GᾹṆAPATYAS are a sect of Hindus who regard Gaṇeśa (Ganapati) as their supreme object of devotion. They view Gaṇeśa, the elephant-faced son of Śiva and Parvati, as the form of ultimate reality (brahman ) that is accessible to the senses, the mind, and (through devotional practices) the heart. Most Hindus worship Gaṇeśa along with other deities because he is the god who overcomes obstacles and makes rites and other undertakings effective. Gāṇapatyas share this view but extend it to make Gaṇeśa their central deity, either as their family or clan patron-god (kuladevatā ) or their personal lord (iṣṭadevatā ). Devotion in the first case tends to be more formal and take place during specific ceremonies and festivals, while the second form of devotion is more likely to be personal, informal, and intense.
Although Gāṇapatyas may be found in many parts of India and from many castes, the sect has found its most articulated cultic expression in western India, in the Marathi-speaking region of Maharashtra, among high-caste Hindus. The sect rose to prominence in the region between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries ce, during the rule of the Marathas. Gaṇeśa worship is also important in South India, where a number of temples are dedicated to him.
Gāṇapatya groups first appeared between the sixth and ninth centuries ce, and worshiped their deity in various forms according to the prevailing Brahmanic and Tantric practices. Two Sanskrit Purāṇas, the Gaṇeśa and the Mudgala, date from the twelfth and fourteenth centuries ce, respectively. These Purāṇas recount and celebrate the myths of Gaṇeśa's triumphs over demons on behalf of the gods and his devotees. They also include instructions for ritual performance and hymns of praise. Since the seventeenth century there has been a steady flow of devotional literature in both Sanskrit and Marathi.
In Maharashtra, devotion to Gaṇeśa has centered around eight shrines (aṣṭavināyaka s) clustering around the city of Poona (Pune) and the nearby village of Cincvad, and associated with Gaṇeśa's most famous devotee, Morayā Gosāvi (d. 1651). For the past three centuries Cincvad has served as the administrative center for the sect in the region. The Gāṇapatya tradition enjoyed the patronage of Hindu, and at times Muslim, kings. The brahman Peshwas, the hereditary rulers of the Maratha empire after the death of its founder, Śivajī, contributed substantially to the construction of shrines and financing of rituals during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That patronage continued for a while under British rule, but gradually diminished and has been replaced by contributions from the faithful. As Gaṇeśa's popularity among the masses of Hindus has increased in contemporary times, the Gāṇapatya shrines have prospered.
The sect regards Morayā Gosāvī as its spiritual progenitor. Tradition holds that Morayā migrated from southern India to the Gaṇeśa shrine at Moragaon (70 kilometers southeast of Poona), where he experienced a series of visions of Gaṇeśa. In one vision Gaṇeśa told him that he would incarnate himself in his devotee and remain in his lineage for seven generations. Morayā Gosāvī's own religious charisma and the tradition of living deities in the shrine at Cincvad contributed largely to its religious significance in the region. In 1651 Morayā Gosāvī underwent jīvansamādhi, or entombment while alive, in a chamber beneath the shrine, and thereby passed out of visible existence. Devotees believe he attained release (mokṣa ) from rebirth and that his presence continues to endow the shrine with sacred significance. Several of Morayā Gosāvī's descendants are likewise enshrined at Cincvad. Devotees come there both to honor the image of Gaṇeśa and receive its auspicious sight (darśana ), and to worship the shrines of Morayā Gosāvī and his descendants.
Twice each year the priests at Cincvad, along with thousands of devotees, take an image of Gaṇeśa from this shrine to the temple at Moragaon, where Morayā Gosāvī received his visions, about a hundred kilometers to the southeast. The second annual pilgrimage coincides with the intensely popular Gaṇeśa festival that is celebrated particularly in the towns and cities of Maharashtra in August and September.
Many Gāṇapatyas make periodic pilgrimages to receive the auspicious viewing of Gaṇeśa at his eight shrines. Devotees maintain that it is particularly salutary to visit all eight shrines in a single pilgrimage.
The works by Gāṇapatyas remain almost entirely untranslated into Western languages. Part of the Gaṇeśa Purāṇa has been translated and edited by Kiyoshi Yoroi in Gaṇeśagītā: A Study, Translation with Notes, and a Condensed Rendering of the Commentary of Nilakaṇṭha (The Hague, 1968). The most complete collection of Gāṇapatya literature and lore in Marathi is Amarendra L. Gadgil's Śrī Gaṇeś Koś (Poona, India, 1968). A survey of the Gāṇapatyas in the context of the myth and ritual traditions of Gaṇeśa can be found in my book Gaṇeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (New York, 1985). Excellent discussions of the sect and its political significance appear in G. S. Ghurye's Gods and Men (Bombay, 1962) and in Laurence W. Preston's "Subregional Religious Centres in the History of Maharashtra: The Sites Sacred to Ganesh," in Images of Maharashtra: A Regional Profile of India, edited by N. K. Wagle (Toronto, 1980).
Paul B. Courtright (1987)