Vehicles of the Hindu Gods: the Vahanas

Lord Ganesh
Lord Ganesh is carried by a mouse.   Dinodia Photos /Getty Images 

Each Hindu deity has a particular animal-vehicle or vahana on which it travels. The Sanskrit word translates literally as "that which carries," or "that which pulls." These vehicles, which are either animals or birds, represent the various spiritual and psychological forces that carry each deity and represent it. So important are the vahanas that deities are seldom depicted without their corresponding creatures. The vahanas may wear a saddle upon which the deity rides or they may pull a chariot driven by the deity. They are sometimes depicted walking alongside the deity.

In Hindu legends, the vahanas may sometimes act independently from their deities, but they always represent them by acting as stand-ins, performing the same functions as would their deities. They may, however, also offer additional talents that the deity would otherwise lack. Often, elaborate cultural mythologies exist explaining how each animal became the vahana of a particular deity, and sometimes the stories involve the transformation of lesser gods into the vahana of a major deity. 

Vehicles as Symbols

Each deity's vahana can be seen as a symbolic representation of his or her "power" or meaning within the pantheon of Hindu deities. For example: 

  • Goddess Saraswati's vehicle, the graceful and beautiful peacock, for example, represents her status as the controller of the pursuit of performing arts.
  • Vishnu sits on the primal serpent, which represents the desire of consciousness in humankind.
  • Shiva rides the Nandi bull, which stands for the brute and blind power, as well as the unbridled sexual energy in man—the qualities only he can help us control.
  • Shiva's consort, Parvati, Durga or Kali, rides on a lion, which symbolizes mercilessness, anger, and pride—vices she can help her devotees check.
  • Ganesha's carrier, a mouse represents the timidity and nervousness that overwhelm us at the onset of any new venture—feelings that can be overcome by the blessings of Ganesha.

The vahanas may represent talents that fill in shortcomings in the deity's abilities. It can be argued, for example, that the elephant god, Ganesha, gains subtlety of insight through the perceptions of his small mouse vahana. And it was only with the help of her lion vahana that Durga manages to destroy the demon Mahishasura. In this manner, the vahanas are in the tradition of spirit animal symbols found in mythologies worldwide.

Some scholars have also suggested that the vahanas represent the minds of human followers, which are thereby allowed to be guided by the deity's wishes. 

Below is a list of Hindu gods and goddesses who are inseparably linked with their respective vahanas:

  • Aditya—seven horses
  • Agni—the ram
  • Brahma—seven swans
  • Durga—the lion
  • Ganesha—the mouse
  • Indra—the elephant
  • Kartikya—the peacock
  • Lakshmi—the owl
  • Saraswati—the swan or the peacock
  • Shakti—the bull
  • Shani—the crow
  • Sheetala—the donkey
  • Shiva—Nandi, the bull
  • Varuna—seven swans
  • Vayu—a thousand horses
  • Vishnu—Garuda, the eagle & Adi Shesha, the serpent
  • Vishwakarma—the elephant
  • Yama—the male buffalo