Ganesh is the elephant-headed god of prosperity, wisdom, success, intelligence and good luck. Very popular, particularly in Bombay and southern and western India, he is known as the creator and remover of obstacles, bestower of happiness and the eliminator of sorrow. Hindus pray and make offerings to him before beginning a journey, buying a house, starting a performance or launching a business venture. Even other gods pay tribute to him before they engage in any kind of activity so he can remove obstacles.

Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Believed to have evolved from a fertility god, he is often depicted with a huge pot belly, slightly dwarfish, sitting like a Buddha or riding on a five -headed cobra or a rat. He has two or four arms. In one hand he carries rice balls, or sweetmeats (he is fond of eating and especially loves sweets). In another he holds broken pieces of his tusks, with which it said he inscribed the Mahabharata as the sages dictated it to him. Sometimes his trunk rests in a bowl that he hold in one of his hands. Sometimes he carries a trident to indicate his link to Shiva. Other times he carries a noose or an elephant goad. Ganesh’s association with rats comes from the ability of rats to gnaw through anything and remove obstacles.

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Stories About Ganesh

The are several stories explaining how Ganesh obtained his elephant head. According to one he originated directly the body of Shiva’s wife, the goddess Parvati. Parvati created him to protect her while she was bathing when her husband Shiva was away. When Shiva returned and tried to enter Parvati's bath, Ganesh challenged him and attempted to block Shiva from entering a room where Parvati was bathing. The passionate Shiva became angry and cut off Ganesha's human head. After Parvati made a fuss, Shiva promised that he would bring Ganesha back to life. He vowed to bring back the head of the first being he saw and went into the forest, where the first being he met was an elephant. Shiva cut off the head of the elephant, returned home and placed it on Ganesha's shoulders.

Professor Vinay Lal writes: “ According to a second legend, Shiva slew Aditya, the sun, but was condemned by the Vedic sage Kasyapa to lose the life of his own son in return; and when he replaced his son’s life, Shiva did so with the head of Indra’s elephant. Yet another story about the origins of Ganesh’s elephant head relates how Parvati, admiring of her son’s handsome looks, asked Saturn (Sani, from which is derived sanivar, or Saturday) to gaze at her son. But in so doing she forgot that the effect of Sani’s glance would be to burn the object he gazed at to ashes. In her distress, Parvati went to Brahma, who told her to replace Ganesh’s head with the first head that she could find. The sacred "Om" sign with which Ganesh is often associated points to yet another myth of his birth. According to this myth, one day Parvati saw the "Om" sign, and with her glance she transformed it into two elephants, from whose act of intercourse emerged Ganesh. They then resumed the form of "Om", but ever since "Om" became known as the sign of Ganesh. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

A popular Ganesh story that Indian parents like to tell their children goes: Ganesh and his brother were challenged to a foot race three times around the world by their mother. Ganesh’s brother took off around the world with lightning speed but Ganesh won by simply circling his parents three times, saying "you are my world."

In September 1995, there were reports of Ganesh drinking milk in Calcutta and Jersey City within hours of each other. Not long after that there reports of Virgin Mary statutes drinking milk in Cheshire, England and Kuala Lumpur.

Professor Lal writes: “Though all Indian myths are subject to interesting psychoanalytic interpretations, the myths associated with Ganesh particularly lend themselves to some obvious psychoanalytic readings. Ganesh can be seen as competing with his father for his mother, and Parvati is herself, in some myths, seen as casting a far too admiring look at her own son; on the other hand, one can reasonably view Shiva as opposing the apparently incestuous relationship between his wife and their son. Shiva’s conduct towards his son Ganesh is of a piece with his conduct towards others who are viewed as being in sexual competition with him, when one recalls that he burnt Kama with his third eye and beheaded Brahma with the touch of his hand. In some myths, the beheading of Ganesh is replaced by the act of castration. The roots of Shiva’s violent conduct toward his own son may lie in the profound ambivalence he feels towards his own progeny. On the one hand, Shiva stands for fertility, and he is everywhere associated with the lingam or phallus; on the other hand, he is also the presiding god of ascetics. Consequently, Ganesh is, in a manner of speaking, his unwanted offspring.”==

