Figure of dancing elephant-headed god surrounded by smaller figures.
On view for "Global Perspectives: Exploring the Art of Devotion". 9 February-30 May 2010.
Label Text: He has the face of an elephant; he holds an axe, a lotus, and other objects in his many arms; he has a potbelly and the legs of a child. At first glance, an odd conglomeration of features. Yet the figure of this dancing Ganesha exudes sensuous grace and dignity. The sculptor who fashioned this image, the patron who commissioned it, and the worshippers who viewed it in its temple niche were united by the Hindu culture of devotion (bhakti), expressed in the ritual worship (puja) of images of gods and goddesses. Darshana, viewing the god’s image, is itself an act of devotion, a connection that elicits the deity’s beneficence and grace.
Every feature of the Ganesha icon tells a story about his nature, powers, and deeds. The goddess Parvati created Ganesha to be her guardian. When Ganesha barred the way of Parvati’s husband, Shiva, the god beheaded him. Relenting, Shiva then replaced Ganesha’s original head with that of an elephant and made Ganesha the leader of his dancing hosts (gana). The comic and the sublime meet in Ganesha’s form. The potbelly signals his love of sweets, and he rides on a mouse (shown at the bottom of this stele). Yet he is the god of wisdom, and his curved trunk embodies “Aum,” the sound-symbol of the cosmos. Ganesha is the “God of Beginnings” and “Remover of Obstacles.” His blessing of success must be sought before any new undertaking—a journey, the first day of school, a concert. Not surprisingly, he is the most popular of Hindu gods.
This richly ornamented image, set in a shrine replete with figures of celestials and devotees, is meant for priestly worship. But devotees worship simpler Ganesha images at home shrines, making food and other offerings, accompanied by the Sanskrit chant: “I bow to the lotus feet of the elephant-faced god! O god with the curved trunk, radiant as a million suns, destroy every hindrance in my path, grant me success in my endeavors!” And every autumn, at the end of the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, clay images of Ganesha are taken in procession to bodies of water, where they are immersed. Sad to see their beloved god depart, the devotees cry, “Lord Ganesha, please come back soon, come again next year!”
Indira Viswanathan Peterson
David B. Truman Professor of Asian Studies
Mount Holyoke College