beloved elephant-faced-Deity popularly known as
Ganesha has intrigued thinking men all over the
world, all through the ages even unto the present
day. The sacred texts give a variety of stories
narrating the sequence of Ganesha's birth. The
most popular being the one mentioning that Ganesha
was created by Goddess Parvati as a guardian to
Incensed by the refusal of her husband to respect her privacy,
to the extent of entering her private chambers even while she was having her
bath, Parvati decided to settle matters once and for all. Before going for her
bath the next time, she rubbed off the sandalwood paste on her body and out
of it created the figure of a young boy. She infused life into the figure and
told him he was her son and should guard the entrance while she bathed.
Soon after, Shiva (Lord of destruction and husband of Parvati,)
came to see Parvati but the young boy blocked his way and would not let him
in. Shiva, unaware that this lad was his son, became furious and in great anger
fought with this boy whose head got severed from his body in the ensuing battle.
Parvati, returning from her bath, saw her headless son and threatened in her
rage to destroy the heavens and the earth, so great was her sorrow.
Shiva pacified her and instructed
his followers (known as ganas) to bring the head
of the first living being they encounter. The
first creature they encountered was an elephant.
They thus cut off its head and placed it on the
body of Parvati's son and breathed life into him.
Thus overjoyed, Parvati embraced her son.
The son of Parvati was given the name Ganesha by Shiva. The
word Ganesha is made up of gana (followers of Shiva) and isha (lord), thus Shiva
appointed him the lord of his ganas.
Ganesha is usually depicted either as a pictograph or as an
idol with the body of a man and the head of an elephant, having only one tusk,
the other tusk appearing broken. His unique feature, besides the elephant head,
is the large belly practically falling over his lower garment. On his chest,
across his left shoulder, is his sacred thread, often in the form of a snake.
The vehicle of Ganesha is the mouse, often seen paying obeisance to his lord.
According to the strict rules
of Hindu iconography, Ganesha figures with only
two hands are taboo. Hence, Ganesha figures are
most commonly seen with four hands which signify
their divinity. Some figures may be seen with
six, some with eight, some with ten, some with
twelve and some with fourteen hands, each hand
carrying a symbol which differs from the symbols
in other hands, there being about fifty seven
symbols in all, according to the findings of research
The physical attributes of Ganesha
are themselves rich in symbolism. He is normally
shown with one hand in the abhaya pose of protection
and refuge and the second holding a sweet (modaka)
symbolic of the sweetness of the realized inner
self. In the two hands behind him he often holds
an ankusha (elephant goad) and a pasha (noose).
The noose is to convey that worldly attachments
and desires are a noose. The goad is to prod man
to the path of righteousness and truth. With this
goad Ganesha can both strike and repel obstacles.
His pot belly signifies the bounty of nature and also that Ganesha
swallows the sorrows of the Universe and protects the world.
The image of Ganesha is a composite
one. Four animals viz., man, elephant, the serpent
and the mouse have contributed for the makeup
of his figure. All of them individually and collectively
have deep symbolic significance. The image of
Ganesha thus represents man's eternal striving
towards integration with nature. He has to be
interpreted taking into consideration the fact
that though millenniums rolled by, man yet remains
closer to animal today than he was ever before.
The most striking feature of Ganesha is his elephant head, symbolic
of auspiciousness, strength and intellectual prowess. All the qualities of the
elephant are contained in the form of Ganpati. The elephant is the largest and
strongest of animals of the forest. Yet he is gentle and, amazingly, a vegetarian,
so that he does not kill to eat. He is very affectionate and loyal to his keeper
and is greatly swayed if love and kindness are extended to him. Ganesha, though
a powerful deity, is similarly loving and forgiving and moved by the affection
of his devotees. But at the same time the elephant can destroy a whole forest
and is a one-man army when provoked. Ganesha is similarly most powerful and
can be ruthless when containing evil.
Ganesha's large head is symbolic of the wisdom
of the elephant. His large ears, like the winnow,
sift the bad from the good. Although they hear
everything, they retain only that which is good;
they are attentive to all requests made by the
devotees, be they humble or powerful.
Ganesha's trunk is a symbol of
his discrimination (viveka), a most important
quality necessary for spiritual progress. The
elephant uses its trunk to push down a massive
tree, carry huge logs to the river and for other
heavy tasks. The same huge trunk is used to pick
up a few blades of grass, to break a small coconut,
remove the hard nut and eat the soft kernel inside.
The biggest and minutest of tasks are within the
range of this trunk which is symbolic of
Ganesha's intellect and his powers of discrimination.
