Lord Ganesh: Origin And Stories Of The Hindu Elephant God
Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh & Murugan- A Family Of Gods
Hindu scriptures describe Ganesh or Lord Ganesha as the first son of Lord Shiva with his wife Goddess Parvati. Independently, both Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati also play pivotal roles in Hindu history and have temples dedicated to them in different parts of India and other regions of the world which have a significant base of Hindu devotees.
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- Lord Ganesh’s Family – A Family of Gods
- Stories of the birth of Lord Ganesh
- Stories behind Lord Ganesh’s broken tusk
Lord Shiva is considered to be a part of the ‘Trimurti’ – the three forms of the Supreme God which are together responsible for the creation, preservation and destruction of everything in the universe. While Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu play the roles of creating and preserving the universe respectively, Lord Shiva is considered to be the destroyer.
Lord Shiva’s wife, Goddess Parvati is considered to be one of the many forms of the Supreme Hindu Goddess Shakti and is associated with nurturing qualities. Parvati is also described as a reincarnation of Sati – Lord Shiva’s first wife who had sacrificed herself through self-immolation to preserve the honor of Lord Shiva in a verbal battle her father who was vehemently against her marriage to the Lord.
Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati are commonly referred to together as ‘Shiv Parvati’ or ‘Shiva Parvati’. While Ganesh was the elder son of the divine couple they also had a younger son named Murugan who is also one of the many deities in Hinduism. Like Ganesh, Murugan is also referred to by many names like Skanda, Kartik, Kartikeya, Mukunda and Subramnya. However, unlike Ganesh who is a popular deity across different Hindu regions of the world, Murugan is primarily worshipped in areas with Tamil-speaking populations like Tamil Nadu in India and Sri Lanka.
Ganesh is also associated with Goddess Lakshmi and together they are the central deities during the annual festival of Diwali. Different theories exist on the relationship between Goddess Lakshmi and Ganesh with some identifying them as husband and wife while others mention that Goddess Lakshmi had adopted Ganesh as her son.
Another set of mythological figures associated with Ganesh include the pair of Riddhi-Sidhhi who are commonly represented as his wives. Ganesh is also described as having had two sons (Shubha and Labha) and a daughter (Santoshi Maa).
The Birth of Ganesh: The Foremost Hindu God
While multiple legends capture the story of Ganesh’s birth, three theories are most frequently mentioned across different sources. It should be noted that all these theories describe Ganesh’s initial form as that of a human with a series of events leading to the replacement of his head by that of an elephant.
The Wish Of Goddess Parvati And The Wrath Of Lord Shiva (Shiva Purana)
Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati resided together in Mount Kailash along with a group of close devotees of Lord Shiva. One day, when Goddess Parvati wanted to take a bath, she ordered Nandi, one of Lord Shiva’s most devout followers to guard the door and stop anybody, including Lord Shiva, from passing through the door. As Parvati showered in her private quarters, Lord Shiva returned to their abode only to find Nandi guarding the door.
Tired from his voyage, Lord Shiva was insistent on being let into the house despite Nandi’s attempts to stop him. Finally, Nandi let Lord Shiva pass realizing that he could not act against the wishes of his Lord. However, this infuriated Goddess Parvati who realized that none of the devotees that she and Lord Shiva interacted closely with had their primary allegiance to her.
Consequently, the next time Goddess Parvati wished to bath she took some turmeric paste and breathed life into it giving birth to Ganesh (in his human form) and recognized him as her own son whose primary loyalty would be to her. She assigned to him the task of guarding the door while she receded into her private quarters.
Later in the day when Shiva returned, Ganesh stopped Lord Shiva from entering his own home. Not aware that Ganesha was his own son, Lord Shiva was infuriated and ordered his army of devotees to attack Ganesh. However, Ganesh was able to beat them all forcing Lord Shiva to fight the young boy himself.
Being one of the Supreme Gods, Lord Shiva was able to defeat Ganesh and in the process severed and destroyed the young boy’s head. Moments later when Goddess Parvati discovered what had happened, she threatened to bring an end to all of creation. Hurt and angered, she transformed into her multi-armed form ready to tear the world apart.
At this point, Lord Brahma – the creator of everything that exists – recognized the precarious situation that the universe was in and requested Goddess Parvati to give up her anger and refrain from causing harm to all of existence. In response, Goddess Parvati laid down two conditions to forgive the wrong that had been done to her and her son.
Her first condition was that Ganesh be immediately brought back to life. Her second condition required that Ganesh be identified as one of the foremost Gods and be worshipped before all other Gods in any and every religious ceremony.
