Ganesha - the Elephant Headed God

Article of the Month - Oct 2000

This article by Nitin Kumar Editor

(Viewed 2919526 times since Oct 2000)

The beloved elephant-faced-Deity popularly known as Lord 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 Lord Ganesha's birth. The most popular being the one mentioning that Ganesha was created by Goddess Parvati as a guardian to her privacy:

Exotic India has a wide range of Brass, Bronze, and stone sculptures of Lord Ganesha. His divine form can be seen in different poses and postures. These include Bal Ganapati, Chaturbhuja Ganapati, Ashtabhuja Ganesha, Dancing Ganesha, Panchamukhi Ganesha, etc. Each and every statue has been crafted by skilled artificers across the country and the divinity of Lord Ganesha can be felt in each one of them.

Life-Of-Ganesha Panel

The Birth of Ganesha

Ganesha, the remover of obstacles was made to impede anybody wishing to encroach upon Parvati's own space. Parvati needed somebody whom she could adore, whom she could trust, somebody who might not bow to anybody and rather face them in case they meddle into Parvati's space.

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 fashioned the figure of a young boy. She infused life into the afresh figure and told him he was her son and while she was in her private chamber he should guard the entrance while she bathed.

Soon after, Shiva (Lord of destruction and husband of Parvati,) came to see Parvati but the young boy, Lord Ganesha, barricaded and blocked his way and would not let him in to see her beloved wife. 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.

Mata Parvati and Her Little Lord Ganesha

Shiva pacified her and instructed his followers (known as ganas) to bring the head of the first living being they encountered. 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.

The Foremost Deity

The son of Parvati was given the name Lord 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. In Hindu verbatim, the phrase ‘Shri Ganesh’ signifies the start of something, especially the start of something good and positive.

Lord Ganesha is the lord of all obstacles; worshipped in the initiation of Hindu rituals and ceremonies. There is a belief that no undertaking could fail if the grace of Vigneshwara is invoked. He is the god of auspiciousness; the beginning of all beginnings and the savior of all. Lord Ganesha is considered to be the epitome of supreme knowledge and divine wisdom.

Decoding the Ganesha Statue


Ganesha is usually depicted either as a pictograph or as a Ganesha idol with the body of a man and the head of an elephant, having only one tusk, the other tusk appearing broken. The unique feature of the Ganesha statue, 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 Lord Ganesha is the mouse, usually seen paying obeisance to his lord.


Ganesha Spreading Love

Physical Attributes

The physical attributes of the Ganesha statue 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 nooses. The goad is to prod man to the path of righteousness and truth. With this goad, Ganesha can both strike and repel obstacles.

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

The Ganesha statue is a composite one. Four animals viz., man, elephant, the serpent, and the mouse have contributed to 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 millennia rolled by, a man yet remains closer to animals today than he was ever before.

Large Lord Ganesha with a Traditional Prabhavali and Parasol Atop


The most striking feature of Lord 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 in 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.

Again, Ganesha's large head is symbolic of the wisdom of the elephant. His large fan 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, in the Ganesha statue, 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, 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 in the Ganesha idol which is symbolic of Ganesha's intellect and his powers of discrimination.


According to the strict rules of Hindu iconography, Ganesha statues with only two hands are taboo. Hence, Ganesha idols 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

Mythology and Iconography of Ganesa

The legend of the Broken Tusk

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 several interesting legends behind it, some of which are;

The Myth of Parashurama

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.

Shiva Family

Broken Tusk Story from Mahabharata

A 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 and with the immensity and importance of the mission in mind, Ganesha realized the inadequacy of any ordinary 'pen' to undertake the task. He thus broke one of his own tusks and made a quill out of it. The lesson offered here is that no sacrifice is big enough in the pursuit of knowledge.

The Arrogance of Ravana

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!

Rajasthani Turbaned Ganesha Surrounded by the Happy Rats

Significance of the Mouse

The little mouse whom Lord 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 an ugly conglomeration of factors and further that the wise do not find anything in the world disproportionate or ugly.

The mouse is, in every respect, comparable to the intellect. It can 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.

Ganesha: A Devoted Son

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, Lord Ganesha teased a cat by pulling its tail, rolling it over on the ground, and causing it great pain, as naughty young boys like to play or entertain felines. After some time, tired of his newly discovered 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 blamed him. She explained that she was the cat whom Ganesha had teased.

37" x 52" Stunning Ganesha Tanjore Painting With Large Wooden Traditional Door Frame | Traditional Colors With 24K Gold | Teakwood Frame | Gold & Wood | Handmade | Made In India

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 continues still...

Invariance 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 Lord Ganesha is represented with grace and charm.  


Auspicious Lord Ganesha with Riddhi and Siddhi

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. The Names of Ganesha

Lord Ganesha, also known by various names such as Ganapati, Vinayaka, Gajanana etc. The Ganesha Purana describes the 32 forms of Lord Ganesha, which are highly revered. These include among many, the following; Balachandra


The name is derived from the avatar of Ganesha (Bala/child) who carries the moon (Chandra) on his forehead. Brahmanda Purana states that Ganesha rescued Chandra from Darbhi saint’s curse when as a boy he took pity and wore moon as tilak on his forehead.


‘Vighna’ implies trouble or obstacles while ‘harta’ means someone who removes them. Ganesha is called by this name because he can remove sufferings and problems from the lives of his devotees.


The single-tusked Ganesha has one half-broken tooth and hence the name Eka(one) danta (tooth). Ekadanta is the 22nd form of Lord Ganesha, of his 32 forms. This avatar was taken by him to destroy Madasura, the demon of arrogance. It is believed that success is assured when a person worships the Ekadanta form of Ganesha and that he is always willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of his devotees.


Lambodara means one with a huge belly. According to Mudgala Purana, Ganesha in Lambodara avatar protected the gods from the troublesome Krodhasura.


The Significance of AUM Symbol

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 that 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.

Shri Ganesha OM Pendant

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.


Lord Ganesha is a god who blesses his devotees with unbound happiness and luck. The one who worships him is blessed with good health, happiness, intelligence and gets rid of financial problems and hurdles coming in the way of completion of work. Browse through the vast collection of Ganesha idols in Exotic India to bring home divinity and prosperity. 

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  • 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.
    JANIS J KINENS September 03, 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.
    James Staples V August 29, 2017
  • really informative,eye openers to atheists if they have brains and can open them
    KRISHNA RAO August 04, 2015
  • this web page is awsome
    Albena Kostova February 27, 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!
    Sridhar August 27, 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!
    NIk October 24, 2011
  • very nice and memorable
    amitmadhvani June 10, 2011
  • OMG
    cheese March 09, 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.
    Sanjeev Verma September 07, 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, Snowjewl
    Snowjewl April 25, 2010