Figure of Ganesh

India, Maharashtra
8th to 9th centuries
Red sandstone
Gift of Joanne and Charles Ackerman and Merry and Chris Carlos.
The ninth-century sandstone image of Ganesh is a beloved elephant-headed Hindu god who brings good fortune to his devotees. Also known as the “Lord of Auspicious Beginnings,” Ganesh is worshipped at the beginning of any Hindu religious ritual, before one begins a journey or a new undertaking, and for students, before taking exams. Here Ganesh is seated on a lotus throne, his head framed by lotus petals. His four hands hold an axe for removing obstacles in the lives of his followers; a mala (prayer beads) used in meditation; a bowl of laddus, a popular Indian sweet treat, which he reaches for with his trunk; and his broken tusk. The Indian sage Vyasa wanted to dictate his famous epic, the Mahabharata, to Ganesh. Believing that a regular pen was not worthy for such a sacred task, Ganesh broke off his own tusk to write the story.

Why does Ganesh have the head of an elephant? One story tells us that the goddess Parvati created a son out of a paste of ground lentils and turmeric to keep her company while her husband, the great god Shiva, was away meditating in the mountains. One day, she instructed Ganesh to guard the doorway so that she could bathe in privacy. While Ganesh was keeping watch, Shiva returned home, but the dutiful Ganesh, obeying his mother’s orders, refused to let him in. Furious that this unfamiliar child would deny him entry to his own home, Shiva sliced off Ganesh’s head with his trident. Parvati was devastated and begged Shiva to restore life to her son, but the power of the strike had flung the boy’s head far away and it could not be found. So Shiva took the head of the first living creature he saw, an elephant, and placed it on Ganesh’s body.