The River Ganges or Gaṅgā
Since time immemorial, water is associated with worship and major rivers in all civilizations have been worshipped as goddesses. The ancient Mesopotamians honored the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Egyptians revere the Nile, the Chinese venerate the Yang Sikiang and Hwang Ho, and the Indians worship the river Ganges or Gaṅgā. Water symbolizes fertility, abundance, crops, and growth. Thus, water has always been revered as sacred and divine.
Present day features of Gaṅgā
” The Ganges, above all is the river of India, which has held India’s heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of adventures of man…The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga…” – Discovery of India, by Jawaharlal Nehru
River Ganges is a big river of about 2,510 km long that origins as Bhagirathi at Gaumukh at the Gangotri Glacier (25,446 ft) in the state of Uttarakhand located at the central Himalayas, and completes its journey into the Bay of Bengal via the Gangetic Delta in the Sundarbans and as river Padma in Bangladesh, which also drains in the Bay of Bengal.
Six rivers combine to make the mighty river Ganges. At Vishnuprayag, rivers Alakananda and Dhauliganga combine together; at Nandprayag, rivers Alakananda and Nandakini combine together, at Karnaprayag, rivers Alakananda and Pindar combine together, at Rudraprayag, rivers Alakananda and Mandakini combine together, and at Devprayag, rivers Alakananda and Bhagirathi combine together, after which the river is known as the Ganges. Of these six rivers, Bhagirathi is considered as the main source.
Major Indian cities and towns that exist on the banks of the Ganges are Haridwar, Kanpur, Allahabad, Mirzapur, Varanasi, Patna, Bhagalpur, and Kolkata.
Gaṅgā and her greatness
Throughout the Mahābhārata, the greatness of Gaṅgā shines forth like a valuable gem of extreme brilliance. In the Anuśasana Parva, Section XXVI, in reply to questions by Yudhiśṭira, the greatness of Gaṅgā is elaborately elucidated by Gaṅgāputra Bhīśma.
The foremost of all rivers is Bhāgirathi or Gaṅgā. Those countries, provinces, retreats, and mountains should be regarded as the best with respect to sanctity, which are beside the river Bhāgirathi. The high state that a person attains by undergoing severe penances, practising celibacy, performing sacrifices, or by wordly renunciation, that same state is easily attained by simply living on the banks of Bhāgirathi and bathing in its holy waters. Persons who have been sprinkled with the sacred waters of the Bhāgirathi and whose bones have been immersed in it and laid to rest in the depths of the Bhāgirathi, do not fall away from heaven. Those who use the waters of Bhāgirathi in all their day-to-day works, surely go and remain in heaven after their departure from this world.
Persons who have committed various kinds of sinful deeds during their early years, if undertake to take up residence beside the Gaṅgā in their later years, attain to superior ends. A person of restrained senses who takes a bath in the waters of Gaṅgā achieves a merit that cannot be achieved even by the performance of hundreds of sacrifices. As long as the bones of the person remains on the bed of Gaṅgā, for that long a period, that person surely resides in heaven. As the resplendent sun rises in the east, at the time of dawn, dispelling the gloom of night, blazing forth in its splendorous light, in that same manner, the person who has undertaken a bath in the sacred waters of the Gaṅgā is cleansed of all his sins, and shines forth in splendour and blazes like a sun.
Those countries and regions that are deprived of the waters of Gaṅgā are like deep dark nights without the moon, like barren trees without any flowers, like the different modes of life that are without righteousness, and like sacrifices that are without soma. Verily, the places without Gaṅgā are like the places without a sun, the earth wihout the mountains, and the atmosphere without air. All the creatures who reside in the three worlds, cannot from any other source derive the magnificent pleasure that they gain by drinking the soothing waters of the Gaṅgā.
The person who drinks the waters of the Gaṅgā heated by the rays of the sun, derives such merit that is far superior than the great merit derived by the performance of the vow of living on the wheat or grains picked up from cowdung. Equality cannot be determined between two persons, one of who performs a thousand Chandrayana rites for purification of his body and the other who drinks the waters of the Gaṅgā for purification of his body. Whether the two are equal or not, cannot be determined for one who for a thousand years stands on one foot and the other who resides by the Gaṅgā only for a month. The person who permanently stays on the banks of the Gaṅgā is far superior in merit to the person who has lived with his head hanging downwards for ten thousand Yugas.
For persons whose hearts are consumed with sorrow, the most superior remedy to dispel the sorrow, is to have a bath in the Gaṅgā. As cotton is burnt off completely without any remnant when it comes in contact with fire, likewise the sins of a person are burnt off completely when the person comes in contact with the waters of the Gaṅgā and has a bath in it. As snakes lose their poison at the very sight of Garuda the eagle, likewise a person loses all his sins at the very sight of the holy Gaṅgā. Persons who are without repute and who are addicted to sinful ways have only the Gaṅgā as their sole protector and the giver of fame.
Persons who have knowingly lived a sinful life and if in their afteryears they seek the aid of Gaṅgā, then they are rescued from sinking in the depths of hell. Persons who immerse themselves daily in the sacred waters of the Gaṅgā are transformed into great munis and are like the deities with Vasva at their head, as they inspite of themselves simply cannot undertake any sinful act. Wretches among persons who are totally devoid of any modesty or humility and are wedded to sinful ways, automatically become calm, righteous, and good, by simply taking a bath in the Gaṅgā on a daily basis.
As Amṛita is to the gods, as Swādha is to the Pitris, as Sudhā is to the Nagas, similarly Gaṅgā is to the human beings. As children seek food and nourishment from their mothers, similarly persons should seek food and nourishnment from Gaṅgā. As the region of Brahmā is the foremost of all places, similarly the waters of Gaṅgā are the foremost of all rivers. As the offering made in the sacrifices is the chief source of sustenance for the gods, similarly the chief source of sustenance for all living creatures is the Gaṅgā. As the gods support themselves with Amṛita that is formed by the sun and the moon and which is also offered in numerous sacrifices, likewise human beings support themselves with the life-giving waters of Gaṅgā.
