Continued from previous post…
Ganesha is my copilot.
As you can see, I don’t drive anywhere without him.
And yet, I know very little about Hinduism and its pantheon. Decades ago, when I first came across Ganesha, he was, indeed, a very foreign critter to me. A close friend of mine got his PhD in Medieval Indian history, speaks fluent Hindi, and definitely knows his Vedas from his Upanishads. He convinced me that Ganesha would be a good god to pay attention to since he’s the remover of obstacles, the god of wisdom and knowledge, and facilitator of all new ventures–whether it’s a short trip to the store, the start of a new creative project, or a business agreement. OK fine, I thought. But I wasn’t what you’d call a devotee. Demeter and the rest of the Mt. Olympus gang were all the deities I figured I needed. But there was something totally sweet and engaging about the fat, elephant headed god. He appealed to my sense of whimsy. And so, when someone gave me a Ganesha decal, I stuck it on the rear passenger side window of my blue station wagon. I am a careful driver, but the roads are crazy and I need all the help I can get.
Little did I know what a powerhouse that cute little deity actually was.
Ganesha is the son of Pravati, the mother goddess of love, fertility and devotion and Shiva, god of destruction and regeneration. His brother is Kartikeya, leader of the celestial armies. Outside of Quan Yin, Ganesha is probably the most popular pagan deity in the world. His devotees range from hundreds of thousands of traditional Hindus*, Jaines, and Bhudists to a vast number of garden variety American spiritual seekers. His image is everywhere.
And there are tons of stories about him. As with any deity of any pantheon, even the ones about the same event vary drastically from place to place; and India is a huge country and people everywhere love to make a good story even better. My favorite story is about how he got his elephant head. I have several friends who are yogis and they all tell a different one. This is the version I tell:
Once upon a time Shiva went on one of his a long retreats, leaving Parvati home alone. One day, before she took a bath, she rubbed her body with turmeric (some say sandalwood) paste. As she relaxed and waited for it to dry, she scraped some of it from her body and formed it into the image of a small boy. The Goddess breathed life into him and told him to guard her bath from intruders. Unfortunately, Shiva arrived while Parvati was still bathing and demanded that the boy step aside so he could greet his wife. The boy, unwilling to go against his creator’s orders, bravely stood his ground against the mighty god of destruction. Shiva, of course, lost his temper and lopped off the boy’s head. When Parvati emerged from the bath she was furious. “That was our son!” she said. “Fix him.” A contrite Shiva ordered his gana (close followers) to go out and bring him the head of the first being they found that was asleep and facing north. They returned with an elephant head and Shiva, god of regeneration, attached it to the boy and named the elephant headed being Ganapati (leader of Shiva’s followers) or Ganesha. And everyone was happy.
Ganesha’s elephant head reminds us of his wisdom and strength. My favorite images of him show him dancing and he always has sweets—Ganesha loves sweets, especially chocolate. He has only one tusk and there are a variety of stories explaining why. If you look closely at my dashboard Ganesha you will see that he doesn’t have any tusks. This is because he got knocked onto the floor and his one remaining tusk broke off.
His vahana (mount or vehicle) is a rat or mouse. Some say this is because he originated as a rural deity and kept the rats from the grain. Others say it shows the humility of this great god. I have a different theory. Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and the basic obstacle that we all have is fear. Franklin D. Roosevelt was right on when he said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Everyone knows that elephants are deathly afraid of mice, But Ganesha has obviously conquered his fear and actually turned it into an asset. A perfect lesson for the remover of obstacles to convey.
His other prominent feature is his belly. It is big because Ganesha is Lord of Everything. He contains all that is, was, or ever will be.
There is a Upanishad verse which states, “All this world is of the form ‘OM’. The past, present and future are all ‘OM’. And whatever transcends the three divisions of time, is also ‘OM’. And so Ganesha is the embodiment of this most powerful and sacred of sounds. Even the glyph for ‘OM’ resembles his profile, especially if you turn it upside down.
But there are many powerful gods. Why is Ganesha so widely beloved?
Because Ganesha delivers—big time. As I am constantly discovering.
Years ago I was driving down Fremont Street in Portland, Oregon with my Ganesha decal in the back window. A woman began backing her car out of a driveway in front of me. She looked right at me, and continued backing out. I was going 30 mph and she was only a few car lengths away. “Oh shit,” was all I had time to think before the world went pitch black and became very, very busy. When I came to I was still continuing down Fremont, but the woman in the car was now behind me, petrified, her mouth wide with terror. I distinctly heard a huge sigh of relief from the back window.
From that day on I became a devotee. Genesha gets all the chocolate he wants as well as lots of love, admiration, and gratitude.
And then there was the time I was driving up to Seattle for a work weekend. I had a client scheduled for 2:30. It was about 11am and I was just north of Olympia when I stopped for gas. I stuck the fuel nozzle into the tank opening and hurried back in the front seat. I had had electrical repairs done and nothing on the dashboard worked; so I got out the manual and figured out how to reset everything while the tank was filling. When I was done, I put the nozzle back, closed the tank, and headed toward Seattle. About a half hour later the engine died. I was in the left hand lane and so had to pull off the freeway to the left. The gas gauge read empty. I had been so preoccupied that I’d forgotten to actually start the pump. I looked at Ganesha in total panic. (By this time he was on the dashboard, as pictured above).
His wise, patient eyes returned my manic stare. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can’t help stupid.”
“Yeah, yeah, that was really stupid,” I said, “But can you help me out now?”
“No problem,” he replied.
I hit the flashers, jumped out of the car and started pacing frantically. I had gone back and forth maybe five times when a car pulled up behind me and a man got out, cell phone in hand. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
“I’m out of gas.”
“Ah. I have about two gallons in the trunk. That should get you to the nearest station.”
Who carries gas in their trunk? Isn’t that supposed to be dangerous? And what are the chances that that person would be close behind me and would actually pull over on the left-hand side of an insanely busy freeway to help some idiot woman? I paid him for the gas and gave him a huge hug. He and Ganesha are my heroes.
A few years after this incident I had a brainstorm. I usually buy a really good chocolate bar and leave it on the dash next to Ganesha for a few days. By then, he’s done with it and it becomes, what the Hindus and Sikhs call prasad—food for the worshipers. Unfortunately, in the summer the chocolate melts really fast and Ganesha’s treats didn’t last long. Elephants like peanuts, I thought. Why not give him m&ms chocolate covered peanuts? They would keep better, and if he didn’t like them, I had no doubt that he would tell me. I poured some into a small bowl and set them on the dash. A few days later, when I figured he was done with them, I snitched one. Before I even got it to my mouth I heard: “Those are mine!”
I put it back with profuse apologies.
Last September my husband’s leg suddenly got very red and swollen and his temperature shot sky high. The immediate care facility doc told me to drive him directly to the emergency room. On the way there I caught the distinctive scent of peanuts and chocolate. I looked over and saw my husband munching on an m&m with blissful smile on his face. The first one I’d seen that day.
“Those are Ganesha’s,” I said, remembering the rebuke I had received.
“We’re having a party,” Craig replied. I heard Ganesha’s rumbling chuckle.
It didn’t surprise me at all that the God would share his treats with someone who was very sick and very worried. It made us both laugh.
Thank you thank you thank you, Lord Ganesha.
And now you know why Ganesha is my co-pilot and why I won’t drive anywhere without him.
To be continued…
*”All Hindus worship Ganesha regardless of their sectarian belief,” says D N Singh in A Study of Hinduism. “He is both the beginning of the religion and the meeting ground for all Hindus.”