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.
Returning to New Years 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 worshiped 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 worshiped 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 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 Geminus (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 don’t 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” or lord of “ganas” or guardians. Ganesh is the historical source of Janus, which the Romans learned of in their many visits to India. This also is 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 worshiped first before any of the other gods. As the Lord of the Guardians, he is considered the head of all the protectors or guardian 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 master of all those guardian angels.
As for the notion of change, transition and progress, this usually proceeds through the removal of some impediment or obstruction, or through 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 thoughts by challenging our imagination. He also represents the present as compared to the past or future. Just as Janus was said to have invented money, the word “gan” is the root of “ganita”, the Sanskrit for mathematics or the art of counting. For this, Ganesh is known as the Lord of “hosts” or the mass of people and the Lord of success, related to counting and money.
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 so 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 worshiped in India as the God of mercantile success or financial betterment and is often depicted in the company of Lady Luck or Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and wife of the maintainer Lord Vishnu.
On a more subtle level of understanding, why would Janus/Ganesh be worshiped 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 Saturn, whom the Greeks called Chronos, hence the word chronology. It is well known in India that Saturn, who in Sanskrit is called Shani, is the Lord of time 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, worship the baby with an elephant’s head, Ganesh/Janus, to remove the obstacles and 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 often abused in ringing in the New Year. The wearing of masks to celebrate New Years 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 gates of the year. If you include the Autumnal and Vernal Equinox in March and September, you can see Janus/Ganesh Quadrafons, the four headed Ganesh. But the two gates in June and December are the 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 Devayana and Pitriyana.
The Devayana or realm of light, is the place where the Angels or Devas, the Divine helpers reside. In the material world you could call this place Heaven. It is closer to God or Brahman the Divine light. The apex of Devayana is Brahmaloka, the golden planet of the Creator. This path leads back to the eternal, spiritual and transcendental realm. The gate to the realms of Light opens 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 Pitriyana or the path of the ancestors. The implication is that one’s ancestors are often still bound in darkness resulting from previous actions that have produced negative consequences. As a result, they still reside in Pitriloka or in material places within the darkness of matter.
In the Vedas it is said that a yogi who leaves their body during the time from the Summer Solstice to the Winter Solstice cannot achieve liberation and must take birth again. Conversely, those who leave their body during the time from the Winter Solstice to the Summer Solstice can achieve liberation by going out through the Deva gate. In the Mahabharata there is a well known story that the great warrior Grandfather Bhisma lay for days on a bed of arrows waiting for the Winter Solstice gate to open before he would leave his body. He had been given the power to leave his body at will and so waited for the Northern gate to open and then ascended to the Deva realm.
These then, are the two gates that Janus/Ganesh is looking at and guarding with his two heads. The two heads in their original form of Janus Geminius also conceal a further mystery. That form was a male and female face wearing a single crown. This form of Ganesh is often depicted in the spiritual art of India. The male and female are Shiva and 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 Yogesvara or the Supreme Yogi. He is the ruler of the Devayana path. Parvati or Durga is the Mother matter and place of birth of all beings. She is Mother Nature and the keeper of the dark material energy, the Womb of Life. Thus she is the ruler of the Pitriyana 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 love each other endlessly and are perpetually embraced. Like the yin/yang symbol of the Taoist philosophy, Shiva and Parvati, the light and dark of this world are elaborately intertwined. 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 Lord of transitions or progress as we move through time which presents itself as a series of portals or new opportunities which requires us to move on and forward from what we were in the past. In our New Year current celebration, 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 Ganesh/Janus. That Janus gave shelter to Saturn is due to his being the remover of obstacles and whereas Shani (Saturn) is the placer of them. In fact, both Shani and Ganesh are angels (Devas) according to the philosophy of Hinduism but they have different functions.
At another level, Ganesh is depicted in the Yoga Philosophy as the deity in charge of the first chakra of the seven chakras that are depicted within our body’s energy 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 Ani again or the annual circle of living. The year cycle is replicated in our body as the two gates of our cycle of life. In the cosmic body it is the same. In India it is said that the cosmos is actually a great person or form of God, called the Jagat Purusha or Cosmic Person. We are the microcosm and He/She the Jagat Purusha are the macrocosm. On January 1st, 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 Heaven at Midsummer Night’s Eve, the Summer Solstice. The seventh chakra is the 7th Heaven, 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 origins of the Hindu/Vedic origins of world 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 and India which preceded Rome and Greece is a rich storehouse of ancient wisdom that is still relevant today.
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 Om Namaha.
May Lord Ganesh bless you with success.
Jeffrey Armstrong (Kavindra Rishi) can be reached for comment at 604/269-9642 or by using the contact form here.