Anthropomorphism in Early Religion | Thoughts on Lord Ganesha and Lord Varaha

The deification of “important” animals was a big, breathing and living aspect of early societies; especially as it pertains to their worldview of what we would now describe as religion or God.

These humans, when deified, were usually part-human and part-animal. The known traits of a particular animal were magnified and associated with a particular deity. The deity which was attributed with those traits underwent a psychological phenomena known as anthropomorphism.

Ancient mythologies frequently represented the divine as anthropomorphic deities with human forms and qualities. Not only did they resemble human beings in appearance and personality; they exhibited many human behaviours that were used to explain natural phenomena, creation and historical events. The deities fell in love, married, had children, fought battles, wielded weapons and even rode on animal vehicles.

Ganesha and Varaha

Let’s begin with the example of Ganesha. When we lived in small groups, there is much evidence to suggest that females were ‘the head’ of the household. Men, in such circumstances, were largely solitary and left to fend for themselves after a certain age or after mating. In some instances, beyond procreation, the males of the species did not have much of a role in society.

Elephant societies are strongly matriarchal. And yet, when the elephant was deified, it was the male of the species that was deified. It was the bachelor–and not the married matriarch–that attained and was attributed with the status of the divine.

Ganesha is usually depicted and remembered as the child of Parvati (and by extension Shiva). However, it is Parvati who created Ganesha. Shiva, in a fit of his infamous rage, temper and anger; severed the human head of Ganesha from his body.

The elephant is a physically strong animal. It is also intelligent and possesses a great memory. But what is a great memory? The elephant remembers its loved ones.

The boar, as the third avatar of Vishnu, is also a “matriarchal animal”. The eldest female takes on the role as the head of the pack and male boars are solitary.

In his avatar as Varaha, Lord Brahma rescues the earth, which was quite young at the time, and hoists Bhudevi the earth goddess, in between its horns. The story speaks of the birth of the earth goddess–a new earth, if you will–being born out of the waters of primordial creation.

It is interesting and noteworthy that it was the male attribute that was deified in matriarchal societies. While the male carried the potential and the possibility for future generations, men were not-as-yet required to accept the responsibility for living in a large-scale civilisation. It was what permitted them to be bachelors and be loved for it.

The world has changed a lot, indeed!


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