November 20, 2006










The Clift Dwellers Club

Chicago, Illinois








Ganesh is the elephant-faced Hindu god, one of the most popular Indian deities who overcomes obstacles, bestows favors, gives success in all undertakings, and is a god of wisdom.  How did I come to have the interest to study this much worshiped god of Indian Hinduism?  Of course, the iconography of this unusual figure almost compellingly draws the attention of any observant traveler in the sub-continent as one discovers figures of Ganesh over shop doorways, framed pictorial images in hotels and a restaurants, and votive altars in Hindu temples.  It was on a visit to a temple honoring Ganesh that brought me into a special relationship with this god.  It was on one of my trips to southern India, to study the art and architecture of Hinduism, that I came to enter a temple of Ganesh south of Mysore.  As I entered the temple, I observed a large sculpture of Ganesh to the right of the temple entry.  I immediately began to move toward the image. I had taken only a few steps when a large branch, from a tree in the temple courtyard, came crashing down before me.  A few steps more, and I would have been injured seriously.  Several Hindu priests rushed toward me to determine whether I was hurt.  After receiving my assurances that I was not injured, one of the priests advised me that I should consider myself fortunate for having come under the protection of Ganesh.  The priest reminded me that when circumambulating a temple complex one moves clock-wise and that my violation of this rule, a violation of ritual protocol, brought about the consequence of  that large branch falling down as an obstacle to my movement through the temple.  But it was Ganesh who had produced the miracle of my not being injured, and so it is that I have come to read extensively about the god Ganesh and to have assembled a significant collection of sculptural images of Ganesh.

There are a large number of Hindu deities including Ganesh, who today is one of the most popular of the Hindu gods.  Ganesh is honored and worshipped not only in India, but throughout South-east Asia not only in Hinduism, but also in Jainism and Tantric Buddhism, particularly in Tibet.  Ganesh was originally a folk deity which was said to take possession of human beings if the god was not properly propitiated.  The animistic origins of Ganesh are reflected in his part human and part elephant form.  As I have mentioned, images of Ganesh are a pervasive aspect of everyday life in India appearing on car and taxi cab dash boards, in commercial establishments and in shrines and temples.

Who is Ganesh?  How did this god acquire his elephant head?  There are more than one account of the origins of Ganesh, however, the story most often told involves the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.  Shiva, one of the most important Hindu gods is known as the destroyer, lord of ashes and oil, an ascetic and protector of yogis.  Parvati, a goddess, is the consort of Shiva; through her marriage Parvati became Shakti who encompasses all female energy and is worshipped as Mother Nature.

Because Shiva remained an ascetic, he often would leave Parvati and retreat to the mountains for meditation.  Moreover, as an ascetic, Shiva could not become involved in a carnal relationship necessary to produce an offspring which was very much desired by his wife.  During one of Shiva’s absences in order to meditate in the forest, Parvati determined to have the much desired son who would provide her continuing love and protection.  Parvati administered to herself various sacred oils resulting in the creation, from the dust of her body, of a boy into whom she breathed life.  Parvati then placed the young boy in the doorway of her chamber and instructed Ganesh to refuse admission to everyone.

Soon thereafter, Shiva returned from his meditations and sought entry to Parvati’s bath.  As instructed, Ganesh blocked the doorway and refused to admit Shiva.  Shiva, unaware of the boy’s identity became angry and cut off the guard’s head.  At this point, Parvati emerged, struck with grief and anger at the sight of her decapitated son, threatened Shiva with her wrath unless the boy was provided a new head.  Shiva instructed his servants to acquire the head of the first being they encountered and to place it on the shoulders of the guardian son of Parvati.  Thus Ganesh acquired the head of an elephant with a single tusk, since this was the first creature Shiva’s attendants came upon.   

As has been noted, Ganesh was not the product of a sexual union.  Ganesh has no progeny.  The use of fluids to produce Ganesh follows from Vedic, or pre-Hindu practice, using sacred fluids in sacrifice and creating small earthen figures as a means of relating to deceased ancestors.  Ganesh has become the lord of obstacles who places barriers against those who neglect to worship him.  Hence, the likelihood that the large tree branch was dropped before me by Ganesh as I transgressed proper temple practice as I began to move counter-clockwise during my visit to Ganesh’s temple.  Ganesh’s elephant head has significance for his role as a guardian figure since elephants are associated with Hindu deities, guard temple doors, and lead ceremonial religious processions.

