So the first Hindu God we’ve had for the God of the Month Club has come up, and appropriately enough, it’s Ganesh, one of the most cross-culturally popular and recognizable of Hindu Deities. Hinduism has the distinction of being the largest Polytheist religion practiced today, and with the added benefit of having an uninterrupted line of tradition from ancient times, although obviously in the last few hundred years they have had to contend with the ravages of Western imperialism.
Ganesh, also spelled Ganesha or Ganesa, is sometimes called Ganapati or Vinayaka. His name is usually prefixed with a Hindu title of respect, “Shree” or “Sri”, so that a few of the variations of His name would be Shree Ganesh or Sri Vinayaka. He is one of the most popular and well-known Gods in Hinduism. His worship is common to Hinduism, Jains, Buddhists, and even Sikhs, and His image is all over India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
Ganesh is depicted with the head of a one-tusked elephant and human-shaped body with four arms and a pot belly. In fact, one of His earlier names was Ekadanta, meaning “One-Tusk”. His skin is usually yellow or red, but not always. In fact, the color of His skin changes based on the epithet or name being invoked or meditated on. He is also shown riding a mouse or with a mouse sitting by His feet.
Ganesh is the first son of Shiva and Parvati. In south India, Ganesh is described as celibate, saying that no woman can live up to the perfection of His mother. Despite this tradition, in North India Ganesh is believed to be married the daughters of Brahma, Buddhi (wisdom), Riddhi (prosperity), and Siddhi (attainment). In North India Ganesh is often accompanied by Sarasvati, Goddess art and music, and Lakshmi, Goddess of luck and prosperity. He is the God of wisdom and learning, the patron of art, science, and especially writing and letters. He is the lord of success and the destroyer of evil. He is the remover of obstacles, but He also places obstacles in the path of those that are too high on their horse and need to be humbled or challenged. Ganesh is considered one of the five most important Hindu Deities, Brahma, Vishnu, Durga, and Shiva being the others. Together this group of five Deities is revered as the panchayatana puja, the word “puja” meaning a worship ritual. He is a God of beginnings and remover of obstacles, and so is honored at the start of rituals, ceremonies, and other ventures, especially cultural ones. Usually when a Hindu family moves, the statue or image of Ganesh is one of the very first things placed in the new home.
According to Kundalini Yoga, Ganesh is believed to reside in the first chakra, at the base of the spine, which is called Muladhara. Mula means “main” and dhara means “base, foundation”. This is the chakra that has to do with survival instinct, procreation, the material world, and physical health and well-being. In this view, Ganesh has a permanent place in very person, as He supports, charges, and guides all the other chakras.
Ganesh is also considered the embodiment of the primal “OM” sound. The OM symbol looks very similar to an elephant’s head, as seen in this picture of a beautiful pendant of Ganesh’s head in the shape of the OM symbol. ==========>
Although Ganesh is usually considered the son of Shiva and Parvati, there are some traditions that say that Ganesh is the son of Parvati alone. In this version, Shiva did not desire any children, but Parvati did. Her desire for a son was so great that She essentially impregnated Herself, producing Ganesh parthnogenically. There are also some stories in the Puranas that say that Shiva and Parvati found Ganesh as a small child, elephant head and all, and that They chose to adopt Him since He apparently had no parents.
The Elephant Head
There are actually several different versions of how Ganesh ended up with an the head of an elephant. In the most well known story, Parvati created Ganesh while Shiva was away. She wanted to bathe, but found that there were no servants in the house to guard Her quarters. So She sculpted the body of a boy from turmeric paste (or “from the dirt of Her own body”) and gave it life. She named Him Ganesh, and told Him to guard to door to Her bedroom. But while He was doing so, Shiva returned from His trip to find a strange person who would not allow Him into the quarters He shared with His wife. Ganesh and Shiva fought, and Shiva decapitated Him with His trident. When Parvati came out, She was grief-stricken, and Shiva felt guilty. He promised He would reanimate Ganesh and restore Him to life. But Shiva’s trident was so powerful that it had flung Ganesh’s head far away, and without the head, He could not be restored. Shiva searched for Ganesh’s head, but finally gave up. He went to Brahma for advice, to see if there were any other solutions. Brahma told Him to replace Ganesh’s head with the first living being that He crossed that lay with its head facing north. So Shiva sent out all His armies (Gana) to look for such a creature. When they found an elephant sleeping with its head facing north, they decapitated it and bought it back. Shiva attached it to the boy’s body and bought Him back to life, and ever after Ganesh has had an elephant’s head, and also the name of Ganapathi, or head of the celestial armies.
Another version says that after a year of fasting so that Vishnu will grant Her a son, Parvati conceived and gave birth to Ganesh. There was great celebration and all the Gods were invited to come see the baby. All the Gods looked at the baby, except for Shani, the son of the Sun-God Surya. The gaze of Shani was said to be harmful and could cause instant death, so out of respect Shani refused to look at baby Ganesh. For some reason, Parvati decided to tempt Fate and insisted and Shani look at Her baby like all the other Gods had. He did so, and the infant’s head instantly flew off. In this story, it is Vishnu Who revived Ganesh. When He sees Parvati and Shiva grief-stricken and mourning, Vishnu mounted His eagle and flew to the river. He came back carrying an elephant’s head, joined it to the infant’s body, and so bought Ganesh back to life.
