The Lord of Wisdom. The son of Ishwara and Parvati. Ganesha saved the gods when they were in trouble and helpless, by killing Talasura and outwitting Ravana. He is also worshipped as the God who grants success.
Maharshi Narada has praised Ganesha as follows:
Vidyarthi labhate vidyam Dhanarthee labhate danam Putrarthee labhate putram Moksharthee labhate gatim
‘A student acquires education, a man who desires money gains wealth, one who seeks a son gets a son and the aspires of salvation reaches his goal.’
There are several verses on Ganesha, which are well known. One of them is:
Nirvighnam kuru me deva
‘Oh, the curved-faced, gigantic Lord Ganesha, you are like a million suns in brilliance; always kindly free us from hurdles in all our endeavors.’
It is the custom to chant such hymns with devotion and bow down to Lord Ganesha before starting any important work.
Ganesha is the deity of suspiciousness. He is adorable not only to man but also to the gods.
The word ‘Ganesha’ means the Lord of Ganas (the army of the gods), the leader of the army of Shiva. That is why he is also called Ganapati and Gananayaka.
The Figure of Ganesha
Ganesha’s figure is well known in India. The elephant face (Gajavadana), winnowing pans like ears (Shoorpa-Karna), a huge belly (Lambodara), four hands (Chaturbhuja), three of them carrying Pasha (a rope), Ankusha (a spear-like weapon curved at one end) and Modaka (a pudding-like sweet dish) – and the fourth held in a gesture which assures help and protection to the devotee, a beautiful body of red complexion – this is how he is pictured. And he rides a rat.
There is a story that Parvati created Ganesha with the outer dusty layers of her body.
On the day of the Ganesha festival, an earthen idol is worshipped. This reminds us of his relation to the earth. The idol has four hands. One right-hand holds a Pasha. This is endowed with divine greatness. With the help of this, Ganesha attracts the minds of his devotees.
The other hand bestows boons. This indicates that those who throw themselves on Ganesha’s mercy need to fear nothing. Similarly, one left-hand carries an Ankusha. This is a symbol to show that Ganesha will destroy our ignorance. The other hand holds a vessel filled with Modakas. This shows that Ganesha brings joy to everyone.
Ganesha’s bulky head symbolizes his extraordinary intelligence. His ears are broad like winnowing pans. You know winnowing-pans are used to winnow grain. What happens then?
The husk and the grain get separated. So does Ganesha distinguish between truth and untruth?
It may also be said that the broad ears symbolize his capacity to listen to the prayers of all his devotees with great attention. While his ever-moving trunk teaches that one should be active always, his single tusk denotes single-mindedness in action. His huge belly signifies that the entire Brahmanda (universe) is hidden within Ganapati.
He rides a rat. The rat personifies evil qualities like anger, too much pride and selfishness.
Riding on the rat shows that Ganesha checks these evil passions.
Ganesha is known not by one name or two, but by many names, each name has an explanation. Because of his elephant face, he is called Gajanana (‘Gaja’ meaning elephant); as the leader of Shiva’s Gana he is known as Gananayaka; he bestows boons on his devotees and so is Varasiddhi Vinayaka, he is Vidya Ganapati because he grants knowledge and wisdom; he is called Gowriputra because he was born by the grace of Parvati, Ekadanta because he has only one tusk, and Vighneshwara because he is the Lord of all obstacles – so he has many names. The belief that Ganapati loves his devotees immensely is the reason for his worship everywhere.
In how many lands are Ganesha worshipped!
There are shrines dedicated to him in many countries, even outside India.
Hundreds of years ago Hindu missionaries went to different countries. They carried with them the idols of Ganesha who was their supreme deity. They spread their ideas about his form, power and the symbolic significance of his form.
Merchants used to carry the idols of Ganesha to foreign countries so that their journey and trade may be free from obstacles. Perhaps, Ganesha came to be known to people of other lands for these reasons; anyway, Ganesha is a popular God even in foreign countries.
