Contextual Data: My family isn’t particularly religious, but my parents both grew up in India and they were raised in Hindu households, and so, over Spring Break, I asked my mother if there were any Hindu myths that she remembered particularly well—if there was one she wouldn’t mind recounting for me. The following is an exact transcript of a myth she told me about how Ganesh, the well-known elephant God, got his elephant head.
“So Shiva is the destroyer, right? So he was supposed to have a temper… or flare-ups or whatever. So Ganesh is Shiva’s son. So Shiva went away to the mountains—Shiva’s wife is called Parvati. So, and their son is Ganesh. The elephant god that everybody’s house you see in. So when Shiva went away to the forest for whatever — I don’t know what reason, but he was away for a while, and then when he came home, Ganesh was a little kid, so they — living in the mountains in the Himalayas or whatever. So Ganesh was playing at the entrance of the cave, and he didn’t recognize his father, because he must have gone away — he was a little kid and he must have gone away for a certain period of time or something. So when he came back, he wouldn’t let him enter the cave. He’s saying, ‘Who are you?’ And, you know, ‘You can’t come in,’ and that kind of thing. So apparently Shiva got angry at him. Like, ‘Who are you to tell me not to come into my own house?’ kind of… And in his anger he’s supposed to have chopped away the kid’s head [Mimes cutting across the throat]. And when the wife hears the commotion and comes out and says, ‘What have you done? This was our son.’ You know… So then to bring him back to life, he cuts a head off the nearest thing he finds, which is an elephant—cuts off his head and puts it on Ganesh’s he—this thing [Gestures to neck].”
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When I asked my informant about the significance of this, she said that it related to ideas of Ganesh as the “god of obstacles”—that he’s the figure in the Hindu religion that’s traditionally thought of as either introducing or removing obstacles from an individual’s life and from a family’s home. Many family’s hang up pictures of Ganesh as a way of honoring him and respecting these obstacles that he’ll either introduce or remove from the home. It also may speak to the perceived relationship of the son to the household—that when the father is away, he is meant to protect the household and act as a protector to his mother.
When I asked my informant where she first heard this story, she mentioned that it was just something she kind of grew up with—it was everywhere. In India, these types of myths were often rendered in comic books, so she may have first either encountered it in one of these books, or heard it from her parents. For the most part, she says there’s little, if any, variation in this story. In general though, the myth is one that people in India tend to know really well because Ganesh is so meaningful to them and because the Hinduism is an important part of the culture in many regions of the country.