Images of Ganesh

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “With his elephant head and chubby, childlike body, Ganesha is the most beloved of all Hindu deities. He is the remover of all obstacles and so is called upon before the start of all kinds of ventures. But Ganesha has a deeper significance, made clear in a Hindu prayer that begins, “Lead us as a tusker would out of the forest of false ideas to the path of truth.” His animal vehicle is the rat, which, though small by contrast, can gnaw through any obstacle. This comparison suggests that there are two ways to remove obstacles: to be like an elephant who tramples everything in its path, or, like the rat, to find a way through small openings to achieve the same goal. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Ganesha is usually shown with four arms. With his trunk he reaches for a bowl of the sweets he so loves and holds a string of prayer beads, an elephant goad, sometimes a snake, and his broken tusk. Sculptures of Ganesha are usually found at the beginning of a sequence of deities on the exterior walls of a Hindu temple, placed there to eliminate obstacles faced by the worshipper in his or her religious quest. <*>

Worship of Ganesh

20120501-Ganesh_mimarjanam.jpg Ganesh is also known as Ganapati, the Lord of the Ganas (the hosts of Shiva).For most worshipers, Ganesh is the first deity invoked during any ceremony because he is the god of wisdom and remover of obstacles. People worship Ganesh when beginning anything, for example, at the start of a trip or the first day of the new school year. He is often pictured next to his mount, the rat, symbol of the ability to get in anywhere. Ganesh is therefore a clever figure, a trickster in many stories, who presents a benevolent and friendly image to those worshipers who placate him. His image is perhaps the most widespread and public in India, visible in streets and transportation terminals everywhere. The antics of Ganesh and Karttikeya and the interactions of Shiva and Parvati have generated a series of entertaining myths of Shiva as a henpecked husband, who would prefer to keep meditating but instead is drawn into family problems, providing a series of morality tales in households throughout India. *

Ganesh is often the god that people pray for help with their everyday problems. National Geographic nature photographer Frans Lanting wrote that in India: “Statues of Ganesha are everywhere— on car dashboards and in homes. Because of their connections to Ganesh, some people even treat wild elephants that raid their crops with respect. Farmers have even prostrated themselves before a rouge elephant instead of running it off.”

Ganesh Festival

Ganesh Chaturthi in September is a 10-day Hindu celebration honoring the elephant-headed god Ganesha. In Bombay and Maharashtra there are large processions with huge crowds that immerse images of Hindu Gods in the Arabian Sea and lakes. Local competitions and other festivities are held. Celebrants often powder their faces and bodies in bright colors. Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the fourth day in the month of Bhadra (August-September). Families and businesses prepare for this festival by purchasing brightly painted images of Ganesh and worshiping them for a number of days. On the festival itself, with great celebration, participants bathe the images (and in most cases permanently dump them) in nearby rivers, lakes, or seas.

Half of Bombay's population turns out for the celebration. Ganesh idols are displayed in houses for ten days. Thousands of brightly painted imaged of Ganesh—made of plaster-of-Paris, wood, mud, coconut hair and spray paint— are paraded through the streets and placed in homes or special shrines. Most are relatively small but some are seven or eight meters feet high. The biggest ones sometimes belong to gangsters and are part of their efforts to win public goodwill. The festival climaxes at Chowpatty Beach where hundreds of thousands people gather, many of them dousing images of Ganesh in the water, "purifying the faithful and sending the Ganesh back to the realm of the gods." The day after celebration the beach looks like a battlefield, with images and limbs of Ganesh sticking out of the water and lying on the beach.

