Lord Ganesha in Hindu Mythology — The Hindu Elephant-Headed God

Lord Ganesha in Hindu Mythology - The Hindu Elephant-Headed God

Who is Lord Ganesha?

Ganesha is the Hindu god of wisdom and literature, and the son of Parvati, the wife of Hindu’s great god, Shiva. He is portrayed with the head of an elephant and a potbelly, a symbol both of his greed and his ability to dispense success. He has four arms but only one tusk. He is a popular deity in the Hindu pantheon, invoked at the outset of new undertakings.

One myth tells how, when Shiva was away from home, Parvati grew bored and lonely. She decided to make herself a baby and created Ganesha, either from the rubbings of her own body, from dew and dust, or clay.

Why is Ganesha Popular in Hindu Tradition?

Why is Ganesha Popular in Hindu Tradition

He’s perhaps one of the most revered deities in the Hindu pantheon. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognize the elephant-headed god Ganesha. But what is it that makes Ganesha such a renowned character that is recognized worldwide?

For one, Ganesha is known as the Lord of good fortune and he is said to provide wealth, prosperity in both the mind and the wallet, as well as blessing his devotees with success in their endeavours. Others recognize Ganesha as the Lord of new beginnings whether in relationships, business, or any form of life.

He can be seen as the remover of obstacles for those who are struggling and yet, he can also be known as the placer of obstacles, given that he seeks to challenge those who are not growing. He also seeks to challenge those who have done wrong and takes on a minor role at times as being the destroyer of vanity and pride.

Regardless of the other spiritual associations, Hindu may have, many still make time to honour Ganesha, whose image is found virtually everywhere in India, and in many places across the globe. His presence though also spreads outside of Hinduism, where he is associated with the first chakra and thus represents survival and the base for all other forms of life.

Others see Ganesha not just as the Hindu deity but also as a patron of science and the arts. In the actual Hindu tales, Ganesha like many of the other gods has taken on a different role, here and there. Several sacred Hindu texts speak about Ganesha quite vividly and it’s easy to see why he’s so popular given that his tales appear to have distinct more endings.

Who is Ganesha’s Parent?

For the most part, Ganesha is said to be the son of Shiva the destroyer and his wife Parvati. But there are many different variations of Ganesha’s conception including being created by Shiva alone, being created by Parvati alone, being created by the pair of them through the regular means of conception, or simply by finding him.

Ganesha is also commonly associated with being the brother of Kartikeya, otherwise known as Murugan, the God of War. But despite Kartikeya’s position as the god of War, his popularity and worship are considerably less than that of his brothers.

Common Depiction of Ganesha

Ganesha is most seen as having an elephant’s head and a large round belly. However, there have been some variations of Ganesha’s appearance, including depictions of him simply being a boy as well as a regular elephant.

Common Depiction of Ganesha
Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of prosperity and wisdom, figure on an external wall of a South Indian temple in Kerala, India.

We commonly see Ganesha with four arms—although there exist pictures of Ganesha having as few as two arms and as many as sixteen. However, with the more common form depiction, we see Ganesha holding his broken tusk, a sweet, an axe and the noose.

Multiple Arms of Ganesha depiction.

In other depictions pictures of Ganesha with more than four arms, he can be seen holding a water lily, a mace, a discus, a rosary, a bowl of sweets, musical instruments, spears, and staff.

In these depictions, Ganesha may be seen in a variety of different poses. You may see him in a tantric yoga pose or standing upright, we may see him dancing or even crawling in a more childlike form. In other depictions, he’s even seated on Parvati’s knee.

Ganesha riding a

Ganesha may also be seen with his mount, which ironically happens to be a mouse. The use of a mouse is symbolic, given that elephants are known to fear mice—at least from ancient myths—and so, with this embracing of the mouse as a mount, it shows Ganesha’s ability to overcome all obstacles including fear itself.

The Story of How Ganesha Possesses the Head of an Elephant

As I mentioned earlier, there exist many vivid tales of Ganesha whose story served to teach us clear moral lessons. However, Ganesha also has one of the most unique origin stories which describes how he came to possess the head of an elephant.

It’s understood from these tales that the goddess Parvati wanted to bathe in privacy, and so she created a boy and assigned him to guard the entrance of her bathroom. But when her husband Shiva returned home and found the boy standing guard, he went to move past him, but Ganesha blocks Shiva’s path, denying his entrance as poverty had instructed him to. Not to be defied though—at least not by a child—Shiva struck off the boy’s head with his sword.

