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Ganesha - the Elephant Headed God, Art and Mythology

Article of the Month - October 2000
Viewed 2907828 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

The beloved elephant-faced-Deity popularly known as Ganesha has intrigued thinking men all over the world, all through the ages even unto the present day. The sacred texts give a variety of stories narrating the sequence of Ganesha's birth. The most popular being the one mentioning that Ganesha was created by Goddess Parvati as a guardian to her privacy:

Incensed by the refusal of her husband to respect her privacy, to the extent of entering her private chambers even while she was having her bath, Parvati decided to settle matters once and for all. Before going for her bath the next time, she rubbed off the sandalwood paste on her body and out of it created the figure of a young boy. She infused life into the figure and told him he was her son and should guard the entrance while she bathed.

Patachitra from Orissa


Soon after, Shiva (Lord of destruction and husband of Parvati,) came to see Parvati but the young boy blocked his way and would not let him in. Shiva, unaware that this lad was his son, became furious and in great anger fought with this boy whose head got severed from his body in the ensuing battle. Parvati, returning from her bath, saw her headless son and threatened in her rage to destroy the heavens and the earth, so great was her sorrow.






Shiva pacified her and instructed his followers (known as ganas) to bring the head of the first living being they encounter. The first creature they encountered was an elephant. They thus cut off its head and placed it on the body of Parvati's son and breathed life into him. Thus overjoyed, Parvati embraced her son.

Ganesha Sculptures




The son of Parvati was given the name Ganesha by Shiva. The word Ganesha is made up of gana (followers of Shiva) and isha (lord), thus Shiva appointed him the lord of his ganas.

Ganesha is usually depicted either as a pictograph or as an idol with the body of a man and the head of an elephant, having only one tusk, the other tusk appearing broken. His unique feature, besides the elephant head, is the large belly practically falling over his lower garment. On his chest, across his left shoulder, is his sacred thread, often in the form of a snake. The vehicle of Ganesha is the mouse, often seen paying obeisance to his lord.




Batik Paintings of Ganesha



According to the strict rules of Hindu iconography, Ganesha figures with only two hands are taboo. Hence, Ganesha figures are most commonly seen with four hands which signify their divinity. Some figures may be seen with six, some with eight, some with ten, some with twelve and some with fourteen hands, each hand carrying a symbol which differs from the symbols in other hands, there being about fifty seven symbols in all, according to the findings of research scholars.






Marble Paintings





The physical attributes of Ganesha are themselves rich in symbolism. He is normally shown with one hand in the abhaya pose of protection and refuge and the second holding a sweet (modaka) symbolic of the sweetness of the realized inner self. In the two hands behind him he often holds an ankusha (elephant goad) and a pasha (noose). The noose is to convey that worldly attachments and desires are a noose. The goad is to prod man to the path of righteousness and truth. With this goad Ganesha can both strike and repel obstacles.




Madhubani Paintings




His pot belly signifies the bounty of nature and also that Ganesha swallows the sorrows of the Universe and protects the world.

The image of Ganesha is a composite one. Four animals viz., man, elephant, the serpent and the mouse have contributed for the makeup of his figure. All of them individually and collectively have deep symbolic significance. The image of Ganesha thus represents man's eternal striving towards integration with nature. He has to be interpreted taking into consideration the fact that though millenniums rolled by, man yet remains closer to animal today than he was ever before.




The most striking feature of Ganesha is his elephant head, symbolic of auspiciousness, strength and intellectual prowess. All the qualities of the elephant are contained in the form of Ganpati. The elephant is the largest and strongest of animals of the forest. Yet he is gentle and, amazingly, a vegetarian, so that he does not kill to eat. He is very affectionate and loyal to his keeper and is greatly swayed if love and kindness are extended to him. Ganesha, though a powerful deity, is similarly loving and forgiving and moved by the affection of his devotees. But at the same time the elephant can destroy a whole forest and is a one-man army when provoked. Ganesha is similarly most powerful and can be ruthless when containing evil.

Hindu SculpturesAgain, Ganesha's large head is symbolic of the wisdom of the elephant. His large ears, like the winnow, sift the bad from the good. Although they hear everything, they retain only that which is good; they are attentive to all requests made by the devotees, be they humble or powerful.

Ganesha's trunk is a symbol of his  discrimination (viveka), a most important quality necessary for spiritual progress. The elephant uses its trunk to push down a massive tree, carry huge logs to the river and for other heavy tasks. The same huge trunk is used to pick up a few blades of grass, to break a small coconut, remove the hard nut and eat the soft kernel inside. The biggest and minutest of tasks are within the range of this trunk  which is symbolic of Ganesha's intellect and his powers of discrimination.

