Symbolism of Ganesha
Elephant-headed and many-armed, Ganesha is a mystifying, even comic figure to the uninitiated.
Why is he plump?
What does he hold in his several hands?
And how come his large body is shown atop a tiny mouse?
The answer in a word: symbolism.
Perhaps more than most Hindu gods, every aspect of Ganesha is rich in symbolism that ranges from the metaphysical to the stuff of everyday life. Several interpretations of his image have come down through the ages.
Here are some of the best-known versions:
The large elephant head represents the eternal soul or Godhead, while his human-shaped body symbolizes the transitory nature of our existence. The elephant is an animal known for its intelligence – Ganesha is the lord of wisdom and learning, who is invoked by every seeker of knowledge.
The trunk is the elephant’s nose and most powerful tool. Man too, according to Hindu philosophy, by learning how to control his breath through yoga, progresses towards actualizing his spiritual powers. The flexibility of the trunk symbolizes the need to be adaptable to circumstances.
The elephant god has those large ears to listen to our numerous pleas for help! They also serve to remind us to be keen listeners. The small eyes tell us to stay concentrated on the task at hand, while the invisible mouth says that excessive speech should be avoided.
One of Ganesha’s tusks is broken. Legend has it that he broke off one tusk to write the great Indian epic, Mahabharata, recited by sage Vyasa. The broken tusk in his lower right hand is thus a symbol of sacrifice.
Some images portray him with the palm of his right hand raised in a symbol of protectiveness. His lower left hand holds a sweet dumpling that he is popularly believed to be excessively fond of. Metaphorically speaking, the delicacy is a symbol of the sweet rewards that true devotion brings.
Ganesha’s upper right hand clasps an axe or a goad. This is the weapon he uses to remove impediments in our lives. On a more spiritual plane, the axe reminds us that as we journey towards union with the divine, we must sever all the bonds of our material life. The other upper arm holds a rope – symbolic of the means by which we ascend to our highest goal – oneness with God.
Ganesha’s huge belly is symbolic of the vastness of the universe. Around Ganesha’s generous waist is wrapped a snake, symbolic of the coiled spiritual energy that lies at the base of our spine, which must be developed to the fullest through meditation, devotion and following the path of righteousness.
Finally, there’s the mouse. A destructive pest, it a symbol of desire, which unless controlled by our higher nature, can wreak havoc. The mouse shown as being under Ganesha’s control is symbolic of spiritual pursuit helping us override desires and attain self-realization – the true goal of all mankind.
A benign and powerful figure, Ganesha is loved and worshipped as a god who pervades every aspect of human life.
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