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You may have heard Ganesha, the elephant deity of Hinduism that is often referred to as Ganapati or Ganesh. All of these terms refer to the same deity. Ganesha is the god of luck, salvation, prudence and wisdom, and Hindus throughout the world display his image and treat it with reverence and devotion by offering gifts of sweet foods and incense.

In fact, of all Hindu deities, Ganesha is the most worshipped. He is considered the Lord of all beings in existence because he used his wits in a contest to race his brother around the universe. He realized that his parents were actually the sources of all existence, so he simply walked around them.

Depictions of Ganesha

Ganesha was said to be the son of two Hindu deities, Shiva and Parvati. He has a human body and an elephant’s head. Illustrations of Ganesha often show him with one broken tusk and carrying an elephant goad as a weapon to move stubborn humans along. He is often depicted carrying his broken tusk, a rosary, a book, a hatchet or a conch shell. He may also carry a sweet food offering (ladoo) in his trunk.

He can be seen in various works of art sitting, standing, walking, dancing, committing heroic deeds and pursuing a wide variety of activities. He bears the symbol of the swastika, which in the Hindu religion is a symbol of friendship, in the palm of his hand.

Ganesha also wears a snake as a belt to represent all forms of energy. Because he is humble, Ganesha travels on the back of a rat or mouse, which are often shown mischievously stealing food offerings when Ganesha is not looking.

How Ganesha Came to Be

Ganesha is much loved and easy to recognize because of his elephant head. However, as the story goes, he was not born with an elephant’s head. It seems that Ganesha was created by his mother, the goddess Parvati, as a guardian for her chambers. One day, Purvati’s husband, Shiva (a god), came to call. Ganesha did not know him and did not allow him entrance, so Shiva cut off Ganesha’s head. When he realized what he had done, he replaced the head with an elephant’s head and brought Ganesha back to life.

A similar story explains Ganesha’s broken tusk. It seems Shiva enjoyed pestering Parvati whenever she took a bath, so Parvati asked Ganesha to guard the door so that Shiva could not come in. When Shiva appeared, Ganesha refused him entrance and Shiva threw his trident, breaking Ganesha’s tusk.

Ganesha Offers Hope and Faith

With his odd and somewhat comical appearance, friendly demeanor and large, listening ears, Ganesha is a much beloved member of the Hindu pantheon. He encourages people to look past appearances, be open to imagination and creativity, and practice acceptance of things that are different. Because he has overcome many tribulations, he gives his followers faith and courage to overcome their own challenges.