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Vyasa dictates the Mahabharata to Ganesh

The Mahabharata Series (cont.)

The Text


I was born full-grown from the dew of my mother’s body.  We were alone, and Devi told me, “Guard the door. Let no one enter, because I’m going to take a bath.”

Then Shiva, whom I had never seen, came home. I would not let him into his own house.

“Who are you to stop me?” he raged.

And I told him, “No beggars here, so go away!”

“I may be half naked, ” he answered, “but all the world is mine, though I care not for it.”

“Then go drag about your world, but not Parvati’s mountain home! I am Shiva’s son, and guard this door for her with my life!”

“Well,” he said, “you are a great liar. Do you think I don’t know my own sons?”

“Foolishness!” I said.  “I was only born today, but I know a rag picker when I see one. Now get on your way.”

He fixed his eyes on me and very calmly asked, “Will you let me in?”

“Ask no more!” I said.

“Then I shall not,” he replied, and with a sharp glance he cut off my head and threw it far away, beyond the Himalayas.

Devi ran out, crying, “You’ll never amount to anything! You’ve killed our son!” She bent over my body and wept. “What good are you for a husband?  You wander away and leave me home to do all the work.  Because you wander around dreaming all the time, we have to live in poverty with hardly enough to eat.”

The Lord of All the Worlds pacified her; looking around, the first head he saw happened to be an elephant’s, and he set it on my shoulders and restored me to life.

“Paravati was happy again, and that is how I first met my father,” said Ganesha, “long long ago.”

“Alright,” said Vyasa, “now I will begin.” And he began to tell his story to Ganesha, who wrote it on leaves.

William Buck’s “Mahabharata“, pgs 4-5

Explanations and notes follow.


The Mahabharata is told by Vyasa – one of the immortal saints of Hinduism.  He choose Ganesh, the elephant-headed boy god, as his scribe (see Hindu Gods).  This is the story tells how Ganesh got his elephant head.

Phrases Explained & Explored

1) “the dew of my mother’s body

In some versions, Paravati forms Ganesh from her sandalwood soap and others from the dirt from her body.  Either way, it was a virgin birth.  Now, biologically, we know virgin births do happen – “parthenogenesis” . But in mythologies they are simply a vehicle to yell “special !”  to the audience.  The human mind works similar around the world.

  • Ganesh (born from his mother’s slimy sweat)
  • Buddha (born from his mother’s arm pit)
  • Kabir (born from his mother’s palm) (see my post on Kabir)
  • Perseus (Danae impregnated during the shower of gold by Zeus)
  • Krishna (born of a virgin)
  • Roman Emperor Augustus (mother impregnated by Apollo)

Taking a bit of a tangent, in the Mahabharata, there are even miracles where a woman, even after the carnal act, still have their virginity preserved.  Draupadi, for example, marries the five Pandavas (heros later in the story) spent a nuptial night with each of the five brothers in turn and yet she was a virgin for each one of them.  Here an intact hymen is what is alluded to.  In villages in the past, to prove the virginity of a new wife, the blood stained sheets from a broken hymen are hung out after the wedding night.  The red streak down a woman’s parted hair (Sindoor) is a symbol of marriage.  I remember hearing that this implies the bleeding upon losing virginity.  But all I could find on Wiki was that this is a sign of the Goddess or perhaps that since she now belongs to a man, blood will be shed if she is harmed.

Returning to our story, remember, using dirt to make living creatures is not an ungodly activity:

then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
-Gen 2:7 (NRSV)

Apparently even the word “Adam” is related to the Hebrew word for  ground:  אדםה (adamah) –> אדם (adam)

Sindoor Streaking Hair

Buddha born from armpit

2) “Devi

“Devi” means “Goddess” in Sanskrit.  Ganesh is referring to his mother, Paravati.  Paravati is the wife of Shiva, one of the three main Hindu gods.  She is the most beautiful women in the world and because her husband (Shiva) was always meditating, far away in the Himalayas, she had many men coming to visit her.  So she created Ganesh to guard her privacy.

The female aspect of the Divine is drastically important in Hinduism.  This desire to preserve the female aspect of Divinity can be seen in Christian cults of Mary.  Important here is the idea of a “god” in Hinduism as opposed to “God” in monotheistic religions.  What can not be ignored, or flattened out, is that just as in the Hebrew culture, the notion of the Divine changed over time.

Parvati & Ganesh

Parvati, Shiva and Ganesh

3)  “No beggars here, so go away!
——  “I may be half naked”

Shiva was an ascetic — he cared not for his appearance and thus had matted hair and often appeared to wear rags.
Moral: Do not let appearances deceive.

Shiva the Ascetic

Actual Indian Sadhus

4) “with a sharp glance he cut off my head”

Shiva’s third eye, when opened fully, would destroy the world.  In this story, it only twitches and cuts off Ganesh’s head.  God’s use fire throughout all mythologies.

Shiva’s Third Eye

Shiva’s Third Eye

Morals of this Myth

  • To teach the steadfast power of dedication to duty
  • The awe-inspiring power of a mother’s love for her child
  • The gentle power of compassion which holds the world together

Hindus look at their myths much like others.  They can find great morals in spite of the negative elements in the story (murder, pride …).  They value their old literature.  I am curious how those who wrote them thought about them.  Here is a site that gave the morals above.