The Ganesh festival evolved into present form in the late 19th century as an expression of displeasure towards the British at a time when political rallies were banned but religious festivals weren't. At that time skits often had political messages as freedom fighters attempted to rouse the people. So many Ganesh images are deposited in the water that large numbers of fish die from toxins from the paint and an impermeable layer made by the plaster of Paris exists on the sea floor. Environmentalists have raised a fuss and argued that the practice should be stopped.


Hanuman hug
Hanuman, the monkey god and general, is a helper of Rama and popular in villages and rural India. Regarded as brave and loyal, he is worshiped as a symbol of strength and intelligence. He was once associated mostly with Sri Lanka but now is revered all over India as well as in Southeast Asia. Images of Hanuman are often placed at the entrances of temples because of his reputation for fiercely defending his territory against invaders.

Hanuman is said to be the son of the wind god Vayi and is well known for his ability to change his appearance. He is often depicted as a warrior hero dressed in armor and carrying a mace and/or a dagger, weapons he used to defeat the demon Ravana, and is frequently connected with Vishnu because of his connection with Rama, one of Vishnu’s incarnations.

Hanuman is particularly popular in northern India. In January 1997, when a balloon carrying the adventurer Steve Fosset landed near the northern Indian village of Ninkhar, local people thought the balloon was Hanuman’s floating temple cart. Monkeys are given special respect by Hindus and allow to roam around temples because of their connection with Hanuman. One famous temple in Thailand hosts a huge banquet for monkeys in part to win the approval of Hanuman.

Hanuman and the Ramayana

In the Ramayana, “Hanuman is the chief minister to the monkey king. Together with the king and his army of monkeys, Hanuman helped Rama battle against Ravana, the evil demon king who had abducted Rama’s wife Sita. Hanuman was so agile, clever, strong, and loyal to Rama that he symbolizes the ideal of loyalty and service. Sita is kept captive in Ravana’s castle. The demon threatens Sita with torture unless she marries him. In the meantime Rama and Laksmana go through a series of adventures and battles trying to rescue Sita. They are helped by Hanuman, who discovers where Sita is kept.

When Rama can not get to the island of Lanka where Sita is held prisoner he seeks the help of Hanuman, who summons his army of monkeys to form a bridge from India to Lanka. On Lanka, Rama is able enlist the help of Hanuman’s army and the army of the great monkey king Surgriva who Rama helps by slaying his rival with an arrow.

The battle— pitting Rama, and the armies of Hanuman and Surgriva against Ravana and the demons— is the central event of the Ramayana. It begins after Hanuman sets fire to Ravana’s city and continues through a long series of offensives, counterattacks and battles. Ravana’s forces fire arrows that turn into serpents and wind around their victims necks like nooses.

All looks doomed when Indrajit kills Rama and Laksmana and the armies of Sugriva are on the verge of defeat. At this point Hanuman travels off to the Himalayas and brings back some magic herbs that bring Rama and Laksama back to life and revive the armies of Sugriva. In a pair of duels Laksmana manages to kill Indrajit and Rama kills Ravana king with an arrow.

Temple Monkeys

Some temples in Asia are occupied by troops of monkeys. Monkeys are often found in the tens of thousands of temples across India. They are seen as a symbol of Hanuman, the mythical monkey god, and devotees visiting temples often feed them. The number of pilgrims visiting monkey temples near national parks have been reduced to twice a week to help protect animals.

The Monkey Temple, or Swayamblunath, in Kathmandu is home to brown and pink faced monkeys who some say have occupied the site for 2000 years. The first monkeys that showed up after the temple was built are believed to have arrived from the forest to eat offering left for the gods. With the forest all gone the monkeys rarely venture more than a half mile from the temple and eat offerings of rice, pumpkin and peanuts left for them became they are now considered sacred animals.

The monkey population is divided into several troupes. The troops are led by dominant males. They definitely have the run of the temple and the area. They have been known to take candy from children and climb through the windows of nearby guesthouses and steal valuables. Usually the dominate male does the dirty work while the rest of his clan sit and watch. There aren't dangerous or anything, just sneaky.


