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Written by: Jennifer Kumar, LMSW, Cultural Adjustment Coach/Mentor
Wednesday, February 04, 2009

What Can we Learn from the Story of Ganesha?


Part 2 of 3.  Part 1.  Part 2.



A few questions come to mind when reading the story of Ganesh (here). When reading the story at face value, it can be interpreted by some as 'violent' or confusing. A few questions arise, such as:

How could a son get murdered by his own father?

Why is an elephant’s head attached to Ganesha?

Why don’t we ever see what Ganesha looked like as a ‘human’?



Stories like this happen to each and every one of us some time in our lives. Yes, it may not be so gruesome, but if we look at the symbology of the story, we can realize as humans we play out similar scenarios in our life, especially when confronted with the unexpected. I think the underlying reason for Siva’s behavior is when he arrived home things were not as he expected. Though in our own lives we may not see someone for long periods of time, when we do see them again, we may remember them as they were at that age. As they were imprinted in our minds. We react and interact with them in this way though we know intellectually they have changed. Emotionally, though we remember the ‘good old days.’ Like this, when Siva returned home, He wanted to walk back into his old life. He remembered his wife and home in a certain way. He did not expect change- he did not expect to undergo a life transition when walking back into his ‘old life’. When he was accosted by Ganesha at the door, he was taken aback and fearful he could not step back into his old life. He feared that things had changed. He wanted to get rid of this change and see his wife. Ganesha represented change. Hence he ‘got rid’ of change by ridding of Ganesha.



But as we all have been through life transitions and changes, we come to soon realize things are not what they seem. We often realize when a change confronts us we react with confusion, fear and impatience. In this story both Siva and Ganesha jump to conclusions. When Ganesha sees Siva coming to the door, he would not know his dad. We are not even sure if Siva was present during Ganesha’s birth or had left during Parvathi’s pregnancy. Siva would not know what Ganesha looks like, though should have realized or thought it could be his son by the age of Ganesha. Neither Ganesha asked clarifying questions nor Siva clearly explained who he was. How often do we do this in our own lives? We just assume others know who we are and why we are there or we take it for granted people should remember who we are. Humans (and in this case, gods, too!) are proven to have short term and selective memories. We don’t remember everything. Hence, it is possible to forget, even the people most near and dear to us. This happens even if we live in the same house day in and day out- we assume we know each other, but do we really? Even if we live in the same house- do we know what each other look like (could we describe that person in detail without photos), we don’t often know their likes or dislikes or their temperaments. We often do not even know this about our own selves. This can demonstrate that even in the glorified romantic times of yore when we modern citizen think life was so much simpler and people were much more emotionally connected, they like many humans are caught up in their own mind, their own thoughts, likes, desires, and hopes rather than thinking of others and being patient first.



When it comes to chopping off Ganesha’s head, I don’t think we can take this literally. This is a story, a myth. It has a symbolic meaning. Chopping off a head could mean chopping off knowledge- after all neither knew each other or the exact situation. Again, by chopping off the head- the father was unknowingly punishing his son, and the son was doing what he was asked to do by his mother. We could say, though this particular mother and father were separated by distance after long time, they still recognized each other, but could not physically communicate. How often does this happen in our own homes? When a child is asked to do something by his mother, the father may not know and visa versa. If the father is not told by the mother, the father may unknowingly jump to conclusions, scold, punish or redirect the child to do something else. Then, the mother steps in and asks or directs the father to rectify the situation. Possibly this represents how miscommunication and misunderstanding between mother and father affect their children.



Why does Ganesha have an elephant’s head? Siva wanted a quick fix. The elephant’s head was the first he saw. Why he did not see the most obvious- Ganesha’s own human head and reattach it?  Maybe the most obvious was not so easy to realize. I think we as humans do this all the time- miss the obvious solution that is right under our noses. For example, what if a person arrives home and searches their car and purse and pockets for their keys and can’t find them? He may  break into his own home or call a locksmith or someone he has given a spare set of keys to- without looking in obvious places- like their car’s ignition, the trunk keyhole, or their very hands! When we are confronted with the unexpected, and become mad, upset, and jump to conclusions, the obvious solutions, the easiest and most common sense solutions are oddly out of reach.



