Who is Ganesha?
Ganesha is a figure of great mystery, power, and paradox. We sense in his unusual figure something of the unknown, unlimited and mysterious, far beyond our human considerations. What are the secrets that he holds and what do they mean for us at the deepest level?
Ganesha’s arising or birth, if you could call it, appears very strange. It is said that his mother Parvati created him for her protection and asked him to prevent anyone from entering into her room. While Parvati was bathing, Lord Shiva approached, and Ganesha true to his role would not let him in. When Ganesha obstructed Shiva from entering, Shiva sensed an infringement on his power, fought with him and in the skirmish cut the boy’s head off.
Soon learning his mistake that it was Parvati’s son, who was quite angry at his demise, Shiva quickly, sometimes it is said by chance, found the head of an elephant for Ganesha, put it on the headless body and brought him back to life. The story seems contradictory and arbitrary, like many Puranic depictions that have been the subject of denigration, if not ridicule.
Clearly, such bizarre tales are riddles for the mind to ponder, and not meant to portray literal events. They require a deep insight to unravel. This story has been analysed politically and psychologically, extending to bizarre Freudian and Marxist theories, but the inner meaning, which has nothing to do with sex or politics, has been missed altogether.
Symbolism of Ganesha and the cutting off of his head
Ganesha symbolises the human soul and its latent aspiration for the infinite. Initially, the soul is bound to Maya or Prakriti, symbolised by Ganesha being created by Parvati (Prakriti) and seeking to protect her as her servant. The ignorant soul does not know Shiva, the transcendent reality beyond Maya. Shiva, therefore, cannot recognise the soul as his own.
In cutting off Ganesha’s head, Lord Shiva takes the soul beyond the human mind, its dualities and expectations – which is a common theme in deities with their head cut off, be it Hayagriva, Chinnamasta or Ganesha. In giving Ganesha the head of an elephant, Shiva connects it to the profound cosmic intelligence that is under his guidance.
Shiva is Pashupati or the lord of the animals that symbolises the souls bound to ignorance, ruling over them from his unbounded awareness. Ganesha as Ganapati or the lord of the group is the chieftain or head of the animals, the foremost of which is the elephant and indicates Shiva’s consciousness in manifestation.
The elephant relates to memory, concentration and the hidden wisdom of nature. Ganesha as the awakened soul learns the secrets of the universe and gains the ability to teach them to all who are receptive. Ganesha becomes the guide to the cosmic processes of birth and death, karma, and liberation, and holds all the vidyas or sacred ways of knowledge for understanding all existence.
Ganesha as the Guru
With the head of an elephant, Ganesha becomes awake as Shiva’s son, and functions as the great guru and the giver of wisdom through Shiva’s power within him. He gains access to the mantric energies of the cosmic mind, in which all the higher knowledge is stored, the Omkara of Lord Shiva, which is Ganesha’s own word of power.
Such higher knowledge as Ganesha possesses cannot be transmitted to the mortal mind, put into ordinary language or logic, or confined to the parameters of mere human depictions. It requires going beyond the intellect and emotions to unitary awareness or samadhi, which rests upon a profound Yoga sadhana.
Ganesha represents the cosmic realisation of the Self as all nature, and can teach that infinite truth to us. But for this to occur we must also learn to go beyond the mind, something that most modern intellectuals with all their opinionated views are not likely to attempt.
To worship Ganesha, we must become Ganesha, which is to let go of our outer minds and embrace the unknown higher knowledge, becoming the entire universe and beyond, Shiva and Shakti, both within and around us. To do that we must become humble and let Shiva and Parvati enter into us.