Ganesha is the God of success and overcoming obstacles, but is also associated with wisdom, learning, prudence, and power. As the god of success, his names are chanted at the start of any important venture. As the remover of obstacles, he is invoked at the start of every journey, marriage, religious rite, house construction, the writing of a book or even a letter.
Lord Ganesha is also one of the five Gods – the worship of whom was popularized by Adi Shankaracharya; the other four being Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti and Surya. The worship of these five deities is called the panchaayatana puja. In some cases, Skanda is also worshipped.
Ganesha has four hands, an elephant’s head and a big belly. His vehicle is a tiny mouse. In his hands he carries a rope (to carry devotees to truth), an axe (to cut devotees’ attachments), and a sweet dessert ball – laddoo (to reward devotees for their spiritual activity). His fourth hand’s palm is always extended to bless people. A unique combination of his elephant-like head and a quick moving mouse vehicle represents tremendous wisdom, intelligence and presence of mind.
Legends of Birth
There are two legends about his birth and how he came to posses the head of an elephant. One myth relates that his mother, Parvati, had to go for her bath when her husband, Shiva, was not at home. As Shiva had gone on a meditation retreat and was not expected to return, Parvati ordered Ganesha to keep guard and not let anyone inside the room. But after a while Shiva arrived and when he tried to enter, the child refused to let him do so. This angered Shiva, who cut off the child’s head.
In order to make up for his mistake, Shiva promised Parvati that if she places the head of any person or thing which crosses her path early the next day, the child would come back to life. The first person or thing that passed by them was the mighty elephant. Shiva cut off its head and placed it on the torso of the beheaded child.
Another version says that Parvati was blessed with a beautiful son, and all the Gods assembled to see and admire the son of Shiva and Parvati. They all gazed at the child except Shani, because he was under a curse, which caused any being he looked at to be burnt to ashes. Parvati insisted that Shani also look at and admired her son.
But no sooner had he done so than Ganesha’s head was burnt to ashes. Parvati cursed Shani for having killed her son, but Brahma intervened, and comfortingly told her that if the first available head were planted on her son’s shoulders, he would be alive again. So Vishnu set forth on Garuda and the first creature he found was an elephant sleeping beside a river. He cut off its head and this was fixed on Ganesha’s body.
According to legends Ganesha is a great scribe and learned in religious lore and scriptures. Hence, Ganesha is often depicted with only one tusk, since it is believed that he broke off the other so that he could inscribe the Mahabharata, which was dictated by to him the seer Vyasa.
Ganesha and the Mouse
According to one interpretation, Ganesha’s divine vehicle, the mouse or mooshikam represents wisdom, talent and intelligence. It symbolizes minute investigation of a cryptic subject. A mouse leads a clandestine life below the ground. Thus it is also a symbol of ignorance that is dominant in darkness and fears light and knowledge. As the vehicle of Lord Ganesha, a mouse teaches us to remain always on alert and illuminate our inner-self with the light of knowledge.
Both Ganesha and the Mooshak love modaka, a sweet dish which is traditionally offered to them both during worship ceremonies. The Mooshak is usually depicted as very small in relation to Ganesha, in contrast to the depictions of vehicles of other deities. However, it was once traditional in Maharashtrian art to depict Mooshak as a very large mouse, and for Ganesha to be mounted on him like a horse.Yet another interpretation says that the mouse (Mushika or Akhu) represents the ego, the mind with all of its desires, and the pride of the individual. Ganesha, riding atop the mouse, becomes the master (and not the slave) of these tendencies, indicating the power that the intellect and the discriminative faculties have over the mind. Moreover, the mouse (extremely voracious by nature) is often depicted next to a plate of sweets with his eyes turned toward Ganesha while he tightly holds on to a morsel of food between his paws, as if expecting an order from Ganesha. This represents the mind which has been completely subordinated to the superior faculty of the intellect, the mind under strict supervision, which fixes Ganesha and does not approach the food unless it has permission.
Married or Celibate?
According to tradition, Ganesha was generated by his mother Parvati without the intervention of her husband Shiva. Shiva, in fact, being eternal (Sadashiva), did not feel any need to have children. So Ganesha was born out of the exclusively female desire of Parvati to procreate. Consequently, the relationship of Ganesha and his mother is unique and special.
This devotion is the reason that the traditions of southern India represent him as celibate (see the anecdote Devotion to his mother). It is said that Ganesha, believing his mother to be the most beautiful and perfect woman in the universe, exclaimed: “Bring me a woman as beautiful as she and I will marry her.”
In the north of India, on the other hand, Ganesha is often portrayed as married to the two daughters of Brahma – Buddhi (intellect) and Siddhi (spiritual power). Popularly in north India Ganesha is accompanied by Sarasvati (goddess of culture and art) and Lakshmi (goddess of luck and prosperity), symbolizing that these qualities always accompany he who has discovered his own internal divinity. But this does not mean that Sarasvati and Lakshmi are consorts of Ganesha. Symbolically this represents the fact that wealth, prosperity and success accompany those who have the qualities wisdom, prudence, patience, etc. that Ganesha symbolizes.
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