Ganesh is arguably the most beloved Hindu deity of all. Eldest son of Lord Shiva the Destroyer, and his wife, Parvati, Ganesh is the god of wisdom, scribes, learning, and the remover of obstacles. Before any undertaking is begun, a prayer to Ganesh is said to ensure success.
Ganesh appears as a gentle, pot-bellied figure with the head of an elephant, four arms, and a broken tusk. He is most often depicted as sitting with one leg folded beneath him. In three of his hands he holds various objects that are symbolic tools for enlightenment: a pasam or rope, goad or axe, and a bowl of rice of or a sweet dessert ball.
The pasam or rope has three braids, each braid representing a different cautionary lesson: arrogance, Maya or the illusionary nature of the world, and ignorance. The goad is a staff used to herd elephants and reminds the devotee to steer clear of a self-defeating path, while the axe represents the ability to cut unhealthy attachment to the material world. The rice or sweet dessert represents the reward, or the sweetness of living in enlightenment, and the fullness of wisdom. It promises happiness in return for devotion.
Ganesh's fourth hand is always free, palm extended in a blessing.
Ganesh's potbelly is bound by a cobra, which represents Shiva, reminding us Ganesh is Shiva's son, while Ganesh's vehicle is a mouse, representing not only how much importance a wise man gives to the tiniest of creatures, but also agility and resourcefulness.
There are many legends as to how Ganesh ended up with the head of an elephant. In one, Shiva was away at war and Parvati desired someone to stand guard while she bathed. She created an ordinary boy, Ganesh. She instructed him to disallow anyone to enter. When Shiva returned home, the boy faithfully blocked the way. Enraged, Shiva cut off his head. Parvati came out and saw what he had done, grieving over her son. Shiva relented, promising to attach the head of the first creature he came upon, which was a baby elephant. Shiva cut off the elephant's head and placed it on the boy, bringing him back to life. Parvati wasn't quite satisfied so Shiva further blessed the boy, decreeing that all shall pray to Ganesh before enlisting any undertaking.
To this day faithful Hindus everywhere send a prayer out to Ganesh before starting a job, beginning a relationship, or undertaking any new project. Ganesh lovingly represents domestic harmony and happiness and his picture hangs over many doorways, guarding the entrance from harm and removing any obstacles from the path towards success.