Imagine you’re a child, made from the dead skin of a Goddess.
Imagine you’ve been given one instruction: don’t let Him in.
Not while I’m bathing, showering in my sacred springs.
And then imagine He comes barging in, with a group of his marauding followers.
What do you do?
Even if it costs you your head.
There are several contradictory stories surrounding the origins of Ganesha, the elephant headed God; this makes sense given that his cult spread throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. He has as many names as he does mythologies, but the name Ganesha is telling – Ganas are the band of followers who hung around Shiva, and Esha is lord (another title, Ganapati, translates the same).
So why is he the lord of Shiva’s motley throng?
Because he beat the crap out of them.
All of them, even Shiva’s favorite attendant, the bull Nandi.
Shiva’s consort, Parvati, made a child out of her skin to guard her sanctuary. Shiva returned home with his Ganas, and attempted to violate her space, but the boy stood his ground. One by one, the Ganas attempted to take the child out.
One by one, the child knocked ’em out.
Just like Mama said.
When even Nandi, Shiva’s fierce and loyal bull was defeated, Shiva was enraged.
In his fury, he raised his most powerful weapon, his enchanted trident.
The result was irreversible.
Parvati came out and found her decapitated child.
She wept. And then she raged; she raged with the fury of a thousand dying stars.
The rage of Kali.
And then she wept again…
Shiva and his Ganas searched high and low for the head, because he knew he could restore the child. But the the force of his weapon, his sacred trident, had severed the youngling’s head out of space, out of time. There was no way to resurrect his bereaved lover’s child.
Desperate, tired, and out of options.
Not a good situation for a God.
A step-father God.
A step-father God with a dead step-child
And then Shiva and his Ganas came across something:
A dead, elderly elephant.
Elephants are certainly intelligent creatures; they are also caring creatures.
They grieve their dead, in a way that puts our merely human funeral rituals to shame.
Maybe it was this awareness that made Shiva and his Ganas pick an elephant’s head to restore the dead child.
Given the age of this tale, and the primal/tribal experiences the early tellers of this myth had, there is probably a glint of truth to this notion; they would have known elephants to be wise and kind.
Regardless of the why, the how is clear: Shiva severed the dead elephant’s head, and brought it back to his grieving wife, and to the decapitated child.
And then he worked his magic…
Ganesha remains a beloved God across multiple cultures and traditions, possibly because he’s so damned cute. Other Gods, including his father, have a malevolent side, but I’m yet to come across a myth where Ganesha is the bad guy, even remotely. He’s not in the business of killing; he just removes obstacles.
In fact, many Hindus won’t start a new enterprise without praying to him, to this day.
The epic poem, the Mahabharata, is attributed to him as scribe. To write it, he broke off one his tusks.
Asides from teasing and tormenting his step-brother, the youthful War God Subrahmanya (who, like Ganesha has many, many other names), he’s basically entirely benevolent…
Kind of like most elephants.
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