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Ganesha

Ganesha

Ganesha, the god of good fortune and wisdom, is one of the most popular Hindu deities. People call upon him at the beginning of any task, because his blessing supposedly ensures success. Ganesha is portrayed as a short man with a pot belly, four hands, and an elephant's head with one tusk. He is the son of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and his wife, Parvati.

deity god or goddess


* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

Several legends tell how Ganesha came to have an elephant's head. One says that Parvati was so proud of her son that she asked all the gods to look at him, even the god Sani. Sani's gaze burned to ashes everything he saw, including Ganesha's head. Brahma, the god of creation, instructed Parvati to give her son the first head she found, which turned out to be that of an elephant. According to another account, Shiva struck off Ganesha's head and later attached an elephant's head to his son's body.

Ganesha's single tusk is also the subject of various stories. In one tale, he lost his second tusk in a fight with Parasurama, a form of the god Vishnu*. Another myth claims that Ganesha lost the tusk after using it to write the epic the Mahabharata.

See also Hinduism and Mythology, Mahabharata, the.

epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

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Ganesha

Ganesha: see Hinduism.

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Ganesha

Ganesha

Nationality/Culture

Hindu

Pronunciation

guh-NAYSH

Alternate Names

Ganapati, Vinayaka

Appears In

The Vedas

Lineage

Son of Parvati and Shiva

Character Overview

Ganesha, the god of good fortune and wisdom, is one of the most popular Hindu gods. People call upon him at the beginning of any task because his blessing is believed to ensure success. Ganesha is portrayed as a short man with a pot belly, four hands, and an elephant's head with a single tusk. He is the son of Shiva (pronounced SHEE-vuh), the Hindu god of destruction, and his wife, Parvati (pronounced PAR-vuh-tee).

Major Myths

Several legends tell how Ganesha came to have an elephant's head. One says that Parvati was so proud of her son that she asked all the gods to look at him, even the god Shani (pronounced SHAH-nee). Shani's gaze burned to ashes everything he saw, including Ganesha's head. Brahma (pronounced BRAH-muh), the god of creation, instructed Parvati to give her son the first head she found, which turned out to be that of an elephant. According to another account, Shiva struck off Ganesha's head and later attached an elephant's head to his son's body.

Ganesha's single tusk is also the subject of various stories. In one tale, he lost his second tusk in a fight with Parasurama (pronounced pah-ruh-soo-RAH-muh), a form of the god Vishnu (pronounced VISH-noo). Another myth claims that Ganesha lost the tusk after using it to write the Hindu epic called the Mababbarata.

Ganesha in Context

Elephants have long been used in areas of India as working animals prized for their intelligence and massive strength. Although they are not domesticated in the same way that horses or other draft animals are, their immense strength and power has been used for hauling loads and uprooting trees. Though wild by nature, elephants have rarely been viewed as a threat despite their size. This may explain why Hindus incorporated a god with the head of an elephant into their pantheon, or collection of recognized and worshipped gods.

Key Themes and Symbols

In Hindu mythology, Ganesha is a symbol of the arts and sciences, as well as representing the beginnings of things. Ganesha is also commonly associated with obstacles; he removes obstacles from deserving followers who are trying to accomplish a goal, while placing obstacles in the paths of those who need to learn strength or dedication. In all these roles, Ganesha functions as a teacher, mentor, or guardian. Like the elephant he resembles, Ganesha is widely regarded as a symbol of intelligence and wisdom. Ganesha is also a symbol of luck.

Ganesha in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Ganesha is generally depicted with a human body, a large belly, four arms, and the head of an elephant. He is often shown to be dancing, and sometimes has a serpent wrapped around his neck or waist. He is sometimes shown holding a goad, which is normally used to spur an animal—such as an ox or elephant—to move forward. His distinctive appearance makes him one of the most easily recognized of the Hindu gods, and one of the most popularly depicted. His image appears on many different products in India, including food and incense. Ganesha figurines are features of millions of homes around the world. In addition to his many temples in India, Ganesha is a popular god among many Buddhists throughout Indonesia, and even decorates one denomination of Indonesian currency.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The three living species of elephants—the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant, and the Asian (Indian) elephant—are protected worldwide by laws that aim to keep their populations stable and growing. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, find out the population status of elephants in Africa and Asia. Would you expect elephants to be in less danger in areas where Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is worshipped? Is this supported by the population numbers?