I think Ganesha was also given an elephant’s head rather than his own to remind us we are all different and unique. Though it may be hard to see from the outside, we must look within. But if the differences we see are on the outside- again don’t jump to conclusions- don’t stare at that person’s deformities, don’t tease them or refuse to give them a chance to attain success. Everyone wants to be treated with patience and consideration. There is also symbology assigned with the elephant’s head as well- small eyes signify to take it slow and look at the details while big ears can signify to listen intently. More on the symbology of the elephant here.


What other meanings or lessons can you derive from the story of how Ganesha became to be a man with an elephant’s head? Share below, or e-mail your thoughts to me.



--part 2 concluded—


Browse the entire article.

Part 1:  Story of Lord Ganesha

Part 3: Questions and Answers about Ganesha



Related Posts/Sites:  Age is Timeless  


More articles on Ganesha:

A Promise to Lord Ganesh: One American’s Journey to Celebrating Ganesh Chathurthi in America (September 1, 2008)

Lessons From Ganesha Chathurthi (9/25/07)
Lord Ganesh Freed India From the British? (9/25/07)
Ganesh Chathurthi in Mauritius (10/12/07)

All Articles related to “Ganesha” on Alaivani



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Copyright ©2009 Jennifer Jayanthi Kumar


3 comments so far...

Re: What Can we Learn from the Story of Ganesha?

i dont know about full story of ganesha

Thanks for stopping by Praveen. Since I posted this, I have heard other versions - I guess based on region of India a person comes from the story may differ.

By praveenthiran on   Monday, July 12, 2010

Re: What Can we Learn from the Story of Ganesha?

Seriously, when a child hears this story, it really does not understand the concept of symbolism at age 6. What he/she understands is that a small child's head is chopped off by some man. What kind of story is appropriate to tell children that a father chopping off a son's head is acceptable symbolism for how parents have difficulty communicating?

The author of this blog says not to take this story at face value but at what value does a child take this story? I was raised as a Hindu child in and there was no other way that I took this story. In fact if you ask Hindus, they do not understand the symbolism of this story, if there really is any. They take it at face value and accept it as dogma when they prostrate over a stone or plastic statue of an elephant headed human.

This story does serve to desensitizes children to some things. Namely, violence is an acceptable response especially the decapitation of little boys. Also a contradiction exists - the fundamental tenets of Hinduism dictate that killing of animals is wrong, However, an elephant is killed for its head to replace the one of the boy. In a way it depicts that a "sin" of a man can be rectified by animal sacrifice. Why couldn't the all powerful gods simply put back the boy's head? Or the another question, why does a god get angry in the first place and kill a child in the most gruesome manner?

I thought the author's meanings and lessons were well intentioned and thoughtful, however lost on the very people that propagate this fairy tale as fact and force their children to pray to an elephant headed man while demonstrating that infanticide, rage, abandonment, animal sacrifice, and forgiveness of immoral acts are a part of life, only because, these stories and myths are celebrated and held in the highest (read HOLIEST) regard just as the stories of the Christian Bible are held for Christians.

In the real world, if a man were to kill his child, this is called murder - and of the worst kind. There are severe consequences and penalties for this act. Sacrificing an elephant does not bring back a child from death. I hate to say it but this story has no moral or ethical value whatsoever. It should not be used as a teaching tool.

By Srinath on   Monday, July 04, 2011

Re: What Can we Learn from the Story of Ganesha?

Srinath, thank you for sharing these thoughts. You have bought out valid points. I as the blog owner am the author of this post. It's always good to be challenged in how I see things and think about the world.

Yes, in fact many Hindu myths are quite violent and it is true that a majority of people can not see the symbolism in this- and more so yes small children.

Since I have written this post, I have been challenged on this directly and indirectly (such as seeing my Indian friends show this cartoon to their kids or the comic book and their reactions). In fact, I applaud you for questioning your own tradition and story-telling tactics. Often people live generation to generation not questioning their heritage or myths that are passed down from generation to generation and as you say- people get desensitized to it.

I like your points and they have surely given me something to think about and that is why I am leaving your comments on this blog. Others will also read them and think twice. Thanks.

Jennifer Kumar

By Jayanthi on   Monday, July 04, 2011

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