Ganesha is one of the most popular forms in Indian sculpture, painting and drawing. Among the temples of the Hindu gods, some of the most visited ones are those dedicated the Ganesha, who is worshipped as the ‘Lord of Beginnings’. The form of Ganesha - a merry little benevolent elephant-shaped divinity, with a bejeweled crown on his head, a cute little trunk, a broken tusk, a pot belly, , is the most familiar and the most loved and the most worshipped idol anywhere in India.
Ganesha, also known as Ganesh or Ganapati, is one of the most popular demigods in the Hindu Pantheon. Ganesha’s popularity can be equated with that of the Laughing Buddha of the Chinese Culture. The sculptures or statuettes of the Laughing Buddha are seen everywhere in China, and like that the statuettes or sculptures or pictures of Ganesha or temples dedicated to him are seen anywhere in India. Ranked 5, if not 5, among the gods and demi-gods of India, he comes after Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. His name indicates what he mainly is. Ganesha is the isha (lord) of Gana; and gana is ‘a band of attendants possessing certain semi-divine powers’. And it only means that he is ‘the chief of the group of attendants in the service of Lord Shiva’. ‘Ganapati’ also means the same: the pati of the Gana; and pati is the ‘chief’, and Gana we have already discussed.
He has a couple of other names too; and one among them is Vighneshvara. The term means ‘The Lord who creates and removes Obstacles’. This is what made this demigod highly popular. Whether one is a believer Hindu or a non-Hindu, nobody likes an obstacle to crop up across his path. When you enter into something noble or valuable, something dearer to you and your near ones, you are tempted to pray that it might have a safe passage. And so, whether you are a Hindu or non-Hindu, you are tempted to worship Ganesha for his blessings and pray that there be no snag or hindrance to what you have undertaken. The belief is that by pleasing Ganesha you get all obstacles removed. And this is precisely why he is worshipped as Vighneshvara, the Lord of Obstacles (‘vighna’ is obstacles and ishvara, like ish is God or Lord). Ganesha is considered a scholar, and one having special interest in literary and educational activities, and is placed as the patron of grammarians, artists, scientists and other intellectuals. And it is why you worship Ganesha before you or your kids begin something that is connected with education or the arts, or the first staging of a dance performance or a music concert. Ganesha is ‘consulted’ just before you enter into something new, some business. It is a cultural trait of the Indians which has been handed over from generation to generation. Irrespective of the social status or religious or communal classification or the division such as rich or poor, this Ganapati-cult has become a fashionable practice too - just as one kisses the motif of a cross on his or her necklace. There is a formula for your prayer: Oh, Lord Ganesha, let there be no obstacles to what we are now entering into. Even confirmed non-believers including the most materialistic space scientists are tempted to pray in their mind of minds that their endeavor be a success. This is the relevance of the faith in Ganesha, and the fear for the enigmatic uncertainty of the next moment, or the hidden power of the unknown. And consider here the case of the Laughing Buddha. He is the symbol of happiness, contentment and prosperity. Ganesha is considered to bring success, removing obstacles on the way to your progress. He is also the god of education, prosperity, success and wealth. Ganesha motifs are imprinted on the invitations to Hindu weddings, inaugural functions and all sorts of auspicious occasions like house warming, so that everything goes well.
And the list of the names of Ganesha flows on: Vinayaka (because he is the nayak or leader of the special squad), Dvaimaatura (denoting that he has two mothers), Ekadanta (suggesting that he has just one tusk or danta or tooth, the other tusk seen broken or lost), Gajanana (because he has the aanana or face of a gaja or elephant), Pillaiyaar (to suggest that he is a noble child of his parents)…. And then Dhundi, Dvimukha, Trimukha, Rinamochana, Uddanda, Haridra, Kshipra Prasada …
Each one of these is tagged on to an interesting episode or another. For instance, let us see what the name Ekadanta signifies. But this requires a mention of the parents of this demi-god. Ganesha is one of the two sons of Shiva, who is one of the three supreme gods of the Hindu pantheon, and Parvati. There are a large variety of myths handed down from century to century on the marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvati. Indian literature and arts, in different languages, have made use of this union for creations most of which turned out to be classics, and the most famous of these is Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavam which depicts the birth of Kumara or Subrahmanya. According to a traditional story, on one of their honeymoon days, Shiva and Parvati assumed the form of elephants and the resultant birth was Ganesha, who has the physical form of an elephant. Ganesha and his brother Subrahmanya once had a dispute between them as to who was the elder of the two. They found no solution. The matter was taken to their father. Shiva, their father and a brilliant trouble shooter, asked his sons to undertake a tour of the whole world and the one who returns first would be declared the elder. Subrahmanya immediately flew off on the peacock, his vehicle, and completed his trip round the world. But when he reached the starting point, what he saw was Ganesha standing at the victory stand, holding a gift mother Parvati gave him. What happened was: Ganesha just went round his father and mother and stood there for the decision and the prize. Shiva, the father, asked him how he could claim the prize, as he had not gone round the world.
Ganesha told he knew that parents represented the whole universe and so he went round them and returned. The dispute was settled in his favor. Subrahmanya was enraged that his brother played one of his tricks to defeat him. So he gave Ganapati a kick which resulted in the breakage of one of his tusks. It was this piece of his tusk that Ganesha found later to use as a pen when he was given the task of being the scribe to write out the great epic Mahabharata to the dictation of Vyasa, its author.
There are other stories too about the birth of Ganesha and his traits of brilliance and wisdom. According to Hindu scriptures, Parvati created an elephant in sandalwood and breathed life into it and it was how Ganesha came into being. There are various versions too for this story.
Vinayaka Chaturthi is an annual celebration coinciding with his day of birth. It falls between 20 August and 15 September. It is observed in the lunar month of Bhadrapada shukla paksha, i.e., on the fourth day of the waxing moon. This celebration is prescribed in the Holy Hindu scriptures.
We now know the son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha, is not of a normal figure. He has the face and head of an elephant. His trunkis curved. His ears are large. He has the body of a human with a large pot belly. Though such a huge body, he travels on the back of a small creature – a mouse. This strange figure is the target of all devotion and worship for the Hindus of India; of course, of some other Asiatic countries too. Time is a great creator as well as being a leveler and destroyer. Philosophers say that Ganesha’s head symbolizes atman or the soul. But they say his body of a human denotes maya, his head of an elephant denotes the Hindu mantra of OM, the magical sound-symbol of reality.
Typical of India’s philosophical style of humorous abstraction, the vehicle for the huge figure of Ganapati is the puny little mouse. Scholars have interpreted this mouse-conveyance as a symbol of the wish to overcome desires and be less selfish. The big-sized Ganesha and his small-sized vehicle symbolize the irony of life itself. Ganesha knows everything, because his vehicle can sneak and penetrate into all sorts of secret places!
Ganesha became a prominent figure in the Hindu pantheon only after the 5th century, according to historians, though he is mentioned in various puranic texts earlier than that. As mentioned earlier, he is considered to have taken down the entire text of Mahabharata to the dictation from Sage Vyasa. Ganesh has the ears to hear even the mildest whisper and an untiring hand to take down texts at a stretch for hours, and a pen which he converted from his broken tusk!
Vinayaka Chaturthi is the most important, annual festival of Ganesha temples. Once it was a private family festival. Credit goes to Lok Manya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of the early leaders of India’s freedom movement for converting it into a public celebration.
Tales of the heroism and intelligence of Ganesh abound. Myths are all around. All these make Ganesh the most interesting figure among India’s divinities.