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Today I’ve decided to write on a rather strange for me topic: a Hindu deity. I am not Hindu and while I admire India’s magnificent and ancient culture, I am as versed in it as any average modern Westerner. In other words, I can recognize some popular concepts that have come out of Indian culture, but I probably misinterpret them as most Westerners do without grounded knowledge of the country’s history and traditions. None the less, when writing in this blog I often feel that I am not the one to choose subjects, but rather subjects seem to choose themselves through me. As in my last post, I have spent days researching and preparing to write on Asparagus for my Flower Power series, but when I sat in front of the computer, the Elder tree somehow slipped in.
But I digress. Ganesha came into my life almost exactly a year ago. Of course I knew of the elephant-headed Indian deity before, but a year ago he managed to make his way into my head and elicit curiosity. I even remember the day when I really “met” him. It was one of those rare days when my husband and I were able to leave the kids with family and escaped for a beer and dinner date. We were in Montpellier (France, not Vermont) that day, it was pouring, and after a few beers that buzzed in my head I was reminiscing the good old days when I was working at a translation agency in Berkeley, California near an “authentic” Indian buffet. It had a limited menu, but the food was obviously fresh and home-made, full of Indian spice bouquets. Since my husband loves me, he went on a mission that night to find a good Indian restaurant, under pouring rain, in downtown Montpellier. Soaking wet, we finally ended up in an empty restaurant with a shady waiter who, as we later realized, charged us more than what we ordered. But… we were seated under a large sculpture of Ganesha carved out of wood and I think almost half of our dinner conversation that night turned around the deity. We admired the work (that apparently was hand-crafted in India, but at the same time the waiter was shady, so we’ll never really know), we tried to remember Ganesha’s story and guess at its symbolism.
After that night, through out the year, I’d start noticing Ganesha’s representations whenever I’d cross them. While he is very easy to recognize with his large elephant head on a human body, unlike before, I’d now stop to examine his image. And just a few days ago, while eating lunch with my kids at a Chinese buffet, my son noticed a large statue of the Laughing Buddha and all of a sudden spurted out: “Is that Ganesha?”. I almost choked on my food: “What? How do you know Ganesha?” He went on to explain that his teacher has a poster of Ganesha in the classroom, but she never really explained his story to them. “Of Course” I said, remembering that his teacher is really fascinated with Indian culture. She has been to India several times, reads books with them about Indian children and even does Yoga with the kids once a week.
So I went online this time, and I researched Ganesha’s story and symbolism. Partly so I’ll know what to say to my son if he ever asks me about the elephant-headed man again, partly out of personal curiosity, to see if his message speaks to me as much as his image has spoken this past year. It turned out that he is highly admired in Hinduism. And as all ancient mythology, the myth of Ganesha is seeping with multiple layers of symbolic meaning. But first, here is the original story of how Ganesha got his elephant head.
Ganesha was created by his mother, Parvati, wife of Shiva, out of earth to guard the entrance to her room while she bathed. One day Shiva came back and wished to enter into Parvati’s room while she bathed. Ganesha stopped him. Outraged, Shiva called his army to attack the boy, however, Ganesha was able to ward off their attacks, so Shiva chopped his head off himself. When Parvati found out what her husband has done, she grew furious. Repentant, Shiva asked for his army to bring him the head of the first animal they cross. That animal happened to be an elephant. Shiva placed the head on the boy’s body and breathed life into him. In this way, Ganesha became the son of Pavrati and Shiva.
One of particularities of Ganesha is his love for sweets. He’s got a large belly and is always represented with a bowl of sweet dumplings by his side. His favorite flowers are sunny and bright orange Marigolds. There are many other symbols surrounding him, with layers upon layers of deep spiritual meaning that I won’t even pretend to try to explain. However, I will say that Ganesha is highly venerated as he removes obstacles and his large belly represents prosperity (a bit like the Laughing Buddha?). What captivated my attention though, is that he does not merely remove obstacles, but uses obstacles that life might pose in order to advance. The following strange story will illustrate this point rather well.
One day, after eating many sweet dumplings (modakas), Ganesha decided to take a ride on his giant rat. (An elephant-headed fat man taking a ride on a giant rat? Mythology is never simple). On their way lay a large snake that Ganesha’s rat did not notice. The rat tripped on the snake, making Ganesha fall on his belly, which burst and let the sweet dumplings roll out on the ground. Ganesha, however, stayed unperturbed. He patiently gathered all the dumplings, put them back into his belly and used the snake as a belt to hold his belly closed.
What jumps out here is the deity’s patience and calm demeanor despite the sudden problem. And of course his ability to use the thing that created the problem in the first place as the remedy to that same problem. He wanted those dumplings to stay in his belly, he didn’t give up, he didn’t get angry, he just calmly analyzed the problem and found a solution in the thing that caused the problem. This story clearly shows that obstacles are remedies and vice versa, all depends on how we approach them.
However, the story doesn’t end here. The second part of the story illustrates that despite this flexible approach to life we should not be flexible in our own self-esteem.
Upon seeing Ganesha with a snake around his belly, the Moon mocked him and laughed at his ridiculous look. This angered Ganesha, so he broke off one of his tusks and lanced it at the Moon thus blackening it. After many months of dark nights without light, people begged Ganesha to pardon the Moon. He, however, only excused it partially, which is why the full Moon today shines only once per month.
For me the second part of the story teaches us not to preoccupy ourselves with what others might think of our problems or our solutions. It is our lives, no one has walked in our shoes but us; so if we want those dumplings to stay in our belly because we’ve got a mighty fine sweet tooth and the only belt-like thing that we find is a snake, then dammit! Lets use that snake as a belt and don’t let no Moon tell us that we are not presentable!
So now I know why Ganesha has come into my life now that I am in search of self-acceptance and tired of being constantly in self-doubt. He is the deity of self-esteem, self-love and self-worth. How ridiculous does he seem to the outside world: a fat man with an elephant head who loves to eat and to ride his giant rat. Yet, he assumes his self fully. He assumes his greediness, his sweet tooth and this unconditional self-love and open-mind allows him to calmly find solutions to his problems. Long live Ganesha! And may his myth stay with us for centuries to come as a reminder to never fall out of love with ourselves.