is known by various names, Stri Ganesha (“female Ganesha”), Vinayaki, Vighneshvari (“Mistress of obstacles”) and Ganeshani, and many more, all of them being feminine forms of Ganesha’s epithets Vinayaka, Gajanana, Vighneshvara and Ganesha itself. These identifications have resulted in her being assumed as the shakti (“feminine form”) of Ganesha. Here again lies another conflict as, although Vinayaki is generally related to Ganesha and the obvious theory is that Vinayaki is Ganesha’s shakti, at no historical period was she given as much personal adoration as is accorded to the feminine forms of other gods. The Jain and Buddhist traditions offer another interpretation that Vinayaki is not one of Ganesa’s Shaktis or consorts, but an independent goddess. In Buddhist works, Vinayaki is called Ganapatihridaya (“heart of Ganesha”) indicating her importance.
Vinayaki is not the only elephant-headed female in Hindu mythology. Elephant-headed females appearing in the Puranas are usually considered to be demonesses or cursed goddesses. In a version of a tale about Ganesha’s birth, the goddess Parvati took a bath at the banks of the river Ganga. After she had finished her bath, Parvati threw the used water into the flowing river which was then drank by the elephant-headed demoness, Malini, who then gave birth to a boy with the head of five elephants. What followed was a heated argument as the goddesses Ganga and Parvati appeared – each claiming this multiple elephant-headed infant as their own. The two goddesses took the issue to Shiva and asked him for a solution. Shiva solved the problem by proclaiming Parvati as the mother of this five elephant-headed infant. He then combined the five heads into one and named the child Ganesha.
Although religious scriptures say that Ganesha is celibate, the Mahapurana and Upapurana contain legends of Ganesha’s marriage to Riddhi (prosperity), Siddhi (spiritual power) and Buddhi (wisdom). In some versions, Riddhi and Siddhi are said to be incarnations of Lakshmi who, in Skanda Purana, is said to have been cursed to have an elephant head, which she got rid of by doing penance to appease the god Brahma. None of these women are called Vinayaki and are only remotely linked to Ganesha as a mother (Malini) or a consort (Lakshmi).
The Harivamsa, Vayu Purana and Skanda Purana also describe elephant-faced Matrikas (“Mothers”) and ganas (“tribes”), with names such as Gajamukhi (“elephant-faced”) and Gajasya (“elephantine”). However, these Matrikas are more likely to be related to Jyestha, the goddess of misfortune who is also described as elephant-faced merely due to her large nose.
Jyestha (“the elder”) appears in the Hindu tradition as early as 300 BCE as the Hindu goddess of misfortune as well as the elder sister and antithesis of Lakshmi. Jyestha is associated with inauspicious places as well as sloth, poverty, sorrow and ugliness. She was worshipped by women who wished to keep her away from their homes. Jyestha, who is especially associated with the senior wife in a polygamous family, denotes the negatives while Lakshmi denotes the positives of Hindu wives and household.
All these do not mean that the name Vinayaki is never mentioned in the Puranas. In the Matsya Purana, compiled in c. 550 CE, Vinayaki appears as one of the Matrikas, created by Shiva, Ganesha’s father, to defeat the demon Andhaka – although, in this context, Vinayaki may be considered more as a shakti of Shiva, rather than Ganesha. Vinayaki’s name also appears a list of shaktis in the Linga Purana. However, the Agni Purana, compiled in the 10th century CE, does not list Vinayaki as a shakti and the Devi Purana explicitly identifies Gananayika or Vinayaki as both the shakti of Ganesha, characterized by her elephant head and ability to remove obstacles like Ganesha, and the ninth Matrika.
Although the earliest known elephant-headed goddess figure is found in Rairh, Rajasthan dated from around the first century BCE to the first century CE, its terracotta plaque was mutilated and the emblems in her hands and her other features are eroded. Therefore, it is not possible to identify her clearly.
Another elephant-headed sculpture of Vinayaki are in the Chausath Yogini Temple, Bhedaghat, Madhya Pradesh, although in this temple she is called Sri-Aingini. This is a rather unique portrayal as Sri-Aingini’s bent left leg is supported by an elephant-headed male – Ganesha, giving the impression of Ganesha taking a supporting role while she leads. Although this could have led to a misidentification of this figure as Malini taking on a mother figure towards Ganesha, the sculpture reinforces the belief of Vinayaki/Sri-Aingini as an independent goddess.
