Ganesha (sometimes known also as Ganapati, Vinayaka and Binaya) is one of the most well-known and popular gods in the Hindu Pantheon and also the only mainstream God to have a non-human face.
Hindu mythology presents many stories, which explain how Ganesha obtained his elephant or gaja head. Often, the origin of this particular attribute is to be found in the same legends which tell about his birth. The stories also reveal the origins of the enormous popularity of his cult. Devotees sometimes interpret his elephant head as indicating intelligence, discriminative power, fidelity, or other attributes thought to be had by elephants. The large elephant ears are said to denote wisdom and the ability to listen to people who seek help.
How Ganesha got his elephant head
Main legend says that Ganesha was instructed by his mother to guard the entrance of her bath and to not let anyone in whilst she was cleaning herself. Shiva, who had been away meditating, came home unexpectedly, and desired to see Parvati. As Ganesha was in his way, the boy was decapitated by Shiva in a fit of rage.Parvati heard the commotion outside her bath and went to see what was going on. Seeing that her son had been killed by her husband, Parvati was inconsolable. In order to appease his wife, Shiva promised to restore Ganesha to life. Unfortunately, his head was flung so far off that it could not be found.
Another version of the tale states that Shiva sent his minions to do battle with Ganesha. The boy was able to hold his ground, and in the end Vishnu had to intervene by taking the form of Maya. Whilst Ganesha was distracted by Maya’s beauty, one of the demons, or Shiva himself, cut off the boy’s head.
A popular conclusion to either tale says Shiva was advised to take the head of the first living being he found sleeping with its head turned to the north. The first creature that the god came across being in such a position was an elephant, and therefore its head was taken to replace Ganesha’s.
Ganesha’s symbolism and significance
Ganesh’s head symbolizes the Atman or the soul, which is the ultimate supreme reality of human existence, and his human body signifies Maya or the earthly existence of human beings. The elephant head denotes wisdom and its trunk represents Om, the sound symbol of cosmic reality. In his upper right hand Ganesh holds a goad, which helps him propel mankind forward on the eternal path and remove obstacles from the way. The noose in Ganesh’s left hand is a gentle implement to capture all difficulties.
The broken tusk that Ganesh holds like a pen in his lower right hand is a symbol of sacrifice, which he broke for writing the Mahabharata. The rosary in his other hand suggests that the pursuit of knowledge should be continuous. The laddoo (sweet) he holds in his trunk indicates that one must discover the sweetness of the Atman. His fan-like ears convey that he is all ears to our petition. The snake that runs round his waist represents energy in all forms. And he is humble enough to ride the lowest of creatures, a mouse.
Why does elephant-headed God travel on something as small as a mouse?
Isn’t that so incongruous? There is symbolism that runs deep. The mouse snips and nibbles away at ropes that bind. The mouse is like the mantra which can cut through sheaths and sheaths of ignorance, leading to the ultimate knowledge represented by Ganesha.
Interesting fact that Ganesha is not only worshipped by Hindus, but he also has devotees from Buddhism and Jainism. The worship of Ganesha, for instance, can be seen in Shingon Buddhism, a Buddhist sect in Japan, where the Hindu god is known popularly as Kangiten.