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Ganesa is the Hindu god of wisdom and art, a benign deity generally assumed to offer help when invoked to overcome difficulties. He may have originated as a fertility god, and as a yaksa (local forest deity). He is the son of Shiva and Parvati; his mother is said to have created him from flakes of her skin. He is depicted in human form with an elephant's head, or less frequently with up to five heads, and a trunk, which removes obstacles, sometimes bearing one tusk on a stout and obese body that contains the universe. His four arms can carry many attributes particularly a shell, a discus, a mace, and a water lily. His sacred animal is the bandicoot. He is invoked before going on a journey, moving a house, or opening a new business.
According to one legend his elephant head was acquired after his mother put him outside of the house to guard the doorstep while she took a bath. He bared the way of his father whereupon Shiva inadvertently decapitated him. His mother vowed to secure a head for him from the first passing creature, which happened to be an elephant. Another account suggests that when Parvati took Ganesa to show him off to the gods, Sani (Saturn) burned his head with ashes and the compassionate Vishnu provided the elephant head to save his life.
The popularity of Gansa results from his frequent appearance in temples of other Hindu deities. His sculptures are sometimes painted red. Because of his gentle nature he is also a common household guardian. He is mentioned in late Mahabharata revisions and the Brihaddharma-Purana and other texts. A.G.H.
Jordan, Michael, Encyclopedia of Gods, New York, Facts On File, Inc. 1993, p. 86