In childhood years, many Hindu children nowadays are introduced to Hindu sacred stories through the medium of comic books, such as Amar Chitra Katha. These provide a colourful, entertaining and valuable rendering of ancient stories from texts called the Puranas, and most kids read them with great enthusiasm, forming many people’s introduction to the world of Hinduism.
However, in many cases after you reach a certain age, some of the stories will seem quite unrealistic and far-fetched. In the absence of any understanding of the symbolism involved in such stories, our modern mentality would be inclined to view them merely as primitive stories from the past.
On the other hand, the philosophical and yogic component of Hinduism (as opposed to the story component) has a very scientific approach to Reality, and contains a range of complex concepts that seem far removed from the stories of the Puranas. It seems difficult to fathom that the same rishis who propagated Hindu philosophy also formulated and propagated the stories.
Clearly, there are meanings and symbolism in the stories of the Puranas that we today do not easily grasp, and therefore miss their true value. Hindu stories are complementary to Hindu philosophy, and contain several layers of meanings. Pictures, imagery and stories can often deliver meanings and messages in a way that standard philosophical discourse cannot. Imagery has greater evocative power. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, the ancient proverb says, and this may not be so far of the mark. This is well summed up by the British Vedic scholar Jeanine Miller:
“Myth is not merely an entertaining made-up story but a pictograph of great evocative power that is intended to connect us to the reality which it purports to image, depicting in dramatic imagery certain insights realised in deep absorption”.
Of all the stories in Hindu legend, the story of the birth of Ganesh would seem quite bizarre to understand. Nevertheless it is a very endearing story of immense popularity. The following is a short retelling of the story, based on the account given in the Shiva Purana, followed by a brief insight into the underlying meaning.
One day, in the holy mountain of Kailash, Parvathy wanted to refresh herself by taking a cool bath. She summoned Nandi, chief of the Ganas (divine attendants of Shiva and Parvathy) and told him to guard the entrance of the bathing pool, so that nobody could wander into the area and disturb Her. So Nandi stood guard, while Parvathy entered the pool to bathe. A little while later, Lord Shiva came there and went straight to the pool. Nandi told him about Mother Parvathy’s instruction, but Shiva brushed it aside and went straight to the pool. Parvathy was annoyed that Nandi had failed to carry out the task that she had set him. She decided to create a Gana who would be absolutely loyal to her alone.
On a later occasion, when Parvathy wanted to have a bath, she rolled some dust out from her body and created a powerful male form, and brought him to life with her power. “You are my son and are extremely dear to me! Please stand guard for me at the entrance of this pool and don’t let anyone enter without my permission.”
After a while, Shiva came by. The guard stopped him from entering. Lord Shiva said, “This is my own home and my bathing pool, who are you to stop me from entering?” The guard replied, “You may be anybody, but I have instructions to let none enter here.” Shiva left, and asked his Ganas to find out whom the new guard was. When posed this question by the Ganas, the guard retorted, “I am the attendant of Mother Parvathy, and am here on her instructions to guard the pond. I will let none enter.” A confrontation became inevitable. In the battle that followed, Lord Shiva cut off the head of the guard with his trident. Mother Parvathy came out to see her son lying headless.
Overcome with anger and sorrow, Parvathy went about destroying everything that came in Her path. The gods and rishis shuddered with fear and confusion. They assembled together in fear and confusion, and started praising the Mother with divine hymns. She calmed down a bit, but told them that She would only be happy when Her son was restored to life. It was not possible to stitch back the head smashed by Shiva’s trident. So Shiva sent out his Ganas with an instruction that they should bring the head of the first living being they saw. During the search they found an elephant and brought its head to Kailash. Lord Shiva joined the head of the elephant to the truncated body of the guard and imparted life to it. Mother Parvathy was pleased, and took her son in Her lap and blessed him. Thus was Ganesha born.
Kailash is the inner world in our own consciousness, and Mother Parvathy represents our creative mind. Shiva is the divine consciousness that the individual seeker seeks to unite. Bathing symbolises the act of meditation.
In the process of spiritual seeking (bathing), the mind (Parvathy) keeps a part of itself vigilant; to prevent it from becoming disturbed by the hordes of desires, anxieties and disturbances that try to enter our mind while meditating. This vigilance is symbolised by the son whom Mother Parvathy manifests to guard the pond in which she was bathing.
However, this mental vigilance, although necessary in the initial stages of meditation, can actually become a hindrance in the final process of the spiritual journey when the Divine consciousness (Shiva) is close to entry, because it is born from a feeling of separateness from the Divine. As well as keeping out negative or disturbing thoughts, it keeps out the Divine consciousness from achieving union with the creative mind.
Thus, this guard at the entrance of the pond that is our meditating mind sets itself against the Lord, and an inner struggle follows, in which eventually the Divine consciousness enters, and totally transforms the nature of this guard that had previously been a hurdle to its entry. The guard, which represents a certain mental resolve, is divinised and becomes the child born of the contact of the creative mind (Parvathy) with the Divine consciousness (Shiva). This child is Ganesh, the deity who combines within him both worldly prosperity and spiritual perfection. He is worshipped at the beginning of each new endeavour; because he represents a divine resolve rather than one that springs from ego-centred consciousness.
This article was inspired by the book ‘Glory of Ganesh’, by Swami Chinmayananda, which provides far more detailed explanations about Ganesh and the symbolism, meanings and teachings that are contained in His stories. The book can be ordered via the Chinmaya Mission UK website.