By Amy Underdown, London, UK
Ganesha, the Hindu god who is said to help worshippers overcome obstacles and kickstart new beginnings, is most recognisable by his elephant head. There are several myths surrounding the creation of Ganesha, ranging from his origin as a piece of cloth to being created by Parvati from the dirt she rubbed off her skin as she bathed. However, it is generally agreed that it was Shiva who beheaded the young deity and then, following Parvati’s pleadings, brought Ganesha back to life by gifting him the head of an elephant (an unusual present, and one we wouldn’t recommend trying on your own family members).
Whatever his origin may be, Ganesha can generally be translated to mean ‘Lord of the People’ and is thus an immensely popular Hindu deity. Believe it or not, the elephant head is not the only interesting element of Ganesha’s appearance. Not only does he ride atop a mouse (that’s a story for another day), but he is also the ultimate multi-tasker, carrying multiple – and naturally symbolic – items in his many hands. He is said to have multiple arms, with certain items appearing frequently and others dependent on the depiction:
The conch shell is well-recognised today as the musical instrument of war, with movie characters always seeming to be well seasoned players of its booming notes – it is only a shame that conductors fail to recognise its place in the modern orchestra. However, our association with the conch and war are not misplaced, as ancient Indians used to blow the shell to indicate the commence of any conflict, religious rites or event. The conch therefore symbolises victory and accomplishment. When Ganesha is depicted holding a conch it thus demonstrates his encouragement of triumph in war and fulfilment in life.
As well as holding a lotus flower, Ganesha is also sometimes seen as perched on a perfectly positioned version of the plant (other elephant-headed beings must be in awe of his lightness and poise). The lotus flower is supposed to represent the attaining of enlightenment and the ultimate fulfilment that follows. This symbol is heavily used in Eastern religions, which is why it can appear as both a held item or a seat for Ganesha. Some say that as the lotus flower grows in dirty water but becomes something beautiful, it demonstrates how we must forget our attachments to the material world around us and focus on our inner spirituality in order to seek happiness.
Weapon, Axe or Rope
Whilst an elephant-headed deity wielding a weapon, axe or lasso may inspire images of a belligerent warhead, rest assured these items represent something far more encouraging. Instead, these instruments are rooted in metaphor and promote the idea that we should cut away the obstacles before us. In destroying our vices and obstacles, be they certain hurdles in our lives or more abstract feelings such as jealousy and anger, we can source new beginnings and cultivate a new approach to the things that have been worrying us.
Often depicted as through Ganesha’s third hand, the Abhaya mudra is performed in place of a physical item. This hand position is usually raised and represents a blessing over all. The Abhaya mudra communicates protection, care and guidance through challenging obstacles, which are all given without judgement.
Ganesha also holds laddus, the name for Indian sweetmeats. Whilst some may interpret this as Ganesha simply having a sweet tooth or a (relatable) penchant for candy, it is no surprise that the sweet delicacies carry further meaning. These tasty treats represent the reward for a wisely-led life and the eternal sweetness that comes from a fulfilled experience. Dentists around the world will be delighted to hear that Ganesha is never depicted actually eating the sweetmeats, but this item of the deity does also show his parallels with everyday human life. This relates to Ganesha’s status as a Vedic God, which means he does not forget even those who are not his devotees and instead looks out for everyone. This is communicated through his depiction as always looking upwards or at eye-level, as he is surveying all human life and is therefore not solely focussed on those praying to him.
Finally, is the depiction of Ganesha holding the remnants of his broken tusk. The breaking of the tusk has several backstories. One instance suggests that it was shattered when Shiva cut the head off the elephant, prior to bestowing it onto Ganesha. Another writes that Ganesha’s quill broke and he needed a writing instrument – try telling your boss that next time you try to write up a report with an elephant tusk because your computer crashed. Regardless of its multiple origins, the holding of the tusk represents less of a keepsake, and more of a depiction that our spirituality is more important than our outer bodies, meaning we must overcome the duality of the two as separate entities.
Not every depiction of Ganesha includes every item listed here, but the combination of symbolic pieces is intended to always encourage the overcoming of obstacles in order to find fulfilment. Intended to inspire new beginnings and to cut away vices, you should look to Ganesha in order to help yourself look inwards towards your own spirituality.