A person who smears himself with the earth taken from the banks of the Gaṅgā is like a resident of heaven bedecked with celestial unguents. A person who on his head bears the mud taken from the banks of the Gaṅgā acquires an effulgent aspect and all his confusions are cleared, similar to the radiant sun who dispels all darkness. A person who on the banks of the Gaṅgā is touched by the wind moistened by the particles of Gaṅgā water is immediately cleansed of all his sins. A person who is suffering from calamities and find himself trapped and unable to remove the heavy load of agony, is freed of all calamities and finds a way out of them due to the profound joy arising in his saddened heart when he looks on the magnificent sight of the sacred Gaṅgā.
By the songs of the aquatic birds and the melody of the swan that plays on the breast of Gaṅgā, the celestial musicians the Gandharvas are also challenged. The high shores of the Gaṅgā challenge even make the high mountains of the earth. When beholding the lovely swans and other birds frolicking on the breast of Gaṅgā, when beholding the green pasturelands that adorn her banks, when beholding the cows that graze on the lush grass beside the Gaṅgā, when beholding the mighty span of the awe-inspiring Gaṅgā, when beholding the magical purificatory powers of the sacred waters of the Gaṅgā, even the most beautiful abode of the gods, the Heaven loses its pride. By taking the sacred waters of the Gaṅgā in his both palms, touching it, and bathing in its purifying waters, a person rescues one’s ancestors to the seventh generation, one’s descendents to the seventh generation, as well as helping other ancestors and descendents.
By hearing the roar or the rippling of the waters of the Gaṅgā, by beholding the stupendous sight of the Gaṅgā, by holding, touching, and bathing it the holy Gaṅgā, a person rescues his complete paternal and maternal lineage. By performing tarpan – oblations to Gaṅgā, a person gratifies his Pitris and all the other deities. Persons desirous of making their lives worthwhile, desirous of making their learning fruitful, desirous of earning wealth by righteous means, desirous of noble offspring, should always take refuge in the Gaṅgā. A bath is the Gaṅgā earns such high merit that cannot be earned even with the possession of wealth, obedient sons, or the performance of other meritorious act.
Persons who are physically sound and yet do not desire or seek the sight of the Gaṅgā are like persons with congenital blindness or dead or do not have the power of locomotion as if afflicted by lameness. For what person would be there who would not desire to behold the Gaṅgā, in whom the Riśis knowing the past, present, and the future, as well as all the heavenly gods along with Indra at their head, take refuge? For what person would be there who would not seek the protection of the Gaṅgā, in whose protection all the residents of the three worlds prosper? The person who resides on the banks of the Gaṅgā till his last breath, revering her with due respect, is freed of all kinds of fear, every kind of calamity, and all acts of sin. The person whose conduct has been righteous and who with concentrated mind thinks of Gaṅgā at the time when his soul leaves his body, attains to the supreme end.
A person who gazes at the Gaṅgā, obtains a glimpse of the all the three worlds, as Gaṅgā flows in the heaven as Mandākini, in the earth as Gaṅgā, and in hell as Bhogāvati. A person by praying to Gaṅgā feels the divinity of Maheśwara as Gaṅgā flows from his matted locks. A person who adores Gaṅgā with deep devotion, with unshaking reverance, with abiding faith, and with a feeling that Gaṅgā shall take care as a mother takes care of her child, surely attains to all successes in this world. No grief or fear befalls that person and in the end his soul is also liberated as Gaṅgā liberated the souls of the sixty-thousand sons of Sāgara.
Gaṅgā is revered as Prisṇi – the mother of Viṣṇu, is venerated as speech, and is the embodiment of bounty, auspiciousness, happiness, and prosperity. Gaṅgā is benevolent and even rescues the person from all sins, who simply points out Gaṅgā to another person. Gaṅgā is bestower of wealth and contains gold in her womb. Those who bathe in the Gaṅgā succeed in obtaining Dharma, Artha, and Kāma – Righteousness, Wealth, and Pleasure. Gaṅgā is as sanctifying as the purified ghee that is offered along with the mantras in the sacrificial fire. Gaṅgā offers the best bed for the dead as she offers a path to the heaven. Gaṅgā is equivalent to the earth in forgiveness, to fire in energy, and to the sun in spelendour. Persons who even mentally pray to Gaṅgā, attain success in reaching the realm of Brahmā.
Persons of subdued souls are fully convinced that sons, wealth, and worldy possessions are all transitory and who feel the desire to attain salvation, do indeed with rapt attention and concentrated mind pay homage to Gaṅgā with that love, respect, and reverance that is due from a son to mother. Benevolent and large-hearted Gaṅgā listens to all her sons even if they be wicked and sinful. Whosoever comes to Gaṅgā with folded hands in respect, and holds her sacred waters in his palms is cleansed of all his sins. The merits of Gaṅgā are numerous and countless. One may count the stones that are in the mountains of Meru and one may even measure the waters that reside in the oceans, but one cannot count all the merits of the sacred waters of Gaṅgā. The holy river Gaṅgā is the source of all happiness to those who take refuge in her with humbleness of heart. Any person who praises Gaṅgā is also cleansed of every sin, such is the great power of Gaṅgā.
Myths and Legends of Gaṅgā
Gaṅgā as a Goddess
There are many myths and legends, which tell that the river Ganges or Gaṅgā is essentially a goddess residing in heaven. She is exquisitely described as an extremely fair goddess. She has four arms and three eyes. With the third eye on her forehead, she becomes a kāldarśini- one who can view the past, present and the future. She is dressed in white and is heavily ornamented with precious stones and dazzling white pearls. On one hand, she holds a white lotus and with the other hand, she bestows peace and grants boons to humanity. In the other two hands, she holds jars full of water that grant fertility, crops, and prosperity. She has a calm, generous, and a pleasing expression on her beautiful and radiant face. She rides a makara- a white crocodile with the tail of a fish, and is surrounded by two women, one fanning her and the other holding a white umbrella over her crowned head. The jewel in her crown is the moon and the gods and goddesses all sing her praises and pay homage to her. In her beautiful form, the sacred trinity of Brahmā-Viṣṇu-Maheś is contained and all the three worlds bow before her purity and generosity.
