The joyous elephant-faced deity known as Ganesha is revered by one billion hindus worldwide. Ganesha is often seen as the remover of obstacles, as the guardian at entrances and as a spiritually potent figure who can avert all evil influences. He is the god to be worshiped first, before all religious ceremonies, public and private. Ganesha is a popular hero whose image adorns the walls of shops, homes, and temples throughout India. Even for people unfamiliar with Indian culture or the Vedic literature, Ganesha is perhaps the easiest of all demigods to identify, with his human body, elephant head, and potbelly.
He is usually pictured standing, sitting, or dancing, with his jolly elephant face looking straight ahead. Ganesha is at times depicted with quill on palm leaf, for as Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata, Ganesha served as the scribe to write it down. Sometimes he is depicted with one tusk missing, a piece of which can sometimes be found in one of his four hands. In another hand he sometimes holds a hatchet (parasu), which, according to some texts, is for cutting away illusion and false teachings. Another of Ganesha's hands often gestures fearlessness and reassurance (varada-hasta-mudra). He also holds a goad (ankusa), like that used by an elephant trainer, symbolizing his insistence on proper training or spiritual discipline. He sometimes holds a noose (pasa) used for restraining wild animals, here representing the restraint of passion and lustful desires. Sometimes he is seen holding sweets (modaka), for which he is said to have an inordinate fondness.
Vedic texts reveal that Ganesha is the son of Shiva and Parvati. The story of His birth is quite peculiar. Once, Parvati, wanting to seclude herself from her passionate husband, Shiva, especially while bathing, creates a son from her perspiration and appoints him the guardian of her quarters. Soon after, when Shiva seeks admission into Parvati's inner chambers, Ganesha, unaware of Shiva's identity, refuses him, pushing him away from Parvati's door. Enraged, Lord Shiva summons his attendants (ganas) to do away with this bothersome upstart. But Ganesha defeats them one by one. Finally Vishnu arrives, and drawing upon His maya (mystic potency) He creates confusion on all sides. This enables Shiva to cut off Ganesha's head.
Parvati, furious at what has become of her "son," decides to send a multitude of goddesses to harass the demigods. These celestial women succeed in making it clear to the noble gods that their queen can be appeased only if her guardian is revived. Shiva then tells the gods to go north and cut off the head of the first living being they see. The head is to be mystically placed on the body of the decapitated Ganesha, who will then come back to external consciousness. As fate would have it, the first living being to cross the path of the gods is an elephant.
Photo of Ashta Vinayaka (eight forms of Lord Ganesha)