Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, also known as Ganapati, Vinayaka, and many more, is one of the widely worshipped deities in the Hindu Pantheon. Traditionally, it is obligatory to worship Ganesha before worshipping any other deity and at the beginning of any ceremonial occasion. He is known to be the benefactor of success, removal of obstacles, and the patron of arts and science, intellectuals, and wisdom.
Apart from India, his image is found and revered in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, and in faraway countries with large ethnic populations like Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad, and Tobago. As a symbol of good luck, his statues are also popular in Western countries.
Although Ganesha is generally depicted with the head of an elephant, four arms, and a potbelly, sitting on an elevated seat, as a popular figure in Indian art, he is represented in a wide variation and patterns. He is portrayed as standing, dancing, playing with his family as a boy, sitting comfortably on the lap of his mother, or heroically fighting against the Asura or demons.
According to different legendary stories, the number of Ganesha's hands varies from two to sixteen. However, in most of the ancient statues, Ganesha has four hands, holding a broken piece of his tusk in his lower right hand, and a piece of sweet, a Ladoo in his lower left hand which he tastes with his trunk. However, the details of his other hands differ widely. In the general configuration, he has an axe in his upper right hand, and a pasha or a noose in the left upper hand. But in some of the other versions, instead of the broken piece of his tusk, his lower right hand is turned toward the viewer in a gesture of protection and fearlessness, known as the Abhaya Mudra.
Depending on the symbolic interpretation of the artist, his hands may also include a water lily, mace, discus, rosary, or a spear. According to ancient Hindu texts, his four hands represent the four inner attributes of the subtle body, Manasa, Buddhi, Ahamika, and Chitta, or the mind, intellect, ego and conscience respectively.
Apart from his elephant head, another distinctive feature of Ganesha is his protruding belly, for which he is named Lambodara or Brikodar. However, his belly represents the cosmos, which includes the seven realms up and below and includes the past, present, and future.
His intelligence is depicted in a mythical story, when there was a competition with his brother Skanda, or Kartikeya at their early age, to decide who could circumambulate the three worlds faster, and win the fruit of knowledge. In the competition, Karthikeya swiftly mounted his blue peacock and went off on a journey to cover the three worlds, while Ganesha simply circumambulated his parents as they constituted the three worlds, and was adjudged to win the fruit of knowledge.
There are many stories relating to the elephant head of Ganesha, but perhaps the most popular among them is the story from the Shiva Purana. The story begins with Parvati’s preparation for taking her bath. During that time, Lord Shiva was not in Kailash, and Nandi was also not available to guard her from any intruder while she would be taking her bath. To solve the problem, Parvati created Ganesha from the turmeric paste from her body, which she uses to clean her body dirt, and instructed the boy to guard her until she finishes her bath. In the meantime, Shiva came home, and as he was about to search Parvati, he was stopped by an unknown boy, who also did not know Shiva. As the boy was determined not to allow Shiva to continue his search until his mother Parvati finished her bath, Shiva became agitated, and after a brief altercation, he became enraged and beheaded the boy. When Parvati came to know about the matter, she felt insulted and decided to destroy the entire Creation, unless the boy is brought back to life. The decision made Shiva nervous, he tried to pacify Parvati, agreed to her condition, and sent his people to bring the severed head of anyone that is lying with its head facing north. As they came back with the head of an elephant, it was fixed to the body of the boy, whowas declared as Gajanana and was blessed of being foremost among the gods, and Ganapati, the Lord of the People.