Gaṅgā as in the Vedic Age
Gaṅgā is mentioned in the Vedas. In the Ṛgveda, it is mentioned in Book VI, Hymn XLV, Verse 31, as follows:
“Bṛbu hath set himself above the Paṇis,
o’er their highest head,
Like the wide bush on Gaṅgā’s bank.”
Again, in Book X, Hymn LXXV, Verse 5, as follows:
“Favour ye this my laud, O Gaṅgā, Yamunā,
O Śutudrī, Paruṣṇī and Sarasvatī,
With Asiknī, Vitastā, O Marudvṛdhā,
O Ārjīkīyā with Suṣomā hear my call.”
The Vedic age worshipped Gaṅgā as a Goddess, as the Aryan culture and civilization flourished on her banks. The river had the longest course and was the most beautiful and important, assuming a significant role alongwith the river Indus and the Saraswati, in all the religious activities of the Vedic Aryans.
Gaṅgā flows in heaven, earth, and hell
Goddess Gaṅgā assumed the form of a river and flowed in all the three worlds, celestial, terrestrial, and subterranean. In the celestial region, she has three streams known as Swargaṅgā, Mandākini and Alakanaṅdā. In the terrestrial region, she begins her course from Gaṅgotrī in the Himālayās to finally merge with the Bay of Bengal, and is known as the river Ganges or Gaṅgā. Ancient texts tell that on earth, seven streams of Gaṅgā are flowing, namely, Hlādini, Pāvani, Nalini, Sitā, Siṅdhu, Suchakśu and Bhāgirathi. In the subterranean region, Gaṅgā is known as Vaitārini, and a departed soul has to cross this river to reach hell. Vaitārini, is also known as Pātāla Gaṅgā. Some sources claim that goddess Gaṅgā flows in the heaven as Mandākini, on the earth as Gaṅgā, and in the nether world as Bhogāvati or Bhāgirathi. Since she is present in Swarga, Prithvi, and Pātāla, she is also known as Tripathagā or Tripathagāmini – one who travels three paths or three worlds.
Gaṅgā as a mother or Mā Gaṅgā
Water also has a purifying aspect and running water in this context is considered the best. Thus the ritual of having a bath in a river is considered as a purificatory rite by all the civilizations in the world. In India also a bath in a river is held in high esteem; however, a bath in the river Ganges is considered as the best. This is because the waters of the Gaṅgā are considered as exceedingly pure and have been proved to have miraculous healing properties. This beneficience of the Ganges is what makes her a mother, and Hindus, since Vedic times, consider the river Ganges as their mother or Mā Gaṅgā.
On birth, a child is bathed in Gaṅgā water to purify the child. On death, drops of Gaṅgā water are poured in the corpse’s mouth, so that the passage to heaven is obtained. Every religious rite is considered incomplete without the presence of Gaṅgā water or Gaṅgā Jal. The Hindus consider being cremated on the banks of the river Ganges an auspicious funeral rite. The ashes are later scattered in the waters of the river Ganges. Thus, from birth to death of every Hindu, the Gaṅgā is inexplicably woven into the warp and weft of individual and societal existences. Even in modern day India, the worship of Gaṅgā continues unabated and the ancient Vedic customs and rituals are still followed with equal zest and vigour. Mā Gaṅgā or mother Gaṅgā bestows innumerable earthly gifts and Mokśa or ultimate liberation from the karmic cycle of birth and rebirth. It is said that if a dying man looks on the Gaṅgā and utters the name of Nārāyaṅa during his last breath, he is sure to attain Mokśa. Such is the celestial and beneficial power of Mā Gaṅgā.
Gaṅgā as mother of Ganeśa
Umā or Pārvati created an image of a boy child from her bodily impurities as she was having a bath. She loved this image and wanted him to come to life and become his son. So she approached her sister Gaṅgā and immersed this image in the waters of the Gaṅgā, who also felt a unique motherly love towards this image of a boy child. Gaṅgā gave life to this image and Ganeśa – the second son of Śiva and Pārvati was born. Thus Gaṅgā is also considered to be the mother of Ganeśa, who in turn is also known as Gāngeya – the son of Gaṅgā. Ganeśa is also known as Dvaimātura – one who has two mothers, namely Pārvati and Gaṅgā.
Gaṅgā as foster-mother of Kārtikkeya
In the Skaṅda Purāṅa, Gaṅgā is mentioned as being instrumental in the birth of Kārtikkeya, the eldest son of Śiva and Pārvati, and is thus considered as the foster-mother of Kārtikkeya. The Maheśwara Khaṅd of the Skaṅda Purāṅa states that Śiva and Pārvati were happily enjoying conjugal bliss on Gandhamadan Mountain. It so happened that an extremely small quantity of Śiva’s sperm fell on the ground, while they both were in the raptures of making love. The sperms generated considerable heat and the world began to burn. Lord Viṣṇu and Lord Brahmā instructed Agnī to find some method to curtail the heat. Dressed as a hermit, Agnī went to the Gandhamadan Mountain and asked for alms from goddess Pārvati, who had nothing to give at that moment and so gave Śiva’s sperms that had fallen on the ground to Agnī. In order to destroy the sperms, Agnī swallowed the sperms and saved the world from being burnt. However, Pārvati discovered the trick played by Agnī and cursed him that he shall become omnivorous and the sperms would cause terrible inflammations in his body. As a result, Agnī suffered extreme heat due to the inflammations and sought Lord Śiva’s help in relieving himself from this pain. Śiva told Agnī to implant the sperms in any woman’s womb and thus obtain relief from the inflammations. Agnī went away and on the way, he met six Krittikas, who were shivering with cold. Agnī planted the sperms of Śiva in the six Krittikas through their skin pores and thus relieved himself of the intense inflammations. When the husbands of the six Krittikas learnt that their respective wives were pregnant, they became furious and cursed them into becoming Nakśatras or constellations in the sky. Before becoming the constellations, the six Krittikas aborted their fetuses or Skanda at the Himālaya mountains. The river Gaṅgā during her course in the Himālayas, carried the six fetuses with her and kept them in a secluded place which was full of reed bushes. In time, Kārtikkeya, with six heads, emerged from those reeds and Pārvati, also known as Umā, took Kārtikkeya as her eldest son. Kārtikkeya was born to kill Tārakasura, which he did.
