Ganesha [Gah-NESH-ah] is the god of wisdom and is believed to bring luck to his worshipers. He is one of the most popular Hindu gods and is also worshiped by followers of Buddhism and Jainism. Ganesha has the body of a human and the head of an elephant, and he is typically shown with at least four arms holding the lasso, elephant hook, and a dish of sweetmeats. He appears plump and seated in this sculpture with two of his four arms located behind his shoulders.
This sculpture of Ganesha is from Java, Indonesia. By the seventh century, Hinduism had spread throughout Southeast Asia and mixed with many indigenous belief systems. Hinduism and Buddhism coexisted peacefully in Indonesia for many centuries before Islam spread to the region and displaced the earlier two religions. Indonesia currently has the largest Muslim population in the world; however, the island of Bali in Indonesia remains largely Hindu.
Ganesha [Gah-NESH-ah], the eldest son of Shiva [SHEE-va] and Parvati [PAHR-vah-tee], is one of the most popular Hindu gods and is also worshiped by followers of Buddhism and Jainism. Ganesha is the god of wisdom and is believed to bring luck to his worshipers. He is typically shown with at least four arms holding the lasso, elephant hook, and a dish of sweetmeats and has a large belly that symbolizes the universe. He embodies the sentiment that earthly delights do not have to hinder spiritual enlightenment.
There are several versions of the story of Ganesha’s origins. In one story, Shiva had retreated into a meditative state, and Parvati, lonely, decided to create a son. Before her daily bath, she used the dust on her body to form Ganesha and instructed him to guard the door while she bathed. When Shiva attempted to enter Parvati’s bathing room, Ganesha blocked his entry, and Shiva, furious, severed Ganesha’s head. Later realizing Ganesha was his own son, Shiva replaced the missing head with that of a passing elephant.
Hinduism is a complex system of beliefs. It incorporates many religious texts and many local and village gods, along with the principle trinity of Brahma [BRAH-mah], Vishnu [VISH-noo], and Shiva. Hinduism is characterized by the notion that opposing forces are aspects of one eternal truth, the belief in reincarnation, and the practice of good deeds in hopes of being reborn into a higher caste. Through trade and cultural connections, Hinduism became a major influence on many cultures throughout Asia, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
By the seventh century, Hinduism had spread throughout Southeast Asia and mixed with many indigenous belief systems. Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism coexisted peacefully in Indonesia for many centuries before Islam spread to the region and displaced the earlier two religions. Indonesia currently has the largest Muslim population in the world; however, the island of Bali in Indonesia remains largely Hindu.
The conventional triad of Hindu deities includes Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. In principle, these gods are equal in power and influence, representing three aspects (creation, preservation, and destruction) of One Divine Power.
In the Hindu creation story, Brahma was responsible for all of creation. Hindu cosmology records the time of creation in terms of the days and years of the life of Brahma. His four heads symbolize the four Vedas [VAY-duhs], Hindu’s oldest scriptures, and the goose or geese he often rides represent knowledge. These themes add to the perception of his role as counselor and teacher of the gods. However, he has lost popularity in the modern era and is rarely worshiped by Hindus today. Instead, Devi, a figure who embodies all Hindu goddesses, has become the third most popular figure in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. Devi is short for Sri Devi, which means “the great goddess.”
Vishnu, the invincible protector and preserver of the universe, serves as a hero figure who reestablishes cosmic order in many Hindu stories. He embodies the characteristics of goodness and mercy. When the balance of the universe is disturbed by evil or destructive forces, Vishnu will prevail over the spiritually ignorant demons and restore dharma or moral order. Vishnu is associated with many different incarnations or avatars, whose form he assumes while restoring universal order in these stories.
Shiva, the god of life, death, and rebirth in the Hindu tradition, embodies seemingly contradictory gentle and wild natures, making him an intimidating figure. Shiva can destroy or break down everything, thus releasing the energy necessary for new growth and recreation of the world. Shiva plays many roles, including lover of the goddess Parvati [PAHR-vah-tee], ascetic yogi, creator, and destroyer. In Hindu works of art, Shiva often appears in one of several manifestations that highlight the various aspects of his character.
Indonesia and Java Empire
Traveling merchants and missionaries brought aspects of Indian culture to Indonesia as early as the third century. By the eighth century, the Javanese kingdom on the island of Java was the most powerful kingdom of its time. Between the eighth and sixteenth centuries, the art of the Central Javanese kingdoms reflected a mixture of native and foreign Hindu and Buddhist tastes. Muslim traders infiltrated the region during the sixteenth century and much of Indonesia became Muslim. The first Dutch trading missions arrive in Indonesia in the final decade of the sixteenth century, and the Dutch eventually ousted the Muslim and Portuguese from their trading centers in Southeast Asia. Indonesia became a Dutch colony in the nineteenth century, like much of Southeast Asia which fell into colonial hands. All of these nations regained independence after World War II.
