I walk into my studio most mornings each week, and the first thing I do after taking off my coat and shoes is to greet and honor a statue of the Hindu deity, Ganesha, that resides in the practice room - usually with a short Ganapati chant that I sing while lighting candles and incense. If I have time, I anoint him with fresh water or essential oil while ringing a small brass bell as I chant. He’s a massive, modern bronze representation of Ganesha - beautiful, elaborate and stylized. One of his four hands holds a bowl of prasad, another an axe, and the third a goad. His fourth, one of the right hands, is held forward in a gesture of beatitude, with an OM symbol in red on his palm. His eyes are gently lidded, head surrounded by a halo. He is impressive, calming, and holds the space of our little shala quite as gently and firmly as he holds the sacred symbols in his hands.
In Hinduism, the divine presence is everywhere and everything, and it is accessible through form. Hinduism uses anthropomorphized form, whether it be Shiva, Kali, Devi, or Deva, or Ganapati, to access the divine - and to understand our own true nature. For the divine presence is everywhere and everything, and is ready accessible through all forms. So, what does the story of this particular form - a deity with the body of a corpulent young man and the head of an elephant - mean on a sacred level?
He is arguably Hinduism’s most popular deity, known as “the remover of obstacles.” But, he also represents the obstacles, too. It’s important to honor our obstacles, because it is through engaging with them and resolving them - whether they be ignorance of our true nature, egotism, attachment, aversion or fear of death - that we learn and grow as fully functioning human beings.
On the occasions when students ask me about Ganesha, I begin by telling them that he’s “on loan” from Anna, one of our teachers, and, then if they indulge me, I like to share my favorite version of his origin story. (Now, this is just one of many origin stories about Ganesha, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Indian authors Devdutt Pattanaik and Ramesh Menon for shaping my version of the myth.)
The story goes that once, Shiva, the primordial, ash-smeared, dreadlocked, ascetic, primordial yogi - and anthropomorphic manifestation of universal consciousness, or purusa - was preparing to leave his home in the Himalayas to immerse himself once more deep into tapasya. His consort, Parvati, the Devi, the feminine divine - who also happens to be prakriti, the prime material energy from which all matter is composed - knew that in order for the universe to find balance, Shiva must not withdraw, self-contained and alone unto himself, as is his wont, but rather, engage more fully with the world of form. So she followed him to the door of their home and said gently to him, “I would like us to have a child.”
Shiva, distracted as he prepared to leave, responded to Parvati dismissively, saying, “Why should we have a child? I have no need, nor desire for a child; I have no ancestors that must be honored, for I was never born. Nor do I need a child to take care of me in my dotage, for I will never grow old nor die: I am immortal.” So saying, he embraced Parvati, and with his ganas, the retinue of ghosts and goblins who attended and followed him constantly, left her to go and meditate deep in the Daruka Vana, an ancient deodar forest set upon the steep Himalayan mountainsides.
The Divine Goddess incarnated as the daughter of the Mountain King Himavan to become the consort of Shiva. He was her husband, her love, and she was utterly devoted to him - but she had incarnated specifically to induce him to engage in the world of form, and Parvati would not be turned from this goal. She silently watched him walk away down the mountain for a few moments, then turned indoors and called to her servants, “Prepare my bath.”
She entered the marbled bath chamber, and some of her attendants rushed to help her, removing her bright yellow silken sari, her gold ornaments, her jewels. Parvati’s smooth dark skin glowed in the soft light of the chamber, and, resplendent in her nakedness, with hair unbound, she stepped down into the steaming, sweet-smelling, flower-strewn hot water. Then, she took precious oils and golden turmeric and anointed her body, creating a thick paste that mixed with her sweat and her skin. Scraping this clay from her body, she molded it into the image of a young boy. Holding this moist clay form in both her palms, she breathed life into it.
The young adolescent boy that was born from her power was strong of limb, tall and beautiful of face - a face faintly reminiscent of Shiva’s own. Parvati named him, Vinayaka - “He who is born without Father.” Embracing one another, mother and son, they beheld each other joyfully in immediate understanding and love. After a time of peace and quietude together, Parvati handed the beautiful boy a study wooden staff, and said to Vinayaka, “Go to the door of our home, and stand guard there to protect me. Let no one - no matter who they are - come in.” Vinayaka bowed to his mother lovingly, touching her feet, and went resolutely and proudly to the door to guard his mother.
Of course, Shiva, who loved Parvati deeply for all his seeming indifference, eventually decided to return home from his meditations. Sending his ganas on ahead to announce him, he said, “Tell my beautiful wife to prepare for my homecoming.” They rushed back to the great palace perched on the crest of a mountaintop, and as they approached its door, saw standing before it a young boy, tall and silent, holding a staff in his hand.
“Move aside, boy, our Master returns,” they said.
Vinayaka smiled slightly at the haughty command of the ganas, but said nothing.
“Did you not hear us, boy? Move aside - or we will kill you!”
The boy replied quietly, “I will not move aside. And you cannot kill me.”