An intriguing aspect of Ganesha's iconography is his broken tusk, leading to the appellation Ekdanta, Ek meaning one and danta meaning teeth. It carries an interesting legend behind it:

When Parashurama one of Shiva's favorite disciples, came to visit him, he found Ganesha guarding Shiva's inner apartments. His father being asleep, Ganesha opposed Parshurama's entry. Parashurama nevertheless tried to urge his way, and the parties came to blows. Ganesha had at first the advantage, seizing Parashurama in his trunk, and giving him a twirl that left him sick and senseless; on recovering, Rama threw his axe at Ganesha, who recognizing it as his father's weapon (Shiva having given it to Parashurama) received it with all humility upon one of his tusks, which it immediately severed, and hence Ganesha has but one tusk.

Batik PaintingsA different legend narrates that Ganesha was asked to scribe down the epic of Mahabharata, dictated to him by its author, sage Vyasa. Taking into note the enormity and significance of the task, Ganesha realized the inadequacy of any ordinary 'pen' to undertake the task. He thus broke one of his own tusks and made a pen out of it. The lesson offered here is that no sacrifice is big enough in the pursuit of knowledge.

An ancient Sanskrit drama titled "Shishupalvadha", presents a different version. Here it is mentioned that Ganesha was deprived of his tusk by the arrogant Ravana (the villain of Ramayana), who removed it forcefully in order to make ivory earrings for the beauties of Lanka!

The little mouse whom Ganesha is supposed to ride upon is another enigmatic feature in his iconography. At a first glance it seems strange that the lord of wisdom has been granted a humble obsequious mouse quite incapable of lifting the bulging belly and massive head that he possesses. But it implies that wisdom is an attribute of ugly conglomeration of factors and further that the wise do not find anything in the world disproportionate or ugly.

Miniature Paintings of GaneshaThe mouse is, in every respect, comparable to the intellect. It is able to slip unobserved or without our knowledge into places which we would have not thought it possible to penetrate. In doing this it is hardly concerned whether it is seeking virtue or vice. The mouse thus represents our wandering, wayward mind, lured to undesirable or corrupting grounds. By showing the mouse paying subservience to Lord Ganesha it is implied that the intellect has been tamed through Ganesha's power of discrimination.

Any attempt to penetrate the depths of the Ganesha phenomenon must note that he is born from Goddess Parvati alone without the intervention of her husband Shiva, and as such he shares a very unique and special relationship with his mother. The sensitive nature of his relationship with Parvati is made amply clear in the following tale:

As a child, Ganesha teased a cat by pulling its tail, rolling it over on the ground and causing it great pain, as naughty young boys are wont to do. After some time, tired of his game, he went to his mother Parvati. He found her in great pain and covered with scratches and dust all over. When he questioned her, she put the blame on him. She explained that she was the cat whom Ganesha had teased.

His total devotion towards his mother is the reason why in the South Indian tradition Ganesha is represented as single and celibate. It is said that he felt that his mother, Parvati, was the most perfect woman in the universe. Bring me a woman as perfect as she is and I shall marry her, he said. None could find an equal to the beautiful Uma (Parvati), and so the legend goes, the search is still on...


Ganesha with Consort





In variance with the South Indian tradition, in North India Ganesha is often shown married to the two daughters of Brahma (the Lord of Creation), namely Buddhi and Siddhi. Metaphorically Buddhi signifies wisdom and Siddhi achievement. In the sense of yoga, Buddhi and Siddhi represent the female and male currents in the human body. In visual arts this aspect of Ganesha is represented with grace and charm.  




Hindu Paintings


In a different, slightly Tantric version, Ganesha is depicted in a form known as "Shakti Ganpati". Here he is depicted with four arms, two of them holding symbolic implements. With the other two arms he holds his consort, who is comfortably balanced on his left leg. The third eye in this representation, is of course the eye of wisdom, which sees above and beyond mere physical reality.

No analysis of Lord Ganesha can be concluded without a mention of the mystical syllable AUM. The sacred AUM is the most powerful Universal symbol of the divine presence in Hindu thought. It is further said to be the sound which was generated when the world first came into being. The written manifestation of this divine symbol when inverted gives the perfect profile of the god with the elephant head.



Om - An Inquiry into its Aesthetics, Mysticism, and Philosophy


Ganesha is thus the ONLY god to be associated in a "physical" sense with the primordial sacred sound AUM, a telling reminder of his supreme position in the Hindu pantheon.