When Parvati emerged from the bathroom and found the decapitated boy, she was upset. Seeking to undo the damage he’d done, Shiva sent out his warriors to find the first dead creature they could find, which happened to be an elephant.

In other versions, it is Shiva himself who dashes out into the wilderness to find the first animal he can find, which turned out to be an elephant as well.

In both cases, the head of an elephant was removed and placed on the body of the dead boy. The boy was then brought back to life by Shiva and thus, the boy became the elephant-headed god we all know today.

Given that his role was created in his instance to guard Parvati’s doorway, Ganesha’s depictions are often placed facing doorways, to keep out those who are not permitted to enter.

The Tales of How Ganesha’s Tusk was Broken

Writing of the Mahabharata: There are other famous accounts, though conflicting, including the story of how Ganesha’s tusk came to be broken. One popular idea is that Ganesha broke it off himself when he couldn’t find any writing utensils, so that he could write the Mahabharata, one of the world’s longest epic poems.

Ganesha Writing of the Mahabharata with a Sage

The task at hand was so urgent that his train of thought could not be interrupted with the finding of another pen. The sacrifice of his tusks signifies the sacrifice one may make in creative endeavours, to complete one’s work to the fullest.

Another account suggests the Mahabharata was created by a sage and that it was he who was telling the tale to Ganesha, who was writing it down. However, when Ganesha’s quill snapped, he immediately broke off his task to use instead, as the sage would not stop the story.

A Fight with Parashuram: In another story, Ganesha is asked by Shiva to guard his room as he takes a nap inside, but when a proud warrior named Parashuram (or Parashurama: a skilled warrior and the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu) came to visit Shiva, he was blocked by Ganesha.

At a frustration of being denied entrance by this weird hybrid elephant-boy thing, Parashuram threw his axe at Ganesha’s head. Ganesha was able to block the attack, but his tusks took most of the impact, causing it to break off.

The Fall of Ganesha from his Mount: Another tale speaks of how Ganesha went around all the houses of the land on one of his birthdays to collect sweets and cakes which he stored in his stomach. However, on the way home, the mouse which was his mount saw a snake and became so alarmed that it stumbled. This caused Ganesha to be thrown from his seat and he would cut open his stomach, causing all the sweets and cakes to burst out onto the floor.

Unwilling to leave them behind for everyone to see, Ganesha gathered them all up and stuffed them back into his stomach. He then grabbed hold of the snake that the mouse had seen and used it to tire of his stomach to prevent the sweets and spilling out again.

In some versions, the moon happens to see Ganesha fall and call to laughter at the god’s expense. Annoyed by this, Ganesha pulls off his tusks and threw them at the moon, silencing it.

The Story of Vishnu and Ganesha

the story of Vishnu and Ganesha

Ganesha appears to have quite a few run-ins with the other gods and his relationships with them seem to see him get the better of them, even against the supreme God’s like Vishnu.

In one story, Vishnu who is known to carry a magic conch that he always keeps with him, could not find him. He became rattled at not being able to find the conch, and so, he organized a massive search for it.

But during the search, Lord Vishnu heard a beam being played somewhere in the distance. He zoomed off in the direction, only to find Lord Ganesha happily playing with it in the mountains. When Ganesha would not relinquish the conch, not even to Vishnu himself.

Vishnu went to Ganesha’s father Shiva, expecting him to bring his son to order. But Shiva merely sighed and claimed that he had as much power over Ganesha as Vishnu did and that the only way to reclaim the conch was to pray to Him.

Reluctantly, Vishnu performed a prayer in honour of Ganesha. Seeing this, Ganesha was both proud and pleased that Vishnu had paid him respects and so returned his conch to him.

In this light, we see Ganesha as quite mischievous and he likes to have light-hearted fun at the other gods’ expenses, even those who are much more powerful than him. Shiva’s reluctance to get involved directly just goes to show us that even he, the destroyer, cannot deal with Ganesha’s mischief.

The Story of Kubera and Ganesha

the story of Kubera and Ganesha

Another example of Ganesha getting the better of the other gods with his, sometimes absent or simply impish mindset, is when he is invited to a sumptuous ceremony hosted by the god of wealth Kubera.

