USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Ganesha’

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.



  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.


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.