Ganesha - Iconographic Conception, Motif, and its Social Outlet

Iconographic Conception, Motif, and its Social Outlet

Term Paper, 2007

28 Pages, Grade: 1



In this essay, I attempt to write about the importance and remarkable motif appearing in Ganesa’s myth and his Iconographic conception. Besides I try to give its interpretation and its social outlet function by using the same method which is from the book eg$g¸e¤˚aæ˚eet: ˚$¸˚eet£ænta˚aeat%檤˚tætæ%a%æ˚etæeºÊæeotæ[1] by ø˚atea æ aate[2] like I used In Thailand to study Folk literature. But the most importantly, one should consider that the interpretations in this essay, some of them was collected from the book concerning to Ganesa’s myth, some are my own interpretation and there is no right or wrong in the interpretation so

“Let the myth speaks by itself”

1.1 Lord of Obstacle and Beginning.

Ganesa is said to be the most worshiped god in India. In the matter of fact that he is the lord of Obstacles, and lord of beginnings so he is, as well, worshiped by many devotees of other Hindu deities such as siva, vixnu, or the goddess and according to this roles and innovations of Ganesa, these devotees always worship him for the purpose of their successful in rituals, as the initiator of the path to their deities and also the direct path to the goals and success. Pictures and statues of Ganesa are everywhere in India, in shop, on the altars, at intersections, beside the road, in a shrines at the entrances of the villages and temples, besides there are also songs of devotion to him. So it is obviously that Ganesa is, one of the major god of the Hindu pantheon.

He has, not only the devotees of himself but also those worshipping the other Hindu deities. The Ganesa’s cult has even it own texts, such as Ganesa purana, and sri ganapati atharvasirsa, and its stories. Most interestingly, his cult was multifaceted and widespread not only all over India herself but also in East Asia and Southeast Asia (in the early period of the 6th and 7th centuries) and in the new era; it wide spreads even to the western part of the world. He appeared in China by the 6th century, and maybe as early in Southeast Asia. By the 7th and 8th centuries, his texts are being translated by Buddhist monks in China.

Likewise, in the 10th and 11th centuries, in Tibet. However, there are some differences between the Ganesa cult in India and Asia, for example the way and style used by Asian artists to create Ganesa images that has been fitly changed, so to say, adapted to the culture of their own countries, his roles and innovations, his rule as a major deity in Asia, the dual Ganesa form found in China and populared in Japan, his cult was fully implanted in Asia around the 8th century especially in Southeast Asia, and still play such a great function like it was in its mother land.

1.2 Ganesa : An elephant-headed god.

There are many mythological anecdotes of Ganesa telling that Ganesa has his own characteristic, which is very interesting and easily to be identified, as an elephant-headed god. He is worshipped as the lord of beginnings and as the lord of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the god of intellect and wisdom.[1]

Name Ganesa, Ganapati, Vinayaka etc. can be found in igveda and an epic like Mahabharata, nevertheless, according to many scholars and even the commentary texts of Veda and Mahabharata itself inform that the names, found in Rigveda and Mahabharata have nothing to do with modern Ganesa, the elephant-headed god, but the puranic literatures.

The most extensive source of the Ganesa stories is in the puranic myths. Most of the stories can be found in the later Purana, composed from about 600 CE. Onwards, still there are Some references to Ganesa in the earlier Puranas, such as the Vayu and Brahmanda purana

,obviously, they are considered to be later interpolations made during the 7th to 10th centuries[2].

Among the myths of Ganesa, most of them concern about three importance major story lines as followed

- His birth and parenthood.

Ganesa is obviously considered to be the son of Úiva and Parvati as we can see from the Ganesa images all over India (on the other hand Ganesa images in Southeast Asia are mostly lack in family context, as he is represented as independents images and maintain a frontality)[3] However some puranic myths relate several different versions of his birth.[1] These include versions in which he is created by Úiva, by Parvati, by Úiva and Parvati, or in a mysterious manner that is later discovered by Úiva and Parvati.