Gaṅgā as the wife of Śiva
Gaṅgā serves as the mother of Ganeśa and the foster-mother of Kārtikkeya and hence is also known as the spouse of Śiva. Gaṅgā’s residence in the matted locks of Śiva further gives her the place as the second wife of Śiva besides Umā, who happens to be Gaṅgā’s sister, as they both are daughters of King Himāvan. Thus, in the Skaṅda Purāṅa, Śiva is married to both the sisters, Gaṅgā and Umā.
Gaṅgā as the wife of Viṣṇu
In Chapter 2.6 Hymns 13-95 of the Brahmā Vaivārta Purāṇa, it is stated that Lord Viṣṇu has three wives, namely Lakśmī, Gaṅgā, and Saraswatī. All the three wives love Viṣṇu dearly and fight for his attention at all times. In order to do so effectively, they proclaim their respective supremacy over the other, which leads to quarrels. Due to their constant quarreling amongst each other, finally Viṣṇu keeps Lakśmī for himself, and gives Gaṅgā to Śiva and Saraswatī to Brahmā..
Gaṅgā as the daughter of Brahmā
One of the legends states that the water in the kamandalu or water vessel of Brahmā automatically transformed itself into the goddess Gaṅgā. Since she came from Brahmā’s water vessel, Gaṅgā is also revered as one of the many Śaktīs of the goddess Mahāmāyā Ādiśaktī.
Gaṅgā as the daughter of Himāvan
King Himāvan and his queen Mena, had two daughters, Umā and Gaṅgā. Indra had asked Himāvan to give Gaṅgā to the heavens so that the Gods could soothe themselves with its cool waters, and thus Gaṅgā went to the heavens, and was brought up as a daughter under the love and care of Brahmā. Umā also known as Parvatī was wedded to Lord Śiva.
Gaṅgā as the daughter of Sage Jhānu
The royal sage Bhagīratha while taking Gaṅgā to the nether world, came near the hermitage of Riśī Jhānu, and Gaṅgā drowned the hermitage. The sage in his anger, drank up the entire Gaṅgā. After much pleading by Bhagīratha, the sage Jhānu released Gaṅgā from his ear and since then Gaṅgā is also known as Jhānavī – the daughter of Jhānu.
Gaṅgā as Viṣṇupadī
The battle between the Gods (good) and Demons (evil) goes on forever. Once the demon Bāli due to his tapas or ascetic heat, acquired such power that he conquered Indra’s heaven and chaos prevailed in the heaven. All the gods were greatly troubled and they implored Lord Viṣṇu to restore law and order. Lord Viṣṇu incarnated himself as a Brahmin dwarf Vāmana and went to Bāli seeking alms, as was the custom of Brahmins. Bāli gave him food, clothes, and many rich presents, but Vāmana insisted that he wanted land. Bāli offered him many great and fertile lands; however, Vāmana declared that he wanted only that land which he could measure by his three steps. Bāli thought that a dwarf could measure only a very small portion of the land with his three small steps, and thus accepted. However, Vāmana tricked Bāli and started to increase his size. So big his size became, that with his first step, he covered the entire earth and with his second step, he covered the entire heaven. While he was covering heaven, sweat from Vamana’s feet emanated and so Brahmā washed the feet of Viṣṇu and collected the water in his kamandalu or water vessel. From this water, Gaṅgā was born and thus she is also known as Viṣṇupadī or emanating from the feet of Viṣṇu. With the third step, Vāmana pressed Bāli on the head and forced him to the nether world.
Gaṅgā and the Holy Trinity ( Brahmā,Viṣṇu, Maheś )
Sage Nārada, the son of Brahmā, was extremely fond of singing, but his singing was not correct. As a result the ragas (combinations of musical notes, evoking certain moods) suffered inexplicable agony. When Nārada knew this, he promised to sing only when he had properly learnt to do so. But the agony of the ragas had to be healed and thus a musical concert by a master musician had to be arranged. Besides Bhairav, who could be a better musician; hence, Nārada approached Maheś to sing and heal the ragas. Śiva agreed but on a condition that Viṣṇu and Brahmā should listen to his recital, as a master musician needed master listeners. Both Viṣṇu and Brahmā were delighted to have the opportunity to hear Bhairav sing and so they readily agreed. At the first note of the concert, the ragas began to heal and soon they were all healed. So deep and soothing was Śiva’s musical rendering, that Viṣṇu was transported to raptures of divine joy and actually began to melt. Now Brahmā collected the water emanating from the melting Viṣṇu in his kamandalu. After the concert was over, Brahmā created Gaṅgā out of this water. As her birth was under the most auspicious of circumstances, and being made out of the water that emanated from the melting of Viṣṇu, Gaṅgā by birth obtained the power of purifying anything that came in contact with her.
Gaṅgā and Kālī
Goddess Kālī was very dark. Once she was in the company of beautiful, lovely, and fair complexioned heavenly nymphs and Śiva jested about her dark complexion. Kālī felt insulted and became very distressed at Śiva’s remarks. She practiced penance for one hundred years in the Himālayas and Śiva was forced to come and placate her anger. Kālī asked the boon of having a fair complexion and Śiva directed her to have a bath in the heavenly Gaṅgā. Kālī did so, and became as fair as lightning. From then onwards, Kālī came to be known as Vidyut-Gauri.
Gaṅgā is destined to flow on earth
It is said that during the struggle between the gods and the demons for ultimate supremacy, the demons had an advantage by hiding in the oceans of the earth during daytime and coming out to attack only during the nighttime, when they were naturally more powerful. This frustrated the efforts of the gods and thus they requested sage Agastya to solve their problem. The renowned sage Agastya, with the power of his asceticism, drank up the oceans of the earth and thus the demons had no place to hide during the daytime. A fierce battle took place between the gods and the demons and finally the gods won the battle. Afterwards, they requested sage Agastya to release the ocean waters, but he was unable to do so, as he had digested it. Perplexed, the gods approached Lord Viṣṇu, who told them that the earth will soon receive the heavenly Gaṅgā, as she was destined to come to earth to give salvation to the sixty thousand souls of the sons of Sāgara, the King of Ayodhyā.
