Shrī Ganeshaya Namah is the invocation that is recited and listened to at the dawn of a new day by all who follow sanātana dharma—eternal and universal dharma that transcends one’s temporary beliefs and, when practiced, leads to moksha, liberation—and who have come to understand the significance of Lord Ganesh’s blessings. It is the benevolent presence of Lord Ganesh that people fervently invoke at the beginning of a significant event—a new business venture, a birthday, an anniversary, a move into a new house, a wedding—when setting off to work or embarking on a journey. To beseech Lord Ganesh for his blessings is to ensure that the day, the event, the ritual is infused with positive energy, is free of obstacles, and arrives at a smooth and successful conclusion.
Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Pārvatī, is one of the most widely worshipped deities in the Hindu religion and in Indian culture. And it’s not just that. There is something about Lord Ganesh that has enchanted even those who do not necessarily worship him. People of all cultures have mūrtis of Lord Ganesh adorning their homes, their businesses, their office spaces, even their cars. In this way, Lord Ganesh transcends all barriers of religious and spiritual tradition.
Lord Ganesh’s Birth
The story of Lord Ganesh’s birth and how he got his elephant head is fascinating:
One day Goddess Pārvatī was alone and wanted to have a bath. She realized that she would need someone to guard the door while she was bathing. She had a divine idea! She scraped off some of the sandalwood and jasmine oil paste that she had applied on her body. Kneading it into a clay-like substance, she molded it into the form of a beautiful young boy. Then she poured prāna into him with her own breath and brought him to life. Anointing him as her son, she instructed him to guard the door and to not let anyone in.
As the boy stood guard at the door, Lord Shiva came looking for Goddess Pārvatī. He headed for the door to the room where the Goddess was. The boy guarding the door stopped Lord Shiva from entering. “Perhaps the boy doesn’t know me,” Lord Shiva thought, and so he explained to the boy that he was Pārvatī’s husband. But the boy still wouldn’t let him in. “My mother has instructed me to not let anyone enter. I am obeying her command.” The legend has it that in the fight that ensued between them, Lord Shiva severed the boy’s head with his trident.
Hearing the commotion, Goddess Pārvatī opened the door. Seeing the boy lying on the ground lifeless, she told Lord Shiva that he was their son and demanded that he be brought back to life.
Lord Shiva asked his ganas, the assemblage of demigods and demigoddesses who are always at the Lord’s service, to go quickly and to bring him the head of the first creature they saw. The ganas soon returned with the head of an elephant. Knowing the fine attributes of this creature, Lord Shiva gently placed the elephant head on the neck of his son, and the boy instantly opened his eyes.
Embracing his son lovingly, Lord Shiva declared him to be the leader of his ganas, giving him the name Ganapati or Ganesh, “lord of the ganas.”
Bestowing upon him many blessings, Lord Shiva proclaimed that his son, Ganesh, would be renowned as one of the wisest and most learned deities in the universe. He would be revered as the embodiment of auspiciousness and as the remover of all obstacles. Lord Shiva announced that Ganapati would be venerated foremost—agra-pūjya—when any important task in the universe was to be performed either by a god or by man.
Lord Ganesh’s Form
This story, as is true of all mythological legends, holds meaning that extends far beyond what one might initially glean from it. Since the Lord’s auspicious intent pervades all his words and deeds, one can be assured that it was not by happenstance that he gave his son the head of an elephant. Lord Shiva placed the elephant head on his son with the knowledge that Lord Ganesh would embody the distinguishing qualities of the mighty elephant and that he would employ them for the benefit of all who inhabit the universe.
Thus, Lord Ganesh’s physical attributes and qualities have rich symbolic meaning:
- Head: The elephant is known for its intelligence and excellent memory. With the elephant head, Lord Shiva blessed his son with jnāna, “wisdom and discerning intellect,” as well as a phenomenal memory.
- Large ears: With his elephantine ears, Ganesh has a keen ability to hear the prayers of his multitude of devotees.
- Small eyes: With the small eyes of an elephant, Lord Ganesh has sharp focus and acute concentration.
- Long trunk: The elephant’s trunk is strong, flexible, and capable of moving in any direction. For Lord Ganesh, this large, agile trunk can take the form of the syllable ॐ, as seen in many images and mūrtis of him in India. He is known as Omkārasvarūpa, “of the form of ॐ.” He is the embodiment of this supremely mangala, “auspicious,” and primordial sound.
- Ability to remove obstacles: The elephant clears all obstacles in its path, such as twigs, leaves, stones, and fallen tree trunks, and makes way for other animals to move easefully through dense forests. Similarly, Lord Ganesh is endowed with the ability to remove the obstacles in the path of his devotees and that of all seekers so they may attain the goal of their sādhanā.
