Ganesh/Janus, and the Lost Hindu/Vedic Secrets of Christmas and New Year’s Eve (2022 updated)
During the months of December and January, much of the world observes the transition from one year to another. It is no accident that Christmas and the New Year Holiday celebration takes place in the last days of December and on the first day of January. In our modern times, many of the original reasons for these seasonal observations have become lost or obscured by the historical changes in our world. This article aims to excavate some of the older and deeper meanings of Christmas and the January 1st celebration. Our digging into the history of these days will take us back to ancient Rome and finally back to even more ancient India.
Our story begins with the imagery we are most familiar with, a Winter Solstice on December 21st or 22nd followed by Christmas, a historically more recent celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25th. It is now widely accepted by scholars of the Bible that Jesus was not born on December 25th and was probably born four or five years earlier than is currently observed and more likely in springtime rather than winter. But his birth was and is celebrated within a few days of the much older Winter Solstice celebration, the longest night of the year. Following that night, each day is a little longer until six months later we reach mid-summer night’s eve, the Summer Solstice and longest day of the year. Since the Winter Solstice is the return of the Sun, it appears that the birth of the "Son" was scheduled to coincide with the much more ancient celebration of that important solar day.
As for celebrating New Year’s Eve; the word January is derived from the Latin word Janus, who was known in Rome as the God of beginnings. Janus was also known as the God of gates and doors. He was also referred to as the God of change, transition, and progress. He often represented the transition from rural to urban civilization. He was known to have introduced money, laws, and agriculture. He was thought of as the guardian or custodian of the universe and specifically the protector of Rome. He was worshipped at the beginning of all things, planting time, harvest, marriages, births, the first hour of each day and the morning’s first prayer were dedicated to him. His name comes from the world “janua” meaning gate or portal.
The temple of Janus in Rome had two gates, one facing East and one facing West. Janus was depicted as having two heads, one looking toward the future and one toward the past. In the later Roman Empire, the face of Janus often appeared on coins depicted as a two-headed man facing in opposite directions. Because Janus was considered the protector of Rome, he was worshipped for success in war. It is said that when Rome was fighting a war the gates to the temple of Janus were left open and only during times of peace were they closed. The gates were said to be closed only once in the history of Rome.
But the two heads of Janus were not originally those of a man. His previous form consisted of a man and a woman facing in opposite directions. They were known as Janus Geminis (twin Janus) or Janus Bifrons. Prior to that he was depicted with four heads and was called Janus Quadrifons or the four-faced form of Janus. The two-faced Janus depicted a male and female head, who shared a single crown. The man held a scepter in his hand, the woman a key. There is also a legend regarding Janus, that he once gave shelter to Saturn who was being pursued by Jupiter.
Janus is also supposedly related to the earlier Etruscan deity named Ani, from which our English word annual is derived, as well as the word anus. Like our own body, the year has a beginning and an end, the mouth and the anus are the two gates pointing in different directions, just as January and December are the beginning and end of a year cycle which itself is a kind of circle or gate in time through which we are passing. Obviously, Janus has a relation to Ani and annual.
The next step in understanding Janus requires a little linguistic understanding. It is a well-known historical fact that much of the wealth of the Roman Empire was spent in buying luxurious items from India, which at that time was the wealthiest culture in the world. What many modern people do not know is that both Latin and Greek, as well of course as most European languages including English, are based upon the most ancient classical language of India known as Sanskrit. The final form of the Sanskrit grammar was published in India during the year 800 BCE. Many of the key root words in the European languages, Latin and Greek can be traced back to their roots in Sanskrit. Modern scholars have obscured this fact by referring to a nonexistent and theoretical language they refer to as Indo-Aryan. This only distracts us from understanding how much was borrowed from India and Sanskrit in the forming of Greek and Roman culture.
By this point in the article, anyone with a knowledge of Indian culture has probably guessed the obvious connection between Janus and Ganesha, the elephant headed deity who is known as the “isha”, the master of “ganas” or guardians. Ganesh is the historical source of Janus, which the Romans learned of in their many visits to India. This is also why there is no mention of Janus in the Greek culture, which preceded and was the source of much of Roman culture and religion.
The many similarities between Janus and Ganesh are worth mentioning. First, Ganesh was created by his mother Parvati or Mother Nature from Her own body, in order to guard the gate or door to her bath house. One of the benedictions that was eventually given to Ganesh was that he would always be worshipped first before any of the other Devas. As the Ruler of the Guardians, he is considered the head of all the protectors or guardian Devas (aka angels). Many Asian cultures believe that every house has a Gana or guardian spirit which is often depicted as a face on the front door. Ganesha is viewed as the Isha or master, of all those guardian Devas or Divine beings.