Post a Comment
  • Several years ago I performed a wedding ceremony for a couple. She is Hindu, he is a Lutheran Christian. We had a joint ceremony with me using Christian traditional liturgy, and a Pujari who conducted his part in Sanscrit. He chanted the entire part of his service and it was beautiful! The couple gave me a very ornate and beautiful figurine of Lord Ganesha as a thank you. I thank you for telling me more about this important Deity especially now as He is being worshipped by the faithful all over the world but most especially in India.
    by JANIS J KINENS on 3rd Sep 2019
  • Daily II am drawn more and more into the Hindu Pantheon, finding pieces of myself explained in accuracies I never thought possible. having been a student of all cultures and not altogether unfamiliar with hundu things; I feel now a profound drive to dive in and never return.
    by James Staples V on 29th Aug 2017
  • really informative,eye openers to atheists if they have brains and can open them
    by KRISHNA RAO on 4th Aug 2015
  • this web page is awsome
    by Albena Kostova on 27th Feb 2015
  • Ganesha is a myth!
    Go to google and type in Hilda Charlton and Ganesha and read the article that you come up with.
    Read how Hilda Charlton, an American devotee encountered Ganesha in her real life while on a pilgrimage to a sacred site in Sri Lanka.
    There is no myth. These are called Puranas (stories from the remote past). They have basis in reality.
    Western people and British rule of India has brain washed many Indians into believing everything is a myth!
    by Sridhar on 27th Aug 2014
  • Nice! Informative! Where is the very last image in your article from? Is it a well known symbol for Ganesha? I really like it!
    by NIk on 24th Oct 2011
  • very nice and memorable
    by amitmadhvani on 10th Jun 2011
  • OMG
    by cheese on 9th Mar 2011
  • Ganesha is a Myth--not a fact. The story of Ganesh birth is unbelievable and not scientific. Vedas believe in one infinite, unborn, formless God. Ganesha is just one of 100 names of God--Ohm is the supreme name of the God.
    by Sanjeev Verma on 7th Sep 2010
  • Great article but you have one imperfection... " The biggest and minutest of tasks are within the range of this trunk which is symbolic of Ganesha's intellect and hiss powers of discrimination."... you said hiss rather than his.
    Amazing information and it will help me a lot in my Hindu god assignment,
    by Snowjewl on 25th Apr 2010
  • I thought that this article had alot of good pictures and info. It really helped me with my Global project.
    by Nicchia on 11th Nov 2009
  • Lord Ganesha is my god! I respect this god as a Hindu American Im proud to wear my gold ganesha ring every day!
    This is a good gallery of Ganesha art and pictures!There are many tales of this jolly,auspicous god.Praise Lord Ganesh!
    by Mahesh Kumar on 26th Jul 2009
  • I never knew the story behind Lord Ganesha n this article has taught me a lo about Him. Im very happy to have come across this article. I feel closer to him now.
    Thank you very much!
    by Losine on 25th Feb 2008
  • I have felt a closeness with Ganapati since the first time that I walked into a Yoga class. I have heard a number of stories concerning his "birth" and how he came to have his head, but this one is the one I've heard the most. Thank you for assembling the many aspects of Ganesha in one place and ignore the silly person in position six.

