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The Origins of Ganesha's Elephant Head

When speaking about Ganesha's origins or birth, the question that most newcomers to or devotees of Hinduism want to know is how and why Ganesha acquired His characteristic elephant head. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of delving into Hindu religious narratives, such as the story of Ganesha's elephant head, is to discover how many variations of the story exist. Many of these stories are contained in various texts and then passed down in different forms-- through the study of scripture, rituals, music or oral narratives.

The most common explanation for how Ganesha acquired his elephant head is the version I learned while growing up. As details vary in each telling, the general story begins at the home of the deific couple, Shiva and Parvati, on the sacred mountain, Mt. Kailash. Shiva has left home and Parvati wants to take a bath, but needs someone to guard the door. Therefore, she creates a boy (in some versions from turmeric paste and in others from the earth). She breathes life into him and commands him to forbid anyone from entering. When Shiva returns, the boy obediently blocks him from access to his own home. Outraged by the stubbornness of the guard at the gate, Shiva fights the boy and kills him by severing his head.

When Parvati emerges from her bath, she is appalled at the sight of her dead creation. Her reaction varies in different versions. In one version she is deeply saddened. Wishing to relieve his wife of her grief, Shiva commands an army to bring back the head of the first animal they find. In another version, Parvati reacts with a violent wrath and threatens to destroy all of creation. When hearing this threat, Brahma (the Creator of the universe) appears and negotiates with Shiva. Shiva instructs Brahma to find the head of the first creature he encounters. In both versions, they first encounter an elephant and use its head to replace that of the boy's.

Another narrative involves the son of Surya (the Sun God), Shani (Saturn), and how his very gaze at Parvati's newborn son severs or in some versions, burns off the newborn's head. Shani tries to warn Parvati of this, but Parvati is offended that Shani would not look at her son. She therefore provokes Shani to look at her son. Hearing the news, the god Vishnu (Protector of the universe) arrives with the head of an elephant for Parvati's son. Another narrative claims that Ganesha's elephant head results from an act of vengeance by the sage Kashyapa. Kashyapa curses Shiva for killing his son in a storm of unrestrained wrath. To rectify his error, Shiva requests the head of an elephant (who belongs to the god Indra) to heal Kashyapa's son. Still enraged, Kashyapa curses Shiva's son with the same fate.

In yet another narrative, Ganesha's elephant head originally belongs to that of an elephant-headed demon named Gajamukhasura. The demon has been performing penances to Shiva, who was pleased with his devotion. As a reward for Gajamukhasura's efforts, Shiva grants him any wish he wants. Gajamukhasura requests that Shiva live in his belly and Shiva complies. Noticing that her husband has been gone for some time, Parvati calls Vishnu to help find her husband. Vishnu soon discovers Shiva's whereabouts in the belly of the demon and plans to extract Him. Vishnu pleases the demon with exquisite music and the demon thanks him by granting Vishnu any wish he wants. Vishnu sees this as an opportunity to request the release of Shiva but when Gajamukhasara does so, he starts to die. As a dying wish, he asks Shiva to immortalize him in some way. Shiva decides to replace his son's head with the head of Gajamukhasara.

As you can see from the above examples, most narratives account for Ganesha's elephant head as acquired after his birth. There is one version in which He is born with an elephant head because His parents, Shiva and Parvati, conceive him while having voluntarily taken an elephant form. In another story, Parvati throws her bath water into the Ganges, a sacred river. An elephant-headed goddess, Malini, drinks the water and produces a child that has multiple elephant heads, arms and legs. However, there is a dispute over the rightful parents of the child. The goddess of the Ganges river (Ganga) claims the child to be hers. However, Shiva feels that it is Parvati's child and in order to claim him, cuts off the child's extra heads and arms.

In the end, there are many explanations for Ganesha's elephant head. Also various details, commentaries and interpretations exist for each version of each narrative. This article provides quick synopses of some of these narratives and demonstrates the inherent diversity, as well as, the imaginative creativity in the narrative tradition in Hinduism.

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