Ganesh Chaturthi: The Symbolism Of Ganesha

If we can transform like Gaṇeśa, invoking the assistance of Divinity and consistently applying our ability of Viveka in all our heroic endeavours through committed and compassionate living, true transformation will happen in the world. 

By Sri Hari Vittal, Learner at Rashtram

The material, secular worldview determines one’s success by the number of possessions and property one owns. It measures the success of nations by the military-economic-territorial influence; in short, the material prowess that a nation achieves in its life. But does life, whether that of a nation or an individual, have only to do with material prosperity? What truly is our blessing in life?

We must explore one of the most misconstrued stories from the Puranas to understand what truly our blessing is. The Story of Gaṇeśa’s birth has a deeper meaning embedded in it, which gets neglected when it is taken literally.

Stories in our Purāṇa literature are meant to be excavated to discover their deeper significance through the right methods of interpretation — methods which our many spiritual traditions have perfected and which the various modes of sādhanā  offer us. Taking these stories word for word does a great disservice to them. These stories have a subtle symbolism embedded in them at multiple levels which are deeper than the literal.

Symbols make our life easier in that they help communicate our ideas and ideals to others more accurately than mere words could ever do. These symbols are all around us. The words we use to communicate are nothing but symbols themselves, but they are very basic symbols. Images, signs, stories — these are more sophisticated types of symbols. Even within the category of words, metaphors and imageries make for immensely potent symbols. They make stories more interesting and meaningful — they make stories more relatable to our feelings and lived experiences. 

In our country’s traditions, we have used symbols of various kinds to express the Transcendental Truth, The Supreme Reality. These symbols open a new dimension where we can merge the mundane with the Divine in order to express what is inexpressible in common speech.

These Symbols are meant to facilitate our contemplation on higher realities and our pursuit of a deeper spiritual life, leading to the direct experience of the Ultimate Reality which is the substratum of all realities. We must learn the language of symbols to make progress in our spiritual pursuits and manifest our true potential.

According to one story in the Purāṇa literature, Pārvati, the Great Mother Goddess, created Gaṇeśa through the dead skin that she collected from her bath. She was very attached to Gaṇeśa as she had created him. The collection of dead skin symbolizes the three obstacles in our spiritual path that exist within us, Mala (attachment), Vikṣepa (projection), and Āvaraṇa (veiling). 

These are the sources of the various ailments that one goes through internally – Anger, Greed, Lust, Pride, Jealousy, and Attachment. We do not let go of these ailments quickly. We are often driven by them. We need a yogi like Śiva to destroy these negativities. He is not just an unassailable Tapasvin but also self-content and self-sufficient. Śiva is omnipotent. He could have reduced Gaṇeśa to ashes if he had merely thought of doing so. The negative tendencies and impressions are nothing but energies that are the hurdles in our life. Negative energies can be destroyed to pave way for the positive dynamic potential to manifest. 

Pārvati did not create Gaṇeśa by herself. Śakti, the dynamic force behind creation cannot operate without Śiva. Śiva is the substratum through which the dynamic play of creation happens. But Śiva has deeply concealed himself in the work and play of Pārvati and Gaṇeśa. 

Gaṇeśa, the prototype of perfection has not met his father before and so stops him at the door while his mother was taking a bath. Pārvati was washing herself after all the hard labour in creating Gaṇeśa. This was an unfathomable feat achieved by her.

As a result of such heroic accomplishments, arrogant claims for all the credit in achieving that feat emerges. We readily reject the hand of the divine in our work as an unjustified intrusion in our lives. Hence, Lord Śiva chops off Gaṇeśa’s head with his trident.

Śiva cuts off the materialistic māyāic head which does not recognise his own father, the divine. This epitomizes Knowledge triumphing over Ignorance.

Śiva then realizes that he has to replace Gaṇeśa’s head with something else as Pārvati laments and asks Shiva to do something.

An elephant’s head is preferred to replace Gaṇeśa’s head. An elephant’s head is enormous. They have an exceptional capacity for memory. Not just representing the remembrance of detail but also remembering what one truly is, who one’s father is and what is the relationship between oneself and one’s father i.e the divine.

This represents the mysterious upliftment in our evolution not just as living and conscious beings but also as self-conscious beings constantly discerning between the Real and the Unreal in the path of self-discovery.

The Power of Discernment is Man’s true blessing. Claiming it and tapping into its reservoir is the Real Achievement of man. The ability to discern in our traditional knowledge is called Viveka. Viveka is the first step in our spiritual journey. 

This meta-ability of Viveka catapults us into deep thinking beyond the impermanent nature of things and circumstances around us. 

Now we are stuck in the realm of the impermanent world. To move away from it, we need to live a life guided by Viveka – Discernment. It will enable further progress in our spiritual journey and the pursuit of a meaningful life.

That is why we worship Lord Gaṇeśa before undertaking any task. Through this, we invoke the Higher Intelligence and the power of discernment which is symbolised by this deity. This way, we can wade through the muddy waters of unbridled materialism that permeates and traps us in our worldly life.

In our spiritual journey, the obstacles are created by the inner and outer world of the seeker himself.  We are attached to physical objects, emotions and thoughts at the body, mind and intellect levels. 

If we can transform like Gaṇeśa, invoking the assistance of Divinity and consistently applying our ability of Viveka in all our heroic endeavours through committed and compassionate living, true transformation will happen in the world. 

This transformation is gained through the blessings of Gaṇeśa when he cuts off all our obstacles both internal and external with his paraśu (axe) and holds our attention towards the Divine by tying us up with the Transcendental Truth with his Pāśa (rope). As we evolve as seekers, he feeds us the delicious modakas which is the joy in seeking the Divine through spiritual practices – sādhana. Gaṇeśa continuously blesses us with more and more progress until at last the seeker on the path of Divine perfection themselves become the Lord of obstacles, Śrī Vigneśhvara.

It is beautiful to see that in India most Hindu households have a Ganesha altar at the entrance. It could  be helping the householder live a life guided by discernment. 

We must also bring out our innate Viveka Śakti – the Power of Discernment present in the chambers of our inner household. 

Invoking Śrī Gaṇeśa with this awareness and a sense of devotion will help us develop this meta-ability. 

Let us partake in the celebrations and rituals of Lord Gaṇeśa this Gaṇeśa Chaturthi to connect with the Unborn, Attributeless, Formless, All-Pervading Consciousness (Ajam Nirvikalpam Nirākāramekam). Let us fill our minds with the Spirit of Gaṇeśa as we fill our bellies with the Prasada that he grants us.

Śubha Gaṇesh Chaturti, Śrī Gurubhyo Namaḥ, Śrī Mahā-Gaṇapataye Namaḥ


1. Symbolism In Hinduism – Swami Chinmayananda 

4. Hindu Iconology The study of symbolism and meaning of icons – Pandit Sri Rama Ramanuja Achari


6. Gandhi, R. (1984). I am Thou, Indian Philosophical Quarterly Publications, 58-61 

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