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.

Ganesha has the head of an elephant but the body of a human. He is also a good scribe. The tiny rat or mouse he rides on who runs very quickly. Ganesha is always worshipped at the beginning of any project or journey, and before a book is written. The sage Vyasa is supposed to have dictated the epic Mahabharata to Ganesha.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today ; India Divine ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Website ; Hindu Gallery ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

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.

Parvati playing with Baby Ganesha

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

Ganesh on his vahanaa (mount), a rat

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.”

Geeta Anand wrote in the New York Times, “Worship of an elephant in the Indian subcontinent can be traced to about 325 B.C., with Ganesh becoming part of the Hindu pantheon around the fifth century, and then being absorbed into Buddhism and Jainism in the ensuing centuries. In the 17th century, Shivaji, a ruler after whom Mumbai’s train station and airport are named, spread worship of Ganesh to the wider population in his kingdom in western India. [Source: Geeta Anand, New York Times, September 15, 2016]

Ganesh Worship in Mumbai

Reporting from Mumbai during Ganesh Chaturthi, a large festival honoring Ganesh’s birth, Geeta Anand wrote in the New York Times, “The couple approached the 14-foot statue of the god Ganesh hands folded, believing with all their hearts in his powers as the one who removes obstacles. They had seen proof of this two years ago, they said, when they prayed during the Ganesh festival for their daughter to become pregnant. The daughter, who lives in Britain, now has a child. [Source: Geeta Anand, New York Times, September 15, 2016]

“Perhaps not all that miraculous, but enough to convince the couple, Farida and Jimmy Balsara, who are not even Hindu. Every year, along with tens of millions in street festivals across India, they celebrate the power of Ganesh, the elephant-headed God who has been adopted by some of the country’s other faiths. The festival is particularly popular in Mumbai, the megalopolis of 20 million that is India’s industrial and film capital, where it got started in the 19th century as an anticolonial protest.

Ganesh caste

“And so the Balsaras, who, as Parsees, are followers of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, are among the crowds who pray for Ganesh’s blessing. At the Khetwadi Cha Ganraj, it was time for the evening prayers. As they finished, workers on ladders used peacock feathers to dust Ganesh’s massive arms and pink fingernails. Then they began replacing the deity’s many flower garlands with fresh ones. At that, the Balsaras, until now engaged in deep prayer at the back of the room, rushed forward and shouted to the attendants over the temple music that they wanted to take the discarded garlands home. Mr. Balsara, 77, and Mrs. Balsara, 64, said they had not been able to think of any major family or business problem that needed overcoming, so this year they offered more general prayers, wishing happiness for everyone.”

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, writes: “Ganesh, also known as Ganapati, is immediately recognizable as the elephant-headed god. He is the god of wisdom and learning, as well as the remover of obstacles, and consequently the sign of auspiciousness. It is customary to begin cultural events, for example, by propitiating Ganesh, and older Sanskrit works invoked his name at their commencement. Ganesh is said to have written down the Mahabharata from the dictation of Vyasa. He is the lord (Isa) of the Ganas or troops of inferior deities, but more well-known as the son of Shiva and Parvati. In the most common representations of Ganesh, he appears as a pot-bellied figure, usually but not always yellow in color. In his four hands, he holds a shell, a discus, a club, and a water lily; his elephant head has only one tusk. Like most other Indian gods, he has a ‘vehicle’, in his case a rat: this rat is usually shown at the foot of the god, but sometimes Ganesh is astride the rat. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

“Ganesh remains, in many respects, among the most interesting of the Indian deities. Though the myths and legends attached to the figure of Krishna are immeasurably richer, no other Indian deity is as malleable, so amenable to creative, amusing, ironical, cubist, and three-dimensional representations, whether in painting, literature, or sculpture. There is no medium — stone, glass, cloth, paper, bamboo, wood, bronze, and numerous others — in which artists and craftspersons have not offered representations of Ganesh. He is unquestionably the most lovable and mischievous of the deities with his grandfatherly presence, his protuberant belly, and the twinkle in his eyes. Though there are many festive occasions on which Ganesh is honored, and he has an abiding presence in many Hindu households, his devotees everywhere in India, and most particularly in the state of Maharashtra, celebrate the Ganapati festival with great fanfare. As this festival unequivocally suggests, even Ganesh has been politicized, but seldom is much wisdom shown when this god of wisdom is put to use by ideologues to further the political agendas of militant Hindus.” ==

Books: The myths about Ganesh are to be found in numerous puranas, such as Agni, Matsya, Padma, Skanda, and Vamana, but the Brahmavaivarta Purana offers the richest accounts. Secondary Sources: Coomaraswamy, Ananda. "Ganesa." Bulletin of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts 28 (April 1928); O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Ganesh Chaturth: the Ganesh Festivali

Ganesh Chaturthi is a celebration in September honoring the birth of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom and prosperity and destroyer of obstacles. Also known as Ganapati, Ekadanta, Vinayaka, Pillaiyar and Heramba, Ganesh is one of the most popular Hindu deities. Possessing an elephant's head on a human body and the son of Shiva and his wife Parvati, he is particularly sought out and prayed to when people are beginning a new enterprise or starting a new business. At this time, he is believed to bless the Earth with his presence.

