2. Ganesha

This statue of Ganesha was carved in Western India in the nineteenth century; it is the property of the Ashmolean Museum, who have kindly lent it to Wolfson College. A son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha is one of the most popular Hindu deities. Known as the Lord of New Beginnings, offerings are presented to him at the start of any new venture or journey. He is also the god of wisdom and learning, the bestower of wealth and the remover of obstacles. It is very appropriate that he greets students arriving at Wolfson at the start of their Oxford career.

Photo: George Mather

The sculpture of this elephant-headed god represents him sitting on a lotus throne, holding a demon-slaying axe (parasu), an elephant goad (spear with a hook), prayer beads (a mala) and he most likely was holding a broken tusk or bowl of sweets in his lower left hand. Whereas his left tusk is missing from the damaged sculpture, his right tusk is meant to look broken, because it is believed that he removed part of it to use as a pen while transcribing the Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata. Thus, he is also worshipped by students as a god of learning, writing and wisdom. Around his shoulder and waist is a sacred thread (or upavita) in the form a cobra – associated with Shiva – which is meant to keep his stomach from opening, because he has eaten too many sweets, a bowl of which is sometimes in his hand. His vehicle (vahana), a mouse, is sitting on the base of the statue looking up at Ganesha. There are several stories explaining why Ganesha has an elephant’s head on a human body. According to a popular myth, Shiva was away whilst Parvati created Ganesha, and on returning home found this handsome male youth. The boy was guarding Parvati’s bathing area and refused to let Shiva through the entrance. In anger, Shiva cut off the youth’s head. When Parvati demanded that Shiva revive the boy and replace his head, which was lost in the beheading, Shiva could only locate the head of an elephant for the boy.

Tim Hitchens