By this time, Lord Shiva has recognized his folly and he asked Lord Brahma to fetch the head of the first living creature that he found facing in the North direction. Quickly heading out for the search, Lord Brahma first spotted an elephant facing North and in accordance with Lord Shiva’s instructions he returned with the elephant’s severed head.
Lord Shiva placed the elephant head over Ganesh’s headless body and restored him to life. Then keeping with Goddess Parvati’s second condition, Lord Shiva recognized Ganesh as his own son and while assigning to him the status of the foremost God declared that Ganesh would be recognized as the ‘leader of all Ganas’ (all classes of beings) and would be worshipped before all other Gods. This declaration also served as the origin of Ganesh’s alternative name – Ganapati (meaning leader of all classes of beings) – and Ganesh continues to be worshipped till date as the ‘God of all beginnings’ preserving his place as the foremost Hindu God.
Shani Dev And His Cursed Gaze Of Destruction (Source: Brahma Vaivarta Purana)
Another theory about Ganesh’s origins describes that in his craving for a son Lord Shiva requested Goddess Parvati to conduct a year-long fast to convince Lord Vishnu to bless her with a son. On the successful completion of Goddess Parvati’s fast, Lord Vishnu granted her the wish and announced that an incarnation of him would be born to her as a son in every cycle of time henceforth. As a result, Goddess Parvati gave birth to Ganesh.
Elated at the birth of their son, Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati invited all the Gods in heaven to come to their abode in Mount Kailash and greet their newborn. One of the visitors they received was Shani Dev, the son of Lord Surya, who had been cursed such that anybody that he gazed at would be instantly destroyed.
While Shani Dev hesitated to look at the newborn, he finally relented under insistence from Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. But Shani Dev’s curse came true and infant Ganesh’s head was immediately destroyed.
Seeing this, Lord Vishnu was moved by Shiva Parvati’s grief and he acted immediately to bring Ganesh back to life. He mounted on the back of Garuda – his divine eagle – and flew to the Pushpa-Bhadra River where he spotted a young elephant. He immediately returned to Mount Kailash and brought Ganesh back to life fixing the young elephant’s head to the infant’s headless body thus bringing the Elephant God to life.
The Last Wish Of Gajasura – From Elephant Demon To Elephant God
Gajasura was an ancient demon who had acquired the form of an elephant. With aspirations to acquire great power, he conducted continuous penance to Lord Shiva. Eventually, Lord Shiva was convinced by his devotion and appeared before Gajasura to grant him anything he wished. Gajasura asked Lord Shiva to grant him magical powers which allowed him to breathe fire and a body armour that protected him from any and every weapon in the world.
Granted the wish by Lord Shiva, Gajasura went berserk and started attacking everything in his path. Once he had conquered the world, he stared attacking the Gods who could not fight back because of holy armour that protected him from any of their weapons.
He continued his penance to Lord Shiva and once again Lord Shiva appeared before him to grant him another wish. This time, Gajasura asked Lord Shiva to reside in his stomach. Being a simpleton, Lord Shiva was unable to see through the demon’s trickery and hence granted the wish thus becoming inaccessible to his wife Goddess Parvati, his kids Ganesh and Murugan as well as any of his devotees.
Unaware of what had happened to her husband, Goddess Parvati grew worried by the day and finally approached Lord Vishnu, seeking his help to track Lord Shiva. Due to his omniscience, Lord Vishnu was aware of the trickery which had resulted in Lord Shiva taking residence in Gajasura’s stomach.
He immediately partnered with Nandi – one of Lord Shiva’s closest devotees – and staged a play before Gajasura in disguise. Gajasura was highly pleased with the performance and in a fit of happiness he looked at Lord Vishnu (who was in disguise) and promised to grant anything that the latter asked for. In response, Lord Vishnu instigated Gajasura by expressing doubts if the latter was powerful enough to be able to grant the wish which he had in mind.
Angered, Gajasura insisted that he would be able to grant any wish given that he was now the ruler the world. Seeing his opportunity, Lord Vishnu asked Gajasura to release Lord Shiva from his stomach. Surprised by the request, it dawned upon Gajasura that the man he was speaking to had to be Lord Vishnu himself. After all, nobody in the world was privy to the secret that he had tricked Lord Shiva into being imprisoned in his stomach.
Gajasura bowed before Lord Vishnu and agreed to grant the latter’s wish. Finally, releasing Lord Shiva, Gajasura asked for one last wish before his death. He requested that his head be remembered and adored by the rest of the world for eternity after his death.