    Hari Om Tat Sat
    by Timananda on 2nd Feb 2008
  • Most insightful and beautifuly written article !!!!!
    Thank you for all your articles .
    by Vijaya Chandramouli on 27th Nov 2007
  • Nicely written - good stories to relate to the children in my Balvihar class. Being a collector of Ganesha art, from the sublime to the whimsical, I especially loved the various images accompanying the article.
    by JK on 11th Sep 2007
  • Thanks! I have just had a tattoo of ganesh put on my arm. The insight into his symbolism was very useful and important for me. he is a great character to have with me for the rest of my life.
    by Henning on 25th Jun 2007
  • This is the best article I have come across so far in my life explaining all the different aspects of our beloved Gaurdian and Remover of all obstacles and Giver of success in all diversity of our lifes.The very new aspect of him that I have not known so far that is him fondling his consort is really a very enlighting feelings for me and I very much hope that I will worship him more lovingly and with full of wonderfull imaginations and its very juicy to make him my very personal Deity.
    by Suresh on 7th Dec 2006
  • Do these critical folks not READ that the 'om' is INVERTED to show the likeness of Ganesha? READ before you criticize, please!
    by Alison on 13th Aug 2006
  • Your website is total speculation, which scriptures are you speakin from. You just made this up or your granny told you?
    Call out Gouranga be happy
    by Gouranga on 30th Mar 2006
  • enjoyable and insightful. i think the last image at the end is wrong. the aum is upside that bad luck ;)
    by nishan on 1st Aug 2005
  • I thank you for writing an article about the Hindu god I feel closest to in a manner that allowed me (as new and inexperienced as I am) to understand as well as to learn. Your writing abilities are excellent.
    Thanks again,
    by Raphaeline on 13th Jul 2005
  • I was doing an image search for "om" when I came across your site. I was aghast to see that the "om" picture that you have posted on it is UPSIDE DOWN! I'm sure you didn't mean to put it that way, but I just thought I would tell you, you know, for future reference.
    by ranjit on 3rd Mar 2004
  • An excellent article.
    by Esther Mehta on 26th Jan 2004
  • This is by far one of the best articles so far from your website. Amazing how we are still learning new things about Hindu Mythology everyday. Lord Ganesh is indeed one of the most beloved of our deities. I enjoyed this article very much. Thank you.
    by Mangala Suri on 6th Dec 2003
  • thanks for the amazing read. i am still wondering, however about the significance of the umbrella in some depictions of ganesha. can you tell me more about this?
    by libby on 17th Jun 2003
  • I first found your web site a week ago when searching for pictures of Ganesha. I really appreciate the informative and interesting articles. You are educating me with the stories and the picture links are wonderful. Thank you.
    by Carolyn Relei on 16th Jun 2003
  • Brilliant article - has helped me and my brother do some Religious Studies homework.
    by Scott Walden on 22nd May 2003
  • Tham you for rendering hommage to Sri Ganapati. He is the deity that lost his head to gain instead an elephant's head, meaning that whoever is ready to lose his ego's intelligence, will recieve divine intelligence, memory, and direct communication with the cosmos as a gigantic brain. No wonder why most Hindu prayers starts with an hommage to him before addressing to higher deities such as Shiva, or Laksshmi: he is the communication and computing system without which prayers cannot go to heaven, and without which heavens cannot shown signs, such as planets, which indicate the figure of the events to come or having come. He is rightfully the favourite figure of computer and Internet figure in India, the mouse he rides on being not only the mouse one clicks with, but the symbol of the elusive and always grasping human ego.
    by Francis Miville on 22nd May 2003
  • Thank you so much for yet another wonderful article. I have learned so much about Eastern philosophy, iconography, and theology through reading your monthly articles. I keep a file of them, and often refer to one or another in preparing presentations at the Interfaith Center I help direct. Please continue your very important contribution to the education and enlightenment of human kind. Gratefully,
    by Dena Blay-Stroba on 14th Dec 2002
  • Om Sri Ganeshaya Namah
    I will be sure to think of you all when i give offereings to Ganesha in Bali soon!
    by Kelvin on 21st Sep 2002
  • Great cite- I'm conducting a formal and iconographical analysis of Ganesha and this cite has greatly helped me piece together the history etc. around this wonderful Hindu icon. Thank you!
    by Kristen on 19th Sep 2002
  • It is a good article ! But please , if you have another information about Him , anything send to me or write another article . I make dayli laya with his mantra and He help me very very much, so i want to know everything about GANESHA in all three worlds ! Thanks
    by Emanuel on 9th Sep 2002
  • brilliant article - it really helped me with my art homework. Thankyou
    by Jamie Mileham on 8th Feb 2002
  • Thank you for a great article on Lord Ganesha. It is not often that you find a site that explains all facets of Ganesha. I must say I learned something new.
    by Suren Naidoo on 3rd Dec 2001
  • Thanks for your comments on Ganeshain the Alchemy group. I live in MASS and a few years ago after a huge snow---we carved a giant ganesha in a mountain of snow without arms---just a giant head---it brought us great luck--but funny looks from the neighbors.
    by G. Morell on 3rd May 2001
  • Thank you so very much for the facinating discourse on Lord Ganesha. I brought an image of Ganesha home with me from a trip to India and Nepal last year and small children are facinated by it..I now have a proper legend to tell that will intrigue and guide at the same time. Your site is wonderful. Thank you again.
    by Sandy on 3rd May 2001
  • I wish to thank you for the enlightening stories about Ganesha.
    by Joe on 3rd May 2001
  • I wanted to wrte to thank you for the article on the lord Ganesha. I loved reading the stories, and learning more about this wonderful being. Of late I, personally, have felt drawn to him, and feel that he has become a positive presence in my life. Again, thank you. Peace
    by Walter on 3rd May 2001
  • What a wonderful essay on Ganesha! My husband and I have been studying hinduism for the last year and have a particular affinity to Ganesha. Your article gave significance to parts of his tale that I hadn't heard before. Thank You So Much
    by Allison Hancock on 3rd May 2001
  • I know very little of India's traditions and mythology, but I have always been drawn to the figure of Ganesha. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Respectfully
    by Charlene on 3rd May 2001
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