When you look at a picture of Lord Ganesha, what do you see? You may see a charming, slightly comical elephant-headed God that you have been told to pray to first, before you start anything new. But look closer and you will find a deeper meaning behind the symbols that are in front of you.
The rat, his vahana or vehicle, represents the lowest form of animal; His elephant-head represents the highest form of animal; having also the body of a man shows that he is Ganesha, the Lord of all beings. His large ears and head indicate that he has gained wisdom through listening and reflecting on the eternal truths of the vedas. His head and trunk are curved into the shape of the Om or the Pranava. Pranava is the chief Mantra of the Hindus. The importance of the elephant is also that it is a calm and gentle animal that also has immense strength, which it uses only when needed.
The elephant’s trunk is one of the few instruments in nature that can perform both gross and subtle actions – it can uproot a huge tree as well as pick up the tiniest of needles. It signifies the need for us to be able to develop our intellect, our powers of discrimination, in both the gross or material world and also in the subtle or spiritual world.
In His right hand he holds a hook or Ankusa and in His left hand he holds a noose or Paasa. These tools are used back home by elephant-trainers to tame wild elephants. Symbolically, the mind is like a wild elephant, running from here to there, in chaos. So we must use the ankusa to tame and control our mind and then use the noose to tie it down and keep it close to us– only then can we concentrate, contemplate and meditate.
In another hand He holds a dish of Mothakham. This sweet with it’s hard outer shell signifies the reward of the sweetness of knowledge that will give the spiritual seeker joy, satisfaction and contentment as he travels along the path of enlightenment.
Lord Ganesha’s large belly is said to contain the whole universe – and is symbolic of the way we should live our lives. We must be able to accept and digest whatever experiences we go through – be they good or bad. Throughout our trials and tribulations we must be equal-minded and realise that all experiences are learning experiences and will bring us closer to God.
Lord Ganesha sits with one leg folded up and the other leg resting on the ground. The leg on the ground tells us that we can live in the world like anyone else. But the leg pointing upwards tells us that our concentration and meditation should be ever focussed on the godhead within. Rather like the lotus that He holds in his hand, which grows in stagnant water, but raises it’s flowers above the water line so that their purity will not be blemished by the polluted waters underneath, we can live in this world but remain unpolluted by the materialism and negative qualities of our surroundings.
At the feet of our Lord is often spread a huge array of different kinds of food. The food represents material wealth, power and prosperity and indicates that if you do live a life of high ideals & principals, these material benefits will always be available for you, although you will not be attached to them and they will therefore not hinder your spiritual progress.
The little rat, or mooshikham, represents desire. Rats, by nature, are very greedy creatures who will run here and there nibbling and hoarding far more than they need. If a man has desires, he can waste his whole life running here and there, fulfilling one desire, only to replace it with another. Instead, we should be like Lord Ganesha and keep our desires firmly under control, never allowing them to overwhelm us. According to the Vinayaka Puranam, the rat also represents the demon Gajamoohaasura who was destroyed by Lord Ghanapathy. The Lord actually used his tusk to kill the evil entity, the same tusk that He later used to write down our holiest of books the Mahabaratha.