The story of Ganesha's birth begins with the story of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva is god of destruction. He maintains the balance of life on earth, and is a mendicant, happiest when living alone, away from society. Embodying the spirit of selflessness and detachment, he is usually shown covered in ashes, his hair matted, and wearing snakes as ornaments. His name “Shiva” or “Siva” means “pure”. He does not need the accruements of dress or jewelry to state his position. He is above all that. His consort, Parvati, on the other hand, is a daughter of the king of the mountains. She, who grows up amidst every luxury and comfort possible, gives up everything to be with her lord. It is these differences between the divine couple that led to the creation of Ganesha. Here then, is the legend which talks of the birth of Ganesha.
Parvati had given up her comforts and luxuries when she married Shiva and came to live on Mount Kailas. However, she couldn’t live the rough life that Shiva and his followers (Ganas) lived. Once, she wanted to bathe in peace without being disturbed by anyone. She posted Nandi, one of Shiva’s most devoted followers, also his vehicle, at the door, with strict instructions not to let anyone inside. A little later, Shiva arrived, and Nandi, hesitant to stop the Lord from entering his own home, allowed him to enter. Parvati was angry, but Shiva just laughed. To him, it wasn’t a great matter, but to Parvati it was a great slight! She had been disobeyed, and she realized that none of Shiva’s Ganas were really her own followers. Their first duty was to the Lord, and only after him would they obey her orders. She decided that she should have someone of her own, someone who would obey her alone!
The next time Parvati was getting ready for her bath, she ruminated over the matter again. Seeing the saffron and sandal paste she was smearing over herself gave her an idea. She collected the paste from her body and formed it into the shape of a young boy. For a moment, she admired her creation, and then with her powers, gave it life. At once, the little boy opened his eyes and looked at her. Filled with love and happiness at the sight, Parvati said, “My child, you are my son, since I have given you life. You will listen to me alone. I want you to stand outside this door and make sure that no one enters while I bathe.” “Yes, Mother” replied the boy. “I will not allow anyone to disturb you while you bathe. Rely on me and bathe in peace.” Parvati then handed him a staff – it not just signified his position, but would also help him perform his duty. Then, confident that her son would guard her privacy, she retired to bathe without fear of disturbance.
Meanwhile, Shiva was on his way back. As he approached his home, he saw a little boy standing outside, and was surprised. He was even more surprised when the little boy stopped him at the door. His anger flared at the sight of the staff blocking the way, but he controlled himself and asked the boy to move aside. The boy replied, “I cannot allow anyone to enter. It is my duty to make sure no one enters this house.” Shiva replied that it was his house, and that he had every right to enter it, but the boy simply reiterated his stance. He had been instructed to make sure that no one entered, and he would make sure that no one gained entrance.
Shiva's anger is legendary, and the calm insistence of the boy only succeeded in igniting it! Shiva decided that he would gain entrance, no matter what happened, and sent his Ganas, led by Nandi to move the boy and let him pass. The boy met the frightful Ganas with a peaceful smile, and, wielding his staff like a weapon, vanquished them in a matter of minutes. Shiva was stunned, but his anger, once ignited, was difficult to subdue. He called upon the other gods, who hastened to aid the Lord with their armies. The little boy met each one of them with the same calm attitude, and with his staff as his only weapon, managed to hold his own once more!
The Lord of creation, Brahma, tried a different tactic. He approached the boy in the guise of an old man and tried to dissuade him from his position. But the boy would not budge. He said, “My mother told me to guard her while she bathed, and guard her I will, no matter who tries to shake me!”
When Shiva learnt that the boy was Parvati’s son, he paused for a moment, wondering what he should do. But it was too late, for war had already been declared. It was too late to back out without losing face. The armies of the Gods had gathered, with Vishnu leading them, and Shiva ordered them to charge.
Meanwhile, Parvati had heard the disturbance, and learning of her husband’s determination, sent her own armies to aid her son. Parvati’s armies poured out in droves matching the Gods’ armies’ measure for measure. A terrible war took place, all for the right of entrance! The little boy fought valiantly, his staff moving faster than the wind itself!
Shiva watched as Parvati’s son fought the bravest warriors of the Gods, and felt a tinge of pride. He realized then that it was only He who could defeat the boy. It was no longer a fight for the right of entrance, it was now a war of wills between himself and Parvati, and he had to bring an end to it. He entered the battle himself, and in his first stroke, cut the boy’s staff into two. The boy stared at the broken pieces, picked them up and resumed the fight. Shiva smiled, and with his next stroke, cut off the boy’s head!
A strange stillness seemed to engulf the battlefield as Parvati’s son, headless, fell on the ground. Time itself seemed to pause! Into this stillness burst forth Parvati’s grief in the form of thousands of Shaktis – forms of Parvati. Fierce and fearful, they proceeded to lay waste the armies who had brought about her son’s end! At last, Shiva was forced to concede defeat against the mother’s grief. He appealed to Parvati to spare the Gods, for they had come to aid him. He promised to make amends for killing her son.
Parvati demanded that her son be brought back to life. Shiva agreed, but the boy’s head was nowhere to be found. It had been destroyed in the rampage. Shiva now ordered his Ganas to bring him the head of the first creature they saw lying with his head to the north. (This is one of the reasons it is believed inauspicious to sleep with our head to the north. Scientifically, sleeping in this direction puts us against the magnetic orientation of the earth’s poles, and is therefore not a very good position to sleep in). The Ganas returned with the head of an elephant.
Shiva placed the elephant’s head on the boy’s torso, and with his powers, gave it life. As the boy opened his eyes and felt his new face, Parvati rushed to hug him. Shiva had fulfilled his promise, and he now proceeded to explain his actions. He told Parvati, “This was your son, since you alone had given him life. Now that I too have infused life in him, he is truly our son. He will be called ‘Gajaanana’ – the one with the elephant face.”
But Parvati was still not completely pacified. She replied, “You have given him life and accepted him as your son too, but he still does not have a position of his own. I will not have his authority doubted again, as you did earlier. So, bestow on him a title, which will give him the importance and authority I desire for him”.
Shiva thought for a while and said, “He stood firm, all alone, as an obstacle in my path, refusing to make way for me, the destroyer of all things. From now on, he alone will be responsible for eliminating the obstacles in everyone’s path. People will pray to him first before beginning anything new, before starting any new venture, or even prayers to other Gods, so that their path will be free of obstacles. He will thus be called ‘Vighnaharta’ – the remover of obstacles. Further, he was the one who vanquished my Ganas singlehandedly. Thus, he will be the leader of all. He will thus be called Ganesha or Ganpati – the leader of the Ganas.
Parvati was finally appeased, and she smiled, lifting her son on to her lap, as the Gods bowed before them – the first family among Indian Gods!