Gaṅgā descends to earth
In the Rāmāyaṇa, it is said that Sāgara, the King of Ayodhyā, had two queens – Kesinī and Sumatī. However, he had no issue and thus he meditated on Lord Śiva, who pleased with his devotion, gave him a boon that his elder queen Kesinī would give birth to Prince Asamanjas, and his younger queen Sumatī would give simultaneous birth to sixty thousand sons, who would also die simultaneously. Prince Asmanjas was the heir apparent and was decided that he would continue the dynasty; however, he proved to be a wastrel and King Sāgara banished him to the forest, while keeping his grandson Anśuman, son of Asmanjas, under his care and upbringing.
King Sāgara was a mighty ruler and after defeating all the neighboring kings, Sāgara wanted to become Emperor and so he arranged for a grand Aśvamedha Yagṅa or the horse sacrifice. In this sacrifice, a horse of very high breed is decorated with exquisite and expensive ornaments and sporting the royal pennant is left loose to roam wherever it pleased. The territory that the horse passed automatically came under the King’s domain and control. Whosoever blocked the path of the horse or captured the horse had to fight with the army of the King, which closely followed the horse. Now, Indra, the ruler of heaven, got afraid by seeing the growing power of King Sāgara, as he thought that King Sāgara would try to conquer heaven also. Indra knew that sage Kapila had astounding powers and no army was any match in front of the sage’s powers. So Indra quietly stole the horse and took him to the nether world in sage Kapila’s hermitage and left the horse there. King Sāgara’s army following the horse lost sight of the horse. The army searched in vain and went back to Ayodhyā. King Sāgara thought that some other King had stolen the horse and was hiding it to avoid clashing with his invincible army. According to the rituals of the Aśvamedha Yagṅa, at such a moment he had to send a search party under the leadership of his eldest son. However, Sāgara had already banished his eldest son Asamanjas to the forest. Therefore, he called his grandson, the courageous and gentle Anśuman, who was the son of Asamanjas, to head the search party and look for the lost sacrificial horse.
Anśuman searched in all the directions and traveled far and wide. He asked all the kings and all the people that he met during his journey as to the whereabouts of the horse, but nobody could give him even the slightest hint. After searching for the horse in vain, Anśuman returned to Ayodhyā. Upon the failure of Anśuman, now King Sāgara, according to the hierarchical line of princes, sent his sixty thousand sons of his second queen Sumatī, to head the search party and look for the lost horse. They set out with the blessings of their parents, priests, and elders and traveled in distant and remote regions, crossing many mountains and oceans. But nowhere could they find any trace of their lost horse.
Thereafter, they jointly consulted, and concluded that the entire world was searched and yet the horse was not found. Either the horse was killed by some wild animal or died a natural death. However, even if such an unfortunate event was to happen, then they should have at least found the corpse of the horse. Even if some traveler had chanced upon the corpse and buried it in the hope of looting the ornaments, then at least the ornaments would have surely have found their way to the markets, as the traveler was bound to sell them. Neither did they find the corpse of the horse nor the ornaments. Therefore, they concluded that the horse was alive but was not in this world. Hence, it was evident that the horse was in any of the other two worlds, namely, heaven or hell. The possibility of the horse being in heaven was ruled out, as the gods would gain nothing by stealing the horse, and the horse on its own could not go to heaven, so it was evident that the horse was not in heaven. Therefore, they concluded that the horse was in hell. The sixty thousand sons of Sāgara decided to dig the earth and enter the nether world and search for the horse. In Pātāla, the nether world, they searched in vain and they lost all hope for the recovery of the horse. Ultimately, they came to the hermitage of Sage Kapila.
Now Sage Kapila was undergoing severe tapas and yogic austerities and so to remain undisturbed he had chosen Pātāla to make his hermitage. The sacrificial horse, fully decorated with the ornaments and the royal pennant, was in one corner of the hermitage as left by Indra. Kapila was in deep meditation and when the sixty thousand sons of Sāgara saw the horse, their happiness knew no bounds. They rejoiced and promptly went to the horse and took hold of its reins. They thought sage Kapila had stolen the horse and so they surrounded him with plans of attacking him. The noise disturbed Kapila and he was furious that his meditation was broken. The angry sage opened his eyes and looked upon the sixty thousand sons of Sāgara with his burning and angry gaze. Such was the extreme tapas of the sage that his wrathful yogic gaze reduced the sixty thousand sons of Sāgara to ashes within seconds. Thereafter, Kapila closed his eyes and resumed his meditation.
In Ayodhyā, King Sāgara was very troubled. The disappearance of the sacrificial horse was in itself a very bad omen and there was no news of his sixty thousand sons, who had also simply vanished. The heavenly wanderer, Nārada, then informed King Sāgara of the fate of his sons. Deeply disturbed, the troubled king sent for his grandson Anśuman, and asked him to go and seek Kapila’s forgiveness and bring back his uncles to life. Anśuman, finally after a long search, arrived at the place where the earth was dug up and a tunnel was created to enter the nether world. Anśuman went down the tunnel and after much trouble arrived at Kapila’s hermitage. There he saw sage Kapila in deep meditation, the sacrificial horse peacefully standing close by, and ashes strewn about all over the place. Anśuman could detect human shapes in those ashes and figured out that the ashes were of his uncles, who must have been burned down by sage Kapila.
Anśuman respectfully sat at the feet of the great sage and after some time, sage Kapila opened his eyes. Anśuman bowed before the sage and implored, pleaded and begged the great sage to forgive his sixty thousand uncles and revive them back to life. Sage Kapila was pleased with Anśuman’s respectful conduct and conversation, and told Anśuman that if Gaṅgā came from the heavens to the netherworld and flowed over the ashes, then his uncles would be revived. Anśuman with great respect, asked how could Gaṅgā be brought down to earth and the wise sage replied that he would have to please Brahmā with penances so that Brahmā may give permission to Gaṅgā to come to the earth. With a heavy heart, yet with some hope, Anśuman bowed before Kapila, took the sacrificial horse and asked for his leave from the great sage.
