This ancient prayer in praise of the elephant-headed Hindu Deity Shri Ganesha, or Ganapati as he is also popularly known, is widely used in worship all over India and is considered to be the oldest and most important text concerning Shri Ganesha.
In Hindu mythology Shri Ganesha was created as a boy by Shrī Parvati, the Mother Goddess, to guard her bathroom, and His refusal to allow Her Husband Lord Shiva, the personification of the Supreme Spirit, to enter, resulted in a fierce battle where Shri Ganesha’s head was severed by trickery. In order to avoid the destruction of the universe by Shri Pārvatī in anger at Her Son’s murder, He was restored to life; His head being replaced with that of a one-tusked elephant and He was given the honourable position as the Chief of the Ganas, various troops of celestial servants of Lord Shiva, and promised that He would always be worshipped first. Thus He is praised at the commencement of all worship, marriages, journeys or any other ceremony or enterprise; also because He is Vighneshvara, the ‘Ruler of Obstacles’, and when propitiated removes impediments to success, but if ignored creates obstacles.
There is a story that once Lord Shiva set off to destroy Tripura, the three-fold city of the Rakshasas demons), and His chariot-wheel broke on the way. Surprised that such a thing should happen to Him, He discerned through His supernatural powers that He had omitted to worship Shri Ganesha before setting off, which He duly did and achieved success.
The name Ganesha is a compound of Gana ‘troop’ and Ĩsha ‘Supreme Lord’ and thus means ‘Leader, Supreme Master or Lord of the troops’. In the prayer itself He is mostly addressed as Ganapati which has the same meaning. In Sanskrit, meanings can also be derived from each syllable, so Ga-na-pati can be taken as ga-‘elephant’ (gaja), na-‘man’ (nara) and pati ‘Lord’ from pa- ‘to protect’ thus meaning ‘the Lord Protector who is elephant and man’. It is said that Christ was sometimes worshipped as an elephant during the middle Ages.
Shri Ganesha is ‘the Lord of Wisdom’ and is completely dedicated to the wishes of His Mother, who is Herself the Supreme Goddess, the Ādi Shakti or Creative Principle of the Universe.
His qualities of innocence, purity, wisdom and auspiciousness are fundamental to all the Divine Incarnations and Sat-gurus. He is the ‘Mūlādhāra’ –‘the Original Support’, the foundation of the whole Divine subtle system and it is only when He is awakened within us that the Kundalinī Shakti can rise up to Sahasrāra (the Thousand petalled Lotus at the top of the head) and unite with the Ātmā-‘Spirit’ to give us our Self-realisation.
The title Atharva Sheersha, although commonly used apparently has no clear translation. Sheersha means ‘head’ and Atharva the name of the sage who composed the last of the four Vedas; so ‘from the head of Sage Atharva’ has been suggested. However this invocation does not appear in the extant portion of the Atharva Veda. In fact Shri Ganesha is not mentioned in any of the Vedas. The connection may be that the Atharva Veda contains mainly invocations of the Divine for various purposes and this is in the same style. Atharva can simply mean a prayer and Sheersha, like ‘head’ in English, can mean the ‘foremost’, or ‘highest’, so one interpretation is ‘the Highest Praise’; another is that Atharva means ‘unwavering’ and so our shīrsha-‘head’ and hence ‘mind’ is fixed intently on our purpose of attaining Self-realisation.
The Ganesha Atharva Sheersham is a minor Upanishad in its own right, sometimes called the MahāGanapati Upanishad, and contains a variety of wisdom concerning Shri Ganesha, each of the ten verses being composed in a different style and metre, addressing a different aspect of His knowledge.
It is widely believed to have great power, and many miracles and much spiritual progress are attributed to its use. The *Phala-shruti ‘listening to the results’, a further six verses after the main body of the prayer indicates some of the powers of this invocation Repeating a thousand times is said to grant any desire of the devotee.