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Ganesha The beloved elephant-headed Hindu god

Ganesha is a popular Hindu god with an elephant's head and rotund human body. His name is also spelled Ganesh or Ganesa; he is also known as Ganapati. Both names mean "Lord of the Ganas" (the ganas are Shiva's divine army).

Son of the goddess Parvati and god Shiva, Ganesha is one of the most popular gods in modern Hinduism. His friendly, childlike, and humble appearance makes him especially approachable and beloved among Hindu deities.

"Though he is demanding of attention, he conveys a childlike neediness or human woundedness more than the awesome terror of a distant god."1 "An essentially cool, soft, calm, simple and benevolent being, he neither strikes awe nor inflicts pain, harm or punishment."2

Ganesha's Attributes

Ganesh's physical attributes are a "discordant mixture of grotesque and solemn, of the ponderous and the lightweight" that represent in their absurdity the many illusions (maya) and manifestations of life.3

Ganesha is easily identified by his elephant's head with softly curling trunk. One or both of Ganesha's tusks is broken off; sometimes Ganesha holds the missing tusk.

The regal and impressive elephant's head is placed incongruously on squat little human body with a rotund belly. The childlike body recalls his origins as a beloved son shaped by Parvati's own hands.

A large belly is an essential attribute of Ganesha, observed in his earliest images and reflected in the names Lambodara (Pot Belly, or, literally, Hanging Belly) and Mahodara (Great Belly). It is said to contain within in all universes: past, present and future.4 On a more earthly level, the rotund belly reminds worshippers of Ganesh's great love for sweets.

The elephant-headed god is usually depicted with four arms, but occasionally more. In his hands he carries a variety of attributes; commonly depicted objects include a shell, discus, mace, water-lily, 5 his broken tusk, a rosary, a bowl of his beloved sweets, and an elephant goad.1

Ganesha's hair is often matted and piled up atop his head in the ascetic manner, like his father Shiva. He often wears pearls and serpents as ornaments; bells on his feet reveal that he is a dancer, also like his father, the Cosmic Dancer.1

The color most often associated with Ganesha is red, though sometimes he is depicted as yellow or white.2

Ganesha's Vehicle

Ganesha's vehicle is a mouse, or more specifically the bandicoot rat.6 In art, Ganesha is shown riding atop the mouse or the mouse sits near his feet, looking up at his master.

There is a great deal of symbolism in the unlikely pairing of elephant and rat. The rat enhances Ganesha's ability to overcome any obstacle: while elephants can crash through practically anything with their sheer strenght and size, rats can find their way into small spaces.6

On a more spiritual level, gurus explain that the rat represents the human mind, endlessly scurrying around and nibbling at various things without realizing that it always carries with it a great source of strenth, wisdom of power: the human spirit.7

How Did Ganesha Get His Elephant Head?

Stories about Ganesha are told in the Puranas. There a few different versions of his origins, but the most commonly told legend has it that he was created by his mother Parvati while her husband Shiva was away.

In some versions of the myth, Shiva had refused to give Parvati a son so she creates one herself; in others, she was annoyed by Shiva's constant invasion of her privacy and created Ganesha to keep him out of her chambers.

Parvati shaped a little boy from the dust rubbed off her body, breathed life into him, and told him to guard her bath and let no one in. Shiva returned unexpectedly and attempted to visit his wife in her bath. Ganesha blocked the doorway, as instructed, leading Shiva to behead Ganesha with his sword.

Parvati responds with grief and outrage, whereupon Shiva vows to replace Ganesha's head with that of the first creature he encounters. This was an elephant, which Shiva promptly beheads to make Ganesha complete once more. In some versions of the story, the elephant is chosen because he volunteers his head to save Ganesha.7

Another version describes Ganesha losing his head through the pride of his mother - she took him to the gods to show him off, and when the god Sani (Saturn) averted his eyes, she insisted that he look upon her son. He did so, burning Ganesha's head to ashes. Vishnu then saves the child's life by providing an elephant's head.