As for the notion of change, transition, and progress, this usually proceeds through the removal of some impediment or obstruction, or through the solving of some problem. Ganesh is, of course, also known as the remover of obstacles. In this way he is popular with everyone, for who does not wish for their obstacles to be removed? He also leads us from unsophisticated thinking to more subtle thought through philosophy and science, by challenging our imagination. He also represents the present as compared to the past or future. Just as the Latin Janus was said to have invented money, so the word "gan" is the root of Sanskrit "ganita", the name for mathematics or the art of counting. For this, Ganesh is known as the Deva of "the hosts" or the many categories and species of people and the master of success, related to counting and money.
The English word genetics has its origins in the English word “gan” which is the root of many English words, including General or the leader and genetics, the codes that constitute, the inherent codes that are the basis of all species. This is exactly how Gana+Isha or Ganesha is presented as he is the first child of Durga, aka Mother Nature Mother. In Sanskrit, he has a bija or abbreviated name “gam” which is the origin of the English word “gang”. In other words, Ganesha is the “general” or leader of all the “gangs”, that is to say all the groups or species of living entities. His bija or seed mantra is: “Om gam(gang) ganapataye (the master of all the groups) namaha (I bow to and honor you). (Aum gam ga na pa ta ye na ma ha).
By trying to understand his having the body of a human and the head of an elephant, our imagination is challenged to develop from gross to subtle, from the known to the unknown. In the words of the scientist Albert Einstein, “Imagination is better than knowledge.” And thus, as we make the transition from rural and rough to urban and civilized, we progress in our sophistication. As for Ganesh (Janus) introducing money, he is also honored in India as the Deva of mercantile success or financial betterment and is often depicted in the company of Lady Luck aka Lakshmi, the Devi of opulence and all kinds of wealth, known metaphorically as the “wife”, the shakti of the maintainer and preserver of all life known as Shri/Vishnu.
On a more terrestrial level of understanding, why would Janus/Ganesh be worshipped as the old year leaves and the new one begins? What is a year? It is time. Then who is old man time? Time is also as Saturn, whom the Greeks called Chronos, hence the English word chronology. It is well known in India that Saturn, who in Sanskrit is called Shani, is the Deva of time and its passage, and also the placer of obstructions or impediments. In time, things that once served us become rigid or fossilized and then become obstructions on our path. We then need to throw them out and make some new resolutions. We need to remember to be child-like again, like a baby, so we “adore” the “baby” with an elephant’s head, Ganesh/Janus, in order to remove the obstacles of our past and to give us a fresh start, so we can make more progress.
In the extreme, the poor man's method of forgetting the past has been alcohol, so we see it is used and more often abused in “ringing” in the New Year. The wearing of masks to celebrate New Year’s is related to our removing the layers of not-self that may have accumulated over the year. It is related to the masks or faces that Janus/Ganesh presents to us, asking the question: "Who are you really”? Then, why do we celebrate Janus/Ganesh in the aftermath of the Winter Solstice? What is the meaning of the longest night of the year and it's opposite the Summer Solstice, the longest day? The ancient thinkers called those two days the portals or gates of the year. If you include the Autumnal and Vernal Equinox in March and September, you can see Janus/Ganesh Quadrifons, the four headed Ganesh. But the two gates in June and December are the most obvious and most famous.
In India it is believed that the two solstices divide the year into two parts, the time from December to June when the days are increasing and the days from June to December when the nights are increasing. From this perspective, the two solstices are “gateways” to the realms of dark and light. The two times of year are called in Sanskrit the Uttarayana and the Dakshinayana, or the Northern way and Southern way. It appears that the “yana” of Sanskrit is the same as the “jana” of Latin. The other name for these two times of year is Deva-yana (the Devic beings who personify the light and laws of Nature) and pitri-yana (the deceased ancestors who created the present but have now passed.)
The Devayana or realm of light, is the place where the Devas, or Divine helpers reside. That Deva realm is situated somewhere here within the realm of matter and is known as Svarga-loka. It is the location within matter (Sanskrit loka) where the Divine light of Brahman is transformed into life within matter. The apex of Deva-loka is Brahma-loka, the golden planet of the Devas where the deva Bramha acts as the Creator. This path leads back to the immortal, and transcendental realm. The gate to these realms of light opens on the day of the Winter Solstice and remains open until the night of the Summer Solstice. At that moment, the Dakshinayana or dark gate opens. The path into darkness is called ‘pitri-yana’ or the path of the ancestors. The implication is that one’s ancestors are often still bound in darkness resulting from their previous actions which have produced negative karmic consequences. As a result, they still reside in Pitri-loka or in material places within the darkness of matter.
In the Vedas it is said that a yogi who departs from their body during the time from the Summer Solstice to the Winter Solstice cannot achieve Moksha or liberation from rebirth within matter and must therefore take birth again. Conversely, those who leave their body during the time from the Winter Solstice to the Summer Solstice could more easily achieve Moksha and depart through the open gateway in the Deva realm. In the Mahabharata there is a well-known story that the great warrior Grandfather Bhisma lay for many days on a bed of arrows waiting for the Winter Solstice gate to open before he would leave his body. In his previous life he had been given the power to leave his body at will, and so though entirely disabled, he waited for the Northern gate to open and then ascended to the realm of Brahman.
