Ganesha Symbolism and Significance

Reclining Ganesha

Reclining Ganesha

By Jayaram V

Many people look at the Gods as mere symbols, representations of forces or mind areas. Actually, the Gods are beings, and down through the ages ordinary men and women, great saints and sages, prophets and mystics in all cultures have inwardly seen, heard and been profoundly influenced by these superconscious, inner-plane, inner-galactic beings. Lord Ganesha is just such a being. He can think just as we can think. He can see and understand and make decisions -- decisions so vast in their implications and complexity that we could never comprehend them with our human faculties of limited understanding. - Loving Ganesha 1

Ganesha is one of the most popular gods of Hinduism. Ganesha means lord of the ganas. Gana means a group or community and isa means lord. Ganesha is the leader of the community of Hindu gods. Ganesha is also the first deity who awakens in our spiritual meditation and guide us on the path. Lord Ganesha is worshipped by almost every Hindu. Ganesha's statuses are found almost in every temple, every village every household. In Hindu rituals and worship, Ganesha is invariably worshipped first. We know Ganesha by many names of which Vighnaraja is one because he is the lord of obstacles. 2 He also removes them when he deems fit. So devout Hindus worship Ganesha before starting any new venture or project.

The Historical Ganesha

Historically speaking, the worship of Ganesha dates back to prehistoric times. In the ancient world he was probably worshipped for the protection of farmlands against wild elephants and the menace of rats. The Ganapathi-Brahmanaspati and the Maruts of the Rigvedic hymns have some aspects of Ganesha. Brahmanaspati is Indra's lovely friend, who is known for his knowledge, wisdom and leadership, gives wisdom, heals diseases, increases agricultural wealth, and protects people from their enemies. As the teacher of gods or the priest of heaven, who makes the oblations to prosper, Ganesha occupies an important place in Vedic rites and rituals. Without him no sacrifice is supposed to be complete. There is also a reference to the elephant in his descriptions as an epithet. The Maruts are known for their fierce form and destructive nature. They send rains to the earth and cause fierce storms. In Ganesha we can see a fine integration of the qualities of an excellent teacher and a fierce warrior.

From the copious references available in the Puranas such as the Skanda, Padma, Vamana, Brahmanda, Varaha and Mudgala puranas, we can estimate the extent of Ganesha's popularity even in earlier times. Historians believe that a prototype of Ganesha was worshipped in prehistoric times outside the Indian subcontinent in such faraway places as Afghanistan, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Java, Iran, Cambodia, Borneo, Japan and Mexico. Images of Ganesha were found in Afghanistan and also in Iran. The image of Ganesha found at Luristan in Iran dates back to 1200 BC to 1000 BC. Many Ganesha type idols were also found in Mexico from excavations and ancient temple ruins.

Connection with Buddhism

Ganesha was popular in both China and Japan centuries ago because of his association with Buddhism. Buddhism easily integrated Ganesha into their pantheon just as they admitted many other Hindu deities with same names but different status. The early Buddhists who went from the Indian subcontinent to spread Buddhism in other countries introduced Ganesha to the followers of the Buddha in China and from there the tradition moved to Japan. Subsequently in both China and Japan Ganesha gained popularity as a god who brought romance and good luck into people's lives. According to Buddhist tradition the Buddha himself revealed a mystic mantra called Ganapathihrdaya to his close disciple Ananda at Rajagriha. Followers of the Mahayana Buddhism allotted a specific place for Ganesha in their drawings of Mandalas or mystic diagrams. In China as well as in Japan, Buddha was worshipped in two forms. One was the traditional Ganesha with the usual and familiar appearance and the other was a two faced Ganesha standing opposite to each other. The laughing Buddha who became popular in China shares some physical features with Ganesha and is also associated with good luck and good fortune.

Ganesha in the Subtle Planes

Followers of Saivism believe that Ganesha sits in the muladhara chakra, at the base of the spinal cord and facilitates the spiritual progress of human beings. Sitting in the muladhara chakra he serves as the gateway to the higher chakras and higher planes of consciousness. Ganesha is a lovable and affable god, who is easily accessible through prayers, meditation and contemplation. He is easy to please and approach because he is resides in the subtle worlds closers to our earth plane (physical body) and serves as a connecting link between this world and the higher. According to Sakti Tantra, there are as many Ganeshas in the creation as there the letters of the alphabet. This suggests that Ganesha exists in various planes and worlds as the head of the ganas or groups of entities to guide them and lead them towards Siva, the primordial being.

