Ganesha: The elephant-headed god

     Paintings and sculptures of the elephant-headed deity popularly known as Ganesha have intrigued people for thousands of years.  Hindu sacred texts relate a variety of stories explaining his appearance.  The most popular is that the Goddess Parvati became angry because her husband, Shiva (the lord of destruction) did not respect her privacy.  He went into her private chambers whenever he wished, even while she was having her bath.

     One day, before her bath, Parvati used sandalwood paste scraped from her body to create the figure of a young boy.  She brought it to life, told the boy he was her son, and assigned him to guard the entrance of her private chambers while she bathed. 

     Shortly afterwards, Shiva came to see Parvati, but the boy blocked his way and would not allow him to pass.  Shiva, unaware that the lad was his son, became furious.  They fought, and in the battle the boy’s head was severed from his body.  When Parvati returned from bathing, she saw what had happened and in her great grief and rage threatened to destroy the earth and the heavens. 


     Shiva did his best to calm her, and told his followers (known as ganas) to go out and bring him the head of the first living being they found.  This turned out to be an elephant.  The elephant’s head was put on the body of Parvati’s son and life was breathed into him.  Overjoyed, Parvati embraced her boy once again. 

     Shiva gave the elephant-headed lad the name Ganesha (“gana” meaning followers of Shiva and “isha” meaning lord) and made him the lord of his ganas.

     The images of Ganesha are full of interesting symbolism.  His elephant head symbolizes strength and intellectual power.  Like an elephant Ganesha is strong, and can be powerful and ruthless when destroying evil.  But elephants can also be affectionate and loyal if kindness is given them.  So Ganesha, despite his great power, is loving, forgiving, and moved by the affection of his devotees.

     His large ears, although they hear everything, hold onto only the good requests made by his devotees.  His trunk symbolizes his great powers of discrimination; an elephant can push down a massive tree with its trunk, but it can also pick up a few blades of grass. 

     You may note he is shown with only one tusk.  One story goes that Pashurama, a favorite disciple of Shiva, came to visit Shiva when Shiva was asleep and Ganesha was guarding his father’s inner apartments.  Parashurama tried to force his way in, and Ganesha grabbed him in his trunk and twirled him around, making him dizzy and sick.  When he recovered, Parashurama threw his axe (given to him by Shiva) at Ganesha.  Recognizing the axe as his father’s weapon, Ganesha didn’t dodge but humbly took the blow on one of his tusks, which was severed. 

     A different story is found in an ancient Sanskrit drama.  This says that Ganesha’s tusk was forcefully removed by the villainous Ravana, who used it to make ivory earrings for the beautiful women of Lanka!

     Ganesha’s large belly symbolizes the bounty of nature, as well as his ability to swallow the sorrows of the Universe and protect the world.  His sacred thread is shown on his chest, over his left shoulder, often in the form of a snake. 

     In both paintings and sculptures we usually find a mouse close to Ganesha, often shown paying obeisance to him..  The mouse is the vehicle upon which he rides.  It may seem strange that this large lord of wisdom would ride a humble mouse, which seems incapable of lifting him.  The symbolism here is that wisdom is a combination of many factors both beautiful and ugly, and the wise do not find anything in the world to be out of proportion or unpleasant to look at.

     The mouse also represents our wandering, wayward mind, which can slip, sometimes without our knowledge, into places we might not really want it to go.  The mouse’s service to Ganesha implies that the intellect has been tamed by Ganesha’s discrimination and wisdom.

The written symbol for “AUM” becomes an elephant head when inverted.

     Hindu iconographic rules state that Ganesha figures with only two hands are taboo.  Most commonly Ganesha figures have four hands, signifying divinity.  Some figures have more hands and arms, sometimes up to fourteen in all.  Each hand holds a different symbol.  According to researchers, there are about 57 symbols in all. 

     The positioning of his hands and fingers has meaning.  He is usually shown with one hand in a pose of protection, and another holding a sweet to symbolize the sweetness of the realized inner self.  Other symbols include the elephant goad and the noose.  The goad is to prod man toward the path of truth and righteousness, as well as to repel obstacles.  The noose symbolizes that worldly attachments and desires can be a trap.  

     One important reminder of Ganesha’s high position in the Hindu pantheon is his physical association with the Hindu syllable “AUM” or “om” (in Hindu thought, the most powerful Universal symbol of divine presence).  When the written symbol of “AUM” is inverted, it is the profile of an elephant head.

Published by on March 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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