Visitors to the Ganesha temple at Ranjangaon, Maharashtra – one of the Ashtavinayak shrines – invariably look up at the entrance to the main hall, so that their eyes may rest upon a sacred text carved into the stone. This is the Ganapati Atharvashirsha, often referred to as the Ganapati Upanishad.
Among Maharashtrians, the Atharvashirsha holds pride of place as the most widely chanted Sanskrit text devoted to their favored deity.
Nobody knows for sure when the Atharvashirsha was composed. Scholars believe it could have been sometime between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some say it was composed by the Sage Atharva, but that is doubtful, since none of the Upanishads bear an author’s name. History records that the Atharvashirsha came into prominence during the early 1900s when Ganesha worship among Pune-based Maharashtra Brahmins became popular.
What does ‘Atharvashirsha’ mean?
The scholar John A. Grimes (Ganapati: Song of the Self) surmises that Atharvashirsha implies "firmness or singlepointedness of the intellect as directed towards one's realization of the Divine." Studying this text helps the worshipper reach the four goalposts of life as laid out in Hinduism – Dharma (doing the right thing), Artha (material prosperity), Kama (enjoyment of sensual pleasures) and finally, Moksha (liberation of the soul).
What does it say?
The Atharvashirsha is the definitive text on Ganesha. It pays homage to Him as the Supreme Deity, one who subsumes all other divinities. He is the Holy Trinity who cyclically creates, sustains and destroys the universe. He embodies within Him the five elements, the past, present and future and all celestial bodies.
Importantly, the text contains the bija or ‘seed mantra’ of Ganesha – Gam – and teaches a devotee how to use the mantra appropriately and worship Ganesha. Further stanzas reverentially describe Ganesha’s attributes – His tusk, multiple arms, belly and weaponry. These are for the devotee to meditate upon as they contain the philosophical essence of Ganesha worship.
Studying the Atharvashirsha enables the worshipper to remain free in spirit, unmoved by obstacles and liberated from sin. Meditating upon the text every morning and evening wipes out the consequences of any sinful actions committed in the intervening periods.
The text sounds a cautionary note – it should not be taught to those without faith and devotion. A teacher who does so out of greed is considered a great sinner.
Reciting the Atharvashirsha regularly empowers a devotee tremendously. Different means of worship confer different benefits. Ritual bathing of Ganesha helps one master the art of eloquence. Worship with Durva grass brings wealth. With rice flakes come fame and scholarship. Offering modaks brings the devotee his heart’s desire. He who offers all of these, along with ghee, attains everything.