Ganesha has different names, forms, and symbolic significance in some countries. He is famous in different forms in Tibet, Nepal, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Afghanistan, China, Japan, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, etc…
In Burma, there is one idol of Ganesha touching the ground with his hand. An idol of Vinayaka in Cambodia has only two shoulders. The idol of Ganapati in a Buddhist monastery at Kung-Hsien in China carries the Chintamani (a precious gem) in the left hand. (The Chintamani is believed to be capable of granting any boon.)
Parvati’s Beloved Son
Kailasa is the abode of Lord Ishwara. Parvati is Ishwara’s wife. Ishwara had thousands of servants like Nandi (read about Basavanna here) and Bhringi. One day Parvati went to bathe, as usual. Nandi kept a watch at the door. Parvati said to Nandi, “Don’t let anyone enter” and went in.
After a while, Ishwara arrived. Nandi told him that Parvati was bathing. Ishwara turned a deaf ear to him and entered. Parvati was displeased at the sudden entry of her husband.
The next day it was time for Parvati to go to the bath.
Then she made the figure of a boy with the dirt of her body and gave him life. It was this boy who later became Ganesha and Gajamukha.
The boy Ganesha was very handsome. He was equally strong. He bowed to his mother in reverence and devotion and said, “Mother, what shall I do?”
Ganesha was more radiant than the sun and the moon. Parvati was overjoyed at the sight of the lad. She embraced him, caressed his head tenderly and kissed him with affection. Then she gave him a thick stick and said, “Look, my child, I am now going for a bath. Don’t allow anybody inside without my permission.” Not Even Ishwara!
Ishwara happened to come there. Ganesha stopped him at the door. Ishwara became angry.
Moreover, Ishwara had never seen the boy. Glaring at him, he shouted,
“You little brat, who are you? Don’t you know that I am the master of Kailasa and that Parvati is my wife? You are trying to stop me! How dare you?”
Ganesha did not flinch. He replied:
‘Whoever you may be, I am not afraid of you. Now, mother is having a bath. Without her permission, I cannot allow anybody inside. So now, go away!’
He Needed No Help
Ishwara’s anger knew no limits when he heard the boy’s words. He decided to ignore the tiny brat and trying to brush him aside took a step.
The angry Ganesha pushed him aside and hit him with his stick.
This was an insult to Ishwara. But soon he checked his anger. He thought that it was unbecoming of him as the Lord of the Universe to punish a little boy, with his own hands. It would be like breaking a butterfly on a wheel. So, he decided to send his servants to advise the boy and left the place.
Lord Ishwara’s servants obeyed his command and came to Ganesha and gave him advice. They extolled the greatness and the power of Ishwara.
They advised Ganesha saying, “Beg Lord Ishwara to pardon your misbehavior and seek his grace.” But Ganesha did not listen to them.
Now Ishwara’s servants lost patience. They were all enraged by Ganesha. But would Ganesha be frightened at this? He held his stick firmly and quickly got ready for the battle. In the long-drawn fight, Ganesha won. Ganesha used a Parighayudha (a weapon like a club). Ishwara’s servants ran away, afraid of the dreadful blows of Parighayudha.
The news of this defeat reached Ishwara.
Already he was in a rage and now his anger knew no limits. But at the same time, the valor of the tiny boy surprised him. He sent all the gods to fight with Ganesha. They were also defeated by the boy hero fighting alone. At last Ishwara himself had to appear. He blew off the head of Ganesha using his trident (Trishul).
The Elephant’s Head
Parvati was full of grief when she heard the news of the death of her beloved son. Her anger rose as she remembered how all the gods had together attacked her son, fighting all alone.
Immediately, using her divine power she created thousands of goddesses like Lambasheersha, Kubjaka, Khanja, and Karali. She ordered them to go and destroy all those gods who were enemies of her son.
Obeying their mistress, the goddesses attacked the gods with dreadful weapons in their hands. They chopped off the heads of all they met. Some were butchered. The assembly of the gods trembled at the menace of these powerful deities.
Then, the great sage Narada and gods like Brahma, Vishnu, and Indra came to Parvati and saluted her with devotion. They prayed to her saying,
“Mother Parvati, we beg you, calm down.
First, withdraw your deities. Save the gods who are being destroyed.”
Parvati replied, “I have lost my darling son. If he is brought back to life I will withdraw the deities.”
