Ganesha is the formless Divinity - encapsulated in a magnificent form, for the benefit of the devotee.
Gan means group. The universe is a group of atoms and different energies. This universe would be in chaos if there was no supreme law governing these diverse groups of entities.
The Lord of all these groups of atoms and energies is Ganesha.
He is the supreme consciousness that pervades all and brings order in this universe.
The essence of Ganesha is brought out beautifully by Adi Shankara.
Though Ganesha is worshiped as the elephant-headed God, the form (swaroop) is just to bring out the formless (parabrahma roopa) .
He is, 'Ajam Nirvikalpam Niraakaaramekam.' This means Ganesha is Ajam (unborn), he is Nirvikalpa(attributeless), he is Niraakaar (formless) and he symbolizes the consciousness which is omnipresent.
Ganesha is the same energy which is the reason for this universe. It is the energy from which everything manifests and into which everything will dissolve.
We are all familiar with the story of how Ganesha became the elephant-headed God.
Parvati became dirty when she was celebrating with Shiva. When she realized this, she removed the dirt from her body and created a boy out of it. She then asked him to keep guard while she bathed.
When Shiva returned, the boy did not recognize him and obstructed his passage. So Shiva chopped off the boy's head and entered.
Parvati was shocked when she saw this. She explained to Shiva that the boy was their son and pleaded with Shiva to save him at all costs.
Shiva then instructed his helpers to go and get the head of someone who was sleeping with their head pointing to the north. The helpers then got the head of an elephant, which Shiva affixed to the boy's torso and Ganesha was born!
Does this story sound strange?
Why should Parvati have dirt on her body?
Didn't the all-knowing Shiva recognize His own son?
Was Shiva, the epitome of peace, so short-tempered that he cut off the head of his own son? And why an elephant head on Ganesha?
There is a deeper meaning to all this.
Parvati is symbolic of festive energy. Her becoming dirty signifies that celebration can easily become Rajasik, or feverish and can take you away from your center. Dirt is symbolic of ignorance, and Shiva is symbolic of the Supreme Innocence, Peace and Knowledge.
So when Ganeshaobstructs the path of Shiva, this means that ignorance, which is an attribute of the head, does not recognize knowledge. Then knowledge has to overcome ignorance. This is the symbolism behind Shiva chopping off the boy's head.
And why the elephant head?
Elephant represents both gyan shakti and karma shakti.
The principle qualities of the elephant are wisdom and effortlessness. The enormous head of the elephant signifies Wisdom and Knowledge.
Elephants don't walk around obstacles, neither are they stopped by them. They just remove them and walk ahead – signifying effortlessness.
So, when we worship Lord Ganesha these elephant qualities within us are kindled and we take on these qualities.
Ganesha'sbig belly represents generosity and total acceptance. Ganesha's upraised hand, depicting protection, means, 'Fear not, I am with you', and his lowered hand, palm facing outwards means endless giving as well as an invitation to bow down, this is symbolic of the fact that we will all dissolve into earth one day.
Ganesha also has a single tusk which signifies one-pointedness. Even the implements Ganesha wields are symbolic.
He carries in his hands, the 'Ankusa' (signifying awakening) and the 'Paasa' (signifying control). With awakening, a lot of energy is released, which without proper control, can go haywire.
And why does Ganesha, the elephant-headed God travel on something as small as a mouse? Isn't that so incongruous? Again there is symbolism that runs deep.
The mouse snips and nibbles away at ropes that bind. The mouse is like the mantra which can cut through sheaths and sheaths of ignorance, leading to the ultimate knowledge represented by Ganesha!
Our ancient Rishis were so deeply intelligent that they chose to express Divinity in terms of symbols rather than words, since words change over time, but symbols remain unchanged.
Let us keep the deep symbolism in mind as we experience the omnipresent in the form of the elephant God, yet be fully aware that Ganesha is very much within us. This is the wisdom we should carry as we celebrate Ganesh Chaturti.