In places such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, Ganesh Chaturthi is a grand 10-day occasion. Huge clay statues of Ganesha are taken to the streets accompanied by music, dance and merry-making. In other places the occasion is celebrated more modestly at home with hymns sung and offerings made to Ganesh. Sweets are also distributed because in Hindu legend Ganesh liked them. The biggest celebrations are Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. On the fifth day of the festival in Mumbai. Ganesh idols are immersed in the sea. In some places you can see large idols of Ganesh pulled on bullock carts.

In Mumbai (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.

History of Ganesh Chaturthi

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.

Geeta Anand wrote in the New York Times, “In the late 19th century, after the British banned political gatherings, a leader of India’s independence movement got the idea of spreading nationalist sentiment by organizing a street festival around Ganesh.Two followers of that leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, lived in Keshavji Naik Chawl, a housing complex in Mumbai of tiny three-room apartments along open-air corridors, a common housing design for middle-class residents at the time, and one still in use today. The Ganesh festival was started in that chawl in the 1890s. “The objective was to create an awakening among the people against British rule,” said Madhukar Keshav Dhavalikar, a former archaeology professor and former director of Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute in Pune, India. [Source: Geeta Anand, New York Times, September 15, 2016]

“The festival spread across the country, although Mumbai remains its heart and soul. In the same chawl where it all began in the late 19th century, residents, some of whose families have lived there for three generations, keep the tradition alive. They have succeeded in holding onto the tradition’s low-key origins, centered on cultural activities, even as the festival has evolved into an ever-noisier competition for the largest, most beautiful statue.”

Ganesh Chaturthi in Khetwadi, Mumbai

Geeta Anand wrote in the New York Times, “The giant plaster-of-paris statue of the most famous in Khetwadi, one of Mumbai’s oldest, densest neighborhoods, near where the festival was first celebrated. Almost every alley features yet another wildly decorated, ardently worshiped Ganesh. But this one, Khetwadi Cha Ganraj, or the Ganesh of Khetwadi, often wins awards as the most beautiful. That fame drew the Balsaras and thousands of others on Wednesday, the last day before the deity would join about 50,000 other statues across the city in a procession of dancing crowds to the ocean, where the idols will be gently lowered into the water. “More than 160,000 Ganesh statues had already been dropped in the city’s waterways, some just a foot tall and worshiped in people’s homes, others close to 30 feet high, paid for by politicians and businessmen as centers for worship and merriment at the festival. [Source: Geeta Anand, New York Times, September 15, 2016]

“Despite the surrounding city, the community has maintained its village feel. On Wednesday, the courtyard in the chawl was an oasis of calm in the midst of all the urban hustle. Children ran in and out of the apartments, most of which had their doors wide open; women wearing saris cooked dinner; and men in shorts napped and watched TV. “You can just enter anyone’s room,” said Vinod Satpute, a 58-year-old flight attendant with Air India, whose parents moved to the chawl decades ago. “It doesn’t matter if he’s eating or sleeping. That’s his problem.”

Ganesh immersion

“A few streets down, vast crowds gathered around the Khetwadi Cha Ganraj. The first statue went up here in the neighborhood’s Lane No. 12 in 1959, and this year’s celebration cost close to $75,000, financed in large part by corporate donations. The costs cover not just the giant, elaborately painted and dressed Ganesh, but also the themed room that holds the deity — this year, a “Rome and Rajasthan palace.” Two huge chandeliers hang overhead as 12 speakers boom temple music at a deafening volume. A crane holds a video camera that beams live footage to a smartphone app and to a YouTube site. In addition to many flower garlands, this Ganesh wears a 33-pound necklace of pure gold, the gift of an anonymous donor in 2008, said Ganesh Mathur, who was among those in charge of the Khetwadi Cha Ganraj this year.

“Along the street, almost every alley has been transformed into a tent with an enormous Ganesh inside. Crowds throng, buying cotton candy, toys, tea and watermelon slices, as couples and families make a day of visiting the idols. Lines snake around almost every tent, inside of which crowds gape at the latest iteration of the revered god. At the Khetwadi Cha Ganraj, it was time for the evening prayers. As they finished, workers on ladders used peacock feathers to dust Ganesh’s massive arms and pink fingernails. Then they began replacing the deity’s many flower garlands with fresh ones. At that, the Balsaras, until now engaged in deep prayer at the back of the room, rushed forward and shouted to the attendants over the temple music that they wanted to take the discarded garlands home. In minutes, they were weaving their way through the motorcycles and street vendors outside, arms buried in red and white flowers, convinced that another great year lay in store for them and for everyone else.”