Symbols and Iconography
It’s said that Ganesh’s large ears are because He hears all the prayers of all His worshipers. The elephant, despite being the biggest and strongest animal native to India, in incredibly gentle, intelligent, and loyal, even affectionate to their mahouts, or trainers. These are all qualities that Ganesh embodies, being one of the most loving and gentle of Deities, despite His great power. One of Ganesh’s tusks is broken, and He is often shown holding it like a pen. This symbolizes sacrifice, since He broke it off in order to write the sacred text of the Mahabharata, one of India’s greatest epics.
In His trunk He holds a sweet or candy (laddoo), which some say is because we must discover the sweetness of the Atman. On Ganesh’s forehead is painted the Trishula, Shiva’s weapon, which is similar to a trident. It is supposed to symbolizes past, present, and future, and Ganesh’s mastery of it. His potbelly is said to contain the the whole universe, and to symbolize the abundance of Nature. A snake is often twined around His waist like a belt, or around his ankles, symbolizing mastery of energy in all forms. When around His waist, it shows that the Kundalini energy holds the whole kosmos together, since that is what the belly of Ganesh is supposed to contain. Ganesh is usually dressed in red and yellow colors. Says Kashmir about this symbolism:
Yellow symbolizes purity, peace and truthfulness. Red symbolizes the activity in the world. These are the qualities of a perfect person who performs all duties in the world, with purity, peace, and truthfulness1.
Like many (but not all) Hindu Gods, Ganesh is never shown with two arms. Two arms on Ganesh is taboo. Sometimes He has six or eight, or even as many as fourteen, but the usual number is four arms. There are up to fifty different symbols that He could be carrying. Below are a few of the most common. According to Crystalinks:
The four arms of Ganesha represent the four inner attributes of the subtle body, that is: mind (Manas), intellect (Buddhi), ego (Ahamkara), and conditioned conscience (Chitta). Lord Ganesha represents the pure consciousness – the Atman – which enables these four attributes to function in us;
- The hand waving an axe, is a symbol of the retrenchment of all desires, bearers of pain and suffering. With this axe Ganesha can both strike and repel obstacles. The axe is also to prod man to the path of righteousness and truth;
- The second hand holds a whip, symbol of the force that ties the devout person to the eternal beatitude of God. The whip conveys that worldly attachments and desires should be rid of;
- The third hand, turned towards the devotee, is in a pose of blessing, refuge and protection (abhaya);
- the fourth hand holds a lotus flower (padma), and it symbolizes the highest goal of human evolution, the sweetness of the realized inner self2.
Ganesh and the Mouse
In Hinduism, there are some Gods pictured with a mount or vehicle, called a vahana. As I said earlier, Ganesh’s main mode of transportation is riding a mouse. There are different schools of thought on what that might mean. In the Mudgala Purana, Ganesh is described as having eight incarnations. In five of these, He rides a mouse. But as Vakratunda, He rides a lion. As Vikata, a peacock. As Vighnaraja a sacred serpent named Shesha. There are four incarnations of Ganesh listed in the Ganesha Purana. These incarnations use a lion, a peacock, a horse, and a mouse. While the Jain descriptions vary between a mouse, elephant, tortoise, ram or peacock. Sometimes the mouse sits at the feet of Ganesh, either gazes up adoring at the God, or staring at the tray of sweets set near them. Kashmir has to to say about the symbolism of such an arrangement:
mouse symbolizes the ego that can nibble all that is good and noble in a person. A mouse sitting near the feet of Ganesha indicates that a perfect person is one who has conquered his (or her) ego. A mouse gazing at the Laddus, but not consuming them, denotes that a purified or controlled ego can live in the world without being affected by the worldly temptations. The mouse is also the vehicle of Ganesha, signifying that one must control ego in order for wisdom to shine forth3.
In many Hindu Temples, an image of Ganesh is placed near the door, to keep out the unworthy. This gives Ganesh a job similar to the Roman Janus, and recalls His role as His mother Parvati’s gatekeeper.
The Ganesh Chaturthi is a 10-day festival that falls in late August or early September, on the fourth day of the waxing moon of the Hindu month of Bhadrapada. Synchronizations like this keep happening during the God of the Month Club, and I’m not choosing the Deities involved, I shuffle a deck of cards I made with Their names on it. The pattern from the seeming randomness is enough to convince me that the Gods are really choosing Who wants to be studied when.
In any case, according to Wikipedia, the Chaturthi festival starts by “bringing in” clay statues of Ganesh, symbolism Him coming to visit.
“The festival culminates on the day of Ananta Chaturdashi, when idols (murtis) of Ganesha are immersed in the most convenient body of water. Some families have a tradition of immersion on the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, or 7th day. In 1893, Lokmanya Tilak transformed this annual Ganesha festival from private family celebrations into a grand public event. He did so “to bridge the gap between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins and find an appropriate context in which to build a new grassroots unity between them” in his nationalistic strivings against the British in Maharashtra. Because of Ganesha’s wide appeal as “the god for Everyman”, Tilak chose him as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule. Tilak was the first to install large public images of Ganesha in pavilions, and he established the practice of submerging all the public images on the tenth day. Today, Hindus across India celebrate the Ganapati festival with great fervour, though it is most popular in the state of Maharashtra. The festival also assumes huge proportions in Mumbai, Pune, and in the surrounding belt of Ashtavinayaka temples4.”
This year, the Ganesh Chaturthi festival starts on Monday, the 5th of September. I’m included a few links about how to celebrate this festival at home in case anyone is interested. These are all authentic sites written by Hindus. Please remember to be respectful.
Hinduism, Indo-Paganism, and Cultural Appropriation (article on The Wild Hunt)
Just some food for thought.
1Kashmir. Hindu Deities. http://www.koausa.org/Gods/God8.html
3Kashmir: Hindu Deities. http://www.koausa.org/Gods/God8.html