Ganesha, a.k.a. Ganapati, is undoubtedly one of the most important and popular deities of the Indian pantheon, which is believed to be comprising of 36 crore deities, major and minor. For every major occasion, Lord Ganesha is the first deity to be invoked by people all across the world. This charming, elephant-headed god is depicted in various forms, and is the favorite of adults and children alike. Why is Ganesha so popular? Well, it is not just because of His cute looks. It is also because the number of powers he possesses, the plethora of things he stands for, and all the different kinds of blessings he is believed to bestow upon humankind.
Who is Ganesha and Why does He have an Elephant Head?
The answer to these questions lies within the lore from ancient Hindu religion. Ganesha is the younger son of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati, the cosmic duo that represents the balance and harmony in the universe. Lord Shiva is also part of the Hindu holy trinity wherein he is the destroyer of the universe. Well, destroyer for all the right reasons – mainly so that the cycle of creation can begin again.
So, the story goes that once Goddess Parvati was bathing and she created a boy from the dirt from her body. She named him Ganesha and asked him to guard the door of her chamber while she was bathing and ensure that nobody entered. While Ganesha was following his instructions, Lord Shiva arrived and demanded to enter his wife’s chamber. Ganesha stood in his way and would not budge, no matter what. Extremely furious and angry by this act of Ganesha, Lord Shiva chopped off Ganesha’s head with his trident. When Parvati came to know what had happened, she not only went into mourning for her newly born son, but also would not speak to or meet Lord Shiva, unless he brought Ganesha back to life. She, in fact, told Shiva to climb down their mountain abode and get the head of the first animal he came across to be replaced by the human head that he had cut off. Feeling helpless at the end, Shiva got a severed head of an elephant and fixed it to the headless corpse of the kid, thus bringing Ganesha back to life and accepting him as his son. One happy Indian family reunion! This is why Lord Ganesha is elephant-headed.
While this is the most popular mythological anecdote regarding Ganesha’s elephant head, there are also some other, lesser known ones.
One of them is about Gajasura, the elephant-headed demon who, after undergoing a penitence, asked Lord Shiva to reside in this stomach as a reward. Lord Shiva being known for granting all wishes of his devotees, readily agreed and disappeared from the face of the earth and into Gajasura’s belly. Parvati looked for her husband everywhere, and when she couldn’t find him anywhere, she finally turned to Lord Vishnu (the Sustainer from the holy trinity), who not only found Shiva, but also tricked Gajasura to let him out. Finally, feeling miserable about himself, the demon asked for one final blessing from Lord Shiva. He asked to be remembered in the world forever through his elephant head, and that’s why, Shiva gave Gajasura’s head to his son, Ganesha. There are some other lesser known versions too about how Ganesha got this elephant head. But the point here is, why elephant and not any other animal. What does the elephant stand for? Let’s delve into what this popular deity symbolizes and what makes him so popular. Well, if you look at it from a neutral perspective, you will come to realize that Lord Ganesha has something to offer to everyone.
The Elephant Symbolism
Ganesha is considered to be the god of knowledge and wisdom. And it is not a secret that elephants have large heads with big brains and thus, amazing memories. These mighty, intelligent animals don’t forget things easily and memorize everything they have seen or heard, like forever. There would have been no other animal Ganesha could be associate with, apart from elephant. Because of his elephant face, he is also known as Gajamukha (Gaja = elephant; mukha = face) and Gajanan (Gaja = elephant; anan = head).
With his large, fan-shaped ears, he listens to everyone who prays to him and seeks his help, and helps them out as well. Owing to his ability to be able to listen to faraway cries and helping overcome troubles, he is also known as was Vighnaharta (Vighna = obstacles; harta = remover), the remover of obstacles.
Ganesha’s small mouth symbolizes his calm behaviour. It signifies that he hears more and speaks less, thus making the right decisions by focusing his attention on the right things. The trunk has the symbolism of its own. With his trunk, Ganesha is able to have a tight grip on many objects and also to have easy access to several objects, otherwise difficult to hold and to give them away in the form of blessings to his devotees. Due to his trunk, he is known as Vakratunda (Vakra = curved; tunda = mouth or trunk), one with a curved trunk.
His small eyes represent his concentration power and focused mind. They point to his ability to see things bigger than what they actually are. They are a reminder for people to be humble and devoid of their prides and egos. Owing to his elephant eyes, he is also called Gajaksha (Gaja = elephant; aksha = eyes).
