Sri Ganesha is one of the most enigmatic and iconic deities of Hindu culture. Ganesha idols have become symbols of Indian culture over the world with many people even collecting them in various colours, sizes and postures as collector’s items.
Sri Ganesha is the lord of learning and knowledge. He represents great wisdom and intellect that enables us to remove obstacles in our path to Self-realisation. There are many examples of his brilliant intelligence in the lore. The most important display of his mental capabilities is his transcription of the great epic Mahabharata that was narrated to him by the sage Ved Vyasa.
His fondness for food is also noted in the tradition where offerings of modaks, his favourite sweets are made to his idol or image. This symbolises enjoyment of life, well-being and prosperity.
The story of Ganesha and its deeper meaning
The legend goes that Ganesha was created by his mother, Parvati because she desired a child and her husband Shiva was away, leaving her feeling lonely. One day, Parvati went off to bathe and left instructions with Ganesha to not allow anyone to come that way. Shiva returned home at that time, and was stopped in his path by the strange boy who refused him permission to meet Parvati.
In a temper, Shiva cut off the boy’s head, not knowing who he was. When Parvati saw this, she was deeply hurt and angry and so Shiva asked his followers, the ganas, to bring another head for the boy (the elephant head). He breathed life back into the boy and named him the chief of the ganas, Ganapati.
The story seems strange although these days science is getting closer to creating human life from a few living cells and so perhaps the idea of transplanting a head may not be all that far-fetched.
However, the symbolism of the story is more important to understand. Parvati represents shakti or Mother Nature and Ganesha represents a human being as her creation. Ganesha initially only knows his mother, Parvati, never having seen his father, Shiva. The human being likewise initially only knows his material nature, his physical limitations. When he encounters Shiva, i.e. when the human being touches that part of him that is pure consciousness, Shiva, Shiva removes the old ‘person’ which is replaced with the higher Self.
Why we worship Lord Ganesha first
In the Hindu tradition, Sri Ganesha is the first deity invoked during worship rituals and important ceremonies. Ganesha idols are also placed at the entrance of temples, at the entrance of people’s homes and even of shops and offices.
Ganesha is the first to be invoked because as the remover of obstacles, his blessings are sought so that our spiritual path may be clear.
Ganesha is associated with the Muladhara chakra at the base of the spine. It is the first chakra where the Kundalini shakti remains coiled up. From a yogic perspective, Ganesha is invoked to allow us access to the kundalini shakti so that it may rise up through the spine and awaken our consciousness.
Ganesha is also associated with the first, primordial sound, Aum (Omkaraswaroopa).
Different names and their meanings
According to one version of the story, the head of Ganesha is not really an elephant head but the head of one of the ganas. The ganas were the followers and friends of Shiva, Ganesha’s father and were known to be deformed beings not of human nature. Ganesha means ‘lord of the ganas‘.
Ganesha is also referred to by many other names such as:
Ganapati: head or chief of the ganas, Shiva’s followers or the general collective term for people. The earliest mention of the name Ganapati is found in the Rigveda.
Vinayaka: a common name for Ganesha in the Puranas as well as the Buddhist Tantras, meaning master or controller of the Vinayakganas who were beings that created obstacles for people (1) The eight famous Ganesha temples in Maharashtra, India, Ashtavinayak, reflect this name.
Vighnesha/Vighneshvara: one who helps to overcome obstacles (vighna). The elephant symbolism is relevant as elephants uproot obstacles in their path as they walk through a forest.
Vakratundaya: one with a curved trunk/limb
Ekdantaya: one with only one tusk
See also: Ganesha’s Symbolisms
Ganesh Chaturthi is a 10 day festival celebrated in India, with most fanfare in the Western region, in the state of Maharashtra. The festival starts on the fourth day of the Hindu luni-solar calendar month of Bhadra (August-September).
The festival is celebrated today in the tradition first started by Lokmanya Tilak, an eminent leader of India’s freedom struggle, in 1893. Artisans prepare brightly coloured clay idols of Ganesha in varying sizes and shapes. People bring home the clay idols to install in their homes or community centres on the first day of the festival. The installation is carried out with the ceremony of prana pratishtha where the deity is invoked to inhabit the form of the idol. Many rituals and celebrations are carried out for the idol representing the form of Sri Ganesha. On the last day, the idols are immersed in the ocean or river in a ceremony known as ‘visarjan’. The visarjan represents the dissolution of one’s individuality in the cosmic ocean.
See also: Ganesha’s Symbolisms
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