Apart from his mother and father he still has one brother named Skanda but the relation between them is still unclear,as Skanda is generally said to be the elder brother while in the South, Ganesa is considered the first born[2]. Interestingly there are some stories about Ganesa and Skanda which can be implied and reflect historcal tension between the respective sects, or at least implied conflicts between brothers in Indian’s family that have more than one son.

- His elephant head. (see 2. Ganesa’s motif)
- His single tusk. [3] (see 2.3 Motif of a single tusk)

Even though, there are some sub stories about him also but to a far lesser extent.

2. Ganesa’s motifs.

In order to compare folk tales, myths, and understand their distribution, they are classified by an indexed system called Motif-Index of Folk literature and Types of the Folk Tale According to Stith Thompson, an American scholar of folklore and the "Thompson" of the Aarne-Thompson classification system, “Motif” is a number of specific elements which, can make tales work as tell able tales, generally speaking, tales are made up of these elements. They are small elements that are not normal. It must be interesting enough and wide-open imaginary. It can be odd characters like mermaid, dragons, speaking horse, gods and human with an animal’s head. It can be an object, place, or extraordinary event like, a resurrecting magic, or the beheading and its reconnecting like those found in Ganesa’s myths. To be accepted as a motif the element needs to be an identifiable unit of the tale’s makeup or character. The Standard Dictionary of Folklore says:

"It must be more than commonplace. A mother as such is not a motif. A cruel mother becomes one because she is at least thought to be unusual. The ordinary processes of life are not motifs. To say that ‘John dressed and walked to town’ is not to give a single motif worth remembering; but to say that the hero put on his cap of invisibility, mounted his magic carpet, and went to the land east of the sun and west of the moon is to include at least four motifs - the cap [D1067.2.] [D1361.15.], the carpet [D1155.], the magic air journey [D2120.], and the marvelous land [F771.3.2.]. Each of these motifs lives on because it has been found satisfying by generations of tale-tellers.”[1]

From Holman’s Handbook to Literature it says:

“motif is a simple element which serves as a basis for expanded narrative, or less strictly, a conventional situation, device, interest, or incident employed in folklore”

The other important indexed system that helps us to understand myths and tales is called Types of the Folk Tale, which is the method how to categorize tales all around the world by “ tale-type”. Tale-type is the structure of a tale makes each tale different from one another.

Prof. Waller Hastings from Northern State University gives the definition of tale-type as followed.

“A particular cluster of motifs that hangs together through several individual tales and across various cultures is called a “tale type.”[2]

However, it should be considered that some tales categorized in the same tale-type could consist of significant motifs, for instance, Cinderella-t]ale-type means tales having a story line about a wicked stepmother, who hates her stepdaughter, tries to defame her. Those kinds of story can be found all over the world, except they just consisted of different motifs.

If one pays closer attention to the myths of Ganesa, it could be found out that they contain many attention-grabbing motifs, such as motif of an elephant, beheading, restoration, animal’s head replacement and so on. These motifs, one way or another, have its important function and meaning in itself. They can answers the question or, at least, give us a trace about Ganesa, his conflict with his father, siva, his birth, his iconography, and his appearance.

2.1 Motif of an Elephant

The most important and easiest to be identified feature of Ganesa is his elephant head. The brahmanical deities such as Úiva, Parvati, or Visnu have a power to perform miracles. They can give back life to the beheaded and provide heads for them, even can resurrect the dead. Yet none could give Ganesa a human head.

The Question is, why it must be exactly elephant head not a human head or, at least, any other kind of animal’s head?

It appears that there isn’t any appropriate explanation about this consequence can be found in any myths. The answers is as simply as one could imagine, for example the elephant head is what Úiva found first so he took it, or an unlucky elephant just walked pass there so it was beheaded. If all of these simple explanations aren’t just a mistake of the myths or storytellers then one should go back in time and take a good look into the historical aspect in order to find more suitable explanation.

