COEUR d'ALENE - A Coeur d'Alene man, supported by a church, is circulating a petition to get the statue of Ganesha removed from its spot at the corner of Sixth Street and Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d'Alene.
Ronald J. Vander Griend is soliciting help from other churches besides Lake City Lighthouse Church, which has already pledged its support, in Vander Griend's attempt to remove the public art piece on grounds that it's offensive.
In his interpretation, the symbol of Ganesha is too similar to the swastika, the elephant's trunk depicts a phallic symbol, and the weapons in the statue's hands represent tools used to put fear in Hindu followers to the "gods who control their lives," according to the petition.
"I love art, I love creative art," the 60-year-old Vander Griend said. "I'm just against some of the things that are being represented."
Vander Griend will be taking the petition around town, beginning tomorrow through Saturday at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds, as well as to the intersection where the 7-foot-tall statue stands, seeking signatures.
He said he'll then present it to the Coeur d'Alene City Council to get the piece removed.
City officials, meanwhile, aren't budging. They said the $35,000 piece isn't going anywhere, unless it sells within the year.
Some religious scholars said Vander Griend is misinterpreting symbolism associated with Ganesha, including the charge that its trunk is a phallic symbol.
"Elephants have trunks in the middle of their faces, not penises," Linda Hess, religious studies senior lecturer at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif., wrote The Press. "Sometimes people attribute phallic meaning to snakes, cigars, microphones, the Eiffel Tower, and, yes, elephant trunks. Discussions of phallic symbolism can be intelligent and interesting, or not. I suggest that the people of Coeur d'Alene see Ganesha's trunk as an elephant trunk."
It's the second time since the June ribbon cutting that the Hindu god has caused a stir. It's one of 14 pieces dedicated to the city's inaugural ArtCurrents program, an art on loan agreement that places art pieces in public view for a year while the artists and city attempt to sell them.
"It won't change my view," said Deanna Goodlander, City Council member and liaison to the city's arts commission, should a petition be submitted to council. "It's unfortunate that it has turned into this. It's unfortunate that people are looking at this as an idol instead of a piece of art, which is what it's supposed to be."
The artist who created the piece, Rick Davis of Spokane, said he didn't incorporate any depiction of a swastika on the piece.
"So far all the complaints about (Ganesha) seem to be based in a great deal of ignorance and religious intolerance," he wrote The Press. Davis also created the St. Francis of Assisi statue, which stands a few blocks away.
But one of the most troubling aspects of the Ganesha piece, according to Vander Griend and Lighthouse church pastor Ken Smith, is that the Nazis used a variation of Ganesha's symbol in the swastika design.
Ganesha's symbol is tilted at a different angle, with waves in its arms, and circles on the sides. The one used by the Aryan Nation had straight arms, black in color.
The symbol's Hindu origins, representing a sense of the auspiciousness of life, date back 4,000 or more years in the Indian subcontinent, before it became associated with Ganesha, according to Hess and John Stratton Hawley, a religious professor at Columbia University in New York.
It wasn't until the Third Reich's variation that the symbol became "poisonous" in western culture.
"Hitler turned the symbol on its side, both literally and figuratively," Hawley wrote The Press. "Certainly Ganesha doesn't have anything to do with it."
Neither variation is on the Coeur d'Alene statue.
Still, it's too close for comfort, said Vander Griend, who believes it goes against the Neo-Nazi reputation the area fought to overcome.
"I just don't think this is something that was researched very well before it was placed in the community," said Smith, who plans to sign and share the petition against the "pagan god" with his roughly 100-member community bible church congregation. "I think most of the churches who look at this will feel the same way."
The sexual symbolism could stem from author Paul Courtright's 1985 book on Ganesha, Hawley said. The reprinted Indian version had a statue of Ganesh as a child on the cover, showing the full anatomy that appears in the image itself. That drew objection, but sexual symbolism doesn't have anything to do with the god, he said.
Vander Griend is dropping the petition off at area churches. Real Life Ministries in Post Falls said it received the packet and is reviewing it. Lake City Community Church pastor Rodney Wright said he won't be sharing it with his church.
"We're simply about doing good and proclaiming the good news of Christ," Wright said. "This didn't fit in that mission."
At the June ribbon cutting, Danny Brannan, chairman of the Kootenai County Constitution Party protested the statue, saying "Christians of Kootenai County should be dismayed at the appearance of a Hindu demon," and calling the art selectors "godless."
The petition states the potbelly on the statue represents that it contains the "cosmic eggs that created the entire universe, and cites," according to www.ganeshaspeaks.com, a website devoted to astrology that with blog posts about a variety of topics.