Lord Shiva one again agreed to grant the demon’s last wish. He called for his son Ganesh and replaced his head with that of Gajasura’s hence leading to the creation of the Elephant God. In addition, Ganesh was declared as the foremost God who was to be worshiped before all other Gods in any puja, thus ensuring that Gajasura’s wish of being remembered for eternity was realized.
God Ganesh & His Broken Tusk
Most pictorial and sculptural representation of Ganesh, show him in possession of a broken tusk. Many interpret this as a symbol of imperfection together with his half-human, half-elephant form and believe that this is what makes Ganesh an approachable and appealing figure for a large number of Hindus.
Just like stories of Ganesh’s birth, multiple explanations exist for how Ganesh who originally possessed two full tusks eventually broke one of his tusks. Most of these explanations place him in the center of a battle or in an act of sacrifice.
God Ganesh – The Transcriber Of The Mahabharat As Narrated By Sage Ved Vyasa
In the ancient times, the renowned sage Ved Vyasa was instructed by the Gods to script the Mahabharat. In order to complete the task assigned to him, Ved Vyasa began to search for someone who could write the epic even as he narrated it. The great sage also realized that writing the epic was not the task of a simple scribe and it would take someone extra-ordinary to finish the task. He invoked Lord Brahma through tireless penance and asked him for advice on who he should choose as his scribe in order to complete the task. After thoughtful consideration, Lord Brahma recommended that Ved Vyasa approach the most knowledgeable being in the world, i.e. Lord Ganesha, to write the Mahabharat with him.
Thanking Lord Brahma for the advice, Ved Vyasa approached Lord Shiva and requested that he let his son Ganesh work on writing the Mahabharat with him. While Lord Shiva gave his permission, Ganesh put forth a condition before agreeing to work with the sage.
Ganesh demanded that Ved Vyasa would have to narrate the epic to him continuously and without pause as it was made visible to him by divine powers to make sure that the contents of the epic were not adulterated by distortions created by the sage’s human mind. Ganesh added that if the sage ever slowed his narration to a point where Ganesh had to stop writing the epic, he would immediately terminate the task and take leave forcing Ved Vyasa to look for another candidate to transcribe the epic for him.
While agreeing to Ganesh’s condition, Ved Vyasa put forth another condition of his own. He told Ganesh that the latter would have to continuously and without pause transcribe the contents of the epic that he narrated to make sure that no mistakes crept into the literature. An agreement was reached basis this understanding and soon Ved Vyasa and Ganesh began working on the epic.
However, as they were half-way through the epic, Ganesh realized that his stylus had worn off and he did not have a replacement which he could use to continue writing. At this point, remembering the conditions on which his partnership with Ved Vyasa had been made, Ganesh made a spur of the moment decision to use his tusk as a pen. He immediately broke one of his tusks and dipping it in ink, used it to transcribe the rest of the Mahabharat as narrated to him by the great sage.
God Ganesh vs. Parshuram – A Divine Battle
Another legend involves sage Parshuram (meaning ‘Rama with an axe’) who is considered to be one of the many incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
It is said that Parshuram had once embarked on a journey to Mount Kailash to visit and pay respect to Lord Shiva who he revered as his holy teacher. Parshuram always carried with him an axe which was a divine weapon that had been given to him by Lord Shiva. As Parshuram adamantly tried to reach Lord Shiva, his path was blocked by Ganesh who said that Lord Shiva had not given anybody permission to enter Mount Kailash.
Offended by Ganesh’s actions, Parshuram angrily asked to be let through but Ganesh refused. Soon, a fight ensued between the two and Parshuram attacked Ganesh with his axe. The axe severed one of Ganesh’s two teeth as he was unable to defend himself against the weapon which had been blessed by his father Lord Shiva himself.
At this point Goddess Parvati noticed her son’s severed tooth and in a fit of rage took the form of Goddess Durga to punish Parshuram. Realizing what had happened, Lord Shiva decided to intervene and restore peace between Ganesh and Parshuram while calming his wife Goddess Parvati.
God Ganesh and the Moon’s Curse
Yet another myth explaining Lord Ganesh’s broken tusk involves his run in with the Moon on the occasion of his birthday. This myth also ties into a belief about Ganesh Chaturthi which forbids devotees from looking at the Moon during the festival. Doing so would result in one having to face false accusations on one’s character particularly of theft. The detailed version of this story can be found as part of our article about Ganesh Chaturthi and its stories