20120501-Kali Raja_Ravi_Varma.jpg
Kali---the Goddess of Death---is a form of Shakti, a wife of Shiva and the daughter of a fierce mountain god. Also known as Durga, she is often pictured with three eyes, black skin, a tongue dripping blood, a necklace of skulls and a sword used for cutting off heads, and is sometimes shown with a severed head in one hand and a cobra wrapped around her neck.

Kali is known for her dance of death and is revered for coming to earth and defeating the hideous demon Raktavijra, known for being ability to reproduce himself 1,000 times with each drop of his blood that falls to earth. Like Shiva, Kali is regarded as both a destroyer and a creator of life, but is feared because she has taken her demon slaying too far, demanding blood sacrifices from humans and once almost killing Shiva.

Kali is the patron saint of thieves and a creator of problems for travelers as well a goddess that delivers good things to those that worship her. She was born as a fully grown woman with ten arms and acquired her taste for blood when she killed Raktavijra and drank his blood to prevent him from reaching the earth so he could reproduce himself.

Kali is often depicted as a warrior with weapons in each hand. She rides a tiger or lion, fights with a buffalo and frequently is shown sitting on a lotus platform, holding a lotus flower, beads, a water pot and sometimes the trident of Shiva. Many of here followers feel her hostile reputation is undeserved because most her aggression is focused on defeating and slaying demons.

Kali is arguable the most popular of all Hindu goddesses and is especially popular in Calcutta and Bengal in eastern India, where she is known as Durga. Explaining why Kali is so popular despite here bloodthirsty nature, a taxi driver in Calcutta, told the New York Times, "Outside, she is looking very bad. But inside, Kali is very sweet goddess. Whatever you want---house, job, car, husband, child---when you make her sacrifice, then she will give it anything."

Kali Worship and Rituals

20120501-Kali -Gujhyakali_S_N.jpg
Hindus have honored Kali with small clay idols called purjas , a major festival in Calcutta, and a film shown over and over again that features her as a lion and a goddess that shoots lightning bolts from the third eye on her forehead that are capable of decapitating demons and producing a lot of blood.

The rituals and objects that honor Kali are often quite gruesome or macabre. Purjas sold at festivals show her strangling pregnant women. Cremation grounds, normally regarded as places of pollution, are regarded by some Kali followers as places of rebirth, worship and meditation. Some devotion rituals---such as chanting Kali’s 108 names in Sanskrit and laying a garland of limes at the feet of her images’are more mundane.

Kali is sometimes honored and placated with animal sacrifices. In most cases a goat is sacrificed to say thanks for some particularly good fortune. The animal is decapitated with a quick chop. It is considered auspicious to be splattered with the blood. The head is given to the Brahma priest who performs the sacrifice. The person who offered the goat for sacrifice gets to take the carcass home and eat it.

Humans at one time were sacrificed for Kali. The practice is still believed to be kept alive in some parts of Bihar, where there is some evidence that rituals involving child sacrifices have been conducted by followers of cults that worship goddess Kali. See Tantric Rituals Below.

See Calcutta Durga Festival, Tantrism and Thugs

Kali, Parvati and Durga

Parvati, in a variety of forms, is the most common focus of devotion in India. The wife of Shiva, she presents two main facets to her worshipers: a benign and accepting personality that provides assistance and a powerful and dangerous personality that must be placated. The benign vision exists in many temples to Shiva throughout the country, where the goddess has her own shrine that is in practice the most frequented site of heartfelt devotion. During annual festivals in which the god and goddess emerge from their shrines and travel in processions, it is often the goddess who is most eagerly anticipated. In North India, for example, life-like statues of the loving goddess Kali, who is ultimately a manifestation of Parvati, are carried through huge crowds that line village and city streets. In South India, where gigantic temples are the physical and social centers of town life, the shrines and their annual festivals are often known by the names of their goddesses. One of the more famous is the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Minakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The temple is named after the "fish-eyed goddess" Minakshi, described in myths as a dark queen born with three breasts, who set out to conquer the universe. After overrunning the world and vanquishing the gods, Minakshi finally met Shiva and, when her third breast disappeared, accepted him as her lord. This motif of physical power and energy appears in many stories where the goddess is a warrior or conqueror of demons who in the end joins with Shiva. *

