There’s more than one version of Ganesha’s beginnings. The best-known tale, from the text of the Shiva Purana, has his mother, Parvati, fashioning him as a beautiful little boy out of a lump of clay. Parvati, you see, was bored and lonely, as her husband, the mighty god Shiva (a.k.a. the Destroyer of Worlds) would often forsake her for lengthy, million-year stints, meditating in the wilds. So what better company than a child for her to nurture and play with?
Ganesha grew up a strong, adorable child, the apple of his mother’s eye. Their idyll though, was rudely shattered when Shiva returned from the mountains. Unaware of his “son’s” existence, Shiva barged in, impatiently looking for his wife. He came upon the boy, standing guard dutifully, as instructed by his mother, who was taking a bath. Ganesha refused to let in the wild-eyed, dusty intruder, whereupon the enraged Destroyer lopped off the child’s head. Hearing the commotion, Parvati emerged…and you can guess at the scene that followed. A chastened Shiva, desperate to make amends, turned to Brahma the Creator for advice. The child’s severed head had flown too far off and was lost. Brahma suggested that Shiva replace the head with the first creature he could find whose head faced north. That happened to be a sleeping elephant! Parvati was mollified and she extracted two favors for her beloved son – that he be named the head of Shiva’s army of ganas (hence his other popular name, Ganapati, or leader of the Ganas) and be worshipped by all before they embarked upon any enterprise.
In another, less known tale, Ganesha was born to Parvati as a result of her prayers to Vishnu, the Preserver. It was a joyous occasion when all the gods came to bless Parvati’s beautiful newborn. All except poor Shani (Saturn), son of Surya, the sun-god, who was saddled with the curse of destroying those upon whom his gaze fell. Foolishly, Parvati beseeched Shani’s presence. When the dark god Shani looked at Ganesha, the baby’s head flew off it is said, to heaven. Seeing the grief-stricken parents, Vishnu mounted Garuda, his eagle, and flew away in search of a substitute. On the banks of the Pushpabhadra River, he chanced upon an elephant, whose head he brought back and joined to the body of Parvati and Shiva’s son.