Now Narada, Brahma, and others went to Ishwara. They calmed his anger and pacified him.
They prayed to him saying,
“Please revive Gowriputra. Otherwise, this menace will not end. Heaven cannot survive.”
Then Ishwara grew calm.
He called some gods and said, ”Go, find someone lying down with his head towards the north. Cut off the head and bring it here.” Immediately the gods went and brought the head of an elephant, which was laid, with its head towards the north, Ishwara joined the elephant’s head to the trunk of Ganesha and gave him life.
The First Worship
Parvati was very happy to see her son alive once again. Embracing her son she caressed him. She called back the deities she had sent and saved the gods. Then Parvati narrated to Ishwara and the assembly of the Gods story of Ganesha’s birth. Ishwara embraced the boy Ganesha with a father’s affection and was happy.
The gods wished that Ganesha should be the Ganadhyaksha (Chief of Ishwara’s servants); Ishwara agreed blessed Ganesha. He then said:
“Darling Ganesha, be the leader of our Ganas hereafter. Be the Lord of obstacles. Henceforth let gods worship you before they worship gods. The person who worships you with devotion will be free from rouble. Blessed will be those who worship you on the fourth day of the bright fortnight of Bhadrapada month.”
There are innumerable legends about Ganesha. There is an interesting story about Ganesha’s marriage. Shanmukha and Ganesha, the sons of Ishwara and Parvati, grew up. The parents were thinking of celebrating the marriage of their sons.
One day they said to sons: “Boys, you should go to the world once. We shall celebrate the marriage of who first completes this. Do you agree?” The sons agreed.
Shanmukha wanted to win. So at once, he started on his vehicle, the peacock, at great speed to win the competition. But the huge-bellied Ganesha found the task quite difficult.
But he, too, wished to win. He thought for a moment. An idea struck him. At once he went and had a bath. Then, he went around his parents seven times with utmost devotion and bowed to them.
Shiva and Parvati were amazed at his behavior. They looked at each other, smiling. Then Shiva called Ganesha and asked, “Ganesha, won’t you start on your journey?” Ganesha was very intelligent. He said,
“Father, all the worlds are within you two. The Vedas and the Puranas are the authority for this. By going around both of you I have completed the task of going around the world. Thus, I have defeated Shanmukha.”
Ganesha’s words were true. Ishwara and Parvati were very happy that he was so shrewd and intelligent. They celebrated Ganesha’s marriage with Siddhi and Buddhi, the two beautiful daughters of Vishwabrahma. It is said in some stories that Ganesha had two sons, Kshema and Labha.
The Asuras (demons) used to trouble the gods often. Some of them used to grow strong by obtaining boons from Lord Vishnu or Lord Ishwara or Lord Brahma after doing severe tapas (intense meditation and prayer). And because of the boons, they used to become arrogant.
They used to delight in torturing men and gods.
Talasura was one such wicked asura. One day Ganesha humbled him. Here is the story: Talasura was the King of Ramanaka. He was very strong but wicked. He was a haughty and obstinate asura. The gods shivered at the very mention of his name.
Talasura had an eye on Devendra, the king of the gods for a long time. His greatest desire was to defeat Devendra in the battle and become the Lord of all his wealth and splendor.
One day his dream came true, Indra’s assembly was in progress. The hall was filled with melodious music. Lovely nymphs were dancing. Indra and the other gods had forgotten themselves in the music and the dance. Seizing this opportunity Talasura ordered his demon force to enter heaven, and attacked Indra’s palace.
This unexpected attack caused great confusion in the assembly of the gods. They were unprepared for war. In the end, Talasura won the battle. The defeated Devendra and the other gods ran away like deer at the sight of the hunters.
After the battle, Talasura became the master of all the wealth of the gods. He becomes Lord of Kalpavriksha (the tree that fulfills all desires), Kamadhenu (the divine cow which can give whatever a man seeks), Airavata (the white elephant of Indra), and such unique treasures.
Devendra lost everything and became miserable. He went into hiding lest Talasura should see him – he was so terrified. He also began to plan how to regain his wealth and kingdom from the wicked asura.
