The Hindu God Ganesh - Who is this Elephant Headed Deity Anyway?

Added over 8 years ago

Ganesh is one of the best known and loved deities in the Hindu pantheon of gods, and indeed is the most recognized of the Hindu gods outside of India.  But who is this elephant headed fellow, and why is he so popular?

Ganesh (also spelled Ganesa or Ganesha and known as Ganapati, Vinayaka and Pillaiyar) is the Lord of Good Fortune who provides prosperity, fortune and success.  He is the Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles of both material and spiritual kinds.  Interestingly, he also places obstacles in the path of those who need to be checked.

Because of these attributes, Ganesh is widely revered by almost all castes and in all parts of India, regardless of any other spiritual affiliations.  His image is found everywhere, in many different forms, and he is invoked before the undertaking of any task.  Ganesh is also associated with the first Chakra, or energy wheel, which underpins all of the other Chakras and represents conservation, survival and material well-being.  He is considered to be a patron of the arts and sciences and of letters.  Devotees believe that if Ganesha is worshiped, he grants success, prosperity and protection against adversity.  In a lesser known role, Ganesh is also the destroyer of vanity, selfishness and pride.

The attributes and characteristics of Ganesh have evolved over many centuries of Indian history. Several of the sacred Hindu texts relate myths and anecdotes associated with his birth and exploits and help to explain his distinct iconography.  He is popularly held to be the son of Shiva and Parvati, although the Puranas (ancient Hindu and Jain texts narrating the history of the Universe and describing Hindu cosmology, philosophy and geography) disagree about his birth, stating that he may have been created by Shiva, or by Parvati, or by Shiva and Parvati, or may simply have been discovered by Shiva and Parvati. It is a little known fact outside of India that Ganesh has a brother Skanda, who is worshiped particularly in southern India as the embodiment of grace, bravery and love of virtuous deeds.

Iconic representations of Ganesh show considerable variation, his form changing over time from that of a simple elephant in earliest depictions to the Ganesh we know today, typically having the head of an elephant and a large rotund belly. He is generally shown with four arms, although the number may vary from two to sixteen. When in the four-armed configuration he usually holds his own broken tusk in his lower-right hand and a laddoo sweet in his lower-left hand which he tastes with his trunk.  An axe or goad is held in the right upper hand and a noose is held in the left upper hand. In a modern variation, the lower-right hand does not hold the broken tusk but is turned toward the viewer in a gesture of protection and fearlessness (the abhaya mudra).  Each item carries it's own important spiritual significance and they (and the number of arms used to carry them) may vary to include a water lily, mace, discus, rosary, bowl of sweets, musical instrument, spear or staff, depending on the specific symbology intended by the artist.

A clay  image of Ganesh set into a wall

Ganesh may be portrayed as standing, seated, dancing, crawling as a child (with his favourite laddoo sweet in one hand), or even seated on his mother's knee.  When seated, he may be crossed legged or with one leg tucked under him in the position known as "royal ease".  His mount or vehicle is usually the humble mouse, often shown at his feet looking adoringly up at him and holding his laddoo sweet in his paws.  The combination of elephant and mouse represents the removal of all obsticals of any size and the ability of Ganesh to control even the most unpredicatable of creatures and situations.

There exist a large number of legends, myths and stories relating to Ganesh and his appearance, all reflecting the wealth of symbolism that attends him.  The most famous is how he came to have an elephant's head.   It is said that the goddess Parvati, wishing to bathe, created a boy and assigned him the task of guarding the entrance to her bathroom.  When her husband Shiva returned from one his interminable battles, he was denied access by Ganesh and killed the boy in a fit of petulant rage, striking his head off with his sword. Parvati was understandably upset and so to soothe her, Shiva sent out his warriors to fetch the head of the first dead creature they found, which happened to be that of an elephant. The head was attached to the body of the boy and he was brought back to life.  The elephant's head symbolizes unmatched wisdom and the gaining of knowledge through reflection and listening.  And because of his role as his mother's doorkeeper, he is often placed facing doorways to keep out the unworthy.

