A shared taste for sweets, unique fashions and world travel are similarities between the Hindu god Ganesha and Santa Claus, the rotund holiday figure.
The Hindu god Ganesha and Santa Claus (Shutterstock)
Some people (primarily me) have compared the generous Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha to the similarly kind-hearted Santa Claus. They are remarkably similar, and anthropological taxonomists (a couple friends who took Anthropology 101 at university) consider the two personalities to be at least first cousins, and possibly twin brothers, separated at birth. We await DNA analysis.
Here’s the evidence.
Both Ganesha and Santa Claus are rotund.
Two of Ganesha’s 108 names are Lambodara (Pot Belly) and Mahodara (Great Belly). His big stomach can be explained in two ways. First, he has swallowed all the troubles of the world in order to protect mankind from suffering. Second, his cosmic beer belly is necessarily large in order to contain the wisdom of all universes – past, present and future.
Santa Claus’s robust figure is due to the perils of Western civilization. He lives a couch-potato existence during most of the year. He sits comfortably in his North Pole hideaway, supervising, by remote closed-circuit TV, thousands of elves who make up his toy-making workforce. In his leisure time, it is thought he takes no exercise but relaxes in front of the fire, thinking about how to make children happy while enjoying his wife’s home-baked cookies.
Ganesha and Santa Claus were created about the same time.
The first records of Ganesha date to the fourth-to-fifth centuries CE.
Santa Claus’s precursor was Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century CE Greek Christian bishop who lived in what today is Turkey. A devoutly pious Christian, he is usually portrayed as a full-bearded bishop in red ceremonial robes and was noted for offering generous gifts to the poor.
Making a list of who’s been naughty and nice
Ganesha keeps a record of who’s been nice (in his world view, that means upholding Hindu dharma). He doesn’t remove obstacles simply because someone asks, he insists that the devotee makes an appropriate offering and be of good heart.
Santa Claus not only has a list, he checks it twice.
Sweet tooth, lactose-tolerant
Both Ganesha and Santa Claus enjoy sugary delicacies and a glass of milk.
Ganesha’s favorite treats are sweet-dumplings called modak (central India) or laddu (north India). They are shaped like money parcels, related to Ganesha’s ability to help a believer become wealthy.
And Ganesha has a well-documented love of milk, evidenced by a “milk miracle” that occurred in September 1995 when a devotee in New Delhi saw a Ganesha statue “drink” a spoonful of milk that was offered. This event was quickly followed by dozens of similar events, creating a nationwide sensation that quickly went global.
Indian soldiers on the western border with Punjab stopped their maneuvers to worship Ganesha. The Bombay and Delhi stock exchanges closed while traders offered milk to Ganesha. A rumor spread that an elephant-headed boy, a possible reincarnation of Ganesha, had been born that morning in a Punjab town.
The right-wing Hindu political parties pounced on this sensation (some cynics say they instigated it) declaring the milk-drinking was a “prophecy” that they would win the general election the following year. (The 1996 election produced a hung parliament with no single party having a clear majority.)
The phenomenon, which had quickly spread globally, stopped as quickly as it had started. Indian scientists proved that the “miracle” was caused by a combination of surface tension and capillary effect.
Santa Claus is known to appreciate homemade cookies and a glass of cold milk waiting for him when he makes a home visit. (Note: One Christmas I awoke to find a note from Santa: “Thanks for the milk, but next year perhaps you might leave a beer.”)
Flashy outfits and unique style-sense
Ganesha is pictured with powerful symbols of his importance. He often sits on a throne in what is called the “regal” posture. He might be pictured with an assortment of “attributes” (he has some 74 in total) including the trident of his father Shiva, representing the three-pronged powers of love, wisdom and action. He might hold a lotus, symbolizing enlightenment emerging from murky spiritual waters. He has a sacred serpent, the Naga, entwined around his body, representing Kundalini power. He wields a noose to enable the faithful to arrest delusion, curb the ego and restrain passion.
Santa Claus, too, has a unique sense of personal grooming and fashion. He has never cut his white hair or beard, wears small round spectacles and always appears in public wearing the same distinctive outfit — a bright red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur and a black leather belt and boots.
Most Hindu gods rely on a vahana, a Sanskrit term that roughly means “celestial vehicle,” to help out. Ganesha relies on a mouse named Musika for assistance. Elephant-headed, large-bodied Ganesha can take care of the big life-challenging problems people face, but Musika can go into nooks and crannies to alleviate the humdrum daily difficulties people encounter.
Santa Claus has a team of flying reindeer, led by a super reindeer named Rudolph whose bright red nose illuminates the team’s path through harsh winter weather.
A recent Google search for “Ganesha” yields 1.6 billion hits, while “Santa Claus” generates 1.8 billion hits.