Symbolism of Ganesha

Ganesha has a grotesque form. He is depicted with an elephant head, pot belly, short plump hands and legs, a curved trunk, and four arms, one holding a noose, one holding a goad , one giving blessings and boons (varada) and one offering protection (abhaya). He is invariably shown in the company of his vehicle, a small rat happily seated at his feet and surrounded by savory food. His grotesqueness is a symbolic reminder of the fact that in our world appearances are illusory and that truth is always other than what it appears to be. Hidden within that grotesque form is a great soul of universal dimensions, the son of God (Siva), known for his knowledge, wisdom, kindness, valor and leadership. There are many stories about his origin, his adventures and mischievous pranks. The most widely accepted legend is that he was created by Parvathi, the mother goddess to assist her in her duties and was later elevated by Lord Siva, after subjecting him to some rigorous tests, as the leader of the gods. Ganapathi was originally a bachelor god. But with the rise of Shaktism in India, his shaktis began to appear along with him in his images and descriptions. His shaktis are two, variously known as Siddhi and Riddhi or Buddhi or Pusti. 3 In some modern images we also see him as Laskhmi Ganapathi, seated along with goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswathi instead of Siddhi and Riddhi. Some of the symbolism associated with Ganesha is shown in the following table:

AspectSymbolism
Elephant HeadCalmness, majesty, wisdom and strength
MouseMastery of fear, indecision, anxiety and uncertainty and also control over beings of the subterranean worlds.
Grotesque bodyIllusion and duality
Large EarsDiscernment, supernatural auditory powers
Broken tuskIndifference and detachment. Also skill in action.
Curve of the TrunkConnection with curves in the symbol of AUM as the lord of the speech.
Large bellyCompleteness, contentment and fulfillment
PasaThe three impurities of anava, karma and maya.
Ankusa or GoadComplete control or mastery of self. The power to mitigate as well as inflict suffering.

Forms of Ganesha

The idols and temples of Ganesha are found all over the world. We we have archeological evidence to suggest that he was worshipped in some temples of northern India as early as first century AD. The Ganapatyam lists 32 iconic forms of Lord Ganesha of which 16 are considered to be the most popular. They are not different Ganeshas but personification of his various aspects and attributes. There are idols and images of Lord Ganesha corresponding to these 16 forms. In each aspect Ganesha is shown with specific color, shape, posture and a variety of objects in his hands. Ganapathi is also symbolically worshipped in the form of a kumbha consisting of a coconut sitting atop the mouth of a round pot or vessel surrounded by five mango leaves. In some places Ganesha is worshipped in the form of lingas, salagramas and yantras. The swastika is also considered to be a symbol of Ganesha because he is a god of luck and auspiciousness. The sixteen forms of Ganesha are shown below:

  1. Bala Ganapathi
  2. Taruna Ganapati
  3. Bhakti Ganapathi.
  4. Maha Ganapathi
  5. Vira Ganapathi
  6. Sakti Ganapathi
  7. Duvija Ganapathi
  8. Ucchistha Ganapathi
  9. Vighnaraja Ganapathi
  10. Kshira Ganapathi
  11. Lakshmi Ganapathi
  12. Siddhi Ganapathi
  13. Urdhava Ganapathi
  14. Heramba Ganapathi
  15. Vijaya Ganapathi
  16. Niruttha Ganapathi

Temples of Ganesha

Traditionally the state of Maharashtra in India is well known for the worship of Lord Ganesha and houses eight of his very famous temples knows as Ashtavinayaka temples. Some details of these temples and their idols are mentioned below

LocationIdol NameDetail
MorgaonMayureshwaraAssociated with Saint Morya a famous devotee of Lord Ganesha
ThevoorChintamani GaneshaServed as a religious retreat for the Peshwas the rules of Maratha Kingdom
RanjangaonMaha GganapathiThe idol of Ganesha with ten heads is also located in the temple complex,
SiddhatekSiddhi VinayakaThe idol is right tusked. So devotees are advised to be extra careful while worshipping.
Lenyadri CaveGirijatmajaThe idol is situated in a cave temple with only the back of the idol visible to the worshippers.
Ojhar KshetraVighneswaraThe idol is flanked by Riddhi and Siddha the two Shaktis of Ganesha
PaliBallaleshwaraThe name comes from Ballala a boy whom Ganesha rescued from persecution.
MahadVarada VinayakaA traditional lamp that has been kept alight since 1892

