Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ganesh - The "Remover of Obstacles?"

I generally dislike trite sayings such as; "god never gives a person more than they can handle." I understand the underlying thought behind it, but such sentiments drive me crazy because I can't help but see them as subtly infantilizing our humanity.  A more scientifically representative view might be to suggest that humanity has EVOLVED the capacity to overcome a great deal of suffering (much more then we often give ourselves credit for). 

There is a common saying that Ganesh (the elephant-headed Hindu deity) is "the remover of obstacles." Of course I tend to read into all mythology in a Jungian sense, as simply metaphors of a societies collective unconscious, but I believe this is one of those examples Daniel Dennett (author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea) is referring to when he uses the phase "sky hook" - a metaphor, if you're not familiar with the term, Dennett uses to describe a fundamentalists typical fall back position ("god did it") when they are unable to explain something.  

As a therapist, I have asked many of my clients in my practice where they get their strength from in life.  Inevitably I'll come across someone who claims that "god gave it to me."  I believe this is what Dennett meant by a sky hook.  The point of my asking the question is simply for my client to acknowledge their inherent strengths in an attempt to break through their intrinsic illusion of being flawed or powerless.  I see pointing to god (or anything else external to them) as a major impass in this regard, and a general subjugation of ones own inherent capacity to overcome adversity. Far be it for me to challenge someone else's spirituality, but whenever I come across someone who makes such an unjustifiable claim I always like to follow up the question by asking them WHO they believe is responsible for making the conscious choice to cope with their suffering in such a manner?  It's a subtle difference, but I believe it's meaningful because it speaks more to a persons internal fortitude as their strength being intrinsic, verses it being extrinsically "given from above."

The fact that many Westerners have come to read into the mythology of Ganesh as being him being "the remover of obstacles" is not at all surprising.  It not only shows a philosophy that reeks of spiritual narcissism, but it also reveals an unconscious focus on an external locus of control - as if humanity was completely powerless over their own fate (something I adamantly reject).  These are very Western concepts, adopted slowly and progressively since the dawning of the Bronze Age.  It's a recently embraced worldview (within the last 8,000 years or so) that suggests that the earth and all it's inhabitants (including humanity) are no longer seen as inherently sacred as they had been, as a vast amount of archeological evidence has shown, during the Paleolithic (a time period which lasted well over 40,000 years, well before the advent of agriculture, food surplus, metallurgy and war).  With this "new" (adopted) understanding, humanity is predominantly viewed as wretched and utterly powerless, and can only be redeemed of it's "sins" through turning to god's love (eg: the adoption of credulity).  With such a fatalistic worldview it's no wonder why people feel powerless and unable to recognize their own inherent strength.

Personally, can't understand why people just can't accept the fact that they got through a struggle or a crisis in their lives because our species has evolved over 200,000 years to be resilient, overcome adversity, and to thrive.  It has nothing to do with some mystical sky being ignoring the large portion of the planets suffering (as populations much more deserving of [his] divine help continue to starve and/or have their basic rights violated) just so [he] can help a person with some minor crisis they happen to be struggling with (like passing an exam, getting through relationship difficulties, getting a raise, or a favorite team winning some sporting event, etc).

A more enlightened view of the Ganesh mythology, as suggested by psychotherapist Mark Epstein (author of Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart), might be the idea that Ganesh (or one might say "life") actually PLACES obstacles (metaphorically speaking of course) in our path with the knowledge (wisdom) that adversity has the propensity make humanity stronger, and that we all intrinsically have the capacity to overcome such obstacles.  To me, that interpretation is much more spiritually satisfying and speaks much more to the inherent strength of our species.  I tend to find much more meaningful and powerful than simply saying some formless, abstract, exclusively male sky being was wholly responsible for all of our successes in life.

"When men look up into the space of heaven and invoke a power that is supposed to reside there, they invoke in reality forces within themselves being projected outward." - Lama Govinda


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