Both Ganesha and Santa Claus travel huge distances, without difficulty. They never get stuck in traffic, never have a flight delayed, never have to put up with obnoxious fellow passengers.
In my book “Searching for Ganesha,” there’s a tale about how Ganesha has to circumambulate the universe to win the reward of sweet modaks. In a nutshell: One day a group of gods visited the Shiva-Parvati household and announced that they would present a divine sweet-dumpling modak containing the nectar of Supreme Knowledge and Immortality to one of their two sons.
But there was a condition: “This is a special sweet and must be given only to the wisest and most deserving boy.”
Ganesha and Karttikeya, like brothers everywhere, were competitive. “Me, me!” they cried in unison.
Their mother Parvati would not give in to whining.
“You two can compete for it, like normal children. I’ll give the sweet of wisdom to the first son who circumambulates the universe first.”
Karttikeya was stronger and faster, and he flew off on his trusty vahana, Parvani, the celestial peacock.
Ganesha lounged around the house.
After eons and eons, the family got news that Karttikeya was returning. Ganesha, who had been nibbling a mango and watching cricket, calmly got off his ample bum and strolled around his parents three times.
“What on Earth are you doing?” his mother asked.
“I’m circumambulating the realm of eternity,” he said. “My parents encompass the entire universe. The one we know and all universes yet to be named.”
And so Ganesha won the fraternal competition and, to this day, is rewarded by offerings of modak.
Santa Claus flies at ridiculous speed to visit every household in the world and leave presents for children. It is thought he is assisted by kind air traffic controllers who clear his path and by local police forces worldwide who do not respond to anxious calls that “a fat, bearded man dressed in red and carrying a big sack is climbing through my neighbor’s window.”
Ganesha was born through magical incantations.
Santa Claus’s parentage is unknown.
Isolated, frigid, private homes, far from the people who love them
While tropical Maharashtra in central India is the most fervent Ganesha stronghold, his original home was with his parents, Shiva and Parvati, in the highest snow-clad mountains of the Himalaya.
Santa Claus lives at or near the North Pole. The exact location is unknown, and at least six countries claim to be his residence. It is not known whether he pays taxes in any of those sites.
Both are particularly busy at one time of the year.
Ganesha is fêted at Ganesha Chaturthi, also called Vinayaka Chaturthi, a massive 10-day festival during which believers pray to the god and parade majestic statues of Ganesha.
Santa Claus comes into his own. . . . Well, you know very well when Santa Claus appears.
Ability to remove obstacles
A large part of Ganesha’s popularity is due to his ability to remove obstacles. His ability is so pronounced that even when Hindus begin to pray to a different god, they first offer a prayer to Ganesha, so that he might open the gateway that will assure that the prayer gets through to the designated deity.
Santa Claus is well known for easily sliding down thin chimneys without harm to person or gifts. In the event no chimney is present, he can stealthily enter and exit any dwelling without causing damage.
Neither owns his own identity.
Ganesha and Santa Claus do not retain any rights to their names, images or myths. They exist in the public domain. Without copyright or trademark restrictions, artists and marketeers the world over have free use to use Ganesha and Santa Claus for an unlimited variety of advertising, product names and legends. Also, no individual or legal entity is authorized to license their images. Think how much could be achieved if just a tiny royalty for each use would be paid to a global fund to alleviate poverty, reverse desertification, safeguard women’s rights and provide pay rises to teachers and health care workers.
Both have been used as propaganda symbols for political movements.
Ganesha and Santa Claus became symbols of powerful political and social movements, at about the same time. We do not know whether they consented to such use of their names and images.
Ganesha played a key role in the Indian independence movement. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a prominent leader of the Indian independence movement. He realized that Indians needed to join together and speak with a common voice, but large political gatherings were forbidden by the British East India Company.
Tilak, whom the British dubbed The Father of Indian Unrest, understood that Ganesha was loved and worshipped by all castes and classes, and could be a unifying symbol for the country. And he knew that while the British could prohibit political protest marches, they could not stop religious gatherings.
He channeled the rising patriotic spirit and turned a small, private, household Ganesha ceremony into a massive annual Ganesha street festival, now known as Ganesha Chaturthi, celebrated by millions.
In the dark days of the American Civil war, Harper’s Weekly magazine printed a cartoon of Santa Claus supporting the northern Union forces. The engraving shows Santa, who has arrived in a sleigh, visiting a Union army camp to distribute gifts. He offers the brave soldiers necessities such as warm socks (and copies of the magazine in which the image was published). He entertains the soldiers with a satiric toy jumping jack dangling from a noose, its chest lettered “Jeff” in reference to the Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Three questions to consider:
- How are folklore figures used to influence society and politics?
- What do you think Ganesha meant when he said “my parents encompass the entire universe”?
- Are there similarly kind-hearted and generous figures in the culture where you live?