Iconography

     Of the legions of Hindu gods and goddesses whose images adorn the walls of temples, shops and homes, Ganesa is the easiest to recognize. He is the one with the elephant head. Although there are some variations in his iconographic representation, which may be of interest to historians of Indian art, he is usually depicted either in a standing, sitting, or dancing posture with the plinth being a lotus flower or the he may be riding his vehicle, a mouse (Musaka) with his face looking directly forward. Sometimes, he is seen on a lion. In the sitting postures, his leg is generally folded and rests on the seat with his right leg in different positions. The trunk of the deity is generally turned towards the left (Vakratunda). He has to eyes and fours hands. In some compositions, he is seen with three eyes and six, eight or even sixteen hands. The deity has a protruding belly (Lambodara) with a serpent tied around it. An interesting legend is connected with this last feature. Once Ganesa having consumed an enormous amount of sweet cakes was going home on his vehicle. In the way a serpent had frightened a mouse and the god was thrown off causing his overloaded belly to burst. He immediately got hold of the serpent and tied it around his belly. Besides it, he also bears a serpent across his chest in place of a sacred thread. He lost one of his tusks in a fight and is therefore with only one tusk.

    Among the standing images, there are only two varieties. The first is Nrittya-Ganapati and the other is Prasanna-Ganapati. In the first form, the deity is dancing on a lotus plinth and the right leg is raised in the air. In one hand, he may hold a hatchet (Parasu); it is said that Parasurama used it to cut off the tusk when Ganesa refused to allow him inside his parents' bedroom, but it is also a symbol for the cutting away of illusion and false teaching. In another hand, he holds a goad (Ankusa) like that used by an elephant trainer, symbolizing the logic that cuts through illusion. In another a noose (Pasa), used to restrain the wild elephant and representing the restraint of passions and desires. Sometimes one hand gestures fearlessness and reassurance (Varada mudra) and another holds one of a the sweetmeats (Modaka) or a tusk, a serpent a lotus flower or displaying the Svastika. The lower right hand is in Gaja-hasta mudra. The trunk also carries a flower. His torso is masculine but sufficiently pneumatic in appearance to suggest the lower limbs of a child or a yaksa, one of the dwarfish guardian troops that protect and serve the gods and their shrines. The overall impression one gets from this image is comic. His manner suggests benevolence behind the obvious strength and stamina conveyed by the elephant head.

    In the second form, the deity stands with three bends in his body. He has four hands. The upper two hold a noose of rope and a goad; the lower two are in Abhaya and Varada mudra. In some compositions, the hands carry different things. The headgear of these images is the conical Kranda-mukuta.

    In sitting images several varieties can be seen. In Bala-Ganapati, the deity is shown as a child with the head of an elephant. His four hands are carrying a mango, a banana, a wood apple and a piece of sugarcane. In Taruna-Ganapati, he is represented as a youth. He has four hands are carrying a noose of rope, a goad, a fruit and a bamboo stick. As a full-grown deity, Ganesa is known as Vir-Vighnesa. He has sixteen hands carrying various emblems. One special composition is known as Heramba-Ganapati. In this form, the deity is sitting on a lion with his five heads. His eight hands are carrying various emblems, the lower two being in Abhaya and Varada mudra.

    The most popular presentation of Ganesa is that where he is seated in Sokhasana with his left leg folded and resting on a lotus plinth and supporting his Devi, Laksmi in his lap. There are several varieties of this posture. The main difference is in the number of hands. These figures are known as Sakti -Ganapati. The deity has three eyes and four hands. The Devi holds a lotus flower in her left and embraces Ganesa with her right hand. The image in which Laksmi is in his lap is known as Laksmi-Ganapati. The Uchchhishta -Ganapati, the Devi sitting on his lap is without any garment. This deity is supposed to be a great boon giver. Maha-Ganapati has ten hands and Urdhva-Ganapati and Pingala-Ganapati has been shown with six hands.


The thirty-two forms of Ganesa as listed in the Mudgala Purana.

Musaka

    Ganesa is called “the one whose mount is a mouse” (adhasthan musakanvitam). He is also known as musaka vahana.

    Ganapati’s mouse deserves special mention, for it is a comic figure, a controversial figure, an enigmatic figure and an ancient figure. The mouse is mentioned in the Yajurveda as the sacrificial offering (Purodhasa) that is buried in the ground while Brahmin priests perform the sacrifice meant for the fulfillment of a desire. In this sacrifice, this symbolic mouse is Siva’s share of the animal offering. In another variation of this story, Agni assumed the form of a mouse and hid himself in the earth. The metamorphosis of Agni into a mouse, the mouse burrowing into the earth, its subsequent presentation to Siva, and Siva’s bestowal to Ganesa seems to function as an overt allegory of a mystical nature.

