14 September 2007

The Symbolism of Ganesha, the Elephant-Headed God

second drawing by Karen Ready

This article was once assigned to me as a nonfiction book editor, intended as a sample for a proposed dictionary of symbolism (which was not published). It is followed by an excerpt from what Meher Baba had to say about the significance of Ganesha, as conveyed to Bhau Kalchuri.

GANESHA (Skt., Ganeśa; Hindi, Ganesh) is that aspect of creative intelligence which removes obstacles to success, happiness, and fulfillment. Beloved by Hindus as a rotund deity with an elephant's head on a human body, he has been likened to the Laughing Buddha and the monk Pu-tai of Chinese legend (both associated with the future Buddha, Maitreya); to Janus, the two-headed god of Rome; and even to Santa Claus, grantor of boons and gifts.

Ganesha is the Lord of Beginnings, invoked at the start of every new endeavor. He is called the Gatekeeper, and his image is placed at the doorways of homes and temples, mediating the realms of sacred and profane space. His dwelling place is the threshold. Ganesha is also the god of education, knowledge, and wisdom, and patron of art, science, and literature. In reality, He is Brahman, the One Reality.

In the most popular story regarding Ganesha's birth, told in the Puranas, Shiva's wife, the Divine Mother Parvati, created a childlike form from the dirt of her own body and breathed life into it. She appointed him to stand guard at the door of the palace while she bathed, and when Lord Shiva returned home, the boy prevented him from entering. In a rage, Shiva cut off the boy's head. In order to console the grief-stricken Parvati, Shiva sent out His troops (ganas), who found an elephant sleeping and severed its head. Shiva attached the head to the child's body and revived him. He named the boy Ganapati, which, like the name Ganesha, means commander of troops (gana = troops, multitudes, categories). The troops are the deities in Shiva's retinue; more broadly they are all living beings in creation; symbolically they are thoughts and desires. As the material manifestation of the mind (manas) of Lord Shiva, Ganesha is also lord of the five elements (earth, air, fire, water, and ether).

Tradition describes thirty-two images of Ganesha. He may appear seated in the attitude of royal ease, standing, or in a dancing pose. He may have four, six, eight, or more arms and several heads; his hands may hold a variety of symbolic objects: his broken tusk, a conch shell, a bowl of sweet cakes (modaka), fruits, red or yellow flowers, books, writing implements, and weapons. Commonly he wields a noose, symbolic of his gentle restraint of the mind, and an elephant goad, his "fierce" weapon, used to remove obstacles from his devotees' path and to drive them in the right direction. The vitarka mudra, or hand gesture of teaching, with the thumb and index finger forming a circle, is associated with Ganesha. He also typically has one hand raised, palm outward, in a reassuring gesture (varadahasta mudra) meaning "Don't worry."

Patron of literature, Ganesha is a scribe who helped put the Mahabharata, India's massive oral epic, into writing. The act of writing is a threshold activity, and Ganesha removes the obstacles involved in the transmission from thought or speech into a written medium.

He is lord of the muladhara chakra, the subtle energy center at the base of the spine, the seat of instinct, memory, and will. In this chakra the kundalini power, envisioned as a coiled serpent, lies dormant until it is awakened and rises upward to the sahasrara or crown chakra, producing enlightened consciousness.

Although he is said to be celibate, Ganesha is often depicted with two consorts, Buddhi (discriminating wisdom) and Siddhi (success, fulfillment, attainment), which are aspects of his being, his shaktis or powers.

Each part of Ganesha's body is symbolic. The sacred syllable OM written in Sanskrit resembles a profile of Ganesha's head with its curved trunk; hence his trunk is a symbol of the sound from which the world was created. With his large ears Ganesha hears the prayers of all; yet he does not always give his true devotees what they ask for, but gives them what they need for their spiritual progress. Thus his ears are likened to winnowing fans, sifting out the true and essential from the false and nonessential. His huge potbelly and insatiable appetite for food demonstrate the abundance of his life-giving energy. Ganesha is extraordinarily fond of modaka, sweet balls made of rice or wheat flour, symbolizing the immortality-bestowing, bliss-giving nectar at the crown chakra. His belly is like the vast expanse of space, holding countless modakas, or human souls.

In addition to the elephant, the serpent and the mouse are symbolic animals associated with Ganesha. A snake girds his belly or is draped across his shoulder, suggesting the awakening of the kundalini power. A mouse is his vehicle or mount. When the mouse smells the sweet modaka, it starts gnawing: symbolically it chews through the knots or hindrances in one's consciousness until the kundalini can reach the crown chakra. The tiny mouse shoulders the heavy form of Ganesha, carrying his grace everywhere, squeezing into the smallest space, silently and invisibly working to reveal the Divinity hidden within humanity.