Anśuman was disheartened and he went back to Ayodhyā and narrated the entire story to his grandfather King Sāgara, who was grief-stricken. However, King Sāgara decided to do penance to please Brahmā and bring Gaṅgā to earth. His life was spent and he failed in his mission. Thereafter, Anśuman decided to bring Gaṅgā from the heavens. His whole life was spent yet he could not please Brahmā to achieve this impossible task. He died an unhappy man and instructed his son Dilip to pursue his task of doing penances and pleasing Brahmā so that Gaṅgā can be brought down from Swarga Loka to Pātāl Loka and flow over the ashes of his ancestors, thereby releasing their souls to heaven. King Dilip also tried numerous austerities but was unsuccessful and he too, like his father, died a most unhappy man. He instructed his son Bhagīratha to achieve this impossible task. Bhagīratha was a man of great will and courage, but the task was also not a simple one. On the one hand, the mounds of ashes of his ancestors were waiting for a capable descendent to release their souls and on the other hand bringing Gaṅgā from heaven to earth and then taking her to the nether regions was in itself no mean feat!
However, his vow given to his father King Dilip urged him on, and with profound determination, King Bhagīratha meditated on Lord Brahmā in the Himalayas for several years. Brahmā was pleased with his devotion, and told him that Gaṅgā’s descent would result in such a great force, that the entire world would be washed and crushed away in a torrential flood. Brahmā asked the ascetic Bhagīratha to pray to Lord Śiva as only Śiva would be able to check her descent. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years passed in solitary meditation and in the performance of strict austerities by King Bhagīratha. With unflinching determination and astounding devotion, Bhagīratha performed his meditation and finally Lord Śiva was pleased and appeared before him. The joy of Bhagīratha knew no bounds, and he recounted the whole sad plight of his ancestors to Śiva. Upon hearing this tragic account from Bhagīratha, Lord Śiva agreed that he would take the impact of Gaṅgā as she descended from the heaven. Bhagīratha was overjoyed and he meditated on goddess Gaṅgā and requested her to flow down to earth, as Lord Śiva was willing to bear the impact of her descent. Thereafter, Gaṅgā came down from the heavens, and in her youthful playfulness thought that Mahādeva would be swept off with her mighty fall, but Śiva covered the whole sky with his matted locks and took every drop of Gaṅgā in his locks. Gaṅgā went about traversing in the mighty locks of Śiva, and thus the her force slowly subsided. After Gaṅgā was completely captured, Śiva tied his matted hairs, and Gaṅgā could not come out of it.
Śiva then released a small portion of Gaṅgā and told her to follow Bhagīratha. Gaṅgā followed and wherever Bhagīratha went people came in huge numbers to take a holy dip in the sacred waters of the Gaṅgā. On the way, the āshrama or hermitage of sage Jhānu came, and Bhagīratha accidentally came a bit too near it. Gaṅgā followed and soon the hermitage was flooded. Sage Jhānu was furious and to teach Gaṅgā a lesson, he swallowed her. Now, Bhagīratha requested sage Jhānu, that it was his mistake that he came too near his āshrama, and requested to release Gaṅgā for the benefit of his ancestors. Sage Jhānu grew calm and taking pity on Bhagīratha released Gaṅgā through his ear. Since Gaṅgā came out of sage Jhānu’s body, thus she came to be known as Jhānavi or the daughter of Jhānu.
Thereafter, Bhagīratha led Gaṅgā, towards the sea, and since he did not know where the ashes lay, he told Gaṅgā to follow her own course. Gaṅgā divided herself into hundred streams in the hope that one of the stream would wash the ashes. One stream did wash the ashes and this place is nowadays known as Gaṅgā Sāgar or Sāgar Island. A bath in Gaṅgā Sāgar on the day of Makar Saṅkrāntī is considered very auspicious. The hundred streams formed the hundred mouths of the present day Ganges Delta. Thus, Gaṅgā flowed over the ashes and liberated the souls of Bhagīratha’s sixty thousand ancestors.
Gaṅgā as in the Mahābhārata
The mention of the river goddess Gaṅgā occurs throughout the eighteen parvas or sections of the Mahābhārata in one form or another. But it comes clearly for the very first time in the very first section, i.e. in the Ādi Parva, where Gaṅgā in her human form, meets King Śāṅtanu of the Bhārata and subsequently the Kuru dynasty, who were the rulers of Hastināpura.
Now it so happened that in the Ikśvaku race, was born a great king Māhābhīśa. He was always truthful in speech, strong, and ruled the earth justly. He performed numerous religious sacrifices and by performing one hundred Rājasuya and one thousand Aśvamedha sacrifices, he pleased Indra, and thus attained heaven. It so happened that one day in heaven all the celestials, royal sages, and other heavenly beings were worshipping Brahmā. Māhābhīśa was also present in this celestial gathering. Gaṅgā also came to pay her respects dressed in a white garment shining as the moonbeams. Māhābhīśa was enraptured by her beauty and was gazing at her. Feeling the gaze of Māhābhīśa, Gaṅgā looked at him and both their eyes locked together. By a sudden gust of the wind, her garment was displaced and all the celestial beings lowered their heads so as not to embarrass Gaṅgā, but Māhābhīśa went on gazing at her exposed figure. This enraged Brahmā and he cursed Māhābhīśa to be born on earth and suffer the agonies of human beings. He also cursed Gaṅgā to be born on earth and to give Māhābhīśa such mental sufferings that he would almost die with grief and would feel a great anger, upon which Māhābhīśa’s curse would end. In course of time, Māhābhīśa was born as Śāṅtanu and Gaṅgā marries him to fulfill Brahmā’s curse.