16 Names of Ganesha

Ganesha is usually worshipped alone. But in the tantric form of worship he is worshipped along with his shaktis as Vallabha. The puranas mention 16 names of Ganesha which are considered to be effective during his worship for warding off evil and gaining his blessings. These names are also used in the prayers addressed to Ganesha during his worship. The 16 names of Ganesha are: sumukha, ekadanta, kapila, vighnaraja, vinayaka, dhumaketu, ganadhyaksha, phalachandra, gajakarna, lambodara, vikata, vakratunda, surpanakha, heramba, skandapurvaja and mahaganapathi. Ganesha is also worshipped as the supreme Brahman himself by the followers of Ganapatya Sect

Some rare and interesting aspects of Ganesha are found in some temples of India such as the the image of Bala Ganapathi crawling on his hands like a baby at Vellore in Andhra Pradesh, the image of Ganesha holding a flute just like Krishna at Madurai, a female aspect of Ganesha called Ganeshini at Suchindra and Madurai and a five headed Heramaba Ganapathi riding a lion at Nagapattinam. The female aspect of Ganesha is also called Vinayaki, Surpakarni and Lambamekhala.

The End

Footnotes

1. Loving Ganesha: Hinduism's Endearing Elephant-Faced God is published by Himalayan Academy

2. Vighna means obstacles and raja means lord

3. These shaktis denote his unlimited wisdom (buddhi), his power to grant health (pusti), wealth and boons (siddhis) and his power to take away (riddhi) suffering and human attachments.

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Books on Ganehsa

Ganesha Goes to Lunch: Classics from Mystic India (Mandala Classics) ~ Kamla K. Kapur

How Ganesh Got His Elephant Head ~ Harish Johari

The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha ~ Uma Krishnaswami

Eternal Ganesha ~ Gita Mehta

The Book of Ganesha (Indian Gods and Goddesses) ~ Royina Grewal Royina Grewal

Ganesha's Henna Garden ~ Kim Brennan

From Inside Out: A Yoga Notebook (Book II) ~ Victor van Kooten

Ganesha Puja ~ Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Ganesha -Remover of Obstacles ~ Manuela Dunn Mascetti

Ganapati: Song of the Self (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies) ~ John A. Grimes Products

A Chinese-English Dictionary in the Cantonese Dialect, Parts I & II (2 Volume Set) (Western Linguists and The Languages of China, Volume 5) ~ Ernest John (Johann) Eitel

Leap Like a Tiger, Walk Like a Tortoise ~ Jampa Thaye

Sri Mahishasura Mardini Stotram (Chanting Booklet) ~ Amma Sri Karunamayi Vijayeswari Devi

Sanskrit Mantras, Verses and Hymns (Chanting Booklet) ~ Amma Sri Karunamayi Vijayeswari Devi

Elephant Prince: The Story of Ganesh ~ Amy Novesky

Ganesha: The Auspicious... The Beginning ~ Nanditha Krishna

Sri Devi Khadga Mala Stotram (Chanting Booklet) ~ Amma Sri Karunamayi Vijayeswari Devi

Learn Sri Devi Khadga Mala Stotram ~ Amma Sri Karunamayi Vijayeswari Devi

Learn Sri Lalita Sahasranama (4 Cd Set) ~ Amma Sri Karunamayi Vijayeswari Devi

Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect (Ganesha - Western Linguists and The Languages of China) ~ Robert Morrison Products

Collected Works of Ernest Mason Satow Part Two: Collected Papers (Ganesha - Collected Works of Japanologists) ~ Ernest Mason Satow

Sri Siva, Sri Lakshmi Devi and Sri Saraswati Devi Puja Mantras ~ Amma Sri Karunamayi Vijayeswari Devi

Ganesha. El destructor de los obstaculos (Coleccion India Eterna) ~ Enrique Rojas

From Inside Out: Body Energy, Book III ~ Victor Van Kooten

Stories of Shiva: Sati and Shiva, Shiva Parvati, Tales of Shiva, Ganesha, Karttikeya (Comic Book Format) ~ Amar Chitra Katha

Sri Ganesha Mantra (Sankirtana Style) ~ Amma Sri Karunamayi Vijayeswari Devi

A Syllabic Dictionary of the Chinese Language; Arranged According to the Wu-fang yuen yin, with the Pronunciation as Heard in Peking, Canton, Amoy, and ... Linguists and The Languages of China) ~ Samuel Wells Williams

Shree Ganesha Atharvasheersham Guided Recitation and Comprehensive Explanation ~ Neel Kulkarni

The Eastern Seas: Being a Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. "Dwarf" in China, Japan, and Formosa, Volume 32 (Ganesha - Japan in English: Key Nineteenth-Century Sources on Japan) ~ Bonham Ward Bax

From Inside Out: Book One A Yoga Notebook From the Teachings of Anela & Victor ~ Angela Farmer