Courtwight, Paul B. Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Getty, Alice. Ganeśa: A Monograph on the Elephant-Faced God [1936]. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1992.

Grimes, John A. Ganapati: Song of the Self. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.

Karunakaran, Rankorath. The Riddle of Ganesha. Bombay: Book Quest, 1992.

Lord Ganesha: Benevolent Deity for the Modern Hindu World. Compiled, written, and designed by the Saiva Swami Sangam of the Saiva Siddhanta Yoga Order. Concord, Calif.: Himalayan Academy, 1989.

Meher Baba’s Interpretation of Ganesha

Bhau Kalchuri (one of Meher Baba’s men mandali and the current chairman of the Avatar Meher Baba Trust) wrote a book called The Nothing and the Everything (1981), which consists of points dictated to him by Meher Baba (presumably rephrased by Bhau to achieve the necessary literary quality). Baba told Bhau that these points constituted 10% of the missing “Book” that Baba wrote by hand in 1925-1926, and which he said would one day be rediscovered and become “ the future Bible, Koran, Avesta and Veda, as it will be universally accepted by all castes and creeds.”

One of the stories told in The Nothing and the Everything is that of Ganesha (or Ganesh in Hindi), along with a new interpretation of the Hindu myth according to Avatar Meher Baba’s theme of creation—his own “creation myth,” if you will. In essence, Meher Baba equates Ganesh symbolically with the Avatar himself, who represents the first soul to pass through the processes of evolution, reincarnation, and involution, thus to become God-Realized.

In the story titled “Ganesh” in the section “Two Kings” (pp. 146, 148), Bhau recounts the tale of the son of Shiva and Parvati (the Hindu Adam and Eve). In the version repeated by Bhau, Shiva — after cutting off his son’s head (in anger because the boy caught sight of his mother, Parvati, in her bath) — remorsefully sent Brahma and Vishnu into the jungle to bring back the first animal that crossed their path. It was an elephant, and so the head of that animal was placed on the body of the boy to revive him. Thus Ganesh, favorite of all the gods, was born. Bhau writes:

“Each character in this story of Ganesh illustrates some aspect of the consciousness of Shiva, the First Soul, Adam, the Infinite Unconsciousness, or the Mischievous Child, Saitan [Arabic form of “Satan”]. ...

“Once the individual mind is annihilated, it is replaced by the Universal Mind — the elephant's head. The drop, represented by the boy's body, becomes the Ocean of Mind, represented by a child wearing a giant head of an elephant. As Shiva represents the First Soul to realize God Himself, Ganesh represents that same First Soul when He returned into creation as Avatar.

“Ganesh is none other but the Ancient One — Adi Purush; he returned after being beheaded; losing his individual finite mind, he gained Universal Infinite Mind. Ganesh became the Son of the Father, Shiva, and thus became the Father of all Sadgurus as Shiva became the Father of all Shiv-Atmas [Perfect Souls].

“Ganesh, because of his mischief and curiosity (the same as the Mischievous Chicken's) seeing his mother naked, which was forbidden (the same as the fruit in the Garden of Eden), finally undergoes annihilation of the limited mind. (Shiva cuts off Ganesh's head.)

When the head is cut off, Ganesh lies dead; the mind is unconscious of creation. When Shiva places the elephant head on Ganesh, Ganesh becomes Infinitely Conscious of the Infinite Unconsciousness.

Ganesh was the first in creation to become God-Realized, and he is that Same Ancient One who comes down again and again, age after age, as the embodiment of Universal Mind. ...”

1 comment:

Sky Wiseman said...

Hi Kendra!...it was great to be able to come to this article tonight as the annual Ganesh festival just began here in India. As I'm very close to an Indian family I went to town with them to purchase their large Ganputti. There are quite a few such Ganputti's "sitting" around Arangaon village, and this particular one is on the porch at the junction of the Samadhi Road and the MPR Road. I participated with four young men with three very small girls looking on, during last evening's downpour, in placing the Ganputti in His Seat where He will remain for the next 10 days. It was an elaborate ceremony and I was really blown away to be with these young people who knew all of the intricacies of the ceremony, a ceremony that has no doubt been unfolding in some similar form for thousands of years. At the end of the ten days the Ganpatti statues are all thrown in water. Our Ganpatti will be thrown in the family well. Many are thrown into rivers, etc. The colorful statues are all made of clay and dissolve in the water. More to describe as it was a powerful experience, and may do that later on the Baba-Talk listserv or elsewhere. Jai Baba! ~Sky

All quotes of Meher Baba © Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust unless otherwise indicated. Writings by Kendra are © Kendra Crossen Burroughs unless otherwise noted.