Can Vaishnavas worship Vinayaka-Ganapati?
On the occasion of 2021 Ganesha Chaturthi aka Vinayaka or Vishvaksena Chaturthi, U.Ve. Sriman Samudrala Venkata Ranga Ramanuja Acharya shares interesting principles. The biggest takeaway for me is the mutual respect he advocates and the method of worshipping other dēvatas (“gods”). The following is a brief English transcript of his Telugu speech.
We (Srivaishnavas) can worship the elephant-headed god as Vināyaka himself, not just as Viṣvaksēna! Any authority for this? Yes, the Pān̄carārtra Āgamas. Specifically, Nāradīya Saṃhitā and Ṡrī-Praṡna-saṃhitā. The Nāradīya describes the origin of a “Vaiṣṇava Gaṇapati”. Such a Vaiṣṇava Gaṇapati is none other than the Ṡrī Viṣṇu Himself, who appeared as 4-handed with conch-discus-mace-lotus, wearing white robes, riding on a Garuḍa-vāhana and yet elephant-faced (gaja-mukha). Thus, he is not the well-known mouse-riding, one-tusked (ēkadanta) Pārvatī-putra. This Gaṇapati is 19-headed, Vaiṡvānara-rūpa whose middle head is specifically said to be elephant-faced.
It is mentioned in the Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, in the Gaṇapati khaṇḍa, that Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa Himself incarnated as Gaṇapati. Even if you consider Pārvatī-putra Gaṇapati, he is also a great Vaiṣṇava. The poet Tyāgarāja, in his Prahlāda-bhatka-vijayam, also praises Gaṇapati as a parama-bhāgavatōttama, who keeps the lotus feet of Hari on his chest!
We can worship Gaṇapati in many forms – Viṣvaksēna is none other than him. Also in the Rāmāyaṇa Yuddhakāṇḍa, it is said “vināyakāḥ ca ṡāṃyanti gṛhē tiṣṭhanti yasya vai” (paṭṭābhiṡēka-sarga) – in whichever home Ramayana is narrated, in that home are the “vināyakā”s pacified (i.e. obstacles removed). Students, especially, have to worship “Vidyā Gaṇapati”. There is no fault in worshipping Pārvatī-putra Gaṇapati as a great devotee (bhāgavatōttama). Let us follow our sampradaya, and yet respect others. Say, on Māha-ṡivarāti, sure, worship Lord Viṣṇu as usual and yet you can do jāgaraṇa on that night, what’s the loss? “Ṡivaṃ bhāgavataṃ smarāmi” (I medidate on Shiva the great Bhāgavata); Lord Ṡiva constantly meditates Viṣṇu’s mantra; hence he is a great devotee. Worship other gods in that sense – why, if you do, will your house be set on fire?
Remember one thing. If Nārāyaṇa is the body, the various gods are His different organs like hands, legs, etc. (sa ātmā aṅgāny anyā devatāḥ in Taitt. Upan.). If you say, “I do namaskāra to Nārāyaṇa”, does it not mean that you’re also prostrating to all His organs. Will you say, “No no, I’m not saluting His bodily organs, but His whole body”? Does that make sense? We must respect all His organs, not just lotus feet, but also hands, head, etc. All dēvatas co-exist in His body. We will never agree to worshipping Ṡiva, Gaṇeṡa, etc. as supreme or chief person, but there is nothing wrong in doing their ārādhana as His parivāra-dēvatas (members of Ṡrīman Nārāyaṇa’s family). It is explicitly described in both Pān̄carātra and Vaikhānasa about parivāra-dēvatā-nirūpaṇa. So don’t have any such doubts.
Many of us (Ṡrīvaiṣṇavas) freak out even at the presence of a photo of other deities in our homes. It is extremely wrong. There is no loss in keeping a photo or vigraha of other gods. The greatest blunder happens when you place Nārāyaṇa under their feet – that is not Vedic, not acceptable. So, don’t think too much. We have to reciprocate with other members of the society. Even when I’m passing by a temple, say of Ṡiva, I effortlessly bow down to him as “Nārāyaṇa” – that may be a Ṡiva temple or even a village deity (grāma-dēvatā), you must bow down to them. Why? Because all these will reach Kēṡava Himself (sarva-dēva namaskāraḥ kēṡavaṃ pratigacchati).
So don’t be so rigid. Keep Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa as the Highest on your altar. Worship Them as such. Others gods’ vigrahas or photos can be placed under Them, as Their parivāra (family), nothing wrong at all. Such deities may be placed on the wall, a shelf, etc. No issues at all. We will not lose our Vaiṡṇavatva by looking at them.
In short, it is acceptable to Vaiṣṇavas to respect and praise other devatas as His devotees, but not as Supreme themselves.
Sri Sri Sri Ahobila Jeeyar Swamiji continues in the same video to clarify further:
ṡuklāmbara-dharaṃ viṣṇuṃ ṡaṡi-varṇaṃ caturbhujam /
prasanna-vadanaṃ dhyāyēt sarva-vighnōpa-ṡāntaye //
is the verse praising Bhagavān Viṣṇu, who incarnated as “Vaiṣṇava-Gaṇapati” to remove all our the obstacles – the story being narrated by Samudrala swamy above. Since Viṣṇu is ṡuddha-sāttvika-mūrti, He is said to be clad with white clothes (ṡuklāmbara). The Pān̄carātra says, “yō’sau vighnēṡa ity-uktē sa hi nārāyaṇaḥ smṛtaḥ” - whom you call as Vighanāyaka is none other than Nāarāyaṇa Himself. Like the Upanishad says, “brahmā nārāyaṇaḥ ṡivaṡ ca nārāyaṇaḥ” etc. Lord Viṣvaksēna is the one who has two-tusked servants (dvirada vaktrādyāḥ).