Ganesha, the global traveler! Besides His more celebrated attributes, He could well be called the Peripatetic One, given His large footprint in other lands and religions. How and why did this happen? Because He is the Lord of Adaptibility who defies quick definition. His multiple and often contradictory qualities make it easy for Him to cross cultural and religious borders, synthesize local sentiments and assume new forms. This traveler has many tales to tell.
Ganesha is widely worshipped by Jains, though there is no mention of him in early Jaina religious writings. He first emerges in a 12th century literary work by Hemachandra, a Jain scholar, philosopher and historian who variously names Ganesha as Heramba, Vinayaka and Ganavignesa. Between the two historical Jaina sects – Swetambara and Digambara – it was the more liberal Swetambaras who embraced Ganesha, along with other Hindu deities. Swetambara texts extol Ganesha as a deity whom even other gods propitiate to attain their wishes. Swetambara Jains observe the Hindu practice of commencing all auspicious ceremonies and new enterprises with obeisance to Ganesha.
A 9th century Jain temple at Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) has the earliest known image of Ganesha in this religion, along with Ambika (another name for His mother, Parvati). Several temple images of Vinayaka are also found in the Jainism dominated states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Travelers to Mumbai can find a Ganesha carving at the beautiful, marble Jain temple in Walkeshwar.
Typically, Ganesha is looked upon as a guardian and not a principal deity in Jainism – hence, His image on doorframes or basements of Jain temples.
Somewhere between the sixth and tenth century, ancient India saw a surge in trade and commercial activity. This period coincided with a rise in Ganesha worship among the merchant community – early inscriptions suggest that the practice of ‘Ganesha first’ originated with traders. It’s also possible that Ganesha took on some of the functions traditionally associated with Kubera, the god of wealth and naturally, became attractive to merchant communities.
Ganesha travelled into neighboring Asian countries along with merchants seeking new markets – this is based on the finding of fifth or sixth century Ganesha images in Myanmar, where Mahayana Buddhism had taken root. In Nepal, Heramba a 16-headed form of Ganesha was popularly worshipped.
Ganesha plays a dual role in Buddhism – a Buddhist god in His own right, as well as a Hindu deity, known as Vinayaka. The Buddhist Vinayaka assumed the form of Nritta Ganapati or Dancing Ganesha, whose popularity in North India spread into Nepal and later, Tibet.