Ganesha Symbolism: Meaning, History & Stories
Ganesha symbolism gives a glimpse into the stories and spiritual meaning of this well-known Hindu god. Accordingly, many of the symbols associated with Ganesha relate to his role as the remover of obstacles and the patron of new beginnings.
Ganesha as Mentor and Teacher
Ganesha is associated with success, wisdom, learning and writing. Ganesha is a patron of the arts and sciences. In the natural world, elephants are known for high intelligence. In fact, they have the largest brain of any land animal. In addition, elephants are artistic, can use tools and mimic human speech. In keeping with these things, Ganesha is a very curious and intellectual god. Thus, he is the god of intellect and wisdom.
In contrast with his reputation as the remover of obstacles, Ganesha is occasionally thought to place obstacles in the path of those who need to be checked to establish a stronger foundation before moving further forward. Obstacles help the student to stay focused on immediate challenges in life. This is sometimes the role of an archetypical guru: to place obstacles along the path of the student to help them gain mastery.
Ganesha Symbolism and Iconography
Depictions of Ganesha have multiple symbolic meanings. Illustrations and explanations for some of the more common symbols are included below. These symbols are present in artwork and statues depicting Ganesha. For the full story of Ganesha’s origin, parents, death, resurrection and how he got an elephant head, go to Ganesha Meaning: Overcoming and New Beginnings.
Ganesha Symbolism: Large Belly
Ganesha’s large stomach indicates that he contains all of the universes (cosmic eggs) of the past, present, and future. Ganesha’s belly also represents the ability to digest all experiences in life. Finally, the large belly of Ganesh symbolizes prosperity and abundance. This includes an abundance of food and all material possessions.
Ganesha Symbolism: Head
Elephants use their heads to break paths through the forest. This symbolizes breaking through obstacles on every level. In addition, elephants have small eyes in proportion to their large heads. This symbolizes the ability to focus and concentrate. On the other hand, the mouth of an elephant is proportionately large. This represents the natural desire to enjoy food and life.
Meaning of Ganesha’s Large Ears
Ganesha’s large elephant ears represent willingness to listen and bring together ideas. This creates success in human affairs. Ganesha’s large ears also indicate the wisdom of hearing all sides of an issue. In the natural world, the large ears of the elephant help to keep them cool in a hot desert environment. The blood vessels of the ears are close to the skin and release heat.
Ganesha Symbolism: Trunk Meaning
Ganesha’s trunk is able to hold anything in the universe. This symbolizes the idea that successful people hold whatever life brings. The trunk of an elephant has the ability to uproot large trees or to pick up a small needle. This signifies mastery in both the physical world and in the world of more subtle energy and vibrations.
Ganesha Symbolism: Four Arms
Ganesha’s four-armed form represents the inner attributes of the subtle body: mind, intellect, ego, and conscience. In addition, Ganesha’s four arms possess four different symbolic objects: an axe, a lotus, a plate of sweets and a symbol of OM in his palm. The hand with the OM symbol is held in a traditional gesture of blessing.
Ganesha Symbolism: Axe
Ganesha’s axe symbolizes cutting off desires. He can also destroy obstacles or move a person to the right path with his axe. The axe also symbolizes the power to cut the bonds of ignorance. Sometimes a pen is depicted in place of the axe. In this case, the pen represents knowledge that can remove ignorance as effectively as the power of an axe.
Meaning of Ganesha’s Yellow Clothing
Ganesha wears yellow as a reminder to all to cultivate purity, peace, auspiciousness, self-control, and truthfulness. Yellow is Ganesha’s favorite color. Yellow is the color of tumeric, a spice that has symbolic meaning associated with the sun, abundance and wisdom. Tumeric is used in Hindu weddings and other significant rituals.
Ganesha Symbolism: Blessing Hand
One of Ganesha’s hands is typically turned towards the viewer in a gesture of blessing, refuge, and protection. This hand position is called the Abhaya mudra. A mudra is a symbolic gesture said to send energy out from the body for a specific purpose. The OM symbol inscribed on Ganesha’s palm represents the sound of all of creation.
Why Ganesha Holds a Lotus Flower
One of Ganesha’s hands holds a lotus flower. This symbolizes the realized inner self. The color red indicates activity in the world. The lotus flower is one of the most heavily used symbols in the East. Many deities are depicted sitting on a lotus flower. The lotus symbolizes attaining enlightenment as the ultimate fulfillment of life.
Meaning of Ganesha’s Sweets
Sometimes Ganesha is pictured with common Indian sweets in his hand. He is known to have a fondness for sweets. However, Ganesha’s treats are not merely for the pleasure of taste. Instead, these treats symbolize the rewards for a life of service and the eternal sweetness that is available following many lifetimes of right living.
Ganesha Mouse Symbolism
The mouse or rat represents ego and the wandering of the human mind. Ganesha stands over the mouse or rat, meaning that he has complete control over ego and the mind. The mouse finds food in the darkness. This food is like negative mental traits that dominate during times or darkness or ignorance. Ganesha has used wisdom to conquer all negative mental traits.
Ganesha Symbolism: Feet
Ganesha poses with one foot over the other to show that to live a successful life, you must balance knowledge and your emotions. The sheer weight of an elephant is a wonderful metaphor for the earth-based energy necessary for successful projects and endeavors. Ganesha’s ability to balance his tremendous weight on a single foot shows that his consciousness in in both the realm of the material world and the realm of the spirit.
Ganesha Yantra Symbolism
Yantras are ancient geometric symbols that represent deities and forces or vibrations of God in a concrete way. The Ganesha Yantra utilizes many of the same basic shapes as the well-known Sri Yantra.
The six-pointed star in the center of the yantra is a simplified version of the nine interlocking triangles of the Sri Yantra. The six-pointed star symbolizes balance and harmony.
The mantra associated with this symbol is “Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha” and means “Salutations to the remover of obstacles!” Ganesha is the master of both inner and outer journeys. Ganesha is known for knowledge, patience, preparation and grounding.
There are a number of mantras to Ganesha. This video is a variation of one of the more common ones. The lyrics are as follows:
Sharanam Ganesha Sharanam
Meaning: I take refuge (sayisha) in Ganesha. I surrender (sharanam) to Ganesha.
This video includes the meaning of each of Ganesha’s symbols. Learn more about Ganesha in the article Ganesha Meaning: Overcoming and New Beginnings.
Meet the Author
Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen and her husband Andrew live in Bozeman, Montana. They have five children and a small urban homestead. More about Kathleen Karlsen.
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Ganesha Article Summary
Many of the symbols associated with Ganesha relate to his role as the remover of obstacles and the patron of new beginnings. Ganesha is also associated with success, wisdom, learning and writing an he is a patron of the arts and sciences. This article includes explanations of the following Ganesha symbolism: large belly, large head, ears, trunk, four arms, axe, yellow clothing, blessing hand, lotus flower, sweets, mouse and feet.
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