Another story says that Parvati made Ganesha out of a piece of cloth and then asked Shiva to breathe life into him.6

Still another legend (told in Varaha Purana 23.17) explains that Ganesha was created by Shiva's laughter. Shiva considered Ganesha to be too alluring, so he gave him the head of an elephant and a protruding belly.4

Why Does Ganesha Have a Broken Tusk?

Ganesha is virtually always depicted with one broken tusk and one of his earliest titles is Ekadanta ("One-Tusked").4 As with Ganesha's origins, there are various legends explaining this.

In some versions, the tusk was accidentally broken when the "donor" elephant was beheaded. Another explains that he lost it in a fight with Parasurama, Vishnu's sixth incarnation.2

Another story relates that Ganesh was Brahma's scribe, and one day found himself without a pen when Brahma began to dictate. He instantly removed one of his tusks and used it to write - the first instance of an ivory pen.2

A more elaborate story also explains why Ganesh sometimes wears a serpent as a belt around his belly.2 One day, Ganesha ate too many of his beloved sweets and was uncomfortably full. He headed for some fresh air in the forest, riding his mouse.

Suddenly, the serpent Vasuki appeared and frightened the mouse, throwing Ganesh to the ground. The god's over-full belly burst open, spilling sweets everywhere. Supporting his belly with one hand, Ganesh scooped up the candies with the other and put them back in his belly. To make sure it didn't happen again, he grabbed the troublesome serpent and wrapped it around his belly.

Unfortunately for Ganesh, the moon happened to see this episode and laughed. Ganesha was so angry and embarrassed that he tore off one of his tusks and threw it at the moon. The tusk enlarged in size until it blocked out the moon entirely, plunging the night in darkness.

The other gods begged Ganesha to forgive the moon and remove the darkness, and he eventually relented, but a scar was left on the moon to permanently mar its beauty. To this day, some of Ganesh's devotees still avoid looking at the moon or throw stones at it on Ganesha Chaturthi (his festival day).2

Ganesha's Roles and Patronage

As the Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles, Ganesha is often invoked at the beginning of business ventures, when moving into a new home, or other endeavors.

Although this role in removing obstacles is most popular, traditionally Ganesh has an equally important role in placing obstacles in the way of those who need to be prevented from doing evil.4

As Brahma's scribe, Ganesha is also the patron of writers; his broken tusk sometimes appears as a pen.1

As the Gatekeeper and a guardian figure (as described in his origin stories), Ganesh is often placed in the doorways of homes and temples.1

Devotion to Ganesha

Ganesha is worshipped with offerings provided to his statues in homes and temples, especially the sweets he demands.

He is invoked at the beginning of important endeavors. One of the most popular hymns to Ganesha prays:

Vakratunda mahakay surya koti sama prabha, Nirvighnam kuru mey deva sarva karyeshu sarvatha (O ye, who possesseth curved trunk, huge body and brilliance of ten million suns, accomplish, and accomplish always, all my errands detriment-free)2

The late-summer festival Ganesha Chaturthi is dedicated to Ganesha.

The Milk Miracle

On September 21, 1995, witnesses reported that a statue of Lord Ganesha in a New Delhi temple actually drank the milk offered to it - the milk was seen disappearing before their eyes as they held the bowl up to his trunk. The miraculous event made national news in India and was subsequently witnessed on other statues of other deities in various places around the world.

Indian scientists conducted experiments and concluded the alleged miracle was due to capillary action.8 But Hindu leader Mata Amritanandamayi commented, "If God is omnipotent, is there anything He cannot do? If He chooses to drink milk through the statue of Lord Ganesha, it is all His divine play."7


  1. “Ganesha.” Book of Symbols (2010)  

  2. Kumar, “Ganesa: An Encyclopedic Survey.” Exotic India Art.  

  3. “Ganesha.” Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (1997)  

  4. “Ganesha.” Wikipedia.  

  5. Jordan, Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses, 101-02.  

  6. Doniger, “Ganesha.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. (2015)  

  7. Johnsen, Complete Idiot's Guide to Hinduism (2009), 165-67.  

  8. “Hindu milk miracle.” Wikipedia.  

Sources

Further Reading

  • Courtright, Paul B.. Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. New York: .