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One of the reasons - perhaps the primary reason - that elephants are treated with such respect in India is that the elephant plays a key role in Hinduism, the nation's major religion. Ganesh, one of the major Hindu deities, has the head of an elephant. That may sound strange to practitioners of Western religions, which are monotheistic, but in Hinduism, gods and goddesses come in all shapes, size, and incarnations.

There are hundreds of deities in Hinduism; among the primary gods are Shiva, the destroyer, and his consort, the goddess Parvati. According to Hindu myth, Parvati wanted to begin a family, but Shiva had no interest in children. In spite of Shiva, she decided to conceive a child. How she went about this was somewhat unconventional. It consisted of scrubbing her skin, amassing the dirt, blending it with clay, and shaping the clay into an idol, to which she gave life. This was her son, Ganesh.

As it happened, Parvati gave Ganesh the task of guarding the door to her cave, and told him not to let any strangers enter. Since he had never seen Shiva, Ganesh told Shiva to leave when the god came to Parvati's cave. Gravely offended, Shiva decapitated Ganesh. When she learned of Ganesh's death, Parvati was beside herself with grief. She threatened to destroy the entire world unless Shiva brought Ganesh back to life. Shiva consented, and said that he would give Ganesh the head of the first animal he saw.

That animal, as you probably expect, was an elephant. And from that moment forth, Ganesh was known as the remover of obstacles. Whenever Hindus start any sort of new endeavor -- the initiation of prayer, say, or the construction of a new house -- they invoke Ganesh. Images of Ganesh are often put above the entrance of homes, where they ward off evil spirits. The patron saint of eduction, Ganesh typically appears as red, with a swollen belly, four arms, and a broken tusk, and rides a rat.

Other Hindu Gods Place in Religion
Shiva Known as "The Destroyer"; part of the Hindu triad
Vishnu Known as "the Supreme"; part of the Hindu triad
Brahma Known as "the Creator"; part of the Hindu triad
Devi "The Goddess"; many goddesses are considered aspects of her
Parvati Wife of Shiva; "daughter of the Himalayas"; mother of Ganesh
Lakshmi Wife of Vishnu; a goddess of fertility
Skanda General of the army of the gods; also a son of Shiva and Parvati

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