Making his way among the rained-on, green leaves and brush, the great elephant walks through the forest, clearing a path for all the other forest animals as he goes. He pushes aside obstacles with ease. A being of immense power and strength, he never uses force to oppress others. Indeed, he is kind and beneficent, a protective power. Among the gentlest and wisest of beings, he is a vegetarian, though it must be admitted that he does gobble down a huge quantity of plants – sometimes nearly half a ton each day.
Ganesha, the beloved and most popular God of the Hindu people, is an elephant God, with an elephant’s head.
There are many variations of stories told to explain how Ganesha has the head of an elephant – some of the stories are a bit bizarre and depict other Gods behaving rather badly – chopping off Ganesha’s head when he was a young boy, and then finding another one to replace it. However, they are allegories, not meant to be taken literally, and they reflect deeper cosmic realities.
In whatever way Ganesha obtained it, his new head worked out really well, and he couldn’t have asked for a more propitious head. It was endowed with the wonderful natural qualities of the elephant – gentleness and strength, great wisdom and intelligence, a keen enjoyment of life, along with overflowing generosity that bestows good fortune, peace, blessings, and success on all who seek his help.
His huge elephant ears signify his willingness to listen to all those seeking his help.
All Hindu prayers begin with an invocation to Ganesha, who is never too far away and is always within reach of the person who prays.
The celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi, which marks the birth or re-birth of Ganesha, lasts for several days and takes place during the lunar month of Bhadrapada (mid-August to mid-September). In 2013 the celebration runs from September 9 through September 18.
Traditionally, as part of the festival, large clay statues of Ganesha were made out of mud or clay, carried through the streets and then ritually immersed in bodies of water. In recent years however, the practice grew up of making these statues out of plaster of Paris, a harmful substance that pollutes streams and lakes. Now there are efforts to return to the original practice of using natural clay instead, which does not harm the environment or the birds, animals, and fish in the water.
Sadly, over time, people have tended to forget that wild animals, including elephants, should not be taken out of the wild, where they are meant to be and where they are happiest. Today there are elephants kept captive in many temples in India. Worshippers who pass by ask blessings of the temple elephant, never thinking that it is uncomfortable for her to be standing on the hard pavement hour after hour.
In honor of Ganesha, it is to be hoped that soon temples can set aside some acres of land, covered in grass and trees, with a pond – to be a sanctuary for elephants. Though these sanctuaries wouldn’t be the same as being in the wild, they would nonetheless offer a comfortable shady spot, a quiet place for the elephant and her elephant friends to rest and be at peace, where they can still bless devotees from a distance. Their blessings, given from a place of comfort, will no doubt be all the more effective and auspicious.
Ganesha is not only a God of great power, he is also warm, jovial, and friendly. He is the God of knowledge, well-being, and success — in short, of positivity. Depicted as a plump, rather roly-poly being who loves life; he is often shown playing the flute or dancing. In Hindu homes and temples, he graces people’s lives with his presence. The vehicle that he rides on is an animal without pretentions of grandeur — his vahana is a simple mouse.
Early on, around two thousand years ago, the worship of Ganesha spread from Hinduism to Jainism and to Buddhism. When Buddhism was carried from India by missionaries, worship of Ganesha took hold in Japan, Tibet, China, and throughout southeast Asia.
According to a system of worship formalized by the saint Adi Shankar, in the eighth century CE, Ganesha is one of the five primary deities of Hinduism. The others are Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, and Surya. There are many thousands more deities too, and each one may have thousands of names, so it is quite complicated.
Ganesha’s elephant head symbolizes the soul, while his human body signifies the earthly existence of human beings. His trunk represents the syllable om, the eternal sound of cosmic reality.
Ganesha is a scribe, and he wrote down the whole epic poem, the Mahabharata, as it was being dictated to him by the sage Vyasa. It is 18 volumes long, so it took a lot of writing. Ganesha was using a quill pen, but at one point it broke. He didn’t want to stop, so he broke off one of his own tusks to use as a pen, so he could continue to write. Now he is always shown with only one complete tusk, and the other one is broken. His one tusk has another meaning too. It stands for Advaita Vedanta, which is the predominant, non-dualistic form of Hinduism. It recognizes the soul and all beings as being part of God and returning to God. In other words, there is One Eternal Power in the universe, not two competing ones. Evil does exist, but it is not permanent and has no ultimate reality.
Many volumes have been written, and many more could be written, about the beloved Ganesha. So this is only the briefest of introductions.
In prayers and rituals, Ganesha is addressed first before other Gods because he opens the way for the soul on its journey towards the divine; he provides the bridge between earth and heaven – and also the pathway from heaven to earth, by which blessings descend.
Ganesha: The Auspicious…The Beginning by Nanditha Krishna and Shakunthala Jagannathan To view this book on Amazon.com, click here.
Sacred Animals of India by Nanditha Krishna To view this book on Amazon.com, click here.
Top photo: Author: Quadell / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / “Seated Ganesha 12th-13th century Hoysala dynasty Chloritic schist, Halebid, Karnataka, India This sculpture displays the ornate carving and exuberant decoration characteristic of art created under the Hoysala dynasty (1042–1346). The decorated floral arch surrounding the sculpture suggests that it once occupied a cell or niche in a temple. Housed in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.”
Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Elephant on the wall “Descent of the Ganges” at Mahabalipuram
Third photo: Sharon St Joan / On the first day of the holiday Ganesh Chaturthi in 2010, these elephants lined up on the river that runs through Samburu in Kenya, as if to wish Ganesha Happy Birthday.
Fourth photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This image… is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to Australia, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years…You must also include a United States public domain tag to indicate why this work is in the public domain in the United States.”/ “Basohli miniature, circa 1730. National Museum, New Delhi” / “Original uploader was Buddhipriya at en.wikipedia” / “Ganesha getting ready to throw his lotus.”