The name Ganesh (or Ganeśa) is not found in the Vedic or early Hindu literature, However, linguists provide some assistance in determining the significance or meaning of Ganesh (or Ganeśa) which can be translated as the lord or leader of a gana.  The Sanskrit isa means lord or ruler.  The Sanskrit gana means a host, group, multitude, or troops.  The group may be of humans or animals, kindred gods or demigods, a body of followers or attendants.  Thus, the name literally means the lord or ruler of a group of followers or attendants, most likely human beings.  An ancient use of the word gana meant the followers or teachers of a cult.  Hindu scripture suggests that a name like Ganesh has physical, cosmic and spiritual significance.  It may be that Ganesh is not only a personal name but also an attribute of the Divine.

There are three hundred and thirty-three Hindu deities represented by a wide variety of forms or images.  For the Hindu, god is a transcendent being imminent in each person and in all creation.  The Divine is revealed in images of the creator, preserver and destroyer of evil.  The Divine is also described by attributes such as power, beauty and knowledge.

Ultimate reality is expressed in the Sanskrit term “braman” meaning the one eternal, all pervading and all-transcending principle of the universe and all creation.  Within Hinduism, there is a theistic tradition which views the Divine as a personal god.  There is an opposing tradition of an impersonal Absolute which is for removed from the experience of most mortal persons.  In the theistic tradition, which is central to this discussion, the Supreme is viewed as possessing many attributes, functions, forms, manifestations and names.  However, this multiplicity is based on a oneness.

In the great Hindu epics, which include the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana, the Supreme or transcendent Being becomes a personal, living god.  The Divine is seen as creator, sustainer and destroyer of evil.  The One Reality is presented as having three different aspects or functions.  These include Brahmā who creates, Visnu who preserves, and that of Shiva who destroys evil.  Each of these gods has a consort who is worshipped in her own right.  As we have seen, Parvati is the consort of Shiva.  It should be noted that Ganesh does not appear in either of the two great Hindu epics.

While the Ultimate Reality is beyond thought and speculation, in the Hindu theistic tradition, the Supreme assumes various forms.  The idea of oneness is the basis for multiplicity.  Whenever there is a decline in righteousness in the world, the Divine takes a form appropriate to restoration of peace and harmony.  The plurality of the forms of the Divine is viewed as enhancing the oneness of the Divine, not diminishing it.

The various names and forms of the Divine are central to Hindu worship.  By chanting the name of one’s chosen deity and worshiping the Divine in an embodied form, a personal bond is established between the Divine and the devout practitioner of Hinduism.  Not only in religious worship but also in dance, music, art, literature, and mythology, the variety of names and forms of the Divine are acknowledged.  In Hinduism, there is a central role for images which are not a mere depiction but an embodiment of the Divine itself.  Perhaps a limited analogy is provided by icons in Eastern Christian Orthodox practice.

The representation of the Divine can be as fully human, as half male and half female, or as part human and part animal as with Ganesh.  These representation of the Divine are often depicted holding various emblems in their hands symbolizing their power and authority.  Figures are depicted in standing, sitting, or dancing positions, with their hands held in protective gestures.  Often the gods are shown with their mounts, animals or birds associated with the particular deity; for example, Shiva’s mount is the elephant and Ganesh is depicted with a mouse or rat.

