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Lord Ganesha: Some Interesting Concepts Behind His Symbolism

Lord Ganesha

Lord Ganesha is one of the most popular and widely worshipped gods of the Hindu religion. Lord Ganesha’s image can be found on just about everything auspicious. His image and hymns to his name are always printed on wedding invitation cards. Lord Ganesha is also lauded as a “vighnaharta” (remover of obstacles). Because of that, he is usually worshipped at the start of something auspicious. In fact, the Hindi phrase “Shree Ganesh karna” stands for starting something. As Ganesh Chaturthi is approaching, one of the biggest topics of discussion in India is whether devotees should be allowed to gather and celebrate the festival during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in this post, we won’t be talking about that issue. There is a lot of deep symbolism associated with Lord Ganesha aside from the prevalent ideas, we will take a look at that. Let’s get started.

Lord Ganesha: What do the Symbols Mean?

Who is Lord Ganesha?

Aside from the popular elephant’s head imagery, Ganesha is also considered to be a formless type of divinity. The anthropomorphic elephant form is to help the devotee attach an image to the holy divinity. Mythologically speaking, Ganesha is the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. However, unlike their elder son Kartikeya, Ganesha was born under different circumstances.

What does Ganesha mean?

The word Ganesha is made up of two words (since it’s not an English name, it’s not a portmanteau, but a very common way to create words in languages such as Sanskrit and Hindi). In the most simplistic terms, it’s a combination of “gana” and “isha”. “Gana” means a group and “isha” means the lord or master. The word “gana” usually refers to the group of semi-divine beings that are a part of Shiva’s retinue. As per some other commentators on the topic, the name could also mean “Lord of hosts” or “Lord of created categories”. Lord Ganesha can be considered to be the Lord of all the groups of atoms and energies. Lord Ganesha is also supposed to be the supreme consciousness that flows through every living being and maintains order in the universe.  Lord Ganesha can be described as the following

  • “Achintya” – beyond thought
  • “Avyakta” – beyond expression
  • “Ananta” – eternal

What is the essence of Lord Ganesha?

As per the legendary saint, Adi Shankaracharya, the essence of Lord Ganesha can be described as the following:

  • Though long associated with the image of an elephant-headed God, Ganesha’s form (swaroop) is just to symbolize the qualities of the Divine (parabrahma roopa).
     
  • In Sanskrit, Lord Ganesha can be described as ‘Ajam Nirvikalpam Niraakaaramekam.’ What this means is that Ganesha is Ajam (unborn), Nirvikalpa (attributeless), Niraakaar (formless) and is the symbol of an omnipresent consciousness.
     
  • Lord Ganesha is the representation of the same energy that serves as a reason for the universe’s existence. The energy from which everything begins and where everything concludes. 

What is the story behind Lord Ganesha’s origins?

It’s a very popular story and most people who are familiar with Hindu mythology will be aware of it. As per the story, Goddess Parvati created Lord Ganesh with the help of the dirt on her body. The dirt was a result of her celebrating with Lord Shiva. After creating Ganesha, she headed off to bathe and instructed Ganesha to not let anyone enter her chambers while she bathed. When Shiva eventually returned, Ganesha refused to allow him in as he was not aware of his identity. Shiva is known to be an angry God and in a fit of rage, he decapitated Ganesha and entered Parvati’s chambers. Upon learning about the fate of Ganesha, Parvati became distraught and pleaded with Shiva to save the boy since he was their son. Shiva then instructed the members of his retinue (“ganas”) to go and get the head of someone who was sleeping with their head pointing towards the north. The helpers got the head of an elephant, which Shiva affixed to the boy’s torso and Lord Ganesha as most people know him, was born.

Some interesting facets of Lord Ganesha’s origins:

  • The goddess Parvati is a symbol of festive energy. The dirt on her body symbolizes the fact that celebrations can easily transform into something “rajasik” or feverish, and can take you away from your center. Dirt symbolizes ignorance, and Shiva is symbolic of innocence, peace and knowledge.
  • Ganesha obstructing Shiva’s path is the representation of ignorance failing to recognize knowledge. Shiva decapitating Ganesha is an extremely graphic metaphor for knowledge overcoming ignorance. It requires extreme measures at times.
  • The elephant is endowed with unusual qualities, like its fearlessness and its royal walk. It proudly destroys any obstacle on its path. An elephant also stands for authority, endurance, strength, and courage. So, to symbolize these qualities of the Divine, Lord Ganesha is depicted in the form of an elephant. And when devotees worship Lord Ganesha, they can channel all these qualities and imbibe them in their consciousness. The elephant is the only being that can perform all its functions with its trunk. It smells, eats, drinks, bathes, and works with its trunk. The trunk is symbolic of the perfect balance between “Gyaan Shakti” (knowledge) and “Karma Shakti” (action).  

Lord Ganesha: Symbolism and Significance

  • Lord Ganesha’s big belly represents generosity and total acceptance.
     
  • Lord Ganesha’s raised hand depicts protection. It means, ‘Fear not, I am with you’, and his lowered hand depicts his giving, as well as an invitation to bow down. This is also symbolic of the fact that we will all dissolve into the Earth one day.
     
  • Lord Ganesha is always represented with one tusk, it signifies one-pointedness.
     
  • One of Lord Ganesha’s hands always carries an  ‘Ankusa’ (signifying awakening) and another carries the ‘Paasa’ (signifying control). With spiritual awakening, a lot of energy is released, which without proper control, can go haywire.
     
  • Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed God travels on something as small as a mouse. It might seem comical at times. Well, there’s more to it than meets the eye. The mouse has the ability to chew away at the ropes that binds people’s consciousness. The mouse represents the power to cut through layers of ignorance, which can lead devotees to the ultimate knowledge that Lord Ganesha represents.

A picture is worth a thousand words, symbols are probably worth a million. The sages and writers of Ancient India were very wise in choosing images and symbols rather than words to describe and express divinity. The simplest reason behind that is the fact that words and languages change over time and their meanings can be lost over generations of translations. However, images and symbols can stay unchanged over long periods of time. Worshipping the Elephant God is a way to experience the omnipresent divinity that is Lord Ganesha. It is always good to remember that the Elephant-God iteration is a symbolic representation of the cosmic divinity that manifests itself as Lord Ganesha.

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