The 2006 story collection The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha by Uma Krishnaswami offers an enjoyable introduction to the myths surrounding Ganesha.

SEE ALSO Hinduism and Mythology

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Ganesha

GANESHA

GANESHA In Hinduism, no other god is as often invoked as Ganesha, or Ganapati, "lord of the gaṇas,"or Shiva's dwarf attendants, Gajānana, "he with the elephant's head." Predominantly the god of good luck, Ganesha is worshiped at the start of any important enterprise. Son of Shiva and Pārvatī, he is, however, not their natural offspring. His real origin lies in India's far distant past; even the compilers of the Purāṅas and other ancient writers have lost all track of it.

There are many different accounts of Gaṅesha birth. According to the Shiva Purāṅa, Pārvatī fashioned a handsome boy out of the unguents and other applications she had used in her bath, and asked him to guard the entrance to her apartment against strangers. When Shiva, her husband, arrived, the boy barred him, not knowing Shiva to be his father. Shiva, not knowing the boy's identity, decapitated him in anger. To placate the disconsolate Pārvatī, Shiva quickly brought the child back to life by placing the head of the first living thing he could find on the boy's body.

As the god's birth is narrated in the Skanda Purāṅa Pārvatī was amusing herself by forming a figure out of the remains of her bath; she could make only the torso with the remains. Later, her elder son Skanda finished the task by adding the head of an elephant to the incomplete body.

In the Varāha Purāṅa, it is Shiva himself who gave his handsome young son an elephant's head, a portly form, and serpents for the sacred thread. The story in the Brahmavaivarta Purāṅa is that the malevolent planet Shani (Saturn) bore a curse: the head of anyone at whom he looked would fall off. Not knowing this, Pārvatī made him gaze at her newborn son, whose head fell off at once; it was later replaced by that of the king of the elephants.

References and Iconography

References to Ganesha, Gajānana, Vināyaka, and Gaṇapati can be traced back to the Vedic period. The name Vināyaka occurs already in the Gṛihasūtras, books of rules for worship by householders. As many as six Vināyakas are named, who are malevolent—or at least mischievous—beings. Under their influence, men and women are afflicted by many misfortunes. In slightly later texts, the six Vināyakas coalesce into one, but by then he has come to be associated with Ambika, or "Mother," that is, Pārvatī. He is her son, and he can be pacified when offerings are made to him.

Vināyaka, Ganesha, and Gajānana all fit into the type of yakshas, the fickle-minded, temperamental beings of early mythology. Indeed, what may be perhaps a prototype of Ganesha comes from Amaravati in South India. There, on a fragmentary beam of a stupa railing, a corpulent gana with an elephant's head is pulling a thick cord.

A portly form and an elephant's head are of course the god's most distinctive characteristics. Among the attributes of Ganesha images are a bowl of modaka sweets, his own broken tusk, an ax, and a radish in his hands; his mouse mount; and his sacred thread of a cobra. He has many colors—red, white, turmeric-yellow, and even black—but the predominant colors are various hues at the red end of the spectrum, which are described imaginatively as molten gold, rising sun, and vermilion.

Not only does Ganesha have the head of an elephant, he may have two of them, or three, four, five, or even six. These forms, however, are extremely rare, with the exception of the five-headed form. Sometimes, instead of five heads, there are five images of Ganesha, or pañcagaṇesha.

It is obvious that a god with such universal appeal would be represented in many ways. Images of the god for worship in the household and in his temples portray him as having two, four, or more arms, occasionally numbering up to as many as twenty. He may be seated, standing, or dancing; alone, with his consorts, or in the company of his parents and his brother Skanda-Kartikeya. As a god presiding over good luck, Ganesha may be represented together with his other "partner gods," Kubera and Lakshmī.

One of the earliest images of Ganesha is in a cave at Udayagiri in central India, of the early fifth century. He has only two arms; the right hand is broken, but the left hand holds a bowl of his favorite sweets, with the trunk curving to partake of the contents. Ganesha's penis is erect. This is a trait of some Shaiva images, suggesting the retention of the semen, and continence—paradoxical though it may seem. And though Ganesha indeed was influenced by the Tantric cult, in an image of so early a date, not too much should be inferred; perhaps it is only evidence of the god's impish nature and origin.