Ganesh is depicted with two or three eyes.  He is often colored red.  Ganesh, of course, is represented with the head of the elephant, but with a single tusk, pot-bellied, often with four or more arms holding various instruments or attributes including a broken tusk, and accompanied by a mouse.  Ganesh’s huge ears shaped like fans suggest a power of discernment.  Sometimes his waist is encircled by a belt of serpents.  One interpretation of the figure holds the elephant head to represent the cosmos, and the human dimension to stand for human existence with the pot-belly containing the created world and symbolizing prosperity.   As with the depiction of other divinities, Ganesh can be shown standing, sitting or dancing.  He is often shown with one full tusk and a broken one.  In the hands of his four arms, Ganesh holds the broken tusk, in his other hand he holds a rosary, a noose and a goad.  The non-manifest world is symbolized by the unbroken tusk, and the created world by the broken tusk.  The rosary is a symbol for meditation; the noose symbolizes the need to restrain desires and passions; and the goad symbolizes authority.  In images with an additional arm, Ganesh may hold a sweetmeat in one of his hands revealing his liking for sweets.  Sometimes one hand is held in a symbolic position promising protection.  Sometimes a swastika in embodied in the image, often on the belly, representing good luck.  Ganesh’s elephant ears represent a willingness to hear problems told to him.  Ganesh is known as a remover of obstacles; his trunk can be seen as performing this task, and his mount, the mouse, can be seen as an agent for providing help in finding the way to one’s destination.  Ganesh has the task of creating obstacles (as he did by having the large branch fall in my path) but also the function of removing of obstacles.  Ganesh known as the lord of beginnings and the remover of obstacles is asked to help in removing obstacles by those starting any new venture including travel, applying for a job or taking examinations.  Many Indian Students visit a Ganesh shrine to pray for success in passing their examinations.

There are, of course, variations on the stories accounting for Ganesh’s origins and appearance.  One version draws on Ganesh’s rotund form which is said to result from his insatiable appetite for sweets, which he often holds and which also make up many of the devotional offerings given by his worshipers, including by those students seeking help in their examinations.  According to this version of the Ganesh story, he had gorged himself on cakes so that his belly bulged.  Then, while riding home on his vehicle, the mouse became frightened by a snake in the road. Ganesh fell off his mount breaking open his distended stomach and spilling cakes over the ground.  The scene of the bloated Ganesh tottering on a tiny mouse and falling caused the moon to laugh at Ganesh.  In turn, Ganesh became angry and broke off one of his tusks and threw it at the moon.  Ganesh’s actions caused the moon to disappear.  However, upon the urging of other gods, Ganesh restored the moon to the evening sky; nevertheless, the moon continues to wax and wane in the nighttime sky.

Since I was drawn to Ganesh, in part, because of my interest in art history, the history of the depictions of Ganesh is significant for me.  One of the best known authorities on Ganesh, Alice Getty, in her book Ganeśa:  A Monograph on the Elephant-Faced God published by Oxford University Press in 1936 wrote:  “Ganśa is not found in sculpture before the Gupta period, when his image appeared not only suddenly but in the classic form by which he may be identified from the fifth century up to the present day.”  [p. 25].

Depictions of Ganesh are mainly iconic, with the stories about Ganesh rarely, if ever, represented in visual art.  It is not until the twentieth century and as a result of the influence of Western realism that one can find efforts to depict Ganesh in a narrative work of art.  The lateness of appearance of iconographic images of Ganesh suggest a late appearance of this divinity in the Hindu pantheon.  It has been suggested that Ganesh has strong antecedents in elephant worships in parts of India.  There may also be an antecedent in the early Hindu lore involving the form of malignant demons which may have included elephant-headed figures.

Perhaps the earliest depictions of Ganesh is a relief image carved in a cave in Udayagiri which can be dated to 400 A.D.  In this cave, Ganesh is pictured along side images of “seven mothers” or semi-divine figures.  It is likely that Ganesh and the seven mothers were minor deities that had to be propitiated to prevent them from causing trouble, or whom had to be honored before other gods could be worshiped.  Ganesh and the mothers were deities likely worshipped for worldly success.  There is a suggestion that the placement of Ganesh at the outer edge of the sacred space of the cave relegated Ganesh to mundane consideration, while the more sacred deities would be encountered after moving into the interior area of the sacred cave.  The earliest images of Ganesh which tend to be two armed, do not hold a tusk, nor do they even appear to have a broken tusk.  These early images depict the left hand of Ganesh holding a bowel of sweets, while the other hand holds one of a variety of Ganesh’s attributes.

