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The popular god of ‘obstacles’ (Vigneśvara): he removes them—hence the name, Vināyaka, ‘remover’—but, if not properly propitiated, he can also impose them. He is therefore invoked at the beginning of almost any undertaking, whether ritual, literary, or simply setting out on a journey. This means he plays an essential, although limited role in the daily life of many, if not most Hindus. A related function is Gaṇeśa's guardianship of door-ways and entrances. Images of the god in this role are ubiquitous on lintels throughout India. There, as elsewhere, he is portrayed as elephant-headed and human-bodied, with a snake-entwined pot belly and the limbs of a chubby child. Of his various attributes, an elephant goad, a noose, and a bowl of sweetmeats (laḍḍus) are among those most frequently depicted. His vāhana (‘vehicle’) is a rat.

Historically, Gaṇeśa may have been a tribal totem, or a separate elephant god, who was subsequently absorbed into the group of deities associated with Śiva, as the leader of his gaṇa (‘troop’). He does not appear in iconographic form until after the 5th century ce, but his close association with Śiva and Pārvatī thereafter is reflected in numerous Purāṇic myths. One popular mythological account of how Gaṇeśa acquired his head, which also mirrors his absorption into Śaivism as a subordinate deity, tells of how Pārvatī, when washing herself, created a child (Gaṇeśa) from the dirt scraped from her legs. When Śiva returned, he found an unknown youth, guarding the entrance, and so blocking his way to Pārvatī. In the ensuing row, Śiva decapitated him. On learning his true identity, Śiva ordered one of his followers to bring him the head of the first creature he came across—which happened to be an elephant. And so Gaṇeśa was resurrected with an elephant's head. Images of him with a broken tusk reflect another popular story, that he broke it in order to act as Vyāsa's scribe as he recited the Mahābhārata for the first time.

Although Gaṇeśa is embedded in Śaiva mythology, his appeal crosses sectarian and, indeed, religious boundaries; there are Buddhist and Jain equivalents. A small number of bhakti sects, known as the Gāṇapatyas, have worshipped him in various forms as the supreme deity, and he has been particularly popular in Maharashtra, where the yearly Ganeśa Catūrthi festival takes place. (Since the 19th century, this has taken on a particularly nationalist flavour.) He is one of the five gods worshipped by smārta brahmins.


Subjects: Hinduism.

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