    Then there is the Puranic story that says, “ when all the Gods offered Ganesa presents after his name-giving ceremony, the earth gave him a mouse to serve as his vehicle.” And the Ganesa Purana tells of the curse bestowed upon the Gandharva Kraunca that turned him into a mouse for his unrighteous behavior.

    A third variation of the story of the origins of Ganesa’s mouse is:

    When he was nine years old, a huge mouse appeared in the asrama where Ganesa was staying and         began to terrorize everyone. When Ganesa appeared on the scene, the mouse disappeared. Ganesa however made a loop with his rope and threw it down and lassoed the mouse. The mouse struggled, but in vain. Then Ganesa subdued it and made it his vehicle. The humbled mouse said that he had been a Ghandharva and once upon a time had trampled upon the sage Vamadeva when he was hurriedly leaving Indra’s durbar. The sage cursed him to be a mouse and when he pleaded mercy, the curse was altered so that he would meet Ganesa in Parasara’s asrama and would become his steed thus becoming worthy of worship even by the Gods.

    Many, if not most of those who interpret Ganapati’s mouse do so negatively: it symbolizes Tamoguna as well as desire; it stands for the darkness of the bowels of the earth into which he burrows and the depredation of fields at harvest time. Its nervous and chattering nature symbolizes the petty desires of men that nibble away at their personalities and their inner selves; it is the self-annihilating power of desire.

    The mouse represents the “carrier” of the Divine covered over by darkness hidden in the bowels of the earth (divinity hidden within the physical body). Some have called it the external manifestation of the soul that lives inside the body. By day it shuns the sunlight and by night, it roams the world. Even so does the human being shun the light of divinity and roam the world in the darkness of ignorance unless and until he or she has the proximity or presence of the Divine.

Vakratunda

Ganapati is referred to as Omkara Svarupa (the personification of the primordial     word Om). His curved elephant's trunk is a representation of the Pranava Mantra, Om, the sound from which the world was created. As the Pranava is the Upanisadic symbol for Brahman. This identification declares that Ganapati is a Brahman himself. Further, this identification of Ganesa with Om is immediate and physical, because his curved or twisted trunk reminds one of the devanagari letter. Similarly, the Tamil Om has the physical appearance of an elephant's head with a dangling trunk.

Lambodara

    Another distinctive feature of Ganapati is his huge stomach. It is vast enough to contain the entire universe. It is the cosmic womb wherein may be found all that is. Thus Ganesa can digest all that life can present, he can stomach anything. This makes him not only Stithaprajna (one with great serenity and equanimity) but also one able to swallow all the sorrows of the universe. This is another way of demonstrating his protective powers. Ganesa’s big belly (Lambodara meaning “hanging, extended, or protruding”) is explained by a story in the Brahma Purana.

    Ganesa, as a little boy, was drinking milk from his mother's breast for such a long time that even when he was full, he would not stop. Thus, his brother, Karttikeya, never got a chance to drink. Lord Siva, their father, who was watching this, ascribed Ganesa’s greed to his jealousy for his brother and called him “Lambodara.”

    This grotesque, awkward and corpulent body is symbolic of the truth that beauty of the outer, physical form has no connection with inner beauty and spiritual perfection.

     Kubera, the god of wealth and celestial treasurer, was proud of his great riches. He once visited Kailasa and visited with the divine family. In his vanity, he thought he would show off his wealth to Lord Siva and so, he hosted a lavish dinner. Siva and Parvati said they were not coming but that Kubera could take and feed the child, Ganesa. Siva warned him that Ganesa was a voracious eater, but Kubera replied, "I can easily feed this child to his heart's content.” The little child caught hold of Kubera’s little finger and followed him to his kingdom. Once there, Ganesa sat down to eat. And as he ate, his appetite grew and he began to eat faster and faster. Kubera’s army of servants had a difficult time keeping up with the child. Ganesa grew impatient at the slow pace of serving and began to eat the dishes, the vessels, the furniture, the palace, the trees, and all of Kubera’s kingdom. Kubera pleaded with Ganesa to stop but the child merrily said, “If you don't feed me, I will eat you too!” Kubera rushed to the feet of Lord Siva and implored for help. Siva said, “I warned you.” Kubera said, “Lord, please forgive me for my foolishness and vanity. Save me or I will be eaten too.” Siva agreed and gave Kubera a handful of puffed rice saying, “This will satisfy his hunger.” With humility, Kubera rushed back to the palace and offered the rice with love and humility and immediately Ganesa’s hunger was appeased. Thus did Kubera learn that a handful of puffed rice offered with love and humility and eaten with devotion is more important and filling than all the wealth that Kubera possessed.

