Elephant – Gentle and Strong

Ganesh Chaturthi is observed in the Hindu calendar month of Bhaadrapada, starting on the shukla chaturthi (fourth day of the waxing moon period). In this address, delivered St Mark’s, REV MAUD ROBINSON explores what we can learn from contemplation of this gentle and strong elephant deity.

As Catholics have their company of saints, so the Hindus have their pantheon of gods. They can all be dismissed as rank superstition and consigned to the rationalist dustbin. Or they can be appreciated as important talismans and reminders of those best parts of ourselves and our relations to the universe. Images can be carried with us to act as reminders of what we hold to be most dear, most important to embody in our lives. For me just such a talisman has been Ganesha, the elephant headed god of the Hindu pantheon.

Before I came to know about Ganesha I had already appreciated the elephant as a worthy talisman. A Japanese friend wrote to tell me that she had had her first son. She and her husband had named him Zohta, which means elephant, and they hoped that their son would grow up to be gentle and strong, like an elephant.

Gentle and Strong. I can think of no better combination of qualities to wish for one’s child, or to strive to embody oneself, and so I developed a special affinity for the image of the elephant.

And later I learned that our Indian sisters and brothers had had from ancient time a god depicted with the head of an elephant, and I was immediately drawn towards it. I think the first image I saw of Ganesha was in a sculpture park with great stone carvings, including one of Ganesha. I am, sadly, sure that a picture of that stone carving was among all of my photographs which I lost several years ago.

Ganesha Chaturthi, began on 17 September 2015. (It will begin on 5 September 2016) It is the Hindu festival in honour of the god Ganesha, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, patron of arts and sciences and the deity of intellect and wisdom. What can we learn from contemplation of this gentle and strong elephant deity?

As with most of the gods in the Hindu pantheon there is a variety of stories about his origin and the meaning of his existence. I quite like this. It gets us away from the conception of an absolute truth; reminds us that these are stories which can be interpreted and used to help us to interpret and make sense of our place in the world.

Ganesha emerged as a distinct deity in the 4th and 5th centuries, although he inherited traits from Vedic and pre-Vedic precursors. The son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha has an elephant’s head with a curved trunk and big ears, and a huge pot-bellied body of a human being. He is the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. He is one of the five prime Hindu deities.

Ganesha's head symbolises the Atman or the soul, which is the ultimate supreme reality of human existence, and his human body signifies Maya or the earthly existence of human beings. The elephant head denotes wisdom, and its trunk represents Aum, the sound symbol of cosmic reality.

The story of his birth, as depicted in the Shiva Purana, goes like this. Once goddess Parvati, while bathing, created a boy out of the dirt of her body, and assigned him the task of guarding the entrance to her bathroom. When Shiva, her husband returned, he was surprised to find a stranger denying him access, and struck off the boy's head in rage. Parvati broke down in utter grief and to soothe her, Shiva sent out his troops to fetch the head of any sleeping being. The company found a sleeping elephant and brought back its severed head, which was then attached to the body of the boy. Shiva restored its life and made him the leader of his troops. Shiva also initiated the practice that people would worship him and invoke his name before undertaking any venture.

Ganesha is the Lord of Obstacles, both of a material and spiritual order. He is popularly recognised as a remover of obstacles, though traditionally, he also places obstacles in the path of those who need to be checked.

For Hindus the swastika is a lucky cross associated with the good fortunes given by Lord Ganesha. It is very unfortunate that this symbol was later adopted by Hitler’s Nazi party, and so its association with good fortune has largely been forgotten. Swastika comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘good being, fortune or augury.’ It also represents the sun and the cycle of life. It is said that the swastika's right-angled arms reflect the fact that the path toward our objectives is often not straight, but takes unexpected turns. They denote also the indirect way in which Divinity is reached through intuition and not by intellect.

So I commend to you contemplation of the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha. The elephant can be seen as embodying the qualities of gentleness and strength. Ganesha has been seen as the Remover of Obstacles; a good talisman to hold to one’s heart as one finds obstacles in the way of what one wants to achieve, and needs to find inspiration for a way to get around these obstacles. Ganesha’s trunk represents the sacred sound of Aum, associated with the beginning of the cosmos; so he can maybe also give inspiration for the beginning of a new and possibly intimidating venture. Ganesha is also associated with the ancient symbol of the swastika, which reminds us that the paths of life and of the spirit are not straight, and may need some lateral thinking or intuition for us to find our way along them.

Copyright Maud Robinson
used by permission
given in St Mark’s on 20 September 2015

(Image of Ganesha, with acknowledgement to clipart)