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Ganesh and His Vahan, the Mouse

(ACKNOWLEDGMENT: This note is based on an article "Ganesh O Taanr Vahan" by Swami Purnatmananda (President, Ramakrishna Math and Mission, Viveknagar and Agartala, Tripura, India), pub. Autumn, 2006, in the Bengali magazine "Sharadiya Naba Kallol", Kolkata, India. I am presenting on this site only a couple of striking thoughts in this long article by the Revered Swami. For additional pop-up notes and comments on the words in red font, place the cursor on the word.)

A teeny–tiny mouse is the Vahan of the Hindu deity Ganesh whose elephant–head presumably symbolizes bigness! Is not this coexistence of the two extremes outright weird?

Not really, according to the following account, which is based on an article I read a few years ago.

To begin with, the antiquity of Ganesh as a Hindu deity goes back to age of the Vedas.

The name "Ganesh" comprises two separate words (Gana + Ish). While "Ish" in Sanskrit means god or deity, "Gana" means: a collection, a group, a community, common people, multitude, or the masses. Ganesh, therefore, is the god, deity, or leader of a group of people, community, or a clan. Sangha is the Sanskrit word for a group of people with some common interests. In other words, Ganesh, as the leader of Sanghas, symbolizes the Shakti (power) of Sanghas, or SanghaShakti. Without SanghaShakti, which also implies unity, a group cannot succeed in any endeavor. The sayings, "Unity is strength," and "United we stand, divided we fall" are well known.

The Rishis of ancient India developed the Sangha concept for people to pursue both secular and spiritual goals. Scripture says: Sangha Shakti Kalou Yuge, meaning SanghaShakti is essential in the Kaliyuga. The Sangha concept probably peaked in India with the rise of Buddhism and then slowly disappeared as Buddhism declined there.

To cite an example of a Sangha from the current news: as I am drafting this article, certain special interest groups in the United States are using different tactics to derail Obama administration's healthcare reform program. Indeed, these groups exhibit the attributes of a Sangha, but with one exception: this Sangha is primarily interested in making more profit for themselves and in caring less about the health of the American people.

And this is precisely why the symbolism of the little mouse as Ganesh's Vahan is so striking. This symbolism has a profound implication for all ages.

Ganesh has head of an elephant. Elephants excel all land animals in size and physical strength. The little mouse sits at Ganesh's feet. Compared to an elephant, the mouse is insignificant in size and strength. Yet these two extremes coexist in an image of Ganesh. Why?

With the exception of the size, biologically an elephant is somewhat similar to a mouse. Both are mammals. An elephant has two tusks; a mouse has two sharp teeth to cut through hard objects.

An elephant's heart beats only about 28 times per minute, which makes big elephants slow in movement and cool–headed. Yet they are very wise, perhaps the wisest of all land animals. While most animals have some kind of sixth sense to survive natural disasters, elephants seem to be special in that regard. Not long ago, it was reported, elephants in Sri Lanka and South India screamed and ran for safe higher grounds, well before the giant waves hit the coastlines during the 2004 Tsunami.

By contrast, a mouse is a small animal. Its heart beats very fast at 500 times per minute making it restless. Yet the mice are smart and tenacious animals. We can observe this tenacity in laboratory experiments where a mouse moves through a complex maze sniffing and changing direction to find a piece of cheese at the end of the maze. Because of this tenacity, a mouse, in search of food and shelter, can cut through many hard objects, even a concrete wall with its two tiny, sharp teeth. One of the famous Aesop's Fables tells us how a mouse gnawed the ropes tied around a captured lion and set him free.

No doubt, Nature is diverse. Her creation is diverse. No two snow-flakes or no two grains of sand are identical. Only a few in a society are physically and mentally strong, bold, energetic, principled, wise, and, therefore, "true" leaders. The remaining majority, the common masses are not so strong, not so bold, not so energetic, and not so wise. Yet a society can succeed in any endeavor, if these two — the "true" leaders and the common masses can work together to pursue a common objective in a cooperative and harmonious environment.

In other words, one cannot accomplish a mission by knowledge, wisdom, or position of power alone. For example, firepower, hi–tech war machinery, and good planning by generals in a cozy, airconditioned war room alone cannot bring victory in a war. Only the careful execution of that plan by disciplined and highly motivated fighting soldiers of all ranks in the frontlines can give the desired victory.

Over a hundred years ago this was Swami Vivekananda's message to the strong, bold, wise, and privileged members of the then Indian society. We may note that this profound message portrays nothing but the "Ganesh–Mouse" metaphor.

. . . thy wealth, thy life are not for sense–pleasure, are not for thy individual personal happiness; forget not that thou art born as a sacrifice to the Mother's altar; forget not that thy social order is but the reflex of the Infinite Universal Motherhood; forget not that the lower classes, the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler, the sweeper, are thy flesh and blood, thy brothers. (Vol. IV, p. 480)

In sum, only an elephant–like power and wisdom leading and directing the mouse–like hard work and tenacity can make our efforts fruitful. A society can survive and prosper, materially and spiritually, if its leaders are wise and if they have behind them disciplined, hardworking, and tenacious masses. Without a harmonious relationship between the two, and without mutual respect, kindness, and love for each other a society can become extinct in no time.

In modern time, this principle also applies to government administrations, multinational corporations — both for–profit or non-profit — educational institutions, health providing and religious organizations, or any entity where a large number of people are working together to achieve a common objective. The world history has demonstrated again and again what can happen to a society, to a nation state, or even to an advanced civilization when this profound principle is in violation.

So, that's all about the symbolism of Ganesh, the elephant–headed deity, and his Vahan the little mouse. We must not forget history, and it is imperative that we remind ourselves of its lessons periodically.

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