February 23, 2014



Gajasura Samhara, Halebid

I had the good fortune of visiting the wonderful Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebid last weekend as a part of our trip to Chikmaglur, the details of which will be put up on the blog soon. Among the several soap stone statues that adore the outer walls of these exceptionally beautiful temples, one that mesmerized me the most was that of the Gajasura Samhar - Shiva the destroyer slaying the demon Gajasura by performing the tandav nritya inside his belly. As our guides, first in Belur and then in Halebid explained us the details of the statues, I realized that I had no idea about this episode from the colorful Indian mythology. Of course, one of the first things that I did that evening when we were travelling from erstwhile capital of the Hoysalas to the port city of Mangalore was to read about it. Not so surprisingly, there seem to be several different narratives, mentioned in our Puranas about this tale, some of which I have mentioned below.

The Elephant Demon & the Elephant God: According to one legend, Gajasura a 'good' demon impressed Lord Shiva with penance. When the Destroyer appeared before him and asked him for what he wished, the Asura asked him to reside in his stomach. The Lord agreed, of course without thinking of the consequences like he has done so many times and for which he has earned the name of Bhola Shankar. With Shiva away, Goddess Parvati who had no idea about the incident was worried and approached Lord Vishnu to find her husband. The Savior realized that Shiva was inside Gajasura's stomach and devised a plan to get him back. He transformed Nandi, Shiva's consort into a dancing bull and dressed himself as a flutist and went to the court of the great demon. Gajasura being impressed with the flutist's show told him to ask for whatever he wanted. When the flutist asked him to liberate Mahadev, he fell to his feet realizing that it was none other than Lord Vishnu. After liberating Shiva, the demon requested the Lord to take his head to Kailash and he complied. When he reached his abode, Shiva was stopped by a young boy. Unaware that he was his own son, Shanker chopped off his head, enraging Parvati who threatened to destroy the world unless her son was brought back to life. To pacify her and to revive his dead son, Ishwar attached Gajasura's head to the headless torso and thus was born Lord Ganesh.

While I personally consider this version of Gajasura Samhara to be the most 'accurate', there mare many questions that remain unanswered. Firstly, there are very few 'good' demons mentioned in the ancient Indian texts. The one that are mentioned like Prahlad and Emperor Bali are celebrated for their impeccable character and conduct. However, no such praise is showered on Gajasura. The most important episode from this tale is that of Shiva emerging out of the demon's belly. However, if he was a good demon, it is doubtful that Shiva would have killed a devotee of his in such a brutal manner. Thirdly, there are many stories of how Lord Ganesh got his elephant head and not all start with the tale of the elephant demon.

Teaching the wicked sages a lesson: Another version of the story is from the Varaha Purana. The sages of the Darukavana, the Deodar forests had become arrogant of their powers. In a bid to teach them a lesson and break their false pride, Lord Shiva in the form of a young and attractive mendicant went to their forests along with the charming Mohini, the female form of Lord Vishnu who played a critical role in denying Amrit to the Asuras during the Sagar Manthana or the Churning of the Ocean. The sages were spell bound by Mohini's beauty whereas their wives were enchanted by Shanker. When the sages understood the clever ploy of the Lord, they were enraged. To destroy him, they used their tantric powers to create a mighty demon in the form of an elephant called Gajasura. As he attacked Shiva, a war ensured between the two during which Shiva slayed the demon and wore his hide around his body. The problem with this story is that it does not talk about how Shiva killed the elephant demon; nothing is said about the famous portrait of the Destroyer dancing on the head of his fallen foe.

Shiva - The Protector of the devotees: After having undergone severe penance, Gajasura - the elephant demon became extremely powerful and strong. In fact, even the Devas were said to have been scared of him. With power going into his head, he started harassing the devotees of Lord Shiva in Varanasi, asking them to worship him. As his atrocities increased, Shiva appeared before him and killed Gajasura. He skinned the animal and wore its hide around his body. This version is narrated in the Kurma Purana where Shiva is referred to by the name of Krittivasa, one who has skin as his garment. There are conflicting views as to where this incident occurs. Some believe that Shiva killed Gajasura in Varanasi whereas others say it took place in Valuvur in Tamil Nadu, where the presiding deity is Lord Shanker in form of Gajasamharamurthi.

The Shiva Puranas give a slightly different version of this tale which is pretty similar to the one mentioned in the Kurma Purana. Here Gajasura is said to be the son of the Mahishasura, the buffalo demon who was killed by Goddess Durga. To avenge his father's death, he is said to have performed a penance. Lord Brahma was impressed and granted him a boon that he would be killed only by a Jitendriya, one who has overcome all lust and desires. Thinking that he was invincible, the demon harassed the people of the Earth, asking them to worship him instead of the Gods. He went to Benares and attacked the sages who prayed to Lord Shiva for help. Shanker, moved by their cries for help appeared and destroyed Gajasura. On the request of his enemy, he took his head as a trophy and wore his skin around his body. It is said that Gajasura's body become the Krittivasesvara linga of Lord Shanker.