The big belly of Ganesha gives him another name – Lambodara (Lamba = big; udara = stomach). It represents his natural ability to consume and digest all that is good and evil in the universe. His belly is thus believed to contain the entire cosmos.
Ganesha has one tusk. Yes, not two, just one. According to the most popular myth, the god helped in writing the treatise of Mahabharata. And since Ganesha could not find any writing device, he just broke one of his tusks and used that to write instead. Because he has only one tooth, he is known as Ekadanta (Eka = one; danta = tooth). Symbolically, the right tusk represents wisdom whereas the left tusk represents emotion. The broken tusk tells us that emotion must be overcome with wisdom, and only then perfection can be achieved in life.
The Human Symbolism
Ganesha has a human body, and therefore a human heart – a heart filled with kindness and compassion for all. So when all the elephant qualities come together with a compassionate human heart, we have a deity who works wonders with the lives of His devotees by bestowing them with unimaginable blessings and gifts.
Not only that, what the lord wears and what He holds in his hands, and even position and gestures of his body have a deep meaning. In almost every depiction, Ganesha has four hands, in each of which He holds certain objects and weapons.
- In his upper right hand, Ganesha holds a pāśa or noose. In standing with his reputation as the Lord of Obstacles, Ganesha binds and releases obstacles with his noose.
- In the upper left hand is the paraśu or battle-axe. With his weapon, the Lord cuts off all attachments of humans to the mortal, material world so that we can focus our energies on the ultimate truth. Sometimes, he also holds an ankuśa or elephant goad in this hand, reiterating his association with the elephant, and indicating control over emotions and ego.
- His lower right hand holds a bowl of sweets (modaka), symbolizing prosperity. It represents the blessings and gifts he bestows upon humankind and also the end result of one’s spiritual development.
- The lower left hand is often depicted as being in the abhaya mudra or blessing gesture. This is a very common hand gesture depicted in the iconography of many deities to signify that their blessing is with their devotees.
Symbolism of Ganesha’s Paraphernalia
When Ganesha idols are carved by the artisans, they are not just meant to be artistic masterpieces. Every single detail signifies something that, in turn, adds to the overall godliness of Ganesha.
- In most idols, Ganesha has a trishul (trident) painted on his forehead. Apart from being the main weapon of his father Shiva, the three spikes of the trident (from left to right) represent the past, present, and future. Its presence on Ganesha’s forehead signifies that the lord is completely aware of and in total control of the past, present, and future of the universe.
- More often than not, He wears yellow and red colored clothes. These colors have deep meaning in Hinduism too. Yellow stands for auspiciousness, inner peace, self-awareness or truthfulness, and purity of the soul. Red, on the other hand, signifies activity, randomness, and inconsistency in the universe. Together, these two colors tell us that no matter how random or inconsistent the universe is, we must perform our duties with pure mind and truthfulness.
Ganesha’s vāhana (mount or vehicle) is the mouse, which is often depicted either sitting at the foot of the lord or carrying Him on its back. It is actually ironic that the elephant-headed god with a huge body actually sits on a small, humble creature. Well, there are numerous theories explaining the selection of the mouse as Ganesha’s mount. Here are some:
- The most popular interpretation is based on the belief in equality of all living beings. It indicates that no matter how big or successful one may be, one should always treat others with humility kindness, and compassion.
- Mouse also symbolizes the human ego, and Ganesha sitting over it signifies the need to control this ego. The small size of the creature that signifies the ego points to the fact that no matter how small one’s ego may seem, it has the capability to make long-lasting damages, and thus the need to control it.
- Mouse also represents all the uncontrolled desires and worldly temptations that may be roadblocks in the achievement of one’s final goal. Ganesha sitting on a mouse tells us that it is possible to control one’s mind with the power of one’s intellect.
No matter what many things Ganesha stands for or what his depictions attempt to teach us, one thing is for sure, He is the most popular and most loved god of the Hindu pantheon. He is not only invoked at the beginning of every auspicious occasion, but every year, during August and September, there is a ten-day celebration in India, wherein people of all castes, creeds, and even religions bring Ganesha idols to their homes and pay homage to the deity. I don’t know whether He really grants what people wish for. All I know is that praying to Ganesha brings me peace of mind and keeps me motivated to face day-to-day challenges with courage and achieve success.