The origin of the elephant image for Ganesha

Ganesha -- Gana (meaning the people or masses) + Isha (meaning the Lord) -- was basically a word used for God (as Lord of the masses) very long ago, almost in the beginning.

At some time in history, people, an artist probably, might have tried to depict Ganesha pictorially. There is a possibility that the first person (artist) trying to do this (draw a symbol for Ganesha) did not know anything as how to draw the image (picture) for God as the abstract Ganesha (Lord of the masses).

Thus, perhaps to give more authenticity, pictorially, to Ganesha and not just have another god symbol with a human face, the artist probably used the cue from ganika, a word in Sanskrit looking and sounding very similar to the word Ganesha, and created the image on the basis of it. Since the word ganika means and is used for an elephant (in feminine form), the corresponding picture (image) for Ganesha, based on ganika, also had the elephant features.

Needless to say, once this Ganesha image for God became acceptable to and popular with people, other stories (some of them mythical) and explanations, including modifications to the original symbol, could have occurred later along the way.

Incidentally, since Ganesha represents one of the first concepts and images for God, in the beginning, there is even the tradition of worshipping and paying obeisances to Ganesha before anyone else, i.e. at the beginning of any holy ritual.

In addition, notwithstanding various mythical stories on mouse as the vehicle for Ganesha, they seem to be of a later origin and could indicate wishful thinking on the part of people.

The mice and rats have proved to be a great nuisance, even a danger, to humans from the beginning. They destroy crops and property and even cause disease. In addition, their ability to survive in all kinds of conditions is amazing. Incidentally, rats and mice also are a great nuisance to elephants and domestic animals; and elephants on their part, perhaps to return the favor in kind, are known to not miss any opportunity to trample on these pesky creatures.

This inherent confrontation between the elephant and the mouse in which elephant wins was probably used by artists later to show Ganesha (with elephant features) controlling the mouse completely, symbolically even using and riding it as his vehicle.
By: Dr. Subhash C. Sharma
[email protected]
Date: April 6, 2008

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