Lord Ganesh is often depicted with four arms, and each of his hands carries an object of great import for spiritual seekers. Some objects may have multiple meanings. Sometimes he may be shown holding more than one object in each of his hands. Different images portray him holding different objects; generally, however, Lord Ganesh is represented in the following manner:
- His right front hand is raised in abhaya mudrā, a gesture that grants blessings to his devotees and dispels their fears. It is also symbolic of granting refuge and protection.
- His left front hand holds a modaka, the sweet delicacy that is most pleasing to him. The modaka symbolizes the nectarean sweetness of the ultimate fruit of sādhanā—the state of oneness with God.
- His right hand in the back holds a parashu, “axe,” with which he cuts and repels obstacles. For a sādhaka, the axe symbolizes cutting or doing away with that which is unwanted in sādhanā.
- His left hand in the back holds a pāsha, “noose,” to catch and destroy all worldly desires and delusions that may hold a seeker back on their spiritual journey. Sometimes he is seen holding a lotus flower in this hand, which is also a symbol of attaining the goal of sādhanā.
- Lord Ganesh may also be seen holding in one of his hands an ankush, “goad,” in the form of a long metal or wooden stick with a hook. The ankush keeps people on the path of righteousness and guides seekers on the path of sādhanā. The ankush also serves as a reminder for seekers to rein in their senses, which tend to focus on outward objects, and to turn the senses inward.
In the Indian scriptures, all deities are depicted with a vāhana, “vehicle.” Vāhana literally means “that which carries,” and deities use this means to move from realm to realm. The vāhana is usually an animal or a bird. A deity’s vehicle represents the qualities or tendencies that are either desirable for a seeker to cultivate or important for them to conquer. Mūshaka, “the mouse,” is Lord Ganesh’s vāhana, and it is depicted as sitting at the Lord’s feet. The mouse as the vāhana is noteworthy in many ways.
A mouse is symbolic of the mind, which has a natural tendency to be chanchal, “in motion.” But when, by the Lord’s grace, the mind turns toward God, when it is absorbed in the Lord’s feet, it then becomes focused on and dedicated in service to him. Then, just like a mouse, the mind is able to cut through any obstacles in its path.
As Lord Ganesh’s vehicle, the mouse also represents the perspective that nothing in this universe, even a creature as small as a mouse, is insignificant or less important than anything else—everything has its own value and usefulness.
Lord Ganesh is endearing to people of all ages. With his big round belly (which is said to contain the cosmos and also depicts his love for modaka), his elephant head, and the mouse as his vehicle; with his joyfully smiling eyes; with his mischievous deeds that are recounted in many stories about him—Lord Ganesh steals people’s hearts. He is lovingly referred to as bāppā, “Lord,” in the state of Mahārāshtra, India.
In the first verse of Shrī Ganesh Pancharatnam, the great sage Adi Shankārāchārya extols Lord Ganesh’s manorama form, his “captivating and delightful” form, in this way:
मुदा करात्तमोदकं सदा विमुक्तिसाधकं
कलाधरावतंसकं विलासिलोकरक्षकम् ।
नताशुभाशुनाशकं नमामि तं विनायकम् ॥१॥
mudā karātta-modakaṁ sadā vimukti-sādhakaṁ
kalā-dharāvataṁsakaṁ vilāsi-loka-rakṣakam ।
natāśubhāśu-nāśakaṁ namāmi taṁ vināyakam ॥
Salutations to Lord Vināyaka,
who holds in his hand sublime joy in the form of the sweet modaka,
who lights the way to attain liberation,
who is adorned by the phases of the moon,
and offers protection to everyone in this world.
Salutations to Lord Vināyaka,
who is a guide to all those who have lost their way,
who protects them by destroying all negative
and evil forces within and without,
who is the remover of all inauspiciousness.1
Worship of Lord Ganesh
To this day in India, Ganesh smarana, “remembrance,” and Ganesh pūjā precede any religious ceremony, any important and auspicious event in an individual’s life, any new endeavor whether big or small, and most social and cultural events. Shrī Ganesh is the lord of new beginnings.
Revered for his wisdom and intellect, Lord Ganesh is also worshipped as a patron of arts and letters. In fact, he is sometimes depicted as a musician, playing various instruments, or else as a blissful dancer or a writer. Scholars, poets, and writers pray for his grace so they may be successful in their creative endeavors; and every performance of an Indian classical dance and every recital of Hindustani classical music begins with the invocation of Lord Ganesh.
According to Ganesh Atharvashīrsha, Lord Ganesh resides in the mūlādhāra chakra in the subtle body, which is the root or foundational chakra at the base of the spine. With the grace of Lord Ganesh, who is seated in this chakra, a seeker is able to uproot and remove impediments in their spiritual journey and continue to move toward the fulfillment of their goal.
