USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Ganesha’
Childhood
Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Myths
Narrative

How Lord Ganesha Got His Head

Context:

My informant is a 18 year old student from the University of Southern California (USC). This conversation took place one night at Cafe 84, a place where many students at USC go to study at night. The informant and I sat alone at our own table, but were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, she tells the story of how Lord Ganesha, a Hindu god that is distinctly known for his elephant head, got his head. She learned this story from her mother, who told this story to her and her sister as a child. In this transcription of her folklore, where she is identified as P and I am identified as K.

 

Text:

P: Okay, yes, okay, this is story of how… my mom told me how Lord Ganesha got his elephant head.

K: Wait, who?

P: Hinduism [laughs]. Lord Ganesha. So, background: He has the body of a human and the head of an elephant, so the story of how he got his head was his, I guess his mom? Wait wait wait, let me restart.

    Ok, so, Parvati wanted to have a bath. So, she was like “I need someone to guard the door while I’m having this bath,” so she creates this human child out of the earth… to guard the door! [Giggles] So her husband, Lord Shiva, comes and says “Let me in, little boy!” The little boy was like, “No, Parvati’s showering, you can’t go in.” And this man was overcome with anger, that he cuts off the head of this… this boy… this guard boy, who was made from the earth. Anyways, so Parvati comes back outside, and she goes, “What did you just do, you just killed my… ‘guard boy,’ my son…? I don’t know… Um, I need you to fix this!” So she makes Lord Shiva go down to… the earth? Go down I don’t know where, but go down to kill the first animal that he sees and bring the head to her. So the first animal he sees in an elephant, cuts off the head of the elephant, brings it to her, and magically creates Lord Ganesha with the head of the elephant that got killed and the body of a human. Yep, that’s the story [laughs].

K: Did she tell it to you, like in what context?

P: Um, she’d always tell the story if we went to the temple, and we’d walk past Ganesha, and then she’d tell me about the story and everything.

 

Thoughts:

As my informant expressed, this story was most likely told to children to teach them a moral or a lesson. I’ve always been fascinated with how certain cultures and religions have their own special stories to tell to children to help shape their values to be the same as the people that share their culture. After telling the story, my informant told me that her mom often told her this story as a child when she was especially upset or made a rash decision out of anger.

This story seems to serve the purpose of reminding us that we should never let anger overwhelm us or dictate our decisions. For example, I did more research on this story and I read another version where Parvati, upon learning that Shiva had cut off Ganesha’s head from his unreasonable anger, became so enraged she decided to destroy the world. Shiva then realized his mistake and gave Ganesha not only a new life by giving him the elephant head, but also granted him a status of a god just to make Parvati happy again and prevent her from destroying the world. Here, we see that Shiva realizes his anger was unreasonable. He realizes that his rash decision to cut off Ganesha’s head resulted in even the greater consequence of the potential detroyal of the Earth. This story would teach a child to never act on their initial ideas when they’re overcome with anger, because they never know what consequences they may have to face as a result.

 

For other versions of this story, please refer to the citation below:

Cartwright, Mark. “Ganesha.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 23 Apr. 2019, www.ancient.eu/Ganesha/.

Sekar, Radhika. Lord of Beginnings: Stories of the Elephant-Headed Deity, Ganesha. Vakils Feffer & Simons Ltd, 2004.

Sharma, Richa. “Corporate Lessons from Lord Ganesha.” Speakingtree.in, Speaking Tree, 10 Sept. 2018, www.speakingtree.in/allslides/corporate-lessons-from-lord-ganesha.

Myths
Narrative

Origin of the Elephant Head: Mythology

So there’s this God named Shiva and his wife and they were married – obviously, since wife (laughs) – so apparently his wife would always take showers in the middle of the day and then her husband Shiva, the God, would walk in and she hated that because she felt as though it was very disrespectful and so she decided one day to create a protector -um- that was gonna be her Son.

 So she basically built him up out of I can’t remember what, but I… and this boy was really strong and, like, the husband got very upset because the kid wouldn’t let him into his own home when he wanted and the kid just wouldn’t let him in so one day he decided, fine! I’m gonna have to be the one to kill this kid and get rid of him and so he ended up slicing off his head and then his wife, the mom of the child, got super upset. So the only fix was basically… the way she fixed it was getting an elephant head stuck on the kids head and that’s how Ganesha was formed.

The Informant, my housemate, is of Indian descent, but was born and raised in the United States. She learned this Hindu myth along with many other Hindu mythologies through her parents and when she was visiting her grandparents in India. To her, it’s just a story. She doesn’t follow the Hindu religion or believe in the sacred myths.

The sounds like a brief summary of the Ganesha origin story, but with one discrepancy. In the Hindu canon, Shiva is angry because Ganesha won’t allow him into the bathroom while his wife is showering. He uses his divine powers to kill him right there and then.

I’ve always been interested in Hindu mythology because of the dramatic and vibrant origin stories for the Gods. Even for someone who isn’t Hindu, the mythology is a fun read and has interesting ways to impart wisdom.

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.

Myths
Narrative

Sri Lankan respect for elders

My informant grew up in Irvine, California; his parents immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka. My informant learned this myth from his parents:

“Okay, my parents aren’t very religious, and I didn’t really grow up in a religious environment, but this is a story that like, all Sri Lankans tell their kids. And uh, they kinda tell a similar story to everybody. So a key part of Sri Lankan culture—and I’m sure many other cultures—is there’s a lot of importance placed on respecting your elders. So they tell this story about these two parents, Shiva and Pavarti, who have two children, one of which is Ganesha. He is the famous elephant god that like, represents Hinduism and everybody knows this elephant god. So he’s the son. Um, the two parents Shiva and Pavarti tell their children, ‘We will give our inheritance to the one who will walk around the world and come back to us first.’ So the daughter actually starts walking around the entire world, and it takes her like, five months to come back. But Ganesha walks around his parents and says, ‘You are my world, so I just walked around the world.’ And it’s just a story that my parents used to tell me to teach me to respect my elders and to respect them. And I think it was a story that kinda resonated because I loved the irony in it. And I was a little bit of a smartass growing up, so this little trickster… I don’t know, I related to him a little bit, and I thought it was funny.”

This story has religious origins, but my informant views it as more of a folk myth; he did not learn it in a religious context. It is a well-known story for Hindus, but like many stories from major religions, it has spread beyond the religion itself. This particular story has a cultural relevance that would appeal to people of all faiths; the “respect your elders” message is one that resonates with very diverse populations. My informant postulates that Sri Lankans place more emphasis on the importance of showing respect to one’s elders than Western cultures do. Despite the underlying lecture his parents are delivering when they tell him this story, my informant is aware of what makes it enjoyable for him. He likes the humor and the relatability of the main character. Even so, he is able to appreciate the deeper meaning and the lesson his parents were trying to teach him.

**For an audio recording of this story, listen to Ganesha Walks Around the World by Jai Uttal. It is a published version of this same story recorded in an audio version.

[geolocation]