An intriguing aspect of Ganesha's
iconography is his broken tusk, leading to the
appellation Ekdanta, Ek meaning one and danta
meaning teeth. It carries an interesting legend
When Parashurama one of Shiva's
favorite disciples, came to visit him, he found
Ganesha guarding Shiva's inner apartments. His
father being asleep, Ganesha opposed Parshurama's
entry. Parashurama nevertheless tried to urge
his way, and the parties came to blows. Ganesha
had at first the advantage, seizing Parashurama
in his trunk, and giving him a twirl that left
him sick and senseless; on recovering, Rama threw
his axe at Ganesha, who recognizing it as his
father's weapon (Shiva having given it to Parashurama)
received it with all humility upon one of his
tusks, which it immediately severed, and hence
Ganesha has but one tusk.
different legend narrates that Ganesha was asked
to scribe down the epic of Mahabharata, dictated
to him by its author, sage Vyasa. Taking into
note the enormity and significance of the task,
Ganesha realized the inadequacy of any ordinary
'pen' to undertake the task. He thus broke one
of his own tusks and made a pen out of it. The
lesson offered here is that no sacrifice is big
enough in the pursuit of knowledge.
An ancient Sanskrit drama titled
"Shishupalvadha", presents a different version.
Here it is mentioned that Ganesha was deprived
of his tusk by the arrogant Ravana (the villain
of Ramayana), who removed it forcefully in order
to make ivory earrings for the beauties of Lanka!
The little mouse whom Ganesha
is supposed to ride upon is another enigmatic
feature in his iconography. At a first glance
it seems strange that the lord of wisdom has been
granted a humble obsequious mouse quite incapable
of lifting the bulging belly and massive head
that he possesses. But it implies that wisdom
is an attribute of ugly conglomeration of factors
and further that the wise do not find anything
in the world disproportionate or ugly.
mouse is, in every respect, comparable to the
intellect. It is able to slip unobserved or without
our knowledge into places which we would have
not thought it possible to penetrate. In doing
this it is hardly concerned whether it is seeking
virtue or vice. The mouse thus represents our
wandering, wayward mind, lured to undesirable
or corrupting grounds. By showing the mouse paying
subservience to Lord Ganesha it is implied that
the intellect has been tamed through Ganesha's
power of discrimination.
Any attempt to penetrate the
depths of the Ganesha phenomenon must note that
he is born from Goddess Parvati alone without
the intervention of her husband Shiva, and as
such he shares a very unique and special relationship
with his mother. The sensitive nature of his relationship
with Parvati is made amply clear in the following
As a child, Ganesha teased a cat
by pulling its tail, rolling it over on the ground
and causing it great pain, as naughty young boys
are wont to do. After some time, tired of his
game, he went to his mother Parvati. He found
her in great pain and covered with scratches and
dust all over. When he questioned her, she put
the blame on him. She explained that she was the
cat whom Ganesha had teased.
His total devotion towards his mother is the reason why in the
South Indian tradition Ganesha is represented as single and celibate. It is
said that he felt that his mother, Parvati, was the most perfect woman in the
universe. Bring me a woman as perfect as she is and I shall marry her, he said.
None could find an equal to the beautiful Uma (Parvati), and so the legend goes,
the search is still on...
In variance with the South Indian
tradition, in North India Ganesha is often shown
married to the two daughters of Brahma (the Lord
of Creation), namely Buddhi and Siddhi. Metaphorically
Buddhi signifies wisdom and Siddhi achievement.
In the sense of yoga, Buddhi and Siddhi represent
the female and male currents in the human body.
In visual arts this aspect of Ganesha is represented
with grace and charm.
In a different, slightly Tantric version, Ganesha is depicted in a form known as "Shakti Ganpati". Here he is depicted with four arms, two of them holding symbolic implements. With the other two arms he holds his consort, who is comfortably balanced on his left leg. The third eye in this representation, is of course the eye of wisdom, which sees above and beyond mere physical reality.
No analysis of Lord Ganesha can
be concluded without a mention of the mystical
syllable AUM. The sacred AUM is the most powerful
Universal symbol of the divine presence in Hindu
thought. It is further said to be the sound which
was generated when the world first came into being.
The written manifestation of this divine symbol
when inverted gives the perfect profile of the
god with the elephant head.
Ganesha is thus the ONLY god to
be associated in a "physical" sense with the primordial
sacred sound AUM, a telling reminder of his supreme
position in the Hindu pantheon.
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