    Ganesa’s huge belly physically reminds one of siddhas who have large bellies by virtue of retaining (Kumbhaka) their prana.

Ankusa

The other weapon that is usually found in Ganesa’s hands, generally the upraised right hand, is the goad (ankusa). It is said to be his “fierce” weapon. It is used to remove obstacles or difficulties from one's path. If one does not learn the truth by gentle persuasion, then more drastic measures are needed. Just as a mahout uses the goad to control and guide an elephant, Ganesa uses his goad to drive one in the right direction. If an individual will not cut off their attachments to the world on their own initiative, then Ganesa will be forced to use his goad to severe these attachments.

Pasa

    Ganesa typically carries two weapons in his upraised hands : the noose (pasa) and the goad (ankusa). The noose, usually found in his upraised left hand, conveys the idea of bondage. Worldly attachments and desires are a noose, and the pasa, as a weapon, catches or snares the delusion of desire. It is Ganesa’s “gentle” weapon, which he employs to capture and then hold onto, obstacles or difficulties, to direct one along the right path much as a rider guides his steed by the use of the bridle and the reins. One should make the mind like a bridle that keeps the horses of the mind from running about wild. By it, Ganapati is able to pull his devotees nearer and nearer to the truth. Eventually, he will tie such a devotee down to the highest truth.

Modaka

    Ganesa is extremely fond of wisdom, the sweet of bliss (ananda). For that, he is known also as “modaka priya.”

    The gods were filled with happiness at the birth of Ganesa and Karttikeya and presented Parvati with a sweet that is called “great intelligence” and the “nectar of immortality.” Its virtues include anyone who merely smells it will become immortal. He who eats it will become learned in the scriptures, skillful at weapons, knowledgeable in the Tantras, a writer and painter, one who has both worldly and spiritual knowledge.

    Ganapati is the lord of wisdom and as such, he is depicted as rotund and gluttonous. His appetite for the bliss of immortality is unceasing. The liberated one sees himself in all beings and all beings in himself. This state reveals itself in eternal bliss. It is the liberated one alone who can be said to be immersed in everlasting bliss. Such joy is no longer precariously dependent on external stimuli but is irrevocably secured as a result of his inner transformation. It is externally indicated by the gentle smile that uniformly plays on the face of the liberated one.

    The modaka or laddhu or korukkattai that Ganesa’s trunk invariably turns toward, or that he is holding, or that is found in one of his hands is symbolic of wisdom, of that which gives liberation. The word modaka derives from the Sanskrit root mud (joy, delight). The Self is said to be of the nature of existence (sat), consciousness (cit), bliss (ananda). One seeks bliss because one is of the nature of bliss. Nothing else will ultimately satisfy one than to experience that which one truly is.

    Obtaining what one likes seemingly brings one joy. Thus Ganapati holds out the incentive and enticement of “giving one what one wants, so that ultimately, one will want what he has to give.” The modaka is a symbol of  ananda (bliss), of the joys of spiritual practice that Ganesa gives to his devotees. A modaka is literally a sweet wheat or rice ball, which is invariably found in Ganapati’s trunk, hand and/or a bowl nearby.

Svastika

    The svastika is an ancient symbol representing auspiciousness. The word can be divided into the components sva (one's own) and astika (it is). Thus, it means “that which is one's own or that which is independent.” Since the Divine is the only independent entity in the universe, the svastika is a symbol for God. Everything else is independent upon the Divine for its existence, maintenance and dissolution. The sign has been associated with Ganapati most probably because he is the lord of good fortune and this sign is the sign depicting good fortune.

    Where the blue pear (bindu) begins to move at the commencement of creation, its initial movement forms a line. If one extrapolates that movement into the the four cardinal directions, a cross is depicted. If one would like to convey the idea of omnipresence, one may put “flags” on the ends of the arms of the cross and thus a svastika is formed.

Sometimes, it is said that the svastika represents the fact that all paths to the divine, whether straight or crooked, eventually only lead to the divine. It is a symbol of geometric perfection. In the minds eye, it can be conceived of either a stationary or as being in perpetual motion, with its arms whirling like a giant cosmic pinwheel. In a clockwise rotation, its seems to depict the outward dispersion of the universe, while in a counter-clockwise rotation, it seems to depict the universe imploding back into its essence.
 
 





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