In any occasion, the first God towards whom we turn and the most loved is Ganapati, Ganesha, Vinayaka: each and every Hindu ceremony and ritual begins with an invocation to this divinity. The move to a new house, the launch of a new project, the beginning of a journey could be scattered with dangers if Ganesha isn’t invoked first.
Ganesha, the elephant headed God, is the God of wisdom and intelligence, and is also adored as the one who removes obstacles, defends good actions and sows difficulties on the path of the evil. The richness of forms and attributes in his iconography reveals innumerable meanings.
The iconography of Ganesha
His wide ears symbolize the fact that who desires knowledge should talk less and listen more. His prominent belly contains the whole universe and the snake around it is the energy supporting the cosmos. His rounded abdomen represents patience and satisfaction along with the exhortation to conquer life. Any positive or negative experience should be accepted with equanimity.
Ganesha’s 4 arms symbolize the activity of God towards beings: in one hand he holds a loop, pasha, in another a hook, ankusha, indicating that with the former Ganesha brings his devotees close to him embracing them in his Grace, with the latter he keeps all dangers and adversities away from them. The third hand stretched out, is in varada mudra, indicating the act of giving. Lastly, the fourth hand in abhaya mudra soothes fear by assuring beings that God is beyond all fear, since he has transcended the limits of time and death.
The symbology of the mouse
Ganesha’s vehicle is a mouse. Such an animal, even so small, can destroy enormous structures and devour huge quantities of wheat: similarly, avidity and lust can become destructive for men. According to another interpretation, this apparently modest mouse indicates that in any body, as tiny as it may be, the Atman, Consciousness, abides. So, it teaches humility, since the Atman is the same in every living being.
Another interpretation of the symbology of the vehicle of Ganesha states that the mouse represents ego, that is lust, the mind and the desires that rise in it. Ganesha riding the mouse indicates that he dominates these tendencies because he is the incarnation of discrimination and the intellect. The mouse is often represented at Ganesha’s feet, looking at him with some food between its paws, awaiting orders, representing the controlled mind. Furthermore, the mouse and the elephant have a common trait: both of them, one because very imposing, the other because very minute are able to overcome any obstacle.
Indirectly, the mouse also symbolises Nature as manifestation of the Shakti emanated by Parvati, Ganesha’s mother and Shiva’s wife.
Myths on Ganesha
Regarding Ganesha’s birth and his relationship with Parvati, the Shiva-purana tells a story that is well known to Hindus and that all grandmothers tell their grandchildren.
One day Parvati was taking a bath; she wanted to be undisturbed, so she mixed a drop of her sweat with clay and modelled the shape of a child, in which she infused life. She ordered the child to guard the door and not allow anyone to enter. Unfortunately, Shiva came to the door. The child forbade him to cross the threshold. An impatient and impulsive Shiva couldn’t bear such an insult, so he cut off the young boy’s head.
Parvati wept desperately and refused to make peace with Shiva until he ordered his attendants to place the first head they could find on the child’s body. They found an elephant head, and it was placed on the beheaded body of the child. At the sight of such a child, everyone was horrified and disgusted. Only Parvati, thanks to her maternal love, saw the beauty in him and assured that it could be perceived by all who looked at him too. Thus, by the Grace of the Divine Mother, Ganesha became for all a pleasant figure, capable to arouse deep sympathy.
Another myth contained in the Vaivratta¬-purana, tells that Parvati deeply wished for a son and so asked Shiva who advised her to undergo austerities, tapas, for a year. The sage Sanatkumara was in charge of checking that the tapas would be performed correctly making Parvati undergo various sufferings to measure her strength and determination.
After Parvati’s tapas had been performed, she heard a divine voice that announced a new birth. Parvati ran to her quarters and found a beautiful child with a face as glowing as the morning sun. She couldn’t believe her eyes: her joy was boundless. All the Devis and Devas ran to Mount Kailasha to pay homage to the divine child: they were all amazed at the extraordinary beauty of the newborn. The 9 planets (Navagraha) went to visit the divine couple and their beloved child. Everyone dispensed best wishes, except Shani (Saturn), who did not even give a look at the child but turned his head away. Parvati asked him why he didn’t want to look at the child. He answered that due to his wife’s jealousy, if he had admired the child, it would have been instantly destroyed. Parvati, however, proud of her son, insisted that Sani look at him. When Sani gazed into the radiant face, the baby’s head flew off his body and was thrown into space.
Parvati’s despair aroused great emotion in the hearts of the Devas, so Vishnu quickly climbed into his winged vehicle, the eagle Garuda, and flew into the cosmos in search of a head to place on the child’s body. He reached the banks of the Puspabadra River where the elephants used to drink and sleep in the cool. He chose an elephant-head facing north and placed it on the baby’s neck. He infused life into him and introduced him to Parvati who was delighted to have a son with the deep knowledge and power of an elephant.
Therefore, even if neither human nor animal, Ganesha embodies the intelligence of a human mind combined with the strength of an animal. He is considered the embodiment of supreme knowledge and divine wisdom. This characteristic is supremely illustrated in one of the stories about him.
The sage Vyasa, author of the Mahabharata, sacred Hindu text, in deep meditation was told by Brahma to ask Ganesha to be the scribe of the poem. Ganapati immediately agreed but accepted on condition that Vyasa would dictate continuously, without interruption. Vyasa agreed, placing a condition: Ganesha could write only what he understood perfectly, the meaning of each word, of each thought and its implications. Under dictation, Vyasa composed such complex verses that often Ganesha had to interrupt his writing to think it over, giving Vyasa time to compose mentally some “stanzas” dictating them to Ganesha when he was ready. To write this work, Ganesha broke one of his tusks: he engraved the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem ever known, sacrificing his beauty for knowledge.
The Ganesha Festival
The Ganesha Festival is the most sacred day dedicated to him, and also one of the most popular Hindu celebrations in India and over the world, because Ganesha is popular and loved everywhere.
It is a festival that falls on the fourth day of the waxing moon of the month of bhadrapada (August-September). On this occasion, special sweets are prepared, modakha, and devotees break coconuts, symbol of the ego that is shattered by the wisdom and energy that Ganesha infuses. Representations of the God are made in terracotta, plaster or papier-maché, and hand painted with beautiful colours. After they have been worshiped for a period of 2-10 days, they are immersed in the water of the sea or of a river or lake, or in the temple tanks.
Since he is very fond of sweets and especially of rice flour balls called modakha, all Hindu families, during the Ganesha festival, prepare sweets for him and offer them during the puja to receive good omens from the Divine. During this celebration there is an air of jubilee, each image of Ganesha is decorated and adorned with flowers and precious fabrics, each temple is a meeting place for crowds of devotees who linger in front of this benevolent figure. Even the kirtans (devotional songs) dedicated to him reflect the character of this God, they are joyful and help to elevate the spirit bringing it closer to the Divine.