There is a view that Ganesh is a god for common people rather than for the religious elite.  In the nineteenth century, there was some effort to invoke Ganesh in the nationalist cause in opposition to the British; Ganesh was seen as possibly uniting the general population with the elite under the protection of a popular god.  In art, Ganesh images are acquired by common people for use in household shrines; these are often made of bronze or plaster and are found throughout India.  Textiles including images of Ganesh are common and used for small hangings.  There are also numerous reproductions on paper which are framed and placed on the walls of Indian homes.  Ganesh often appears on wall calendars.  In Chicago one often sees images of Ganesh hanging from the rearview mirrors of taxicabs whose drivers seek one more source of protection in city driving. 

Worship of Ganesh is primarily directed at obtaining success in some undertaking.  The objectives of devotions to Ganesh are usually practical, material, of this world.  Ritual practice and ritual manuals written to guide worship reflect a distinctly materialistic orientation.  The principal objective is protection of the family, the achievement of the goal of some particular undertaking, or the acquisition of abundance that the devotion is intended to bring.  Worshipers can invoke either public or private prayers and meditation.  Public devotion includes singing devotional hymns, sacred rites according to a calendar governed by the moon, and visiting a sacred shrine within a sculpture of Ganesh.  The main spiritual home of Ganesh is in southern India particularly the state area surrounding Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

Private worship often occurs before small home shrines which include a statue of Ganesh.  Incense sticks may be lighted on the shrine at dawn and at dusk.  Food offerings, particularly sweets, which can be eaten after serving their ritual purpose, are placed on the altar.  Ganesh may also be clothed with ceremonial garb.  Perhaps more than any other Indian deity, Ganesh is worshiped in the intimacy of the family home.  Hence, he is known as the god of everyday problems and as a means of obtaining the protection of the Divine, or the all-powerful god.

One would not be a modern without giving some consideration of possible interpretations of the myth of Ganesh, including psychoanalytical analysis.  An important resource for this area of inquiry is the monograph Ganesh:  Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings by Paul B. Courtright published by Oxford University Press in 1985.  Among the areas of the story of Ganesh examined by Courtright is that of family relations, especially “the unconscious ambivalences of early forgotten childhood experiences” (p. 103).  According to Courtright, Ganesh’s story begins with a tension between father and mother about producing an offspring.  Parvati wanted a child, and Shiva refused.  With Ganesh’s arrival, there is an intimacy between mother and child while the father is away meditating.  Eventually, the son confronts the father and competes with him for access to the mother.  Of course, the son doesn’t have the strength or resources to oppose the father.  The son is forced to submit; however, the father ultimately permits the son to take up a subservient position.  Thus, in this oedipal reading of Ganesh’s story, the confrontation between father and son ends with the defeat of the son who is removed from the intimacy of the mother.

Courtright goes on to suggest that the “myth evokes a process similar to the developmental one the Hindu male experiences around the age of four to five years.” [p. 108]  According to Courtright, it is common for young males to be taken abruptly from the sheltered world of their mothers, a world in which the father is largely absent.  The boy is then placed under the strict and emotionally distant authority of the father.  The son longs for what becomes the lost idealized world with the mother.  At the same time, the son fails to develop an appropriate sense of autonomy and has a tendency to submit to authority or to an “idealized and omnipotent figure.”  Courtright maintains that Ganesh’s submission to Shiva is a reflection of the Indian male search for authority to which to be submissive.

