Mythology for the Millennial: Why Ganesha, remover of obstacles, enjoys an enduring popularity among devotees
There's a Ganesha — the potbellied, elephant-headed, rat-riding Indian god — almost everywhere you look, and his stories are always popular with children.
Ganesha stories — the potbellied, elephant-headed, rat-riding Indian god — are always popular with children. You likely remember some from your own childhood, even if you can't place any of the other gods. He's an easy one to identify, for Indians and foreigners alike; in most stories about India not written by Indians, there's a mention of an elephant-headed god, just chilling and looking over proceedings. There's a Ganesha almost everywhere you look, if you play a game of it. There'll be one on the dashboard of your taxi, on top of a wedding invitation you just received in the mail, a bronze statuette in the corner of a living room, but oddly, unless you're in a certain part of India, there aren't that many temples or celebrations around this god specifically.
Even Ganesh Chaturthi, that massive festival that takes over almost all of Mumbai and its surrounding areas, was a relatively small deal, until Shivaji (you may know him from his airport and other namesakes around Mumbai) made the festival popular as late as 1630-ish in Pune. After the British came in, it became a mainly private festival, something you'd do at home, but then Lokmanya Tilak (another son of Maharashtra) wrote a column about how Ganesh was the “god for everybody,” and decided to turn the festival into a larger public event. Tilak liked the idea of Ganesh Chaturthi as a bridge between the upper and lower castes, and also as a way to organise Hindus ostensibly as a festival, but really as a way to have political discourse right under the very noses of the British. It's kind of appropriate as well, to have picked this god, because his reign, as it were, is as a lord of obstacles — both in marriage (which is why he's on all those wedding invites) as well as spiritual. If you worship him, he removes the hindrances he's been ruling over, but he also puts obstructions in the way of people who need to be checked.
There are several myths about how Ganesha came to be, but the most popular origin story was one where Parvati was getting ready for a bath, and had all this turmeric paste all over herself. Wanting someone to stand guard, she rubbed the paste off her body and created a small boy. Considering how even cooking with a small pinch of haldi turns your fingertips bright yellow for the rest of the day, I'm assuming Parvati was practically neon at this point, but maybe she had a really good exfoliator. Anyway, so Shiva came along, and the boy stopped him from entering the bathroom, and Shiva got really cross and cut the boy's head off with his trident. Parvati emerged from her bath at this point, and obviously got very angry. She summoned all the female powers from her body — many armed versions of her — and began to destroy creation. The gods wanted to appease her, but she said the only thing that would, was having her son brought back to life and also having him worshipped before all other beings. Shiva was quite remorseful at this point, so he sent out his minions to bring him the head of the first dead creature they found, with its head in an auspicious position, which happened, luckily, to be an elephant, and not a mouse or a sparrow, and so, that's how Ganesha got his head and his godly status.
He's quite an early god, dating back to at least the fourth or fifth century, and found across Hinduism in one form or another. What's interesting is that he has an older brother — Skanda or Kartikeya — and before Ganesha's popularity in the Hindu pantheon, Skanda enjoyed almost universal worship as a god of war, around 500 BCE. People stopped worshipping him as much, just about the time that Ganesha's star was rising, probably because it was a time when the tribes thought less about war and more about building home and hearth, and for that, you need a friendly obstacle remover. Plus, they were getting into agriculture, and Ganesha's mount or vahana is a rat, considered a pest, but when ridden by the god himself, something that he had control over. (Actually, the rat didn't come in until a little later, in the earliest descriptions of the god, he's shown either vahana-less or with a different animal, including a peacock, his brother's ride.)
Mouse or peacock, he got to travel everywhere, thanks to the traders who adopted him as their icon; and the Buddhist Ganesha is a dancer, the Nepali Ganesha has five heads and rides a lion, and in Japanese Buddhism, he is Kangiten, the god of bliss, represented most often as an elephant-headed couple, man and woman, in an embrace. Our own Indian Ganesha was often seen as a bachelor though, but sometimes he's linked to the goddess of learning, Saraswati, or with a nameless servant woman, or dasi. Mostly though, he's a childlike god, who loves food — there's this story that links him to Kubera, the god of wealth. Kubera was dying to show off, so he went to Shiva and invited him to a dinner party, which Shiva declined and offered to send his son Ganesha instead. “But,” said Shiva, “He eats a lot, so be prepared.” And Kubera was all, “I can totally handle this because I am so rich,” but he got his comeuppance, because Ganesha ate everything, and when the food finished, began to eat the furniture and finally turned on Kubera himself, saying, “Um, I'm still hungry so I think I'll eat you.” Kubera ran to Shiva and Shiva gave him a handful of puffed rice, telling him to offer that with humility, which he did, and Ganesha was finally done, and Kubera — and the rest of us humans who heard this tale — learned a valuable lesson about showing off versus showing love.
On the way back from this outing, by the way, Ganesha's mouse saw a snake and ran into the bushes, dropping Ganesha on the ground, which split open the god's stomach, and all the food he had been eating fell out. (Ew.) Ganesha began to stuff it all back into his belly (double ew) when the moon saw him and started to laugh, which is when Ganesha cursed him and that's why the moon waxes and wanes, all because of a large appetite and a dinner party.
Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan
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