GANAH in Sanskrit means ‘multitude’. Isa means ‘Lord’. Ganesa therefore literally means the ‘Lord of all beings’. Ganesa is the first son of Lord Siva. Siva represents the supreme Reality. The son of Siva symbolizes one which has realized the Reality. One who has discovered the Godhood in him. Such a man is said to be the Lord of all beings.
Ganesa is known by other names as well. Ganpati, Gajanana, Vinayaka, Vignesvara. Ganapati has the same literal meaning as Ganesa. Gajanana means ‘elephant faced’. Gaja=elephant, anana=face. Vinayaka means the supreme leader, literally one who has no leader himself. Vignesvara is the Lord of all obstacles, worshipped in the initiation of Hindu rituals and ceremonies. As his name suggests Vignesvara removes all obstacles, overcomes all challenges of life. There is a belief that no undertaking will meet with failure if the grace of Vignesvara is invoked.
In Hindu mythological literature Ganesa is described as having a human form with an elephant’s head. One of the tusks is broken. He has conspicuously large stomach. He sits with one leg folded in. At his feet a variety of food is spread. A rat sits near the food and looks up at him as if it were asking him for sanction to eat the food. This mystical form of Lord Ganesa represents not only the supreme state of human perfection but the practical path to reach that state. The details of his description suggest deep philosophical significance which can guide you to reach that ultimate state.
The first step of spiritual education is sravana which means listening to the eternal truths of Vedanta. The second step is manana which is independent reflection upon those truths. The large ears and head of Ganesa indicate that he had gained previous wisdom through sravana and manana. An elephant’s head on a human body in Ganesa is meant to represent supreme wisdom.
The trunk which springs from his head represents the intellect, the faculty of discrimination which necessarily arises out of wisdom.
Intellect is the discriminating faculty, the discerning ability or the judging capacity in man. Man’s intellect is of two distinct types, namely the gross and the subtle. Gross intellect is that aspect of discrimination which is applicable to the realm of the terrestrial world, that part of the intellect which distinguishes between the pairs of opposites existing in this world, distinguishes between the day and night, black and white, joy and sorrow etc. Subtle intellect is the other aspect of his discrimination which distinguishes between the infinite and the finite, the real and the unreal, the transcendental and the terrestrial. A man of realization like Ganesa is one who has fully developed both his gross and subtle intellects. He has perfect understanding and knowledge of the terrestrial as well as the transcendental.
The trunk of an elephant has the unique capacity of performing both gross and subtle activities. A trunk can uproot a tree. It can pick up a needle from the ground. One rarely finds gross and subtle operations being performed by a single instrument. A spanner which is used for fitting a locomotive is useless for repairing a wrist-watch. The elephant’s trunk is an exception to this rule. It serves both ways. So does Ganesa’s intellect penetrate the realms of the material and spiritual worlds. That is the state which man must aspire to reach.
A Man-of-Perfection is thus rooted in the supreme wisdom. He is not victimized by raga-dvesa, likes and dislikes. He is not swayed by agreeable and disagreeable circumstances, pleasant and unpleasant happenings, good and bad environment. In other words, he is not victimized by the pairs of opposites existing in this world. Heat and cold, joy and sorrow, honour and dishonor do not affect him, influence him or harass him. He has transcended the limitations of opposites in the world. He is dvandva atita, beyond opposites. This idea is well represented in Ganesa having two tusks one of which is broken. The common man is tossed between pairs of opposites. Represented by Ganesa’s tusks. He should endeavour to overcome the influence of the pairs of opposites in him. Man ought not to act merely by his likes and dislikes; these are his worst enemies which he must control and conquer. When he has completely mastered the influence of these pairs of opposites in him, he becomes a Ganesa.
Ganesa’s large belly is meant to convey that a Man-of-Perfection can consume and digest whatever experiences he undergoes. Heat or cold, war or peace, birth or death and other such trials and tribulations do not toss him up and down. He maintains an unaffected grace in and through all these fluctuations of the world. Figuratively, he is represented as being able to stomach and digest all types of experiences.
