Who is the Hindu God Ganesha? - Symbols & Meaning

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Ganesha is one of the easiest Hindu deities to identify - he is depicted with a human body and an elephant head, often astride a giant rat. Read this lesson to learn more about Ganesha and his symbols.

Ganesha's Creation and Depiction

When you see popular depictions of Hinduism, you usually find images of an elephant-headed god. This god is Ganesha, who has the body of a man and the head of an elephant. He is the son of Shiva the destroyer, one of the major Hindu gods, though not biologically. According to the story, Shiva's consort Parvati wanted a son, but Shiva did not, so she created Ganesha out of clay.

Shiva was upset with this and sent his demons to kill Ganesha. When they cut Ganesha in half and Parvati found out, Shiva was sorry for his actions and found the nearest animal to use its head for Ganesha. The first animal he found was an elephant, which is why Ganesha has an elephant head in his depictions. The elephant head and human body has more symbolism than just Ganesha's tragedy. While Ganesha's body is representative of the physical, or maya, the elephant head represents atman. Atman is literally the ''self'' but means even more than that - it is the soul or spiritual being.

The creation of Ganesha, with Parvati forming him from clay
The creation of Ganesha

Ganesha's Stories

The Hindu tradition has several interesting stories of Ganesha that are associated with symbols which are often depicted with the god. In one story, Ganesha is seen guarding the house of Shiva and Parvati, his parents. While guarding the house, Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu and the preserver and balance to Shiva, tries to enter and throws an axe at Ganesha, which explains the axe symbol Ganesha is often seen with. In this story, Ganesha breaks one of his tusks because he blocks the axe Krishna throws, supposedly to demonstrate the power of the axe since it actually belongs to Shiva.

The broken tusk is a common symbol of Ganesha, but this story is not the only one of how he broke his tusk. Another story not only explains the broken tusk symbol but also several other symbols. Ganesha is often depicted with food and a tray of sweets because he loves eating. In this story, Ganesha has just overeaten and has an incredibly full belly. As he is riding his giant rat, Kroncha, the rat is spooked by a snake and throws Ganesha off. When Ganesha's overfull belly hits the ground, it explodes, and Ganesha has to stuff the food back in. He cannot keep the food in because of the hole, so he grabs the snake and ties it around his belly like a belt. Because of absurdity of the event, the moon laughs at Ganesha, which upsets him, so he breaks his tusk off to stab the moon with it.

Representation of Ganesha with the axe and tray of sweets symbols
Representation of Ganesha

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