Ganesha: Overcomer of Obstacles

By Andrew Rooke

[The author wishes to acknowledge the advice and insights of Charumati Joshi in the preparation of this article.]

OM Sri Ganeshaya namah, "Hail Lord Ganesha!" is the mantra to the elephant-headed Hindu god repeated by devotees at the commencement of any important undertaking or spiritual gathering, for the removal of obstacles and the attainment of success. With his ungainly form, comically riding a mouse or rat as his steed, Ganesha is the most popular deity among Hindus. Millions of devotees celebrate his Chathurti Festival in August/September each year, when decorated statues of Ganesha are carried through the streets of every town and village and cast into rivers and oceans in a spectacular closing of the Festival. Most Hindu homes and businesses have a statue of Ganesha at their doorway, and a picture of his humorous but compassionate form in their family shrine. Who then is Ganesha, and what can he teach us?

I first encountered Ganesha thirty years ago in the steaming darkness of his cave temple on the island of Bali in Indonesia. He seemed a strange representation of Divinity, with his portly shape and four arms waving different symbols of his authority. Clearly, though, the people loved him, as his temple was piled high with offerings, and pungent smoke filled the air from incense-sticks left by devotees beseeching his help to overcome the obstacles that we all face in life. Ganesha was created as a mind-born son by the god Siva and his wife Parvati. They thus formed the original family, becoming more accessible as spiritual symbols to the life experience of ordinary people. In the course of carrying out his mother's instructions, Ganesha came in conflict with the gods and lost his human head. Siva, repenting, replaced it with that of a baby elephant.

As a symbol of Divinity in daily life and the god of wisdom, Ganesha

teaches that the path to success and achievement is through the use of the intellect, and that through wisdom alone can one reach salvation. . . .
The calm and majestic Ganesha with the strength and power of an elephant is the Lord of all obstacles which keep Man under control, and yet he is also the remover of obstacles which befuddle Man in his endeavours. Like the elephant he has a prodigious memory, and never forgets the qualities of loyalty and devotion of those around him.
He spreads the message of peace and tranquillity and his large size evokes great love, never fear. In fact his unusual form gets imbedded in the mind of the worshipper. . . . He is the playful god of the young and the great guru of the old. He is the god of auspiciousness, the beginning of all beginnings, the saviour of all that is good. --

While Ganesha appeals to the general public's need for a godly friend and savior amidst the travails of everyday life, yet he also has depths of knowledge and learning for those who approach Divinity through striving after spiritual knowledge. Many stories are told of Ganesha's wit and intelligence. Legend has it that the poet Vyasa was advised to ask Ganesha to be the scribe to whom he could dictate the Mahabharata in verse form. With typical combination of wit and playfulness, Ganesha agreed to this great responsibility on condition that Vyasa should dictate continuously without pause. Vyasa agreed to this challenge, on condition that Ganesha understand every word and concept before writing it down. The writing of the Mahabharata became an intricate game between author and scribe. Whenever Vyasa found that Ganesha had completed writing a verse, using his broken tusk as his pen, the poet would dictate a verse with profound meaning so that Ganesha had to stop and ponder these slokas for a while. This gave Vyasa time to compose a few more verses mentally before dictating. Beyond being a colorful story, this gives us a clue to what is required for studying and understanding the Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita: these great works should not be read or heard hurriedly, but slowly, and incorporated into one's life. For long ages, as still today, the Mahabharata was performed by travelling actors over periods of months or years. Audiences in villages, cities, and temples listened to, rather than read, its wisdom, one small part at a time. Woe betide any actor who forgot his lines, as even the most humble villager knew the epic by heart!

But why the jolly, overweight body with an elephant head and broken tusk? The answers are as varied as the legends and tales of his 108 names told by mothers to their children. The elephant form relates to Ganesha's function as the overcomer of obstacles. An elephant has the bulk and strength to push his way through the jungle of everyday problems that beset common people everywhere. His trunk and tusks symbolize qualities required to push aside obstacles. His large ears hear the cries and woes of the people who pray for assistance and winnow information, retaining only the essentials. Like an elephant trail through the otherwise impenetrable forest, we can follow his large footprints safely through the jungle of daily life in the ways of righteous living. Ganesha's comical, corpulent body symbolizes happiness, benevolence, and his role as the bestower of success. In his role as the god of wisdom, his large body indicates the wealth of knowledge he has within. More important, it signifies that outer appearance has no connection with inner beauty and spiritual status.

His single tusk indicates the need to shed the ego and make sacrifices on the spiritual path. It also indicates the need for a strong spiritual will to decide on a righteous, singular course of action and not waver from it. His four arms indicate his power to assist people and equally to destroy evil. His hands hold many different symbols according to which role he is assuming. The ax and mace indicate ability to destroy evil demons, the noose his ability to draw close those he loves most dearly and to reach out to encircle and save those who stray. The lotus flowers, books, and swastika painted on his hand are symbols of spiritual knowledge, as is his trunk when held in the shape of the Sanskrit sacred mantra Om. At the other extreme, he is surrounded by symbols of his love of the good things of material life, like the bowl of modak sweets which Ganesha loves to eat, almost always featured in statues and pictures of him.

Strangest of all perhaps is the rat or mouse always pictured with him. As is known in households all over the world, this rodent has his own way of overcoming obstacles by finding his way through the tiniest cracks and under the mightiest doors into our kitchens and larders. Being a universal nuisance, Ganesha's riding the rodent indicates the need to keep baser aspects of our character under control lest they cause havoc in our quest for spiritual knowledge. Sitting beneath the huge elephant body, it also indicates that size or outward appearance matter little where the study of supreme matters is concerned.

Does Ganesha symbolize a real being or class of entities rather than simply a flight of artistic fantasy? A hint lies in Ganesha's name, Ganapati or Vinayaka, indicating his function as the leader of the celestial hordes (Ganas), an honor bestowed on him by his father, Siva. The Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary gives us a clue to Ganesha's role in the hierarchy of more advanced spiritual entities who play an active and self-conscious role in the management of the cosmos. In some respects he is "the chief or head of multitudes of subordinate spiritual entities -- a necessity if as the god of wisdom he accomplishes his cosmic labors through subordinate hierarchies of intelligent and semi-intelligent beings, acting as their director or guide in forming and guiding nature." Perhaps the real Ganesha is more like a force of nature, like the sunlight that nourishes life, the air we breath, or lofty thoughts that inspire us. He is part of the great chain of being stretching from the spiritual sun down to humanity and beyond. This hierarchy of compassion sustains life for us lesser beings, though we remain unaware of the constant efforts or call them, as modern science often does, unconscious forces of nature. Ganesha and his celestial hordes work consciously and untiringly so that we may learn and grow spiritually to one day join them in their cosmic labors.



Chaturvedi, B. K., Gods and Goddesses of India: 1 Ganesh, Books for All, Delhi, 1996.

Krishan, Yuvaraj, Ganesha: Unravelling an Enigma, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1999.

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, Loving Ganesha: Hinduism's Endearing Elephant-Faced God, Himalayan Academy and Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1996.


(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

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