These then, are the two gates that Janus/Ganesh is looking at and guarding with his two heads. The two heads in their Roman form of Janus Geminis also conceal a further mystery. That form was a male and female face wearing a single crown. This original form of Ganesh is often depicted in the cosmological art of India. The original male and female within matter are called Shiva/Shambhu and Durga/Parvati. who are Father and Mother God as well as Father and Mother Nature. Shiva is also called Mahadeva or the Greatest of the Divines and Yogeshvara or the Supreme Yogi. He is the ruler of the Devayana path. Parvati or Durga is the Mother of matter and place of birth of all beings. She is Mother Nature and is the keeper of the dark material energy, the Womb of Life. Thus, she is the ruler of the Pitri-yana path, of birth and our ancestral relations. It is those relationships that we celebrate during the festivities of the Winter Solstice/Christmas.
According to the Vedic knowledge, the two Persons of the Divine are an inseparable couple who manifest with each other endlessly and are perpetually in a loving embrace. Like the yin/yang symbol of the Taoist philosophy, Shiva, and Parvati, the personifications of light and dark in this world, are elaborately intertwined as life itself. In India, their conjoined form is depicted in many ways. In one of these, they share one half of each other’s body. That form, called Ardineshvara, shows the upper quarter of Shiva on the left with the upper quarter of Parvati on the right. On the lower quarter, Parvati’s leg is on the left, beneath Shiva’s torso and his leg is the quarter on the right beneath Parvati's upper body. They are shown as dancing together, becoming each other and yet retaining their distinctive identity and individuality. They have two heads with one crown.
Often this cosmic form is depicted with Ganesh’s face on the front, between the faces of Shiva and Parvati. In that way he represents the transitions or gateways between the various states within matter, light and dark, past, and future, birth and death. In other words, he is worshipped first at the beginning of every new thing or phase of being. He is Janus/Ganesh, the Master of transitions or progress as we move through time which presents itself as a series of portals, problems, or new opportunities, which requires us to move on and forward from what we were in the past. In the current New Year’s celebration of the Western world, we say good-bye to the old man (the same Saturn Janus gave shelter to) of the previous year and usher in the baby of progressive possibility through Ganesha/Janus. The reason Janus gave shelter to Saturn is due to his being the remover of obstacles and whereas Shani (Saturn) is the placer of life’s obstructions. In fact, both Shani and Ganesh are Devas, according to the Vedic depiction but they have different functions.
At another level, Ganesh is also depicted in the Yoga Philosophy as the deva in charge of the first chakra, of the seven chakras, that are depicted within our body's energetic system. That chakra is called Muladhara and is related to the earth element. The earth element passes in through our mouth while carrying the light or life force (in our Northern gate) and then, after giving us life, passes out through the Southern gate (our anus). This is the Roman “god” Ani again, or the “annual” cycle of living. That year cycle is replicated in our body as the two gates of our daily cycle of life.
In the cosmic body it is the same but on a cosmic scale. In India it is said that the cosmos is actually a great person or form of the Supreme Being, called in Sanskrit, the “Jagat Purusha” or “Cosmic Person”. We the many embodied beings, are the microcosm within matter and He/She the Jagat Purusha are the macrocosmic form of the universe. On December 21st, Ganesh/Janus guards the gate or transition from the first chakra where we begin as a baby on the earth, toward our ascent through the six chakras until we ascend to at Midsummer Night’s Eve, June 21st or the Summer Solstice. The seventh chakra is the 7th “Heaven”, Sanskrit “Svarga Loka”, where Mahadeva and Mother Parvati live surrounded by all the Devas and holding their favorite child Janus/Ganesha.
There are of course, many more such mysteries and whole volumes in the Vedas, related to Ganesh, Shiva, Parvati and their relation to our lives, the cosmos and beyond. This article has just been one small exploration into the cosmic concepts of the Hindu/Vedic origins of our world and culture that have become shrouded in the mists of time. Many of our now unconscious rituals and actions and most of our speech and ideas have their origin in the great cultures that preceded us. Rome was one of those cultures but Vedic India which preceded both Roman and Greek cultures is not only a rich storehouse of ancient wisdom, but that Yogic wisdom is still alive and is just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. The metaphorical and symbolic stories in the Vedas, a visual code to teach us the sacred science that underlies our many lifetimes journey through many lokas of matter.
Fortunately for us, the culture of India is still intact, so a study of the world in the light of its teachings and history can reveal the roots and depth of meaning behind many of our now forgotten beliefs and customs. May Janus/Ganesh make the way straight before you, remove the obstacles to your progressive unfoldment and open the gate to your Divine aspirations. May you pass safely through the solstice gate and find no obstacles as you cross the threshold of the New Year.
Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha.
May Shri Ganesha remove your obstacles and crown your noble actions with success.
Jeffrey Armstrong (Kavindra Rishi) can be reached for comment at 604-385-5320 or email to vasa@JeffreyArmstrong.com
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