Incensed, the ganas leapt violently upon the boy with spears and swords, attacking as a group. Vinayaka calmly parried their blows with the staff, bloodying noses, smashing kneecaps and cracking their skulls expertly and swiftly, making the hideous, deformed ganas wail in pain and surprise. Defeated, they beat a hasty retreat down the mountain, where they met Shiva on his way, and told him,
“Master, there is a warrior at the door. We have never seen him before, and we told him to move aside, but he would not. We attacked him and he was easily able to stop us - look at the injuries he has given us!” Shiva, annoyed, said nothing, but strode quickly to the door of his home, where he saw the beautiful youth standing calmly at attention. Seeing he was young, he turned to the ganas and said, “Lazy fools, this is just a boy! How could you, my ganas, be frightened of him - or defeated by him?”
The ganas hung their heads, shamed at disappointing Shiva. But, the bravest of the ganas said, “Master, he is much more than he seems.”
“We shall see,” said Shiva, and he walked up boldly to Vinayaka.
“Boy, step aside. Let me through. You cannot stop me.”
Vinayaka said quietly but firmly, “You may not pass. Please do not try.”
Shiva, who was generally quite difficult to provoke, found himself filled with rage at this young boy who defied him so calmly. Without another word, he began to fight the boy, violently and expertly raining blows upon him with his trishula, his trident. But, he was surprised - and a little impressed - to see that even with all his skill as a warrior, he could not hurt the boy. In fact, the boy was his equal in prowess and skill. Vinayaka silently parried and defended himself from the Mahadeva, indefatigable and unbeatable, a gentle smile upon his face. Shiva laughed in delight at one point during their battle, impressed and amazed at the skill of the boy.
Seeing there was no way to defeat him, Shiva stepped back from the fight and returned to his ganas, who had been watching awed from afar during the battle. He said, “Go to Vishnu, and tell him that I need his help.”
Soon after, the great Hindu God Vishnu, the sustainer and preserver, arrived on the scene, and Shiva quickly apprised him of the situation. Vishnu, who is more worldly-wise than Shiva - and also not unwilling to resort to deceit to win battles - told Shiva,
“I will attack the boy, and distract him. When we are deep in our fight, strike his head off.”
And of course, this is exactly what happened, although it dawned on Vishnu, who was hard pressed to defend himself from the boy during the battle, that there was much more to the boy than met the eye - something surprising, uncanny and yet, familiar. But, dismissing this thought, Vishnu doubled his attack, then yelled to Shiva, “Now!”
Shiva strode up and with his trishula, he smashed the boy’s head to smithereens, destroying it. Blood spurted from the neck as the boy fell across the threshold of the palace, and Shiva, spattered with gore, stepped over the corpse and through the door triumphantly to where Parvati stood, looking pale and horrified. She rushed past him, looked down at the dead body of her son sprawled on the ground in front of the door, and screamed,
“My son, my son! You killed my son!”
She dropped to her knees, tore her clothes, beat her chest and pulled her hair from its bindings, wailing in rage and sorrow. Then, growing deadly quiet, she turned again to Shiva. Without a word, she changed before his eyes, from his demure and gentle wife, to the dreadful Kali - naked, huge and fearsome, eyes red and wide, hair unbound, maw open and tongue protruding, a necklace of demon’s heads around her neck, a scimitar in her hand.
He called to his ganas, who stood nearby in silent turmoil and fear at how badly things seemed to be going for their Master. “Quickly, go North, and ask the first living thing that you see for its head.” They rushed Northwards and came upon a beautiful, pure white bull elephant in his prime. Some say that this elephant was none other than Airavata, the mount of the God of the Sky, Indra. Others that he was one of the two elephants that waits upon the Goddess of Wealth and Abundance, Lakshmi (who, in some stories, ends up as Ganesh’s consort.) Regardless, the ganas approached the great elephant with their unusual request, and the elephant, knowing wisely who Shiva was and the importance of the request, complied.
Shiva took the elephant’s head, and placing it upon the corpse of the boy, breathed life into it once more. Kali calmed her rage, and became Parvati again as she saw life return to her son - and, too, as she saw that her consort, Shiva, was engaging with the world of form by becoming a father, as she had wished. The boy rose up whole, but much more than he had been before. His head filled with kindness, intelligence and wisdom, his body with strength, skill and fortitude, he was the child of both Parvati and Shiva now. Shiva embraced his son, sniffing the crown of his head affectionately, and said, “You shall be known as Ganapati, Lord of the Ganas” for, the incident had shown Shiva that the ganas, whose service to him he’d long been negligent of, had no Lord of their own, and their loyalty deserved acknowledgment. By giving them Ganesha to guide them, he acknowledged the ganas, and helped make them less needful. By engaging in the world of form by creating a child with Parvati, he brought balance to their marriage - and thus, metaphorically speaking, balance to the relationship of consciousness with the world of form.
Ganesha had been both an obstacle and the means of transformation of purpose, of engagement for Shiva, whose propensity was to be self-contained and disengaged from the world - from the Devi. Parvati had needed and asked for his help, yet he ignored her, indifferent to her needs. But, how can the needy ever learn to be self-contained if the self-contained do not engage with the needy?* Vinayaka was Parvati’s way of turning the tables on Shiva: as he would not engage with her on the level she desired, she created an obstacle that he could not surmount without admitting his own shortcomings, his own need. She changed the dynamic of their relationship, and Shiva became, ever afterwards, a householder God, with family and children - the only God in the Hindu pantheon who is portrayed in family portraits, along with Parvati, Ganesh, and their other son, Kartikeya.
Or so it is said.
*from Devdutt Pattanaik's Seven Secrets of Shiva