He’s The Ubiquitous One. You bump into him wherever you go in India. As a humble, saffron-colored blob under trees along national highways. At little wayside shrines near the trendiest of metro haunts. In every temple. And, of course, every puja mandir in Hindu homes. While Shiva, Vishnu and Durga in their varied avatars, are towering figures to be worshipped with respectful awe, tubby Ganesha is more approachable, a benevolent being who reigns over our day-to-day activities and creeps into our hearts. In Hindu homes, some of the first stories that little children hear are about the origin of Ganesha. He is the son of Lord Siva (one of the Holy Trinity, along with Brahma and Vishnu) and Goddess Parvati.
The legend goes that Goddess Parvati created a small figurine out of sandalwood paste and made it come to life. She was going to have a bath and asked the boy to guard the place. When Lord Siva came home, the little boy promptly stopped him from entering the bathing area. An enraged Siva, not knowing that the handsome child before him was his son, lopped off Ganesha’s head for daring to forbid him access to his wife, Parvati. Parvati ordered that the boy be brought back to life lest she destroy the world with her powers. To appease the grieving mother, Lord Siva deputeed his ‘Ganas’ (let’s say, his team) to fetch the head of any living being with its head facing north; they come back with the head of an elephant. That’s how Lord Ganesha is supposed to have got his head and his name (Lord of the Ganas, Ganapati). Ganesha’s birthday is celebrated on Ganesh Chathurthi, Chathurthi being the fourth day in the waxing phase of the moon.
As kids, we love the fact that Ganesha, like many of us, is extremely fond of sweets – modaks* and laddoos**, in particular (whose shape, coincidentally, is a delightful reflection of his own rotundity). Legend has it that once Ganesha stuffed himself fully with some of these goodies. Catching sight of the swollen-bellied god, the Moon couldn’t help bursting into laughter, whereupon the embarrassed child picked up a snake passing by and wrapped it around his waist, to bind the protruding tum. Oh, Lambodara*** – what an exercise in futility! (Don’t we do the same, though, substituting belts for snakes?) But there’s more to this unique god than his quaint exterior implies. He presides over knowledge. He is also Vighneswara, the remover of obstacles, whose blessings are invoked before every earthly venture:
Vakrtund mahakaya surya koti samaprabha Nirbhignam kurumedeva sarva karyeshu sarvada
(Oh Ganesh of the curved trunk and great body, whose splendor equals that of a million suns, May your blessings remove all obstacles in my endeavors.) At a deeper level, Ganesha’s head is said to represent Atman, the everlasting soul. Not for nothing does he have the head of an elephant, a symbol of tremendous intelligence and abiding wisdom. Ganesha’s impossibly round, flowing but definitely human shape is Maya, symbolic of our transitory existence on earth. His trunk is curved in the form of the word Om, the sound of the universe (and hence, his name Omkara). Why those large ears? To hear all our appeals, of course! The goad in his upper right hand demolishes obstacles, while the noose in his left hand can bind and render ineffective all your difficulties. The necklace of beads in yet another hand signifies that the quest for knowledge is an unending one. Ganesha broke off one of his tusks to use as a writing implement when he began on the Mahabharata – a symbol of sacrifice.
Finally, there’s his vehicle. While brother Karthikeya rides the gorgeous, flashy peacock, Ganesha has a mouse for his vehicle. Why? For one, it’s a reminder of his humility, a trait that we humans sorely lack. The mouse, with its miniscule proportions, symbolizes selfishness and vanity. It’s also a destructive pest, stealing for its survival. Ganesha as its master is evocative of the need to triumph over these base qualities within us. If ever there were a contest for the title of Most Adored God, Ganesha in all likelihood would win hands down. Modak-lover, benevolent protector, devoted son and patron of wisdom – Ganesha Rocks!
∗ Modak: a dumpling made of rice-flour paste, usually filled with a sweet stuffing of coconut and jaggery.
∗∗ Laddoos: a popular Indian sweet
∗∗∗ Lambodara: One of Ganesha’s 108 names, meaning big-bellied.