In Hindu mythology, Kubera, the god of wealth offered a dinner to Ganesa in his palace. Ganesa ate all the food that was prepared for the entire gathering of guests. Thereafter still dissatisfied, he started eating the festival decorations that were used for the occasion. At this juncture his father Lord Siva approached him and offered him a handful of roasted rice. Ganesa consumed the roasted rice and his hunger was satisfied immediately. This story is a directive to mankind that man can never be satisfied with the joys provided by the world or objects represented by Kubera’s feast. Material pursuits can never give peace, contentment or happiness to mankind. The only way to attain absolute fulfillment or peace is by consuming your own vasanas, unmanifest desires in you. The destruction of vasanas is represented by the consumption of roasted rice. When rice is roasted it loses its capacity to germinate. The consumption of roasted rice indicates the destruction of vasanas, desire in you. Thereafter you remain in a state of absolute peace and bliss.
Ganesa sits with one leg folded-up and the other leg resting on the ground. The leg on the ground indicates that one aspect of his personality is dealing with the world while the other is ever-rooted in single-pointed concentration upon the supreme Reality. Such a man lives in the world like anyone else, but his concentration and meditation are ever-rooted in the Atman within himself. This idea is symbolized in the above posture.
At the feet of Lord Ganesa is spread an abundance of food. Food represents material wealth, power and prosperity. When a man follows the high principles of living indicated above he achieves these material gains. He has them always at his command though he has an attitude of indifference towards them.
Beside the food is a tiny rat looking up towards Ganesa. The rat does not touch the food but waits for the master’s sanction as it were for consuming it. The rat represents desire. A rat has a small mouth and tiny sharp teeth. But it is the greediest of all animals. Its greed and acquisitiveness are so great that it steals more than it can eat and hoards more than it can remember, often abandoning burrows full of hoarded grains through forgetfulness. This predominant trait in a rat justifies amply its symbolism as desire. One little desire entering man’s mind can destroy all his material and spiritual wealth earned for many long years. The rat looking up therefore denotes that the desires in a perfect man are absolutely under control. The activities of such a man are motivated by his clear discrimination and judgement rather than by an emotional craving to enjoy the variety of sense objects of the world.
There is a belief amongst Hindus that it is inauspicious to see the moon on the Vinayaka Chaturthi day, reckoned to be the birth day of Ganesa. As per a Puranic story, the moon saw Ganesa riding on his tiny rat and laughed at the ludicrous scene. For this reason the moon is condemned and people are forbidden to see it on this day.
Ganesa riding on his rat indicates a Man-of-Perfection trying to use his limited body, mind and intellect to convey the illimitable Truth. The body, mind and intellect are finite. They cannot express the infinite Atman. A Man-of-Realisation finds it almost impossible to convey his infinite experience through his finite equipments. Hence the words and deeds of all spiritual masters are peculiar and incomprehensible. The common man’s intellect cannot comprehend the Truth. The moon is the presiding deity of the mind. The moon laughing at Ganapati riding on the rat indicates the ignorant scoffing at the Man-of-Realisation’s attempt to convey the truth. This attitude of scoffing at spiritual preceptors and precepts id detrimental to humanity. The generations are therefore warned not to laugh or scoff at the spiritual messages. If they do, they meet with degradation and disaster.
Ganesa has four arms. The four arms represent the four inner equipments of the subtle body, namely manas mind, buddhi intellect, ahankara ego and citta conditioned-consciousness. Ganesa represents the pure Consciousness, the Atman which enables these four equipments to function in you.
In one hand he holds an axe and in another a rope. The axe symbolizes the destruction of all desires and attachments and their consequent agitations and sorrows. The rope is meant to pull the seeker out of his worldly entanglements and bind him to the everlasting and enduring bliss of his own Self. In the third hand he holds a modaka rice ball. Modaka represents the joyous rewards of spiritual seeking. A seeker gains the joy of satisfaction and contentment as he progress on the path of spiritual evolution. In the fourth hand he holds a padma lotus. The lotus represents the supreme Goal of human evolution. By holding the lotus in his hand he draws the attention of all seekers to that supreme State that each one of them can aspire for and reach through proper spiritual practices. He blesses all his devotees to reach the supreme State of Reality.
Thus by indicating to mankind the goal of human evolution and the path to reach the same, Lord Ganesa occupies a place of distinction in the Hindu pantheon. May he give us all the strength and courage to pursue the path which he has led and may we gain that supreme Goal which he has reached.
Source: From the Book “The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals” by A. Parthasarathy.