USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘ganesh’
Myths
Narrative

Ganesh Origin

Context:

The informant – RB – is a middle-aged Hindu woman, originally from West Bengal, India. She now works as a nutritionist in South Florida, and is one of my mother’s closest friends. The following happened during a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about some of her favorite Indian folklore.

Piece:

I’ll tell you a little story about Ganesh. His mother was taking a bath and she told him that, “You know what, I’m taking a bath, don’t let anybody come in here, because I don’t want anybody to come in.”

In the meantime, his father, Shiva, comes to visit, and Ganesh says, “You can’t come in,” because, apparently, he’s never seen his father before.

His father, also a god, says “Of course I can go in, that’s my house.”

And Ganesh said, “No, you cannot go in! My mom said I’m supposed to be guarding the door and I won’t let you in.” The father gets very upset and looks at Ganesh with so much anger, that his head falls off his shoulder.
The mother comes out and sees what’s happened, and is like, “Why did you just do that to our little boy?”

So by that time, his anger has kind of subsided, and he’s like, “Oh my god, we can’t have him without a head. We have to find a new head!” So apparently, he sends people all over the world, saying, “Go find me the first living creature who’s sleeping with its head facing the East. Cut off its head and bring it to me.” So everybody goes everywhere and can’t find someone, because, apparently in India you can’t sleep with your head towards the East, since the sun rises in the East. They go all over the world, and they find this elephant. So what they do is, they cut off its head and they bring it.

And the mother goes, “What the heck! I can’t put that head on my little baby!”

The father says, “Well, I can’t change the rule, I said the first living being with its head facing the East,” so he puts the head on the child, and the child is alive.

The mother goes, “No one is going to worship him! Everyone will make fun of him! Nobody is going to respect him.” So now it is written that, before any prayer or any celebration, – anything – you have to first pray to Ganesh before you can do any official celebration. So now in every part of India, before prayer, or any celebration – a wedding, anything – you must first pray to Ganesh. Ganesh is also the God of removing obstacles, so he’s become a very popular symbol. I have a Ganesh in my house; I think your mom has a Ganesh in your house, too.

 

Analysis:

I was raised around a lot of Indian/Hindu culture, so I’d, of course, heard of Ganesh, but it was really fun to learn the creation myth of Ganesh himself. I’ve heard and read much less detailed versions of this same story, but it was really fascinating to hear this version from someone who is an active participant in the Hindu religion/culture. From some brief research, it seems that there are variations in which Ganesh’s head is physically cut off, and some stories omit the detail about the requirement for the head facing East.

Myths
Narrative

Ganesha

  1. The main piece: The Myth of Ganesha

“Okay, the elephant headed god Ganesha is known as the remover of obstacles, and there’s an interesting story behind how he got the elephant head. So, there is a…when Lord Shiva, Shiva is married to goddess Parvati, and they had a…they had a son, but Shiva didn’t know. Yeah, so Parvati made a… she made a, you know, she made a baby out of clay, and gave it life. And so, that was her baby boy. Ganesha. And then her husband Shiva once came to her house while she was showering, and little Ganesha was outside, and she had told him not to let anyone in. Since Shiva doesn’t know this is Parvati’s son, and Ganesha doesn’t know Shiva is his dad…

“Ganesha says, ‘Mom told me not to let anyone in,’ and he stops him. After warning him, and the kid doesn’t listen, Shiva beheads him. And of course when Parvati comes out and sees him, sees her dear son Ganesha has been beheaded, she’s upset. And basically, how do you say it in English. She’s heartbroken at her husband, at what he did. And she says, ‘you will bring my son back to life.’

“Well, I don’t know why the other boy’s head wasn’t around. Maybe the head was destroyed. So basically Shiva goes in search of…he goes and finds a baby elephant, cuts off the head, and puts it on the boy, and that’s the elephant headed god Ganesha.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Context of the performance?

Ganesha is one of the most important gods in Hinduism. The informant remarked that everyone in India, from small children to old men, would be able to recite this story, albeit varying versions. He said this myth is also the reason that the first prayer in a puja, or Hindu prayer session, is to Lord Ganesha. He learned the story from his mother and older brothers.

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

This folk narrative doesn’t fit any of the narrative categories perfectly, but would be best classified as a myth. This story is sacred and revered because it describes the birth and creation of Ganesha, and sets up a mythological reason that Ganesha is always the first God to be praised during a puja. It includes some questionably fantastical concepts, such as Parvati creating her son out of clay and Shiva restoring the boy’s life with an elephant head, but as is characteristic of myths, the morals it imbues are more important than the technical truthfulness of the narrative.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is a middle-aged India-American male, who grew up in an urban setting in India with three siblings. While he moved to the United States over 30 years ago from India, many of his family members still live there, and he enjoys maintaining his links with them through his heritage and Hindu religion.

Folk Beliefs

Never Sleep With Your Feet Facing North

My roommate’s parents were both born in Indian (she was born in the United States) so she sat down with me in my apartment and explained some folklore that she learned from her parents. Her relationship to the folklore isn’t necessarily that she truly believes in it, but that it’s an important part of her culture and something she thinks about from time to time.

“Never sleep with your feet facing north, always sleep with you head facing the north, because that is where God is. Putting your feet in that direction is disrespectful”

Q: So, sleeping with your head and feet in a certain direction is part of religion?

“It’s religious-based, because our main god, Ganapati, he…long story short, they needed to find a head for him. That’s why he has an elephant head. And they had to go find…like, get the head of the first animal that was facing north. And it was an elephant, so he has an elephant head. North is where God…everything good is in the north”

Q: So is the south considered bad?

“I don’t think it’s considered bad, it’s just that North is where the gods live. West, East, South… no gods live there, so we don’t even particularly care.”

Q: Does your family all follow this direction?

“It’s one of those things that’s always in the back of your head, like ‘never put your feet facing the north’ In my house at home I actually sleep facing south, but when I came to college I was like ‘oh this is north, I will sleep this way.’ I don’t believe that I will be curse or that I’m going to die because I slept in the wrong direction, but it’s something you think about”

Q: Do other people take it more seriously?

“I think so. I know when I would go home and visit my grandparents, they’re in flats, so there’s not a lot of space, so we’d have to combine beds and it was really inconvenient the ways the two beds combined, but it was like ‘you have to face sleeping north so this is how the beds will be arranged’ But that was one thing, at home. I only have experience at home. My grandparents didn’t care when we went to a hotel, they were like, yeah whatever. It’s more like your primary bed is a big deal”

 

This folk belief has a basis in religion, but it doesn’t seem that there a large consequences for not following the belief. Unlike some folk beliefs, there is not really a set punishment for disobeying; instead, what is important is conveying respect to the gods.

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