One Legend About Ganesh’s Creation

“Lord Ganesh is the son of Lord Shiva and goddess Parvathi. When Lord Shiva, was away fighting for the gods, the lady of the house, goddess Parvathi was alone at home. On one occasion, she needed someone to guard the house when she was going for a bath. Unable to think of an alternative, she used her powers to create a son, Ganesh. She instructed Ganesh to keep strict vigil on the entrance to the house and not to allow anyone into the house. Ganesh agreed and stayed on the strictest of strict vigils.[Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka]

“In the meantime Lord Shiva returned happy after a glorious victory for the gods, only to be stopped at the entrance by Ganesh. Ganesh, acting on Parvathi's orders verbatim, did not allow Shiva to enter the house. Lord Shiva became enraged beyond control and in a fit of rage slashed the head of Ganesh. Paravti came out from her bath and was aghast at the scene. She was very very angry at her lordship for what had happened and explained him the situation.

“Lord Shiva wanted to make it up to Parvathi and agreed to put life back into Ganesha by putting the head of the first sleeping living creature that came in sight which was sleeping with its head to the north. He sent his soldiers to go in search of the creature. The first creature which came in sight was an elephant. So Lord Shiva re-created his son with the head of the elephant. Hence the trunk of Lord Ganesha.

“Parvathi was still not totally happy so Shiva granted Ganesha a boon that before beginning of any undertaking or task people would worship Lord Ganesh. Thus the reason for worship of Ganesha before start of any work.

Another Legend on Ganesh’s Creation

“There was a monster called Gajasura. He was all powerful and an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. He underwent penance for many years to receive special boons from Shiva. Lord Shiva, the god, who is easily pleased by prayers, was deeply moved by Gajasura's devotion. He blessed the monster and offered him a boon (reward). But the devotee is not as innocent as Shiva. He pleaded with Shiva to reside in his belly. Left with no option but to grant the boon, Shiva gets into Gajasura's stomach. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka]

“Meanwhile on Mount Kailash, Parvati — Shiva's wife, becomes anxious not knowing the whereabouts of her husband after a long period of time. She searches through the whole universe but to no avail. Finally she approaches Lord Vishnu — the preserver of the world. Vishnu disguises himself in the form of a street player along with Nandi — the sacred bull of Shiva and sets out in search Shiva. They go to Gajasura's kingdom and Nandi performs a dance to please the monster. The monster is delighted to see the bull dancing in his honor and wishes to reward the bull. The bull asks for Shiva as a reward. Hearing this, the monster realizes that the entertainer is none but Lord Vishnu himself. He also realizes that Shiva cannot be made to live in his stomach forever because he has his role to play in the world. He lets Shiva out of his stomach.

20120501-Ganesh_mimarjanam.jpg “He prays to him, that he be made immortal in the memories of people. To fulfill this wish, Shiva severs Gajasura's head and frees him from the cycle of birth and death. He carries the head along with him. On Mount Kailash, in the Himalayas, Parvati comes to know of Vishnu's victory and is very happy. She makes arrangements to receive her Lord and goes to bedeck herself. She wants somebody to stand guard. She creates a doll out of the dough that she uses in her bath. She calls him Vinayak — the one who puts off all obstacles. This boy having never seen Shiva, prevents his entry into the palace. In a fit of fury Shiva beheads the boy and enters the palace. Parvati is unaware of the happenings and receives Shiva with warmth, for he had returned after a long period. During the course of their conversation, Shiva mentions the incident at the palace gates and tells her about severing the child's head.

“Parvati is shocked to hear the news and pleads with Shiva to bring the child back to life for he is like a son to her. Shiva who has with him the head of Gajasura, immediately puts it on the torso of the dead child. Thus the child comes back to life. That day is Bhadrapad Chaturthi. Shiva blesses him with a boon that the entire world would worship him on that day and also would propitiate him before any auspicious event.

“At the same time, all the Gods approach Shiva and request for a leader. Shiva and Parvati have a son called Kumarswami or Kartik. To select the best one of them as a leader of all the Gods, Shiva conducts a test between the two. He says that whoever makes three rounds of the earth sooner than the other, will be made the Ganaadhipati. Kumarswami seated on a peacock, his vahanam (vehicle), starts off for the test.

“Vinayak is given a rat which moves swiftly. Vinayak realizes that the test is not so easy but he cannot disobey his father. He reverently pays obeisance to his parents and goes around them three times and completes the test before Kumarswami. He says, " my parents pervade the whole universe and going around them, is more than going round the earth." Everybody is pleasantly surprised to hear Vinayak's logic and intelligence. Meanwhile, Kartik is amazed to see Ganesh completing the holy bath at each river that he reached at and ready for another round of the universe.

“When he comes back to Kailas, Shiva had already declared Vinayak as the winner. He is blessed as the Supreme God of the universe. After this, Vinayak is called as Ganaadhish, Ganapati and Ganesh. All the gods worship him.The festival of Ganesh or Vinayak Chaturthi, the day on which Ganesh was born is the most joyous event of the year . Throughout India the festival is celebrated with much enthusiasm and devotion. In Andhra Pradesh, like Maharashtra, the festival is celebrated for ten days.

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); Wikipedia, National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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