Alternative visions, however, portray a goddess on the loose, with the potential for causing havoc in the world unless appeased. The goddess Durga is a great warrior who carries swords and a shield, rides a tiger, and destroys demons when the gods prove incapable; in this incarnation, she never submits, but remains capable of terrible deeds of war. The goddess Kali often appears as an even more horrific vision of the divine, with garlands of human skulls around her neck and a severed head in her hand; her bloody tongue hangs from her mouth, and the weapons in her arms drip gore. This image attempts to capture the destructive capacity of the divine, the suffering in the world, and the ultimate return of all things to the goddess at death. *

In many small shrines throughout India, in marked contrast to the large and ornate temples dominated by Brahmanical principles and the philosophy of nonviolence, the female divinity receives regular gifts of blood sacrifices, usually chickens and goats. In addition, the goddess may manifest herself as the bearer of a number of diseases. The goddess of smallpox, known as Shitala in North India and Mariamman in South India, remains a feared and worshiped figure even after the official elimination of the disease, for she is still capable of afflicting people with a number of fevers and poxes. Many more localized forms of goddesses, known by different names in different regions, are the focus for prayers and vows that lead worshipers to undertake acts of austerity and pilgrimages in return for favors. *


Shakti, also known as Devi or Mahadevi, is the mother goddess of India and the wife of Shiva. Like Shiva, she has a benevolent and malevolent side and is regarded as both sexy and strong. Shakti is often depicted with multiple arms. Her forms and manifestations include Parvati, Gauri, and the ugly Kali---all of whom have various associations with Shiva. Her mount is a tiger.

Shakti is believed to have evolved from indigenous earth-mother goddesses, one of which existed in the ancient Indus Civilization, and is closely linked with thousands of local goddess found throughout India. These goddesses can be both beneficent and benign and powerful and destructive and often are associated with fertility and agriculture and sometimes placated with sacrificial blood offerings.

Shakti is regarded as local protector for thousands of villages and characterized as the “dispeller of the Fear of Time.” Her most famous achievement is the slaying of a buffalo demon of egoism by using a red noose to pull the demon out of the buffalo's body.

The word Shakti is also used to describe the "the essence of female energy” which in turn is closely linked with Tantrism and is regarded as the female complement to Shiva’s male energy. Shakti’s power and that of females is characterized as dark, mysterious and omnipresent. Shakti and her different forms are also closely linked to Tantrism.


Agni is the God of Fire and Protectorate of Mankind. He lives in the Earth and serves as a mediator between man and the gods. He has two heads., which symbolize the sacrificial fire and the fire of the domestic hearth, and four arms, which hold a fan to put out the fire, an axe, a torch and a ladle. His mount is a rhinoceros.

Agni (meaning “fire”, related to Latin ignis ) is said to be the “priest of the gods and the god of the priests." In the heavens he is the sun; in the atmosphere he is lightning; on earth he fire:
O Agni, illuminator of darkness, day by day we approach you.
with holy thought bringing homage to you.
Presiding at ritual functions, the brightly shining custodian
of the cosmic order.

Agni, like Shiva, is closely associated with Varanasi (Benares). One Hindu scripture reads: "Over all shines a radiant fire illuminating the Hindi vision. The fire-god was everywhere---how many was he? Sacrificial fire was a messenger carrying the consumed oblation upwards to the gods. Benares, the pilgrim's destination, was the City of Light.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2017

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