Ganesh’s celibacy provides fertile ground for further psychoanalytic speculation.  To begin, it is argued that Ganesh remains celibate in order to remain a child who can stay close to his mother.  By remaining celibate, Ganesh avoids direct competition with his father, avoiding incest with his mother and possible competition for other women that his father, Shiva, might desire.  More debatable, perhaps, is Courtright’s argument that Ganesh’s celibacy resembles the figure of the eunuch in both iconography and behavior.  Guarding Parvati’s bedroom is compared to the eunuch guarding the harem.  Moreover, in Hindu practice, eunuch’s performed an auspicious function warding off evil spirits.  Courtright writes:  “Like the eunuch, Ganeśa has the power to bless and curse; that is to place and remove obstacles.” [p.11]  Courtright goes on to assert: “Although here there seem to be no myths or folktales in which Ganeśa explicitly performs oral sex, his insatiable appetite for sweets seems inappropriate in an otherwise ascetic disposition, a hunger having clear erotic overtones.”  Courtright maintains that “Ganeśa’s broken tusk, his guardian’s staff, and displaced head can be interpreted as symbols of castration”[p. 11]  Edmund Leach, a noted anthropologist wrote similarly in 1949 in the journal Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Review: “Ganeśa’s broken tusk is a phallic emblem…it’s detachability denotes a certain ambivalence about Ganeśa sexual nature.  There are contexts in which the lingam, phallus, which is properly the emblem of Shiva, may serve as a manifestation of any one of Shiva’s sons, Ganeśa included.  In such a context, Ganeśa may be virile and potent.  But there are other contexts where Ganeśa seems to be an effeminate eunuch” (V.4a, p. 82).  Thus Ganesh can be seen to combine qualities of the child-like celibate and the eunuch resulting in a denial of adult male sexuality.

With the large number of Hindu deities, it can be expected that they will represent a number of opposing forces such as creator and destroyer or ascetic and seducer.  But with Ganesh we have a god who in one form embodies such oppositions as both the creator and remover of obstacles.  This dichotomy of malevolence and benevolence likely arises from a primitive fear of nature personified as a god which requires proprieties in order to produce a harmonious relationship between man and god.  The elephant is an animal which itself is viewed with ambivalence when one considers the difference between the wild and the tame elephant.  The wild elephant tramples crops, and even homes and humans, when on a rampage.  A tame elephant, however, is a paragon of domesticity as it is worked to clear jungles, to make way for human habitation, and used to carry humans in ceremonial processions.  Similarly any human action may result in success or failure; the outcome is unpredictable at the outset.  Ganesh is invoked to have one's action lead to success.

While Ganesh is the object of daily devotion by millions of Indians, the god's particular day of celebration occurs in Mumbai (or Bombay) once a year at the Ganesh Chathurthi festival.  Hundreds of statues of Ganesh are dressed and decorated; then they are taken in procession through the busy streets of the city to the water's edge.  A giant elephant head is placed on a raft and allowed to sink beneath the waves of the Arabian Sea as the crowd returns home with their images of Ganesh which remain to inspire continuing devotion.

The title to this paper implicitly raises the question: what or who is Ganesh?  To answer that he is “the Elephant-Faced Hindu god” would not have advanced your knowledge to any great extent.  It would merely have given you a clue to his identity.  Hopefully, it has been shown that there is a deeper, perhaps more profound significance that lies below the surface labeling of an image.  In a relatively recent book on Ganesh, Ganapati:  Song of the Self published by the State University of New York Press in 1995, John Grimes writes that Ganesh embodies “an enormous popularity that transcends sectarian on territorial limits; a seemingly rather late, yet dramatic, full-blown appearance into a religious pantheon; a confusing, conflicting, yet interesting and intriguing mythology.  [p.2]

Ganesh, as we have seen, has a significance as he touches the everyday lives of Hindus, as he is part of ritual practices and religious texts, as he is the focus of folk festivals and dramas, as his image pervades the home, market place and religious sites.  There are, however, only a few temples devoted solely or primarily to Ganesh – one of which I entered and experienced the branch falling incident which I described at the beginning of this paper.

Ganesh is a source of order and meaning.  But the meaning of Ganesh can vary greatly from the pious practice of every day worshipers to the probing analysis of psychoanalytic theory, linguistic analysis, and art historical examination.  To the religious devotee, Ganesh is the god .to be invoked before every act and especially prayed to when changes occur in one’s life.  He is present at every beginning.  Ganesh is the visible lord; he is the invisible lord.  Ganesh is wisdom and knowledge to the believer.  Let me conclude with a prayer said to the Eight Names of Ganesh:

Salutations to the lord who protects

Salutations to the lord of the multitudes

Salutations to the premier lord

Salutations to the big-bellied one with the single tusk

Salutations to the one who destroys obstacles, the son of Shiva, to the bestower of boons, I bow again and again.


(from John Grimes, Ganapati:  Song of the Self, State University of New York Press, 1995)


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