[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

The Elephant and the Rat

While looking through our collections recently we noticed that in most of the depictions of Ganesha we found he is often accompanied by a rat. Eager to get to the bottom of the mystery for World Rat Day we decided to delve deep and uncover the meaning behind this unlikely pairing.

Ganesha is one of the most easily recognisable deities of the Hindu pantheon and he will be familiar to many non-Hindus. His distinctive elephant's head marks him out as one of the most memorable figures in Hinduism, and as a patron of the arts and scientists and the remover of objects he plays an important role for many communities throughout South Asia. You may have also noticed that often wherever Ganesha goes he is accompanied by a rat. A small rat may cower beneath his feet, or a giant rat may serve at his vehicle or 'Vahana'. How has a figure as revered as Ganesha come to be associated with the common rat then?

  • 1990.23, This 19th century statue of Ganesha shows his faithful rat companion prostrate at his feet
    This 19th century statue of Ganesha shows his faithful rat companion prostrate at his feet

The rat first appears as Ganesha's mount in Hindu mythology in the Matsya Purana, a Sanskrit text that is believed to have been begun in the 1st millennium BCE. Since then it has appeared in a number of important texts and myths surrounding Ganesha including the Brahmananda Purana and Ganesha Purana

According to the Ganesha Purana the mythical origin of Ganesha's rat is this:

There was a celestial musician-god by the name Krauncha. One day, in the court of Lord Indra, Krauncha accidentally stepped on the foot of Muni Vamadeva, who (as all Munis), got enraged and cursed Krauncha to become a mouse. However, Krauncha became a huge mountain-sized mouse and ended up damaging everything in its path. Once, he ended up stepping on the ashram of Maharshi Parashar, with whom Lord Ganesha was staying, and destroying it. Lord Ganesha, inorder to teach Krauncha a lesson, unleashed his pasha (noose) on Krauncha which ended up looping around the mouse and bringing him to Lord Ganesha's feet. Ganesha then said something like, "Krauncha...you have caused a lot of trouble and you deserve a severe punishment. But since you ask for my forgiveness, I will pardon you and use you as my vehicle". However, when Ganesha mounted on Krauncha, he couldnt bear the weight of Lord Ganesha. Krauncha pleaded for Ganesha to become light-weight so that he could support him. Lord Ganesha obliged and since then, has been using the mouse as his vehicle.

However, the argument continues on quite what the rat is meant to symbolise, and many aren't even sure it's a rat - it could be a mouse. Some believe that the rat helps Ganesha in his role as the remover of obstacles. Rodents can travel in spaces that others could never reach and this allows Ganesha to do his work in the unseen places of the world. The writer, Yuvraj Krishan has argued it is the opposite that is true - that the partnership of Ganesha and the rodent is not one of harmony but rather of domination:

Lord Ganesha is known as the Conqueror of Obstacles (Vighnaharta). In ancient times, when agriculture was the primary mode of sustenance, rodents were one of the biggest obstacles to prosperity. Rodents would destroy standing crops, eat up stored grains and thereby result in severe losses for the common man. Lord Ganesha, in having a mouse/rat as his vehicle, is symbolically shown to have conquered this pest, thus staying true to his name of Vighnaharta.

Whatever the truth is it seems these two aren't going to be separated any time soon. Next time you see a depiction of Ganesha why not see if you can find his rat companion nearby?

  • 513.003, A 19th century ebony figure depicting Ganesha carried upon a throne by his vahana
    A 19th century ebony figure depicting Ganesha carried upon a throne by his vahana