April 2014: Ganesha

/ Spotlight on the Collection

Ganesha, 10th century. Cambodian, Angkor style. Sandstone. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Charles B. Crow, Jr. and Mr. and Mrs. William A. Grant, Jr., 1978.73
Ganesha, 10th century. Cambodian, Angkor style. Sandstone. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Charles B. Crow, Jr. and Mr. and Mrs. William A. Grant, Jr., 1978.73
Ganesha, Cambodian, 10th century

In Hinduism, the god Ganesha both places and clears away obstacles. He appears frequently in all walks of Hindu life: by the roadside, in household shrines, in temples and shops, and inside covers of books. His elephant head makes him instantly recognizable.

Where did his unique head come from? And what can it tell us about him?

The goddess Parvati gave birth to Ganesha, but his father, Shiva, brought him second life – though with his trademark feature:

Once, when the goddess Parvati wanted to take a bath in the river, there were no attendants around to guard her and stop anyone from accidentally from seeing her. Parvati ordered her son, Ganesha, not to allow anyone to disturb her, and Ganesha obediently followed his mother’s orders.

After a while the god Shiva returned home from a long trip; he did not know Ganesha, since Ganesha had been born while he was away. When he tried to go to the river, Ganesha stopped him. Shiva was furious at this strange little boy he did not know who dared to challenge him. He told Ganesha that he was Parvati’s husband and demanded that Ganesha let him go in. But Ganesha refused to hear him. Shiva lost his patience and had a fierce battle with Ganesha. At last he severed Ganesha’s head with his trident. When Parvati came out and saw her son’s lifeless body, she was very angry and sad. She demanded that Shiva restore Ganesha’s life at once.

Unfortunately, Shiva’s trident was so powerful that it had hurled Ganesha’s head very far away. All attempts to find the head were in vain. As a last resort, Shiva approached the god Brahma, who suggested that he replace Ganesha’s head with the first living being that came his way. Shiva sent his disciples to find and take the head of whatever creature they happened to find asleep with its head facing north. They found a dying elephant; after its death they took its head, attached it to Ganesha’s body, and brought him back to life. From then on, Ganesha was called Ganapati, or “head of the celestial armies,” and was worshipped by everyone before beginning any activity.

A Cambodian artist carved this statue from a single block of sandstone. Ganesha wears the royal attire of the Khmer people, including a crown, elaborate jewelry, and skirt. The solidity of the sculpture reinforces the strength and power of the god’s elephantine nature. Elephants are among the world’s most intelligent species; accordingly, Ganesha is also the god of learning. Many stories stress Ganesha’s wit and intellect.

—Kristi McMillan, assistant curator of education for visitor engagement,
with Dr. Don Wood, curator of Asian art

Join the conversation!

For thousands of years, across time and place, people have used animals – real and imaginary – to represent themselves or their families. Whether in Native American totem poles, European coats-of-arms, African masks, or other artworks that span time and place, people chose an animal to reflect a characteristic they have, a trait they admire, or a quality to which they aspire. Which animal would you choose to represent you? Check out the following links, and join the conversation below!

“Animals in Medieval Art,” Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

“Totem Poles: Heraldic Monuments of Cedar,” Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

Artful Animals, Smithsonian Museum of African Art

“Virtual Avatars May Impact Real-World Behavior,” Association for Psychological Science, February 10, 2014