Śāṅtanu was born as the son of King Pratīpa. On the banks of the river Ganges, a great King Pratīpa of the Bhārata line was practicing strict austerities in order to have an offspring. The heavenly maiden Gaṅgā saw Pratīpa and approached him. Gaṅgā, the celestial maiden, woman of ravishing beauty and generously endowed with all the feminine charms went up to the royal sage and sat on his right thigh, which in manliness resembled like a Sāla tree. As the maiden of exquisite beauty sat on his thigh, King Pratīpa asked that what was her desire and Gaṅgā answered that she desired him as her husband. The foremost of the Kurus, King Pratīpa replied that to refuse a woman who came of her own accord is never taught by the wise, yet out of lust he has never gone after women or others’ wives and this was his vow. Gaṅgā told him that she was neither ugly nor inauspicious, she was gifted with rare beauty and being a celestial maiden, she was worthy of being enjoyed and so she should become her queen. King Pratīpa was greatly moved by her intelligent argument, and replied that indeed, she was of heavenly beauty, but under no circumstances could he break his vow. Moreover, he could not take her as an object of desire, as she had embraced him by sitting on his right thigh, which is the place for daughters and daughters-in-law. The left thigh is meant for the wife, on which Gaṅgā did not sit. Therefore, King Pratīpa accepted Gaṅgā as his daughter-in-law and accepted her for his yet unborn son. Hearing this, Gaṅgā replied, that so be it, and promised to become the wife of his son. She would greatly increase the virtues of the noble Bhārata race and his son would become a great and powerful ruler. Gaṅgā also laid down a condition, that his son should neither question any of her acts nor should speak any unkind word and if he does so, then she will leave him forever. Having said this the heavenly damsel, Gaṅgā, disappeared from the royal sage Pratīpa’s sight.
Thereafter, King Pratīpa and his queen underwent extreme purificatory rites in order to give birth to a great and a noble soul. In time, a son was born and he was named Śāṅtanu that meant “son of the peaceful”, because King Pratīpa had attained peace by perfect control over his passions and desires. As per the curse of Brahmā, Māhābhīśa was born as Śāṅtanu. He grew up as the best of the Kurus and realizing that one’s deed alone gives indestructible bliss, he always practiced virtue with utmost devotion. When Śāṅtanu perfected all the arts befitting a king and all the virtues befitting a royal sage, King Pratīpa and his queen decided to retire to the forest and lead their vanaprastha or forest dweller lives. Before leaving, Pratīpa crowned Śāṅtanu the King of Hastīnāpur and narrated to him how a celestial woman had approached him and how he had promised her that his son would marry him. He urged Śāṅtanu that if he chanced to meet any woman of celestial beauty in secret, and if she asks to become his queen, then he should accept her. He should not ask who she is, where has she come from, or question any of her acts, or speak any unkind word to her, and simply marry her unconditionally. Thus commanding his son, King Pratīpa retired to the forest along with his queen.
King Śāṅtanu was highly intelligent and endowed with magnificent splendour like Indra himself. One day while he was taking a walk along the banks of the Ganges, he came to the area that was usually inhabited with Charaṇas and Siddhas. Here, his eyes fell upon a damsel of bewitching beauty. Such was the radiance and splendour emanating from the blazing maiden that it seemed as if goddess Lakśmī had been incarnated. Dressed in spotless white garments of fine texture that seemed like lotus filaments, faultless and pearly teeth that matched her ornamental pearls and other exquisite jewellery that she was bedecked with, this lovely maiden captured the heart of Santanu. The King went on gazing at the splendid woman for a long time as if drinking her charming countenance, yet even after repeated and many draughts; it seemed to Śāṅtanu that his thirst was still not quenched. The celestial maiden noticed Śāṅtanu agitatedly moving about. She herself was enamoured of his royal personage and shining grandeur and her heart was set aflutter. She gazed and gazed on Śāṅtanu, who in turn could not take his eyes from her. Softly, Śāṅtanu then approached her and addressed her that whoever she may be, a dévī, an apsarā, a gaṅdhaṛva, a rakśasinī, a yakśinī, a nāgin, or a mānavī, it did not matter to him, and solicited the faultless beauty to be her queen. Hearing such sweet and soft words, the maiden of perfect features, smiled at the eager and handsome monarch and said that she agreed but only on a condition that none of her actions should be questioned and that he should always behave kindly towards her. If he ever questioned her acts or even spoke a single unkind word, she will leave him forever. Śāṅtanu agreed.
The damsel was very happy in obtaining the leader of the most superior Bhārata race as her husband. Śāṅtanu was equally pleased with having a wife of extraordinary qualities and of heavenly beauty. They both lived a happy conjugal life as husband and wife. The damsel looked after all his comforts, and Śāṅtanu never spoke an unkind word or questioned any of her acts. Gaṅgā of the three courses, celestial, terrestrial, and subterranean, lived happily as Śāṅtanu’s wife, by making him pleased with her affection and care, her love and dutiful conduct, her dance and music, her cooking and fine arts. Śāṅtanu completely drowned himself in Gaṅgā’s charms and Gaṅgā fully gratified Śāṅtanu. Thus in mutual love and adoration, seasons and years went by and they were blessed with eight sons, each of celestial beauty.
King Śāṅtanu and Queen Gaṅgā were blessed with eight sons; however, as soon as the birth took place, Gaṅgā took each of her sons to the river Ganges and smilingly drowned them into the river saying that this was for their own good. One by one, seven sons of King Śāṅtanu perished, but true to his promise, he never questioned Gaṅgā, or spoke harshly with her. Yet Śāṅtanu suffered painful mental agonies and remained in extreme sorrow at the loss of his sons. When the eighth son was about to be killed likewise by Gaṅgā, the sorrowful King could no longer contain his grief of losing seven sons, and out of anger, thus came forward and stopped Gaṅgā from throwing his eighth son in the river. He angrily commanded Gaṅgā not to kill his son, and asked her who she was and how could she herself kill her own children? By being a murderess of her own children, she was committing an unpardonable sin and asked her that does not the weight of this sin bear heavy on her heart? Gaṅgā looked with sad and loving eyes at Śāṅtanu and said that she was Gaṅgā, the daughter of Brahmā, the daughter of Himāvan, the daughter of Jhānu, and that she will not kill this eighth son as he had stopped her. She reminded Śāṅtanu that because he questioned her act and spoke unkindly to her, she will no longer live with him and shall go away to heaven. But before departing, she answered Śāṅtanu’s questions.
Answering Śāṅtanu’s questions, Gaṅgā informed that their eight sons were the eight Vasus, who had to take human forms and that she killed seven of them as soon as they were born, only to free them from Riśī Vaśiśtha’s curse. Thereafter, she narrated the whole story of the Riśī Vaśiśtha’s curse and told Śāṅtanu that his eighth son was Dyaus, and he was destined to live long as a mortal and suffer many earthly agonies.