The Boon of Brahma
Once Talasura performed strict tapas because he wished to get boons from Brahma. Brahma appreciated his devotion. He appeared before him and said Talasura, I am pleased with your devotion. You can ask whatever you want.”
Talasura said, “Lord, grant that I may not fear anybody.” Brahma thought for a while and said, “How can I grant such an absolute boon? You have to fear some species of living beings. Remember this and ask for a boon. There are four species – the gods, human beings, animals and birds. Whom would you fear?”
Talasura thought over the question of Brahma.
Then he said to him,
“Father, my desire is to rule over gods and men with pride of power. Therefore I should not have fear of death from them. But let me fear the elephant, the strongest of animals.”
Brahma granted the boon and disappeared.
Talasura was already a wicked fellow. Once he secured the boon from Brahma his arrogance knew no limits. Indra and the gods were in hiding. He began to search for them and to torture those whom he found.
“Ganesha Can Subdue Him”
One day Devendra, who could no longer bear the torture of Talasura, went to Brahma along with other gods. He explained to him the injustice and wicked deeds of Talasura. He begged Brahma to show a way to destroy Talasura.
Brahma said, “Devendra, that wicked asura has grown strong because of my boon. No one can overcome him except an elephant. If you approach Ishwara, he can help you through his son Ganesha. Ganesha can easily subdue that asura as he has the head of an elephant.” Accordingly, Devendra went to Kailasa. He explained the havoc caused by Talasura and the suggestion of Brahma.
He prayed, “Lord Parameshwara, please save us from this trouble soon.”
Talasura Learns His Lesson
Ishwara was moved at the plight of Indra and other gods. Immediately he called Ganesha and said, “Ganesha, go at once to the city of Ramanaka and conquer Talasura, the wicked enemy of the gods.”
Ganesha was all-powerful and the enemy of the asuras. So, as his father had commanded, he rushed to Ramanaka. He destroyed all the wealth of Talasura. He smashed his huge army.
He challenged Talasura and waged a fierce fight with him. The great warrior Talasura also fought with great valor. However, he could do nothing against Ganesha. In the end, Ganesha lifted him bodily in his trunk and dashed him to the ground. The fierce blow made Talasura unconscious, and he vomited blood. When he regained consciousness he saw the angry Ganesha before him, with the shining Parighayudha in his hand.
Talasura looked at him for a moment, his eyes filled with fear. Then he remembered that, according to the boon granted by Brahma, his life could be in danger from an elephant. At once his arrogance and strength melted away like butter melting before the fire. He caught hold of the feet of the elephant-faced Ganesha and begged him for mercy: “Vighneshwara, please excuse me and spare my life.”
Ganapati is as kind as he is strong He said to Talasura, “Talasura you were proud of your strength, Brahma’s boon. You troubled all.
You drove away Indra from heaven. Only if you are going to learn the lesson will I pardon you and let live.”
Talasura replied: “Vinayaka, I have done wrong.
I will not trouble the gods. You have taught me a lesson. The pride that I am the strongest has now vanished. Pardon me.” The kind Ganesha forgave him.
A Terror to the Gods
Ganesha is known as Vighneshwara because the devotees believe that Ganesha roots out obstacles and difficulties. There are many stories, which narrate how he saved even the gods.
Ravana (read about the author of Ramayana, Valmiki here) was the king of Lanka. He was very strong. Once there were indications that the gods would suffer at the hands of Ravana.
Ravana was a devotee of Ishwara. Once he performed strict tapas. Pleased with his tapas Ishwara appeared before him and said, “What boon do you desire?” Ravana begged for Shiva’s Atmalinga (Shiva’s Atmalinga was the reflection of Shiva in the form of the Linga. The presence of this Linga is as good as that of Shiva Himself).
It was Ravana’s conviction that nobody could defeat him, once he acquired the very power of Shiva.
Shiva had said, “Ask for whatever boon you choose.” Therefore he was bound by his words and had to give away his Atmalinga. He, however, cautioned Ravana: “Don’t put this Atmalinga on the ground even for a moment; once you put it on the ground you cannot get it back.” He then disappeared.