Temple Art and Architecture
The first Hindu temples were constructed and modeled after earlier Buddhist monuments. Hindu temples are designed to represent a diagram of the universe. Temples take on the form of a three-dimensional mandala, a sacred diagram that is oriented to the cardinal directions and contains patterns and images intended to aid viewers along the path to understanding and enlightenment. Differing versions of this sacred cosmology in brick and stone occur throughout Southeast Asia and there are significant Hindu and Buddhist temples in Central Java.
Many stone sculptures were created to decorate the exterior walls of these temples. Sculptures decorating the temple serve the dual purpose of familiarizing worshipers with the appearance and stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and welcoming the worshiper into the temple. Though most Hindu objects in museums today appear unpainted, these temple sculptures were originally painted using a polychrome or multiple color technique.
The purpose of small statues such as this Ganesha is unknown. They may have been commissioned by donors for temples or shrines or possibly intended for personal use. In addition to educating worshipers about the Hindu and Buddhist gods, temple sculpture was also meant to glorify the king. The Devaraja (god-king) cult, which promoted the belief that the living king represented the divine will of a particular god, originated in India and became popular in Java. The images in the temple of gods, therefore, were intended as symbolizing the god’s approval of the king’s divine right to rule. Hindu rulers typically derived power from Shiva or Vishnu as their patron deity, and Buddhist rulers turned to Buddhist bodhisattvas.
1. Ganesha is an important and popular Hindu god with the body of a human and head of an elephant. What other mythological figures can you think of that are part animal and part human (i.e. centaurs, satyrs)?
2. Ganesha has more than two arms. Why might it be important for him to have multiple arms and hands? How do his arms appear to be attached on this sculpture? Imagine that you had four, six, or eight arms. What could you do with these arms? Like Ganesha holds things in his arms that represent him and tell us about him, what objects would you hold in your arms that represent you?
3. Ganesha is believed to bring his worshipers good luck, and many Hindus keep images or sculptures of Ganesha in their homes. What are some symbols of good luck from other traditions? Do you have an object in your possession that you consider lucky (i.e. lucky jersey)?
1. Make a class list of characters and figures that are part animal and part human. Your list may include figures from ancient stories and myths, as well as contemporary comics and movies. Choose one figure to study further with a partner. What human and animal qualities combine in your character? How do these qualities provide extra strength and powers for the character? Create a comic strip describing the story or adventures of the figure.
2. Research one of the symbols of good luck discussed as a class. Find out the origins, history, and use of this symbol, and organize a presentation of this information for the class.
3. Ganesha has many stories surrounding his creation and life. In small groups, research one of the stories, and illustrate its scenes. Then, compile all of the illustrated stories as a class to create a large storybook.
Barbier, Jean Paul. Indonesian Primitive Art – Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines. Dallas Museum of Art, 1984.
Brown, Robert L., ed. Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
Kinney, Ann R. Worshiping Siva and Buddha: The Temple Art of East Java. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.
Pal, Pratapaditya, ed. Ganesh the Benevolent. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1995.
Taylor, Paul M. Aragon, Lorraine V. Beyond the Java Sea – Art of Indonesia’s outer Islands. Washington: The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1991.
Books for Students:
Jani, Mahendra. What You Will See Inside a Hindu Temple. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2005.
Krishnawsami, Uma. The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha. Little Rock, AR: August House, 2006.
Lim, Robin. A Ticket to Indonesia. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 2001.
Novesky, Amy. Wedman, Belgin K. Elephant Prince: The Story of Ganesh. Mandala Publishing, 2004.
Pai, Anant. Ganesha. Amar Chitra Katha, 1999.
Rodrigues, Hillary. Introducing Hinduism. Routledge, 2006.
Suyenaga, Joan. Martowiredjo, Salim. Indonesian Children’s Favorite Stories. Periplus Edition, 2005.
On this website, the British Broadcasting System offers a description of Hinduism.
Learn more about Hinduism and Hindu art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline.
This short essay discusses ways that religious figures can be identified by their attributes.
This excerpt discusses the Hindu temple and Hindu sculpture.
This resource from the Asia Society talks about teaching comparative religions.
This resource packet from the Asian Art Museum discusses Hindu and Buddhist art.
On this site, you will find descriptions of several major world religions.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”