Anita Raina Thapan wrote in her book “understanding Ganapati : Insights into the Dynamics of a Cult”

“Clearly the reason why he had to have an elephant head was because without it he would have lost his identity, and, thereby, his raison d’etre. The elephant head links him to some ancient cult or concept of a sacred elephant”[1]

In the matter of fact, there are many motifs in ancient civilizations that are common or at least chare some characteristics with one another in one-way. Some of these such as the bull, the snake, the tree of life, mountain and water formulae and the wheel representing the sun are common in Sumerian, Hittite, Assyrian, Mycenaean, Cretan, Trojan, Lydian, Phoenician, Achaemenid, Scythian and Indian cultures.[2]

The motif of the elephant, however can be found dated back to the Harappan period of Indus civilization and it is indigenous and obviously restricted to the Indian context and in late civilizations influenced by Indian culture such as Southeast Asia only (However, there are some elephant motifs from African’s folk-tales indicate that man kinds were created out of the ancient elephant king), so there isn’t possibility of making any cross-cultural comparisons with other ancient civilizations. According to many researches, the elephant motif in the early period of Indus civilization doesn’t widespread much comparing to the unicorn, which is by far the most widespread and the most frequently represented along with other animals like bull, snake and tiger. Sometimes these animal motif are represented by themselves, while at other times they appear as syncretic creatures like an animal partly bull, partly elephant, or a composition of the bull, tiger and elephant. Interestingly, there is a seal depicts a man’s face, the tusk or tusk of an elephant, horn of a bull, forepart if a ram and the hindquarters of a tiger.[1] All of these signify the combination of old and new motifs, also the development of new cities, new polities and new elites. One can see that even in the second half of the first millennium BC. When the matanga (elephant) dynasty comes to power, the motif of the elephant makes an appearance again. Similarly the motif of the Peacock makes its appearance when the Mauryas (peacock) dynasty comes to power.

The animals’ motif depicted on Harappan did indeed represent certain groups, since there is evidence in the early historical period (post 600 BC.) of people and dynasties (as mentioned before) named after these very animals. The other good example of the process of animal motifs’ modification is that of the Gotras of the brahmanas. Many of them use the name of the animals, fish or birds, for example kasyapa (tortoise) gotra, the Vatsa (calf), sunaka (dog), iksa (bear), bharadvaja (a species of birds) manauka (frog) and Gotama (cow).[2] Undoubtedly, among them, there are some certaint place and group represented by the elephant motif. In VaayuparaaNa, it gives the detailed description of Ketumala, which corresponds to the region of old Bactria. It mentions the Gajabhumika (land of the elephant). Panini also refers a group of people in his book as the Hastinayana (descended from hastin which signifies “elephant”). Interestingly Anita Raina Thapan suggested in her writing that these kinds of animal’s motifs could be implied as one form of ancestor worship, which can be found mostly in such many ancient civilizations and to be recognized as Shamanism.


[1] Methodology in analyzing myths and folk tales

[2] Professor of Folklore studies Institute, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

[1] Heras, H. (1972). The Problem of Ganapati. Delhi: Indological Book House.

[2] Krishan, Yuvraj (1999). Ga¼e a: Unraveling An Enigma. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

[3] Brown, Robert L. (1991). Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God. Albany: State University of New York.

[1] Stith Thompson in Leach 1972, p.753


[1] Nagar, Shanti Lal (1992). The Cult of Vinayaka. New Delhi: Intellectual Publishing House

[2] Saraswati, S.; Ashish Khokar (2005). Ganesa-Karttikeya. New Delhi: Rupa and Co.

[3] Brown, p. 73. an essay by Ludo Rocher “Ganesa’s Rise to Prominence in Sanskrit Literature”

[1] Stith Thompson in Leach 1972, p.753

[2] "

[1] Anita Raina Thapan, P. 42

[2] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, History of Indian and Indonesian Art, P.11

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Ganesha - Iconographic Conception, Motif, and its Social Outlet
Iconographic Conception, Motif, and its Social Outlet
University of Heidelberg  (Klassiche Indologie)
Seminar zur Vorlesung Hindu Mythologie
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1061 KB
Ganesha, Iconographic, Conception, Motif, Social, Outlet, Seminar, Vorlesung, Hindu, Mythologie
Quote paper
Jitraphan Hajjavanija (Author), 2007, Ganesha - Iconographic Conception, Motif, and its Social Outlet, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Ganesha - Iconographic Conception, Motif, and its Social Outlet

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free