Kubera invited many of the other gods and goddesses to join them in what he hoped would be a spectacular evening. However, when Ganesha arrived, he began devouring all the food to the point that he would leave nothing for the other guests.

His hunger though was not satisfied with just the food, so he began consuming Kubera’s collection of wealth, including the gold itself, even after this, his hunger wasn’t sated, and he even tried to eat Kubera himself.

Kubera scolded Ganesha for his behaviour, but he realized his words were falling on deaf ears. So, like Vishnu in the previous tale, Kubera went to Shiva in hopes that he’d be able to reprimand his son, but Shiva simply offered Ganesha a bowl of oats, and it was with this gesture that managed to sate the god’s appetite.

So stunned by this, Kubera asked why it was that just simple oats were enough to stop Ganesha’s rampage. Shiva explained that Ganesha’s rampage was born out of Kubera’s greed and that this whole experience was to teach Kubera a lesson that he should not put all his faith and well-being into his possessions, and he should share more.

The moral of this story shows us, just because we may have a lot of money like Kubera, we should be careful not to spend it so frivolously.

The Story of Ganesha and a Cat

Ganesha’s mischievous sneak has gotten him into a lot of trouble, however, in one story, Ganesha, who was still a child at this point, was playing with a cat. The cat, being a cat, had decided it no longer wish to play and so strutted off. But Ganesha kept prodding it and pulling its tail, even though the cat meow at his tail.

Ganesha failed to notice these signs though, and it wasn’t until he got home that he finds his mother Parvati covered in bruises. Ganesha rushed to her and asked her what had happened, to which Parvati explained that she had taken the form of the cat, and it was he who had done this to her, even as she hissed at him to stop.

This caused Ganesha to realize the unfairness and ruthlessness of his ways that he had hurt someone he loved because of his negligence to their feelings. Ganesha would become deeply sorry for his actions and took an oath that he would treat all animals and the future with gentle care and affection.

The Story of Shiva Worshipping Ganesha

Shiva would certainly revere his son in a way that’s quite unexpected, given that he was a Supreme Court on the same level as Brahma and Vishnu.

In another story, we see the relationship between Shiva and Ganesha deepen, with Shiva honours Ganesha, stating that whenever someone begins a new venture in life, they would need to worship Ganesha to receive his blessing. This included Shiva himself.

So, on one occasion when Shiva was heading out for a war against demons, he forgot to pray to Ganesha for his blessing. This would leave Shiva and his army to become afflicted with misfortune on their way to the battle, where their war courage lost a wheel, and an entire army came to a halt.

It was during this moment that Shiva realized he had forgotten to get the blessings of his son for this new endeavour, and so he quickly performed a worship ritual in honour of Ganesha. With this, he received Ganesha’s blessing and Shiva and his army were able to defeat the demons.

The Story of Ganesha and Kartikeya

The story of Ganesha and Kartikeya

The final story is my favourite story between Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya.

One day, their mother Parvati would be granted a special fruit by a sage that would grant he who consumed it a great power. Parvati would attempt to split the fruit in half to share with her sons, but the sage explained that in doing so, the fruit would lose its power. Only if it was consumed by one entity would it grant the eater of its powers.

Unsure of which son to give the fruit to, shiva devised the contest where the brothers would have to compete. The winner would be the recipient of the fruit. The contest would consist of circling the world three times and whoever did so first, would be the winner.

Wasting no time, Kartikeya summoned his peacock mount and dashed off to circle the world. But Ganesha, being the pot-bellied being that he was, knew he could not hope to keep up Kartikeya. Furthermore, Kartikeya and his peacock mount were far more suited to travelling across the harsh terrain. Ganesha had a mouse for a mount and didn’t have the bill to go about running the way Kartikeya could.

So, he came up with a genius, if not partially manipulative idea. He began to circle his parents three times, and when asked what he was doing, Ganesha explained that he was circling ‘his world’. So touched by his gesture, Shiva and Parvati gave Ganesha the fruit.

It’s unknown if Ganesha was authentic with his gesture, but given how rascally Ganesha could be, it’s safe to assume that he may have been pulling on his parent’s heartstrings to get what he wanted.

Either way, it shows us that while Kartikeya was broad in this scenario, Ganesha was the brain and, in this sense, wisdom triumphs over strength.

Art Sources: Rohit Nayak, Britannica,, Mandalas, Wikimedia Commons.

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