Very often thought to be exclusively a Hindu deity, Ganesha prominently appears in Tantric Buddhism as the Buddhist god Vināyaka. In Buddhism Ganesha is very often depicted as dancing but in some representations he is also depicted as being stood on by the deity Mahakala; several other depictions also refer to Ganesha as the Destroyer of Obstacles, again very often dancing. In Hinduism, Ganesha is also often portrayed as a demon that goes by the name of Vināyaka; this serves to show the intriguing connection between Hinduism and Buddhism, and how the travels of followers have had far-reaching consequences on the portrayal of various gods and demons in each of the belief systems.
In Tantric Buddhism, Ganesha is also referred to by the name Ganapati, which translates to The Great Red Lord of Hosts. Ganapati is closely tied to the Chakrasamvara Cycle of Tantras and is also oft regarded as being a derivation of Avalokiteśvara, who is the bodhisattva embodiment of all of the compassion that each of the Buddha’s have. Compassion and wisdom are the most important qualities that Buddhists seek out; however, while Avalokiteśvara is invoked frequently, Ganesha is less popular and thus invoked less frequently.
While descriptions and illustrations can vary greatly across the globe, one of the most famous descriptions of Ganesha is as follows.
"...beside a lapis lazuli rock mountain is a red lotus with eight petals, in the middle a blue rat expelling various jewels, [above] Shri Ganapati with a body red in color, having an elephant face with sharp white tusks and possessing three eyes, black hair tied in a topknot with a wishing-gem and a red silk ribbon [all] in a bundle on the crown of the head. With twelve hands, the six right hold an axe, arrow, hook, vajra, sword and spear. The six left [hold] a pestle, bow, khatvanga, skull cup filled with blood, skull cup filled with human flesh and a shield together with a spear and banner. The peaceful right and left hands are signified by the vajra and skull cup filled with blood held to the heart. The remaining hands are displayed in a threatening manner. Wearing various silks as a lower garment and adorned with a variety of jewel ornaments, the left foot is extended in a dancing manner, standing in the middle of the bright rays of red flickering light."
The form of Ganapati that is being trampled on by Mahakala belongs to a set of deities known as the Three Great Red Deities. The six-armed form of Mahakala tramples a deity with an elephant head, which is indicative of Ganesha (Ganapati) being subdued by other Buddhist deities. Some have argued that this is truly a reference to Buddhism rejecting the teachings of Hinduism, and demonstrating with the depiction of a Hindu deity being subdued by The Great Protector, Mahakala. However, this is not always thought to be true because of several other teachings and paintings that have Ganesha standing alongside the Buddha; such is evident in the Thangka paintings in Tibet.
Some of the narratives that surround Ganesha are related to Avalokiteśvara having killed the Hindu Ganesha. The narrative then goes on to relate how Avalokiteśvara cuts off the elephant head of Ganesha, placing it on top of his own head.
In some aspects of Buddhism, Ganesha is also referred to as the Deva of Bliss. Ganesha is invoked both for worldly gains and enlightenment, however the focus remains often primarily for worldly gains. When offerings are made to earn favor and show respect to Ganesha, the offerings typically include “bliss buns” which are sweet pastries made of parched flour, curds, and honey. Radishes, fresh fruits, and wine are also offered by followers.
The reasons for worshipping Ganesha range drastically between the divides of ages. The older individuals worship Ganesha in order to attain success with their business ventures, while the youngsters worship him as a god of love who will guide them towards successful courtships. As the deity thought to influence wealth, Ganesha is also referred to as being the remover of obstacles. These obstacles could come in the form of romantic obstacles or financial and business obstacles, depending on the reasons that Ganesha is being invoked by followers.
While teachings about this deity vary greatly between the many different avenues of Buddhism, Ganesha does appear to be featured prominently across the majority of them. Whether he is being subdued, without complaint, underfoot by the great protective gods, is being embraced by several other deities, is dancing, or is one of the embodiments of compassion, Ganesha is very much a part of Buddhism. One scholar has also drawn a comparison between one of the forms of Ganesha with the two-headed Roman god Janus; however modern scholars have not held on very strongly to this claim because two-headed representations of Ganesha are not very common in any of the texts, teachings, or illustrations in which he appears.
Several other scholars have even offered their own very generalized interpretation of Ganesha and his various incarnations, stating that his very name and his form are representative of “eternal enlightenment,” which means that Ganesha may actually be a Buddha. As a Buddha is one who has achieved true enlightenment, this interpretation may have some merit to it if Ganesha can be seen as truly enlightened. If Ganesha is seen as yet one of the parts of Avalokiteśvara, who is a bodhisattva perching on the cusp of enlightenment, then it could be said that perhaps this part of Avalokiteśvara has been able to commit to attaining true enlightenment, while the other aspects of Avalokiteśvara opt to remain as bodhisattva until all other sentient beings have been freed from suffering.
Ornate and respectful statues and teachings of Ganesha are found across several other belief systems, and have been discovered in many countries across the world. As Hinduism spread, due to the reach and explorations of its followers, Ganesha gained more popularity in other areas of the world. In Indochina, for example, Hinduism and Buddhism were practiced side-by-side, which has led to mutual influences in these two religions.
If you would like to incorporate Ganesh into your practice, check out this Ganesh statue.