The gods trembled to see Shiva’s Atmalinga in the hands of Ravana, who was a menace to the world. Ravana was their bitter enemy; and now, with the Shivalinga itself in his possession, they were in great danger. They were troubled not knowing who could protect them.
Then they remembered Ganesha. They went straight to him and explained to him their troubles. The kind Ganesha consoled them. He put courage into them saying, “I shall not allow Ravana to get Shiva’s Atmalinga. Have no fears.” The gods went away and Ganesha followed Ravana to carry out his mission.
Ravana was on his way to Lanka carrying Shiva’s Atmalinga in his palms. He came to the west coast. By then it was evening. It was time for Ravana to perform ‘sandhyavandana’ (the evening prayers). Ravana was in a fix. Ishwara himself had told him that the Linga should not touch the ground. How was he to perform sandhyavandana, with the Atmalinga in his hands?
There was no one in that deserted place that could help him. He stood there, thinking, ‘I must perform sandhyavandana. What shall I do?’
Ganesha was following Ravana and was waiting for a chance. He understood Ravana’s difficulty. He appeared before him in the guise of a small boy. When Ravana saw him he was as happy as if he had found water in a desert.
Ravana called him and said, “Little boy, will you hold this Linga till I perform sandhyavandana and return?” Ganesha, in the guise of a boy, said, “It appears to be very heavy. Please put it on the ground and go.”
Ravana said, “No, I cannot do that. It should not be put on the ground. Please keep it in your hands, till I return.”
The boy said, “Suppose it becomes too heavy for me?” Ravana spoke softly, “I will return quickly, my boy. You are a clever fellow, aren’t you? Please hold it in your hands, my good boy.” The boy agreed. Ravana gave him the Atmalinga and said, “Don’t forget. This should never be put on the ground.” And then he went towards the sea to perform Sandhyavandana.
Hardly had Ravana started when Ganesha cried out, “Alas, it’s too heavy! Too heavy!” Ravana was afraid. But, he could not return without completing sandhyavandana. Therefore, he cried out, “Boy, I shall be back soon. Don’t put the Linga on the ground whatever may happen.”
By the time Ravana was offering holy water to the gods Ganesha cried aloud, “Oh, Ravana, I can no longer bear the weight of this Linga; I shall put it down here.” So saying Ganesha put the Linga on the ground and ran away. Ravana completed sandhyavandana in haste and ran back in fear.
But Shiva’s Atmalinga was firm in the earth. No matter how hard he tried, Ravana could not take it out.
It was not an easy task to prevent Ravana from getting Shiva’s Atmalinga. With his sharp intellect, Ganesha did this difficult task easily.
Ganesha Curses the Moon
One day while traveling around the universe on his rat, Ganesha came to Chandraloka (the realm of the Moon). The Moon saw him. The Moon, very handsome, was proud of his appearance. On seeing the elephant-faced, big-bellied Ganapati riding on a rat, he laughed at Ganesha with contempt.
This was an insult and Ganesha was very angry about the Moon. His eyes grew red. He pronounced a curse
“Oh Moon, your handsome appearance has made you too vain. Fool, I am worshipped in all the worlds, but you laugh at me. Receive now the fruits of your foolish pride.
Let your beauty, which is the cause for your arrogance and ignorance vanish From now on, whoever sees you on the fourth day of the bright fortnight of Bhadrapada month, the day of my birth, will suffer because of unjust accusations.”
The curse shattered the Moon’s pride. He realized his mistake and felt sorry. Standing devotedly with folded hands before Ganesha he prayed to him.
“Sir, forgive me and my ignorance.
Take back the curse and protect me.”
Then the kind Ganesha grew calm. He consoled the unhappy Moon. He said,
“Moon, you have realized your fault. What is important is the destruction of your pride. Anyhow, my curse cannot be in vain. But those who are subjected to false accusations will be saved and regain their good name if they see you on the second day of the bright fortnight also or listen to the story of the Syamantaka gem.” The Moon was satisfied.
Krishna Himself Worships Vinayaka
The story of the Syamantaka shows how powerful the curse Ganesha is. Satrajita of Dwaraka had a gem called Syamantaka. It was dazzling. If it was worshipped with devotion it used to give plenty of gold every day.
