Ganesha: How He Lost… And Gained His Head
“Lord Ganesh of curved elephant trunk and huge body,
Whose brilliance is equal to billions of suns in intensity,
Always removes all obstacles from my endeavours truly...”
― Munindra Misra, Chants of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in English Rhyme
Ganesha (sometimes known also as Ganapati, Vinayaka and Binaya) is one of the most well-known and popular gods in the Hindu Pantheon. Ganesha is regarded to be the god of new beginnings and success, as well as the remover of obstacles, hence his popularity amongst Hindus. It may be added that Ganesha’s influence extends beyond Hinduism, and this god has devotees even amongst Buddhists and Jains. Ganesha is easily recognized as he is depicted as a human being with an elephant head. Nevertheless, there are also a number of other attributes associated with this god.
A Ganesha statue. (CC0)
The name Ganesha is a combination of the Sanskrit words gana (which may be taken to mean ‘a troupe of lesser deities’) and isha (meaning ‘lord’). This god is commonly held to be the son of Shiva and Parvati, and the brother of Kartikeya, the god of war. According to one version of his birth story, Ganesha was created by Parvati from the dirt off her body whilst she was bathing. In another version, he was created by his mother by shaping some earth into the form of a boy. In some versions of the myth, Ganesha was born with an elephant’s head, though most stories state that he was originally born with a human head.
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Shiva and Parvati giving Ganesha a bath. Kangra miniature, 18th century. Allahabad Museum, New Delhi. (Public Domain)
How Ganesha Lost…and Gained His Head
Like his birth story, there are also various versions of the story relating to how Ganesha ended up with the head of an elephant. In most versions, Ganesha was instructed by his mother to guard the entrance of her bath and to not let anyone in whilst she was cleaning herself. Shiva, who had been away meditating, came home unexpectedly, and desired to see Parvati. As Ganesha was in his way, the boy was decapitated by Shiva in a fit of rage.
Parvati heard the commotion outside her bath and went to see what was going on. Seeing that her son had been killed by her husband, Parvati was inconsolable. In order to appease his wife, Shiva promised to restore Ganesha to life. Unfortunately, his head was flung so far off that it could not be found.
Parvati is expressed in many different aspects. As Annapurna she feeds, as Durga (shown here) she is ferocious. (Joydeep/CC BY SA 3.0)
Another version of the tale states that Shiva sent his minions to do battle with Ganesha. The boy was able to hold his ground, and in the end Vishnu had to intervene by taking the form of Maya. Whilst Ganesha was distracted by Maya’s beauty, one of the demons, or Shiva himself, cut off the boy’s head.
A popular conclusion to either tale says Shiva was advised to take the head of the first living being he found sleeping with its head turned to the north. The first creature that the god came across being in such a position was an elephant, and therefore its head was taken to replace Ganesha’s.
Dancing Ganpati, 15th century, Central Tibet. (Public Domain)
Key Traits for a Popular God
Apart from his elephant head, Ganesha may also be recognized by other attributes. One, for instance, is his vahana or mount, which is a mouse. According to one interpretation, the mouse represents wisdom and intelligence, traits also associated with Ganesha. Another interpretation claims the mouse represents ego and pride. Therefore, as Ganesha rides on the mouse, the god is regarded as having conquered these negative traits.
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Another attribute of Ganesha is a bowl of sweets held in one of his four hands. Ganesha is notorious for his love of sweets, and these are often offered to the god by his devotees to appease him. Other items held by the god include a broken elephant tusk (which, according to him, was used by the god to write the Mahabharata), an elephant goad, and an axe.
Painting of Gaṇeśa riding on his vehicle, the Indian rat or bandicoot. With his trunk Gaṇeśa nuzzles a 'laddu', his favourite sweetmeat that is responsible for his protruding belly. His ample waist is adorned by a large snake, an animal associated with his father Śiva. Gaṇeśa is dressed in a finely designed textile. An attendant appears behind with a parasol. Made on laid and water-marked European paper, dated 1816. (Public Domain)
Interestingly, Ganesha is not only worshipped by Hindus, but he also has devotees from Buddhism and Jainism. The worship of Ganesha, for instance, can be seen in Shingon Buddhism, a Buddhist sect in Japan, where the Hindu god is known popularly as Kangiten.
The Japanese form of Ganesha - Kangiten, late 18th-early 19th-century painting by Shorokuan Ekicho. (Public Domain)
Top image: Detail of a statue of Ganesha. Source: CC0
By Wu Mingren
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