Ganesha is one of the most recognisable and revered of the Hindu Deities. Traditionally he is invoked at the beginning of all Hindu rituals, and often modern Yoga classes, but what are his stories and symbolisms?
Birth Story & Symbolism
Although told with several variations, and many elaborations, the primary story of Ganesha's birth is this. After a day of celebration Shiva leaves Parvati to rest. Parvati, upon realising she has become covered with dirt, decides she needs a bath but has no-one who can guard the bathroom door for her. So she scrapes the dirt from her and shapes it with clay from the earth to create a small boy, Ganesha, whom she breathes life into and instructs him to let no-one whatsoever pass the door.
Upon Shiva's return Ganesha denies him entrance to Parvati's chambers. Furious, he slices off the boys head. Hearing the sound Parvati comes rushing out and tells Shiva what he has done. Full of remorse Shiva acts quickly and sends his acolytes to go find a replacement head, the first of any animal that is facing north which was an elephant. Shiva replaces the boys head and returns him to life.
Dirt is a symbol of ignorance, its removal, and then its transformation underlie the most quoted of Ganesha's powers the capacity to remove obstacles through the creation of fresh perspective. Yet this dirt is also a symbol that even in divine celebration, there is the capacity to lose your centre.
Shiva removing the head of Ganesha symbolises that knowledge will always overcome ignorance. Both ignorance, and the ego are attributes traditionally retained in the head, the symbolic removal here represents consciousnesses victory over both. The replacement elephant head, represents wisdom and the transformed capacities of the earth element and the muladhara chakra. In his rebirth Ganesha is taken beyond the limited individual mind, into the universal mind that embraces all. This analogy is deepened in the imagery of his varna, the mouse, and shows Ganesha's dominion and care for all creatures. The mouse carries a second analogy, even though small and often passing unnoticed, its steady nibbling begins to gradually break through the ropes that bind us.
Ganesha then is formed from the earth element, which itself contains the seed forms of all of the other elements, and in equal measure by Shakti (first) and Shiva (second). He holds both the power of action, and the unbounded qualities of consciousness. Only Ganesha as a guardian can take the supreme energy of Shakti and guide it along the necessary current for its complete and awakened manifestation. His earthy nature provides the stability necessary to contain such powerful energy.
The elephant symbolises both the first, and the highest chakra and therefore Ganesha also, is associated both with blossoming of energy in the root, and its consolidation in the higher centres. A journey from the blurred, samskaric vision of the root chakra, to the clear sight achieved in the Ajna. Importantly here, as gently natured animals, elephants symbolise both wisdom and effortlessness. They are not phased by any obstacle, they simply remove it and continue, in the same metered and gentle pace. For anyone who has ever been lucky enough to ride an elephant at a reserve where they are truly cared for can attest to this! I remember a trip myself in Thailand where the elephants were trekking through the dense rainforest and with barely a ripple through their system they would reach out with their trunk, uproot and entire banana tree and continue, usually whilst munching on the tree!
Of course there are many stories and symbols of Ganesha, here is a snapshot;
His big belly represents generosity and total acceptance.
Ganesha's upraised hand depicts protection, whilst his lowered and open palmed hand symbolise endless giving and invitation to bow. We are all created from, protected by, and ultimately return to the earth.
Ganesha's single tusk signifies one-pointedness, and further surrender and obedience to his father.
And he carries both the 'Ankusa' signifying awakening and the 'Paasa' signifying control, the dual elements required in order for his power to unfold in you.
In our microcosmic body, the earth element is represented as our bones, tissues, and our literal and energetic connection to the ground. Ganesha asks us all then first to connect to our bodies and to connect to the earth; to become grounded, to become consciously attentive and to operate from that base.
Ganesha also teaches us that the knowledge we currently hold, that has led to the obstacles we face is not the wisdom that will overcome, and as such, we must surrender ourselves, surrender our ego and open up to the possibility of new perspectives.
"Om Gan Ganapataye Namah."
"Yes, reverence to Lord Ganesha."
"Ganesha Sharanam Sharanam Ganesha,
Gan Gan Ganapati Sharanam Ganesha
Jay Ganesha Jaya Jaya Gananatha."
Sharanam means refuge, protection. Jaya is often translated as victory, but has many more specific associations. Gan is the Bija mantra, or 'seed syllable' for Ganesha, this word doesn’t carry a discursive meaning as such but rather is said to encapsulate in sonic form his power.
Ganesh mudra is performed with the right hand on top, or outwards, with the left hand underneath or close into the body, and can be held over any area of intention, though most often is performed at the root, with hands resting in the lap, or over the heart centre.
Although almost any asana can be queued and energised from the perspective of Ganesha's stories and his qualites, the pose 'eka hasta bhujasana' often bears his name. In its full expression with one leg behind the head, the root raised and a single tusk (leg) extended we see the symbolic triumph over the ego, the single-pointed awareness and nature necessary to progress, and the root element raised and lifted to carry shakti kundalini up through the body. Simulatenous surrender and triumph!