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Ganesha the deity


Ganesha, the popular elephant-headed deity, is known as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings (Genesis). Ganesha is a member of the "divine family" that also comprises his step-father Shiva, his mother Parvati and his brother Skanda.

The most common account of Ganesha's birth explains how he acquired his unusual elephant head. While Parvati was bathing one day she formed a young man from the dirt and sweat that she scrubbed off her leg. Giving life to the figure (who later came to be known as Ganesha), Parvati asked him to stand guard at the door to her bath and let no one in. Parvati's husband, Shiva, who had been away when Ganesha was created, arrived home and insisted on seeing his wife. Shiva and the young man (Ganesha) standing guard came to blows, neither of them aware of the other's relationship to Parvati. In the course of this fight, Shiva cut off Ganesha's head, only to find that he had killed Parvati's son. Parvati insisted that Ganesha's life be restored, and Shiva ordered one of his retinue to go out and bring back the head of the first creature he saw: this was an elephant. Placing the elephant head on Ganesha's shoulders, Shiva brought him back to life.

Ganesha is greatly revered for his wisdom and courage, and as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings he is invoked at the beginning of every ceremony and before any new undertaking, especially before a journey or a new project. Weddings and other beginnings are blessed by Ganesha, including the New Year. Images of Ganesha are found above the thresholds of homes, at the top of wedding invitations and at the entrances to temples.

Ganesha is known to put up obstacles as well as to remove them, but he is generally a congenial deity, popular for his cunning and lighthearted trickery. His vehicle is the sly rat, who, like many of Ganesha's devotees, is eager to taste the sweetness of life. Ganesha's enormous belly symbolizes his embodiment of a successful and prosperous life, and he is usually depicted with a bowl of sweets. His left tusk is broken off because, according to legend, he used it as a pen to transcribe the Mahabharata when Vyasa dictated it to him. In recent times, the wise and convivial Ganesha has become a patron saint of students, who pray to him fervently for help in passing their exams. Apparently, American high school students should probably start praying to Ganesha too.

Is the Creation saga of Ganesha any more believable than human parthenogenesis and talking donkeys (Numbers 22:28-30)? Should Americans display Ganesha statues in city halls and county courthouses, or would that violate the First Amendment (the separation of church and state)? In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Justice Hugo Black wrote: "In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state." The Sacred East non-fiction book, edited by anthropologist C. Scott Littleton, is a great source.