Some of the stories surrounding Ganesh are confliciting in nature, for example how his tusk came to be broken.  One popular story is that he broke it off himself in order to write down the Mahabharata, one of the world's longest epic poems, as it was dictated to him by the sage Vyasa.  In the process of writing, Ganesh's pen failed and so he snapped off his tusk as a replacement in order that the transcription not be interrupted.  The broken tusk therefore symbolises sacrifice and reiterates Ganesh's role as patron of the arts and of letters.  However, another version of the broken-tusk story emphasises Ganesh's loyalty and devotion.  In this account, his father Shiva decided to take a nap and asked Ganesh to guard him.  A proud Brahmin warrior named Parashuram came to visit Shiva but was stopped from waking him by Ganesh.  Parashuram was furious and fought with him, finally throwing his ax at his head. Ganesh stopped the ax with his tusk which broke, giving him the nickname Eka-danta, or "One Toothed."

Another common icon associated with Ganesh is that of the snake.  According to one Purana, Ganesha simply wrapped the serpent king Vasuki around his neck. Ganesh may also be portrayed using the snake as a sacred thread, aloft in both hands, coiled at his ankles or as a throne.  However the best known story of all concerns Ganesh wrapping the snake around his stomach as a belt.  According to the legend, on one of his birthdays, Ganesh went from house to house accepting offerings of sweet puddings.  Out on the road his mount the mouse stumbled, having seen a snake and become frightened, with the result that Ganesh tumbled off. His stomach burst open and all the sweet puddings fell out.  Unwilling to leave them on the ground for all to see, Ganesh stuffed them back into his stomach and, catching hold of the snake, tied it around his belly.  Seeing this, the moon in the sky had a hearty laugh at his expense. Annoyed, Ganesh pulled off one of his tusks and hurled it at the moon.  Once again, the symbology behind the mouse, snake, Ganesh's belly and its relationship to the moon on his birthday is highly significant, his belly representing as it does the entire cosmos which is held together by the cosmic energy of the snake kundalini.

With the association of benevloence, intelligence and strength that comes with his elephant countenance and the delightful stories that surround his creation, it is easy to understand why Ganesh is revered so highy in his homeland.  But why is he also loved throughout the world?  From the 10th century onwards Ganesh became the principal deity of the traders and merchants who went out of India seeking commercial trade. In later centuries many Hindus migrated to other countries and took their culture, including Ganesh, with them.  Buddhism has a particular affinity for Ganesh, representing as he does the kindest of principals associated with personal sucess.  And since the 20th Century, Ganesh has become a favourite mascot of Western countries, partially because of the westerner's love of elephants but also because of the rewards Ganesh promises when present to oversee daily affairs.  Ganesh has even made appearances on the iconic television show The Simpsons - on one particularly memorable occasion Homer tries to offer him a peanut and is admonished by Apu for his irreverence.

Ganesh is also often associated with the goddess of luck and prosperity, Lakshmi, and the two form a typical motif on many protective Indian amulets, providing a double whammy to the wearer in the form of success and wealth married together.

 

Work-perfecting Ganesha! Salamat.
Ganesh! - Ganesh!
Two-mothered! One-toothed!
Portly-paunched! Elephant-faced Ganesha!
Salaam!!
Moon-crowned! Triple-eyed!
Thou who in all affairs claimest precedence in adoration!
Calamity averting Ganesh
Salaam!!
Thou who art invoked on the commencement of a journey,
the writing of a book,
Salaam!!
Oh! Ganesh, put not thine ears to sleep!
Encourage me, and then behold my bravery;
Call me your own fox, then will you see me perform
the exploits of a lion!
What fear need he have of the waves of the sea,
Who has Noah for a pilot?
First born of Mahadeo and Parvarti!
God of Prudence and Policy!
Patron of Literature!
Salaam!!
May it be said,
‘Ah! She writes like Ganesh!'

Invocation to Ganesh, translated by Fanny Parkes

 

References and Further Reading

Brown, Robert 1991.  Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God. State University of New York Press, Albany

Getty, Alice (1936), Ganesha: A Monograph on the Elephant-Faced God (reprinted 1992) Clarendon Press, Oxford

Lama, Mukhiya N 2003.  Ritual Objects and Deities: an Iconography on Buddhism & Hinduism.  Lama Art Publishing

Vaidyanathan, Sunil 2003.  Ganesha, the God of India.  English Edition.  English Edition Publishers and Distributors (India) Pty Ltd.

Wikipedia 2008.  Ganesha

Tags: Buddhism, Ganesh, Hinduism, Religious Symbology

 

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