A rare metal sculpture of Vinayaki is also found in Chitrapur Community Temple, Shirali depicting her as full-breasted yet slender – unlike the potbellied Ganesha. Her trunk is turned to the left and she wears the Yajnopavita (“sacred thread”) across her chest. Her two front hands are held in abhaya (“fear-not”) and varada (“boon-giving”) gestures as her two back hands carry a sword and a noose. The image is likely to be from the 10th century north-western India and belonged to the Tantric Ganapatya sect who regarded Ganesha as the Supreme God. However, the rather sinister sword and noose that she holds may associate her with the Matrikas, as most references in the Mahabharata to the Matrikas make it clear that they goddesses were understood to be dangerous and their behavior is consistently said to be violent. Malini, as it happens, is also listed as one of the Matrikas.
Vinayaki from Giryek, Bihar, is also not pot-bellied. The four-armed goddess carries a gada (mace), ghata (pot), Parashu (axe) and a shell. A Pratihara image shows a pot-bellied Vinayaki, with four arms holding a gada-parashu combination, a lotus and a plate of sweets, which the trunk grabs. This leads to another confusion towards her status as Ganesha also often depicted as holding a plate of sweets, and the lotus flower is a symbol of Lakhsmi. In another image, the central figure, the cow-headed Vrishabha (the equivalent of Taurus in Indian astrology), holds the baby Ganesha in her arms as Vinayaki is depicted as a pot-bellied minor figure. In this configuration, Vrishabha may be considered as a mother of Ganesha and Vinayaki, thus signifying a sibling relationship between Vinayaki and Ganesha.
To learn more about Vinayaki, the ancient practice of Tantra might prove to be helpful. The earliest definitions and expositions on Tantra come from the ancient texts of 5th century BCE scholar Panini and 2nd century BCE scholar Patanjali. The tantric cults preferred to see the divine in the female form, rather than in the more dominant male form. This could be because the female form was seen as the source of all generative powers – as the spark of life came from the male body, life finally was created and nourished by the female body. Therefore, the idea of a female elephant-headed deity, whether she is an independent goddess, the Shakti of Ganesha or the handmaid of Parvati, plays an integral part in tantric practices.
Another reason for this could be that the female form is viewed to symbolize the material resources, while the male form symbolizes the mental potential. Ancient sages in India debated between the two, specifically over which one should be considered more important: the world of thoughts (mental potential) or the material world (material resources). Those who leaned towards the world of thoughts eventually came to be associated with Vedic practices while those who preferred the material world eventually came to be associated with Tantric practices. The former coded their ideas through male forms while the latter coded their ideas through female forms. Therefore, Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, gained popularity in Vedic circles, while Vinayaki became popular in Tantric circles. This would lend itself to the belief that Vinayaki is indeed Ganesha’s shakti, strenghten by the fact that the fourth day after new moon, a day that is sacred to Ganesha, is called Vinayaki Chaturthi.
With the growing influence of tantras and the popularity of shaktism, Ganesha became more frequently depicted with Vinayaki, who was considered to be his female counterpart. One unusual form which was worshipped by the followers of one of the tantric sect is Ucchista Ganesha. This meditative sect opened their doors to all castes, creed and gender – a practice which was unusual at the time. Ganesha is depicted four armed, and holds a pomegranate in one of his hands while embracing a nude goddess who sits on his lap – this nude goddess has been referred to as Vinayaki, although she is not depicted with an elephant head. As this form of worship was very sensual, eroticism and the use of wine became part of the rituals.
Though ganesha is identified with his consorts Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi, Vinayaki (as the “female form” of Ganesha) became more popular possibly after the development of the this cult. The importance of Vinayaki with the rise of the Ganapatya cult and tantrism, leading her to be absorbed as one of the sixty four yoginis that are worshipped in the practice. Her presence as a yogini is also seen in Jainism where she is identified as Vinayaki in Jain texts and manuscripts such as Vidhiprapa, composed in 1306 CE. Similarly, she was later absorbed in Vajrayana Buddhism as Ganapatihrdaya.