Once Parsena, Satrajita’s brother, went out hunting. He was wearing the Syamantaka. A Lion killed him and went to a cave, carrying the gem. A bear by name Jambavanta killed the lion and gave the Syamantaka to his child to play with.
This Jambavanta was not an ordinary bear; he was the heroic follower of Shri Rama (read about Lakshmana and Lavakusha). Prasena did not return to Dwaraka. Satrajita suspected that Krishna himself had killed him for the sake of the Syamantaka. The rumor soon spread.
Krishna had not done anything wrong. So when he heard about Satrajita’s suspicions he was unhappy. He went in search of Prasena.
He found the corpse of Prasena. There were footprints of a lion nearby. Following these footprints, Krishna entered the cave of Jambavanta.
He fought with Jambavanta for twenty-eight days. At last, Jambavanta understood that Shri Krishna was Shri Rama himself. Then he offered him the Syamantaka.
Krishna gave the Syamantaka to Satrajita and put an end to the evil rumors. However, he was surprised at what had happened. “How such things could be said of me even when I had not done anything wrong. Great sages told him the story of Ganesha’s curse and said, “You saw the Moon on the fourth day.” Then Krishna worshipped Ganesha.
Siddhi-Vinayaka Virata-the worship of Ganesha-is performed on the fourth day of the bright fortnight of the month of Bhadrapada. The devotees believe that those who see the Moon on that day will not suffer if they listen to the story of the Syamantaka.
Vyasa Dictates to Ganesha
The Mahabharata is a great epic. It is one of the greatest epics in the world. Vyasa is the author. He was a great Jnani (one who has realized God) and a Maharshi. The Mahabharata War was fought between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Vyasa had seen the Pandavas and the Kauravas from the time of their grandfather and he had helped that clan very often. He knew all about the Mahabharata War.
Vyasa was thinking of dictating the epic, the Mahabharata, to someone. But he wanted someone capable of writing fast and without mistakes. Brahma decided that Ganapati was the only person equal to this great task. He sent Ganapati. He came to Vyasa and said,
“Bhagavan, I will take down the story of the Mahabharata.”
Vyasa said, “My dear Ganesha, I shall dictate the poem quite fast. Can you take down without any mistakes? Ganesha threw a challenge in return:
“Bhagavan, I shall write as fast as you dictate and that, correctly. But once you start dictating you should not stop till you complete it. Do you agree?” Vyasa Maharshi accepted the challenge.
After they had come to this agreement, Vyasa went on dictating the story and Ganapati wrote down what he said. So the world got a great epic.
No Town without Ganesha’s Temple
Ganesha is very dear to the Indians. In India, there is no town, which does not have a Ganesha temple. India’s great leader, Balagangadhara Tilak, declared that the Ganesha festival should be celebrated in each and every home. Thus it became a national festival.
Ganesha is the Lord of obstacles and also the Lord of Knowledge. Is it not true that we can overcome any obstacle by increasing our knowledge? Once upon a time, it was difficult for a man to cover a distance of ten miles; it was a problem to cross a stream.
People would have laughed if they had been told that man could fly; they would have thought it impossible. Today man travels thousands of miles easily, crosses oceans and even steps on the Moon. How has the impossible become possible?
Is it not because man has increased his knowledge? If a man is to progress, he should remove obstacles, by increasing his knowledge. If we know the mechanism of a bicycle, if it breaks down on the way, we can repair it and then proceed.
So knowledge removes obstacles. The man understood what obstacles there would be to his journey to the Moon, studied how to overcome them and then stepped on the Moon. Knowledge does not simply mean getting new information. Learning how to treat others, realizing what is really most important in life and what is not so important, realizing that others also are human beings like ourselves and practicing this principle without thinking only of our comfort and power.
To have high ideals in life these are the ascending steps of education. As we step higher and higher we learn to live with others. We learn to make our lives worthy and meaningful. We learn to overcome the obstacles in the way of such a noble life.
May such knowledge, which brightens us within and without – be ours, may all the obstacles in the way of getting such knowledge melt away! May the blessings of Varasiddhi Vinayaka, of Vidya Ganapati, protect us!