Ganesha is one of the best known and most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon. His image is found throughout India. Hindu sects worship him regardless of other affiliations. Devotion to Ganesha is widely diffused and extends to Jains, Buddhists, and beyond India.
Although he is known by many other attributes, Ganesha’s elephant head makes him easy to identify. He is widely revered as the Remover of Obstacles and more generally as Lord of Beginnings, patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom. He is honoured at the start of rituals and ceremonies and invoked as Patron of Letters during writing sessions. Several texts relate mythological anecdotes associated with his birth and exploits and explain his distinct iconography.
Ganesha has been represented with the head of an elephant since the early stages of his appearance in Indian art. Puranic myths provide many explanations for how he got his elephant head. While some texts say that Ganesha was born with an elephant head, in most stories he acquires the head later. The most recurrent motif in these stories is that Ganesha was born with a human head and body and that Shiva beheaded him when Ganesha came between Shiva and Parvati. Shiva then replaced Ganesha’s original head with that of an elephant.
In another story, when Ganesha was born, his mother, Parvati, showed off her new baby to the other gods. Unfortunately, the god Shani who is said to have an evil eye, looked at him, causing the baby’s head to be burned to ashes. The god Vishnu came to the rescue and replaced the missing head with that of an elephant. Another story says that Ganesha was created directly by Shiva’s laughter. Because Shiva considered Ganesha too alluring, he gave him the head of an elephant and a protruding belly.
Ganesha’s earliest name was Ekadanta (One Tusk), referring to his single whole tusk, the other having been broken off. Some of the earliest images of Ganesha show him holding his broken tusk. Ganesha’s protruding belly appears as a distinctive attribute in his earliest statuary, which dates to the Gupta period during the fourth to sixth centuries. This feature is so important that two different incarnations of Ganesha use names based on it: Lambodara (Pot Belly) and Mahodara (Great Belly).
The number of Ganesha’s arms varies. His best-known forms have between two and sixteen arms. Many depictions of Ganesha feature four arms, which is mentioned in Puranic sources and codified as a standard form in some iconographic texts. Forms with 14 and 20 arms appeared in central India during the 9th and 10th centuries.
The serpent is a common feature in Ganesha iconography and appears in many forms. Depictions of snakes include use as a sacred thread wrapped around the stomach as a belt, held in a hand, coiled at the ankles, or as a throne. Upon Ganesha’s forehead there may be a third eye or sectarian mark, which consists of three horizontal lines. Specific colors are associated with certain forms. Many examples of color associations with specific meditation forms are prescribed. For example, white is associated with his representations as Heramba-Ganapati (Ganapati Who Releases from Bondage). Ekadanta-Ganapati is visualized as blue during meditation on that form.
A Vahana or a Hindu vehicle, sometimes called a mount, is an animal, mythical entity or chimera closely associated with a particular deity in Hindu mythology. Ganesha is often shown riding on or attended by a mouse. The mouse is interpreted in several ways. Some say it symbolizes those who wish to overcome desires and be less selfish. Others note that the mouse is destructive and a menace to crops. It was essential to subdue the mouse as a destructive pest, a type of impediment that needed to be overcome. According to this theory, showing Ganesha as master of the mouse demonstrates his function as Lord of Obstacles and gives evidence of his possible role as a folk village deity who later rose to greater prominence. It is also suggested that Ganesha, like the mouse, penetrates even the most secret places.
Ganesha is worshipped on many religious and secular occasions, especially at the beginning of ventures such as buying a vehicle or starting a business. There can hardly be a home in India which does not have an idol of Ganesha. Ganesha, being the most popular deity in India, is worshipped by almost all castes and in all parts of the country. Devotees believe that if Ganesha is propitiated, he grants success, prosperity and protection against adversity.
Ganesha is a nonsectarian deity, and Hindus of all denominations invoke him at the beginning of prayers, important undertakings, and religious ceremonies. Dancers and musicians, particularly in southern India, begin performances of arts such as the Bharatnatyam dance with a prayer to Ganesha. Mantras such as Om Shri Ganeshaya Namah (Om, salutation to the Illustrious Ganesha) are often used.
Devotees offer Ganesha sweets such as modaka and small sweet balls. He is often shown carrying a bowl of sweets, called a modakapatra. Because of his identification with the color red, he is often worshipped with red sandalwood paste or red flowers. Durva grass (Cynodon dactylon) and other materials are also used in his worship.
An annual festival honours Ganesha for ten days, starting on Ganesh Chaturthi, which typically falls in late August or early September. The festival culminates on the day of Ananta Chaturdashi, when images of Ganesha are immersed in the most convenient body of water. In 1893, Lokmanya Tilak transformed this annual Ganesha festival from private family celebrations into a grand public event. He did so to bridge the gap between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins and find an appropriate context in which to build a new grassroots unity between them in his nationalistic strivings against the British in Maharashtra. Because of Ganesha’s wide appeal as the god for everyone, Tilak chose him as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule. Tilak was the first to install large public images of Ganesha in pavilions, and he established the practice of submerging all the public images on the tenth day. Today, Hindus across India celebrate the Ganapati festival with great fervour, though it is most popular in the state of Maharashtra.