Elephant-headed Ganesh, Hindu’s most renowned God, is a study in contrast. He is held in awe and reverence as a strong force who removes barriers in people’s lives. But Ganesha also summons a very down-to-earth affection. Some of this warmth originates from his direct involvement in our everyday lives and from the mythological tales about him and his family. The legends about Ganesha depict him as a committed son and a affectionate brother.
There’s no Hindu grandmother who doesn’t love reciting the story of Ganesh’s parentage and birth. Many versions abound, but here’s the popular one. Officially, Ganpati’s father is Lord Shiva the Destroyer, one of the holy trinity in the Hindu pantheon, a rather fearsome figure with matted locks and an ash-smeared body who spends eons meditating in the Himalayas. Parvati, his divine wife, presides over all of creation. Without her, the earth would be barren and perennially cold. During her husband’s extended absence, Parvati created a young boy for herself from a dollop of clay – none other than Ganesha. When Shiva, incognizant of his ‘son’s’ existence, returned back, Ganesh refused him from access to Parvati, who was bathing and had directed her son to guard against intruders. Shiv, whose rage could shatter the universe, chopped off the child’s head. When he realized his mistake, he replaced the boy’s head with that of an elephant. Shiva also granted Ganesha a boon – that he would be worshipped before the start of any earthly enterprise. Notwithstanding this dramatic event in childhood, Ganesh grew up to be regarded as the epitome of filial devotion.
Hindu mythology has few stories about Ganesh and his younger brother, Karthikeya. Where Ganesh is revered all over India, Karthikeya’s presence is predominant in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, where he is also known as Murugan, Subramanya or Arumugham. You couldn’t find two more contrasting personalities. Ganesh is comfortably tubby, warm, and patience personified; brother Karthikeya is all radiant energy and an impulsive lad. Ganesha has the lowly mouse as his vehicle while Karthikeya prefers the flashy peacock.
Like many Hindu sagas, stories of the Ganesh-Kartikeya interactions are possessed of a innocent simplicity, yet imbued with lessons for human race. One time, a mango infused with divine knowledge was brought to Mount Kailas in the Himalayas, where Shiva and Parvati hold court. Since only one individual could consume the fruit, a competition was suggested between their two sons – whosoever circumambulated the earth thrice and returned first would win the mango. Confident that his peacock would outrace Ganesha’s mouse, Kartikeya went off into space. Ganesha, on the other hand, simply folded his hands in prayer and walked around his seated parents, returning to his starting point ahead of Kartikeya. His reasoning? Shiva and Parvati contain the world within them; walking around his parents is equivalent to actually going around the earth. He won the mango, but then magnanimously offered it to his sulking brother.
There are contradictory views regarding the marital status of Ganesha. Some regions of India worships Ganesha as a bachelor while the rest of India worships him along with his two consorts. Ganesha is thought to be married to Siddhi (spiritual strength) and Buddhi (intellect) – the daughters of Brahma the Creator – one of the holy trinity in the Hindu pantheon. This is popularly taken to mean that where Ganesh is present, intellectual acumen and spirituality will follow. Legend also has it that Kartikeya grew up to marry Valli, a tribal maiden and Devayani, the daughter of Indra, the wind god. However, he is widely worshipped as a child-god possessed of a warrior’s skills, one who protects his devotees against all harm.