The posture of sitting at ease seems to come naturally to this portly deity, with one thick leg folded on the seat and the other folded at the knee and resting also on the seat. It is as such that Ganesha has come down to us from the fifth-century Pārvatī temple at Nachna in entral India. One hand of this two-armed god holds the sweet bowl, while the other holds a large radish, another of his favored foods. A string of pearls with many loops serves as his coronet, and a cobra playfully forms the sacred thread.

In the Deccan, in the sixth century, representations of Ganesha were created at Elephanta, Aiholi, and Badami. In the great cave at Elephanta near Mumbai (Bombay), for example, a two-armed Ganesha is participating in his own way in his father's dance, his trunk curving in delight. In the Ravalphadi cave at Aiholi and in cave 1 at Badami in Karnataka as well, the sparsely and simply clad adolescent god witnesses the cosmic dance of Shiva, the bowl of sweets in one hand, as ever. In North India, a charming panel from the brick temple at Bhitargaon shows a spirited tussle between Ganesha and Skanda over a bowl of modaka sweets.

When Gaṇesha is endowed with more than two arms, they are most often four, but there are sometimes six or eight, and occasionally even up to twenty. When he has four hands, among the most frequent attributes are the elephant goad, the battle-ax, the noose, the single tusk, and the bowl of sweets. There is also a very beautiful six-armed Ganesha, dancing and listening to the sound of his own bell-ornaments, from Kannauj in North India.

Gaṇesha also figures in panels of the Saptamatrkas, or the Seven Divine Mothers, where he guards one flank of the row of the Mothers, with Shiva or Virabhadra guarding the other. There are also more esoteric forms of Ganesha, his many forms and uses described in the Tantras.

Gaṇesha's wives are Siddhi ("Success") and Buddhi ("Wisdom"), who are the god Brahmā's daughters. For while Ganesha is on the one hand the facilitator of all enterprises, he at the same time also presides over the higher functions of the mind. Ganesha has profound wisdom and a prodigious memory—it was he who undertook the task of writing down the epic Mahābhārata, verse by verse, as soon as the sage Vyasa composed it. In all cases, the notions of wisdom, knowledge, success, accomplishment, and well-being are present.

Worship of Gaṇesha

There are a number of days that are sacred to Gaṅesha but the most important is the Ganesha Caturthi, the fourth day in the bright fortnight in the Hindu month of Bhadrapada (August–September). In Maharashtra in particular, nine places came to be known as being sacred to the elephant-faced god. They are Morgaon, Theurgaon, Sidhtek, Varad, Murud, Ganagapur, Lenyadri, Ranjangaon, and Ojhar.

The worship of Ganesha spread beyond the present boundaries of India. His sculptures have been found in Afghanistan. Ganesha also entered the Buddhist Mahayana pantheon of Tibet, Japan, and countries of Southeast Asia.

As discussed above, the authors of the Purāṅas asked how Ganesha came to have an elephant's head on a human body, and came up with many mythical explanations. But perhaps the correct question to pose is: how did an elephant come to have a man's body?

All these mythological stories have the distinctive appearance of being retrospective; they attempt to explain the god's unusual form by invoking some other previous mythological happenings. Is it possible that they are approaching the question of the human body and elephant head from the wrong end, trying to explain the origin of the elephant's head on the human body? In other words, is it possible that it is the elephant—such as the Amaravati yaksha—that is the original god, so to speak, and that therefore we are to explain rather how a human body came to be associated with it, and not the other way around.

Kirit Mankodi

See alsoElephanta ; Shiva and Shaivism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Yaksas. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1980.

Courtright, Paul B. Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Krishan, Yuvaraj. Ganesa: Unravelling an Enigma. Delhi:Motilal Banarsidass, 1999.

Martin-Dubost, Paul. Ganesa, the Enchanter of the Three Worlds. Mumbai: Project for Indian Cultural Studies, 1995.

Pal, Pratapadiya, ed. Ganesh the Benevolent. Mumbai: Marg, 1995.

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