Comparative Religion Summary

  • Classical female attributes (compassion, love) are often captured in a religion by women playing roles as divine or heavenly roles.  (Paravati and Mary)
  • Myths may have complex unsavory elements yet believers see what they desire to value and let the myth speak for itself.  Thus even the nonbeliever would benefit from expanding their hermeneutics (method of understanding text).
  • Virginity or Miracle births are used to shout “Special” in all faiths

More Reading

I found this excellent site for much more reading on Ganesh.  Here are various versions of Ganesh’s birth.  Here are some pics:

1) Buck, William. 1993.  Mahabharata.  Meridian Books.
2) Mazumdar, Subash.  1997.  Mahabharata is Believable by Subash Mazumdar.  Rutlege Books, Inc.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to “Ganesh

  1. Very interesting stuff, thanks for the education, you are giving me a taste to learn more.

    Appreciate your take on the roll of myth, and the question you pose about what the writers of the stories thought of them. Maybe people just added parts to the stories along the way, so nobody was ever faced with what they thought about every particular element.

    Uneducated question: Are these stories read more as myths than Judeo-Christian stories are read by their followers? At least more conservative J-C followers, as opposed to more progressive who are more comfortable with believing myths. The idea of believing myths is very foreign in Christianity today, and I suspect in the West in general.

  2. awesome post! really enjoyed reading that story! RAWK! okay… too many exclamation points, gotta calm down.

    i enjoyed this story for many reasons, you talk about hermeneutics and use a good style of interpreting the story. i think i should do this for some of my favorite texts. i think this method is awesome for believers and non-believers to come together and interpret the text. stories bring ppl together IMO but usually it’s the interpretations that rip ppl apart. like have you ever gone to a movie with some friends and as you’re leaving you start talking about what the movie meant and your fav. scenes… only to find out that your “Friends” must have been watching another movie. happens all the time… and that’s why i’m still friends with my “friends”😉

    in response to ATTR: form criticism is an excellent modern criticism i learned here to interpret biblical stories. of course, i’m progressive, so the term “myth” is thrown around with no hint of embarrassment. it’s widely used in the Eastern church as well as many Roman Catholic circles, including the Jesuits who first educated me in both secular and biblical studies. i’ve heard my whole life that most of the bible is a myth. i’ll have to find my paper on Form Criticism and post it up.

  3. societyvs

    I really liked the story as well – dude got his head chopped off then recieved an elephant head…there’s something wickedly cool about that idea!

    I really like your breakdown on the passage and how it relates to us (even as myth).

  4. Boz

    very educating, thanks sabio.

  5. Ian

    I didn’t realise the Buddha was born from an armpit! Neat.

    So, would you agree that this sounds quite like a just-so story? How the tiger got its stripes, kind of genre.

    Which suggest to me that whoever wrote it was working with a pre-existing notion of Ganesh as an elephant headed boy. Which is an interesting, but obviously not very surprising, chimera.

    I wonder if there has been work on dating the Ganesh stories and figuring out an evolution of the myth. Presumably from some aboriginal nature worshipers who revered the actual elephant.

  6. kat

    Elephants are usually highly respected in the East. Often associated with strength and luck. When the Arayans came to the subcontinent, there were already indigenous people living there. —Might have had a shamanistic type religion.(?) The Arayans brought their own religious ideas with them—so these two ideas may have mixed together to form Hinduism.

    Wiki says these stories took form about 4th/5th century and Ganesh became an important part of the 5 Gods around 9th centurty.

    Ganesh seems to be popluar among some Buddhists also. —-they feel he brings success.
    It is said the Gita is the book of morals/wisdom.

    Eastern religions tend to overlap each other —they seem very fluid.

  7. Apparently Ganesh is pretty busy getting himself press this week, really interesting article:

    The post talks about the devotion of Ganesh followers, or followers in general (religious or otherwise). I suppose people create whatever is needed to make something “real” to them. It is funny from an American perspective to see serious devotion to something that looks like Ganesh. A football team though, they seem real enough for legitimate devotion.. :^)

  8. Found my paper on Form Criticism think it might help here. good times.

  9. atimetorend

    Thanks Luke!

  10. @ atimetorend :
    Indeed, these myths were edited, enlarged and modified over centuries — just like the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Plus, most Hindus seem to largely hold these myths very lightly and see them as allegories and ways of understanding properties of the divine. So contradictions in stories were of very little concern. They knew that these are just allegories to help them understand God. It seems some ‘liberal Christians’ are trying to see their own myths this way now too and even claiming that the writers of the Bible used the stories in this sort of light way too.

    Thanks for the link to the Ganesh devotion. You inspired my next post (as you often do!).

    @ Luke :
    Hermeneutics is very important. And in dialoguing with Christians, like you, on their sites, I have expanded my understanding of the field. I have much to yet learn. This is fun. Thanks for linking your paper.

    @ Society & Boz: Thanks guys

    @ Ian :
    Indeed, it does sound like a “just-so story”. I think you are spot on.

    @ kat :
    I agree: The elephant is a BIG, powerful animal. No wonder it is in their stories.

  11. Nice writeup on Ganesha. Refreshing . Thanks for posting.

  12. thanks for this lovely post on Ganesh! My favorite deity:-)

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