Invoking the Many Names of Lord Ganesh
The scriptures of India give many names of Lord Ganesh. Each of Lord Ganesh’s names reveals a lakshana, “quality,” that he embodies or represents and that we invoke when we worship him. Known most widely as Vighnahartā, Lord Ganesh is the demolisher of vighna, “obstacles”—obstacles that appear both on the outside and inside. One may even realize, upon deeper reflection, that the obstacles perceived to be on the “outside” in fact trace their origins within.
Among Ganesh’s other names are Ekākshara, “of the form of the single syllable ॐ ”; Buddhipriya, “beloved of buddhi, who personifies the intellect”; Mangalamūrti, “embodiment of auspiciousness”; Prathameshvara, “first among all gods”; Siddhivināyaka, “bestower of success”; Vidyāvāridhi, “ocean of knowledge”; and Ekadanta, “he who has one tusk”—for Lord Ganesh famously broke off one of his tusks to record Sage Vyāsa’s dictation of the great epic Mahābhārata.
About Ganesh Jayanti and Ganesh Utsava
There are two prominent occasions in honor of Shrī Ganesh that are celebrated in India and by Indians living around the world:
- Ganesh Jayanti, the birth of Lord Ganesh, is celebrated on the fourth day of the waxing moon of the Hindu lunar month of Māgh, which corresponds to January and/or February in the Gregorian calendar.
- Ganesh Utsava is a ten-day festival honoring Lord Ganesh. It is celebrated with great devotion, excitement, and joy all over India; in the state of Mahārāshtra especially, it is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. The festival begins on Ganesh Chaturthī, which is the fourth day of the waxing moon of the Hindu lunar month of Bhādrapada (corresponding to August and/or September). Some consider Ganesh Utsava to be the celebration of Lord Ganesh’s birth; others consider it to be a commemoration of when Sage Vyāsa narrated the Mahābhārata to Lord Ganesh. The festival concludes after ten days on Anant Chaturdashī, the fourteenth day of the waxing moon. In 2021, Ganesh Utsava takes place from Friday, September 10, to Sunday, September 19, in both India and the U.S.
On the day of Chaturthī, people in Mahārāshtra invite Shrī Ganesh into their homes. To bring him home, first they clean and prepare a place for an altar; then, with great festivity, they bring a mūrti of Shrī Ganesh and install him on the altar by performing a special pūjā. They worship Lord Ganesh every day of the festival by giving him a bath; offering him food, flowers, and sweets; and performing āratī.
The tenth day, Anant Chaturdashī, is the day to bid goodbye to the Lord. Amid the joyful beat of drums, each family brings the mūrti they had installed in their homes in a colorful procession for visarjan, “submerging,” in the sea or in a river or lake. As people walk toward the water, they chant “Ganapati bāppā morayā, pudhachyā varshī lavakar yā! ” which in the Marathi language means, “Hail to Shrī Ganesh! Come back soon next year!”
In present times, as the awareness among people is growing about the vital need to protect the environment and thus preserve planet earth, a beautiful tradition has started to take root in India for this beloved celebration. Exquisite mūrtis of Lord Ganesh created for Ganesh Utsava are now being made using biodegradable materials and paint, making them eco-friendly. Not only that, instead of carrying the mūrtis to large bodies of water for submersion, many people are now observing this ritual in their own homes in specially prepared containers of water. Later they use this water to irrigate their plants and trees, and in this way offering everything back to earth.
The true essence of this holiday is the spirit of worship; the bhāv of love and devotion for Shrī Ganesh that is experienced by his devotees; the blessings that devotees humbly ask for and with which they seek to infuse their homes, their hearts, and the whole world.
To those who please Lord Ganesh with their devotion by worshipping him, by seeking his protection, by constant remembrance of him, he grants siddhi, “spiritual attainment”; buddhi, “intellect and wisdom”; and riddhi, “wealth and prosperity.”
There is a beautiful scriptural shloka, “verse,” that is recited widely in India to invoke the grace of Lord Ganesh, to sing his glory, and to pray for his protection.
वक्रतुण्ड महाकाय सूर्यकोटिसमप्रभ ।
निर्विघ्नं कुरु मे देव सर्वकार्येषु सर्वदा ॥
vakra-tuṇḍa mahākāya sūryakoṭi-samaprabha ।
nirvighnaṁ kuru me deva sarvakāryeṣu sarvadā ॥
O Lord Ganesh,
the one with a curved trunk,
of a prodigious, magnificient form,
whose effulgence is like the luster of thousands of suns,
Bestow your blessings upon me O Lord,
so my every endeavor may always be free of obstacles.2