Gaṅgā recounted how the Vasus were cursed by Riśī Vaśiśtha. On the mountain Meru, a magnificent forest was present that abounded in sweet roots and water. In these woods, the āśrama of Varuṇa’s son, Riśī Vaśiśtha was also present and he practiced severe penances and austerities in these beautiful and peaceful surroundings. It so happened that Surabhī, the daughter of Dakśa, had by her relations with Riśī Kaśyapa, brought forth a daughter in the form of a wish-fulfilling cow, and named her as Naṅdinī. Riśī Vaśiśtha to complete his Homa rites had obtained Naṅdinī along with her calf and they roamed this forest without any fear. One day, the eight Vasus namely, Agnī, Pṛithvī, Vāyu, Antaṛikśa, Āditya, Dyaus, Chandṛamās, and Nakstṛani, came to this forest along with their wives, to have an outing. They enjoyed the woods and marveled at the unique flora and fauna. As they were wandering around, the slender-waisted wife of Dyaus saw Naṅdinī grazing the long grass. She gazed at the fine-looking cow who had all the auspicious signs like full udders, beautiful hoofs, fine tail, large eyes, and graceful movement. She called Dyaus to look at this excellent cow and he too admired at the beauty of Naṅdinī. Dyaus told her wife that Riśī Vaśiśtha inhabited this forest and the cow is none other but Naṅdinī and belonged to the Riśī. It is said that if any mortal drinks the milk of Naṅdinī then that mortal shall enjoy youth for ten thousand years. When the dove-eyed wife of Dyaus heard this, she recollected that on earth, she had a friend named Jitāvatī, daughter of the royal sage Usinara, to whom she would like to gift Naṅdinī, so that by drinking the cow’s milk her friend may be free from disease, old age, and decrepitude. Thus, the wife of Dyaus implored him to fetch it for her even if he had to steal it. Dyaus, in an attempt to humour his wife, stole the cow Naṅdinī, with the aid of the other Vasus. Dyaus, at that time was enamoured by the lotus-eyed and fair-thighed wife of his, and he had forgotten that the sin of stealing a cow is unpardonable and by such a vile act, he was bound to fall from heaven.
In the evening, when Vaśiśtha returned to his hermitage after collecting twigs, flowers and fruits, he could not see Naṅdinī. He searched for her in the woods, but still could not find her. Then with his ascetic vision, he saw how the Vasus stole Naṅdinī. His anger was immediately incited and he cursed the Vasus to be born on earth as mortals. When the Vasus came to know of the curse, they went to the great Riśī and begged for his forgiveness. The Riśī said that his curse cannot be taken back, but within a year of human existence, the seven Vasus would come back to heaven, excepting Dyaus, who for his shameful and sinful act will have to spend a long time on earth and suffer much. He shall be noble and virtuous, fully conversant with all the scriptures, well versed in the use of arms and statecraft, but shall never marry, shall never have any offspring, and shall never enjoy the company of women. Thus pronouncing, the great Riśī of great ascetic wealth closed his eyes and resumed his meditation.
Now the Vasus were greatly agitated and they decided not to be born in any human womb. They knew that Gaṅgā was also under a curse by Brahmā to be born as a human being. So they thought if Gaṅgā agreed then they would be born as Gaṅgā’s sons, and thus would obtain a divine womb. The Vasus went to goddess Gaṅgā and implored her to be their mother. They pleaded with Gaṅgā that as soon as they are born, to cast them into the river so that they may experience the least suffering and may return to heaven at the earliest. Gaṅgā agreed to grant them this boon. Thus, the eight Vasus were reborn as the eight sons of Gaṅgā and Śāṅtanu. Accordingly, Gaṅgā freed all the seven Vasus from the curse of sage Vaśiśtha by drowning them as soon they were born, excepting Dyaus, who was destined to suffer a long human life. Dyaus was the child whom Śāṅtanu had saved from being drowned by Gaṅgā. This child was named as Devavṛata, also known as Gaṅgeya and Gaṅgādatta, and later was known as Bhīśma due to his terrible and awe-inspiring vow of remaining a celibate throughout his life.
Thus answering the questions of Śāṅtanu, Gaṅgā along with her newborn son, took leave of Śāṅtanu and said that she shall teach him all the arts and sciences befitting a king and shall duly send him back after his teaching is complete. So saying, Gaṅgā along with her baby son disappeared. After several years, when the education of Dévavṛata was complete, Gaṅgā presented him to King Śāṅtanu saying that he shall be remembered for his valor and as a keeper of vows. So saying, Gaṅgā hands over Dévavṛata to King Śāṅtanu and departs to her heavenly abode. Dévavṛata grows up to become Bhīśma, who was taught political science by Sage Brihaspati-the teacher of the gods; vedas and vedangas by Sage Vasiśta; and archery by Sage Bhārgava or Parshurāma. Thus, Bhīśma became an outstanding administrator and an invincible warrior.
Hinduism personifies Gaṅgā as a mother goddess and the Hindus worship the river Ganges or Gaṅgā as Mā Gaṅgā. Bathing is considered especially auspicious and is believed to cleanse all sins and impart all-round happiness. Immersion of the ashes of near and dear ones in Gaṅgā is also highly meritorious, as it is believed that the ashes go to heaven. Hindus perform aartis with lighted lamps on the banks of the Gaṅgā. Puja (prayer) is done with a small clay lamp, lighted and placed on a leaf that is left to float on the waters of Gaṅgā. Hindus and other devotees, with reverence and faith, always take refuge in Gaṅgā.
With the blessings of Mā Gaṅgā, Hindus attain the four Purusharthas (aims) of life, namely, Dharma (righteousness), Artha (wealth), Kama (pleasure), and Moksha (liberation) during the four stages of life, namely, Brahmacharaya (celibate), Grihasta (householder), Vanaprastha (forest dweller), and Sanyasa (ascetic).
AUM Gaṅgāye Namaḥ
AUM Śāṅtī , Śāṅtī, Śāṅtīḥ