Of all the archetypal gods of the Vedic tradition, one above all stands as the most recognized and popular in our modern world. Ganesh is the elephant-headed god of beginnings and the remover of obstacles of all kinds. His image can often be seen in yoga studios, home altars, on jewelry and tee-shirts. Even those who aren’t familiar with yoga often find his image to be both captivating and somehow attractive. But just who is Ganesh and why is he so popular? And perhaps more importantly, how can we tap into and harness his unique attributes for removing obstacles to the fulfillment of our desires?
Like many Vedic stories, the mythology surrounding Ganesha’s beginnings is rich and colorful but it’s important to recognize that stories such as these are symbolic in nature and are meant to express abstract concepts in a way that our minds can comprehend. In addition, Ganesh, like all the other Vedic gods and goddesses, rather than being representative of a literal historical being, is the personification of specific qualities of consciousness. With that framework in mind, Ganesha’s story begins as follows.
Shakti, the mother goddess of the universe was fond of taking ritual baths with some of the other female goddesses. Her husband, Lord Shiva seemed to have the somewhat irritating habit of visiting Shakti unannounced during her baths, which would make the other goddesses uncomfortable. Shakti’s companions asked if there was anything she could do about this, so being the great goddess she was, Shakti molded some earth into the shape of a boy. She instructed the boy to stand guard while she and her companions bathed.
When Shiva had returned from his meditative wanderings, he met the boy who forbid him from entering. Shiva asked the boy who he was and was told he was Shakti’s son. Shiva told the boy that Shakti was his wife, and he should be allowed to pass, but the boy still wouldn’t move. Shiva became irritated and called forth his generals and army to destroy the boy. However, the youngster easily held his ground and defeated all who attacked him. Realizing he had to take matters into his own hands, Shiva engaged the boy in combat, but to his surprise the boy knocked him to the ground. In an act of ego-driven rage, Shiva hurled his discus at the child, severing his head.
Hearing the commotion, Shakti emerged from her bath to discover the body of her son. Admonishing Shiva, she threatens to banish him from the universe forever. The repentant Shiva asks what he can do to make things right. Shakti replies by telling him that he can bring her son back. Shiva immediately searched the forest for a new head and discovers the body of a recently slain elephant. With the elephant’s head in hand, Shiva returns to Shakti and attaches it to the boy’s body, bringing him back to life. Shiva then proclaims that the boy will forevermore be known as Ganesh and will be the most powerful of all the gods, and that by invoking him, any being will have the power to remove any obstacle in their life.
Ganesha’s Image and Attributes
As far as archetypal beings go, Ganesha’s appearance is quite distinctive. In most classical images, he sits perched on a throne with a calm, peaceful expression on his elephant’s face. He often has three lines of ash on his forehead representing the three levels of the impermanent material life (creation, maintenance, and destruction). He also has a Bindi or “point” between his two eyes used to invoke and open the eye of intuition to the highest level of consciousness.
He has two tusks, one broken and one whole. He broke off one of his tusks to use as a pen to write down the great teachings and stories of Vedanta. The symbolism of the broken tusk is a reminder to us to be independent of the poles of opposites (sinner and saint, divine and diabolical, joy and suffering) and that the true yogi goes beyond all opposites.
Ganesha’s trunk is a symbol of both of strength and discernment. An elephant’s truck is extremely powerful and is capable of uprooting an entire tree, but at the same time is very sensitive and able to differentiate between the very large and the very smallest of items.
His ears are large so he can listen deeply to the unspoken message of spirit as well for listening with compassion to those who are struggling and suffering. He has a huge head signifying his introspective nature and tendency to go within to reflect on the nature of the soul and spirit.
Ganesha has four arms. In one hand he holds an axe that cuts down the tree of ignorance; in another he holds a rope the helps us climb the tree of knowledge; his third hand is raised in benediction and offering a blessing from Lord Shiva; and his fourth hand holds the fruit of knowledge. He has a large belly, which symbolizes his ability to digest anyone’s problems.
One of his feet is on the ground while the other is raised symbolizing his awareness being established both in the relative and absolute levels of existence; to be in this world, but not of it. Nearby on the ground, there is often depicted a rat which signifies his ego which is greedy, grasping, and clinging, yet totally under his control.
When combined, these attributes embody the full essence of Ganesha. According to Vedanta therefore, one who:
- Has an inward mind
- Is aware of the impermanence of material reality
- Opens the eye of intuition
- Listens very carefully
- Is both discerning and powerful
- Gives blessings wherever they go
- Constantly treats ignorance as the enemy
- Constantly seeks knowledge and wisdom
will be expressing the true nature of Ganesh as a state of consciousness in which one has the fruit of knowledge, is established in being, and is able to digest all the problems of the universe. And naturally, one who expresses this state of awareness would be the remover of all obstacles.
Invoking Ganesha’s Energy
There are three steps to imbuing our consciousness with the energy of Ganesha:
1. Become aware of the qualities (as we’ve done above). By putting our attention on these characteristics of awareness we enliven them in ourselves. Review each of the attributes and say to yourself, These qualities are in me.
2. Anchor these qualities in your awareness by putting your attention on the image of Ganesha in the form of a painting, statue, or by visualizing him in your mind’s eye. If you like, imagine his powerful foot stomping the ground to create a shockwave capable of crumbling all barriers to fulfillment of desire into rubble.
3/ Repeat the mantra that resonates with his attributes so that the subtle vibrations begin to shift your consciousness and activate the mantra as a psychological and energetic trigger for transformation. While there are several mantras dedicated to Ganesh, one of the most frequently used is:
Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha
(OM GUM GUN-NUH-PUT-YEI NAHM-AH-HA)
Translation: Om and salutations to the remover of obstacles for which gum is the seed vibration.
Remember, Ganesha is far more than a mythological figure. Ganesha is a state of consciousness that lives within us all. By putting your attention on his attributes, image, and vibration you awaken the dormant potential to remove all obstacles in your life.
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