Thursday, 8th December 2022

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Why Does Ganesha Have an Elephant Head?

Posted on 11. Dec, 2021 by in Ganesha and Collecting

This article is one of a series, available here, that has been adapted from Searching for Ganesha: Collecting Images of the Sweet-Loving, Elephant-Headed Hindu Deity Everybody Admires. Available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

ISBN: Print: 978-2-940573-37-0
E-Book: 978-2-940573-38-7

 

 

 

 

Why Does Ganesha Have an Elephant Head?

by

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
www.sochaczewski.com

 

Like all superheroes, Ganesha has a memorable origin myth, and the story of Ganesha’s creation, and the reason he has an elephant head, is one of Hinduism’s great tales. Like many Hindu myths there are multiple variations, but here’s my favorite, which is also the most commonly cited. It shows Ganesha as an embodiment of the Lord of Beginnings – he is created intact, then rent asunder, and ultimately made whole, but in a modified form.

* * *

Shiva and Parvati are the ultimate Hindu power couple.  Shiva is the supreme creator and destroyer, Parvati is the nurturing but fiercely protective Earth Mother. Shiva, along with Brahma and Vishnu, is one of the three key partners in the trimurti, the triumvirate of the most powerful gods.

* * *

Shiva and Parvati had a complex marriage, some might say a modern marriage.

Shiva, like many successful people, needed to de-stress. One of his job descriptions was Supreme Meditator, the Ultimate Ascetic Yogi, able to spend countless eons ensconced in a cave in the Himalaya seeking samadhi, or “total self-collectedness.” After one extended meditation session, during which innumerable galaxies expanded and contracted, Shiva returned home, eager to see his wife and enjoy some long-postponed marital bliss.  He wanted to surprise her.

Meanwhile, Parvati was feeling sorry for herself, having been ignored for ages and ages.  She took solace by bathing in hot tubs rich with soothing aromatic oils and life-enhancing herbal scents.  She took her self-pampering seriously, and when she bathed did not want to be disturbed.  But she had no bodyguard, no one to stop visitors from bothering her. “I’ll create a handsome young man to look after me and keep me safe,” she said.

She exfoliated and scraped scurf from her immortal body, mixed in fragrant unguents and sacred medicinal plants, a pinch of chili and a few ground cocoa beans (for who doesn’t appreciate a bit of chocolate?), stirred in a dollop of pure Himalayan water, added a soupçon of ambrosial amrita, and a pinch of pixie dust.  She hummed a Vedic lullaby taught to her by Indra, the god of thunder, rain, and war, during a brief fling they had eons earlier while Shiva was off doing penance for some imagined sin or other.  The tune was catchy, and the cumbersome lyrics in the ancient-language meant something like: “It is an unproductive practice to take on the sufferings of the world without first ensuring your own pleasure.”  (A little-known fact is that Parvati was incarnated in the 20th century as the American folk-jazz singer Bobby McFerrin, who reworked the melody and wrote catchier lyrics that have become globally famous.) And then, Parvati breathed life into the youth she had just created.  “Very good,” she sighed. “Now make yourself useful. Keep watch,” she instructed him. “Don’t let anyone enter and disturb me.”

And Ganesha, being absolutely devoted to his mother, took position on the front step.

Shiva appeared, no doubt both enlightened and in need of a hot meal.  He had the long hair of a rishi, a forest sage, and had not bathed or trimmed his beard for ever so long. He walked up to the front door, imperious, as he had a right to be, and found the way was blocked by a boy.

“Let me in,” Shiva roared.

“No,” the boy said quietly.  “My mother told me no one must be allowed to enter.”

“Bah, humbug,” Shiva shouted. And with his magic trident, the trishula, he sliced off young Ganesha’s head.

Parvati, overhearing the commotion, rose from her bath, slipped on a silk robe, and went outside to investigate.

“What did you do, oh great Lord?” she asked Shiva.

“This whippersnapper was telling me I couldn’t go into my own house.”

Parvati was furious. “This young lad you just decapitated happens to be my newly-minted son. Which makes him your son. That’s filicide, oh Great Shiva. And that’s your problem, I suggest you fix it immediately.”

Shiva, being an alpha male, tried to dissuade his furious wife. “It’s no big thing, come on, let’s open a bottle of wine.”

But Parvati was not in a mood to remain subservient.  As the long-suffering wife of Shiva and mother of Ganesha she had been in her Gauri form, the ideal dutiful and nurturing woman who cared for her family and looked after the home. But her arrogant and loud consort Shiva catalyzed her to take on her alternate persona of Kali, the bloodthirsty demon form of the universal female spirit Shakti. In psychological terms she had two alter-egos (in literary terms she was both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)  – civilized vs wild, tender vs fierce, peaceful vs bloodthirsty. And so Parvati in her Kali form grew her hair until it was in a dirty tangle of serpents and barbed wire, she let her fingernails extend to sharp points, she dripped venom from her mouth, and her eyes became bloody with rage. She created such a ruckus that her shouts and cries were heard throughout the universe. Clouds stopped in their tracks, lightning bolts fizzled, and birds plummeted to earth.  The gods, who preferred stability, were concerned that Parvati’s anger was going to precipitate Kali Yuga, the Hindu version of the End Times. They sent emissaries to tell Shiva to calm down his wife. And do so quickly, they said, before the seas evaporated and the wheat stalks shriveled.

So Shiva sent out one of his entourage to head north (that direction being associated with wisdom and regeneration) and bring back the head of the first living being they found. “And hurry.”

According to some legends, they decapitated no less a creature than Airavata, the holy white elephant vahana of Indra. Or it may have been a common unlucky pachyderm wandering around in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In any case, they returned with an elephant’s head, which Shiva slapped on to the headless body. “Hope you’re happy now,” he said to his aggrieved wife.

Ganesha, as we know him, was created.

 


My concept of Ganesha’s birth announcement.

 

 


 

Background

 

Paul near the summit of Gunung Gamalama, Ternate, Indonesia

 

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski first went to Southeast Asia in 1969 with the United States Peace Corps, where he was assigned to assist rural teachers in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. He remained in Asia for some 20 years, working in advertising and journalism, and those experiences have informed his writing on a wide variety of Asian-themed topics and quests.

He has lived and worked in some 85 countries and written 16 books and some 600 articles for publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, BBC Wildlife, Travel and Leisure, and Reader’s Digest.  His latest book, Searching for Ganesha, has been published to generous reviews.  During the first week, the book has become an Amazon #1 bestseller in three categories – Asian Travel Photography, Private Museums and Collections, and Biographies in Hinduism. For more on Paul’s background please click here.

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