India of the seventeenth century, a Brahmin poet
named Jagannatha transcended the restrictions of
his caste and fell in love with a Muslim girl. The
incensed elders of his lineage immediately expelled
him from the hallowed circles of his social environment.
Jagannatha, being a devout Hindu, tried his best
to explain and convince his elders of the supreme
sacredness of the emotion of love, which he stressed
was beyond all man made divisions. He went up to
Banaras, Hinduism's most sacred city, and attempted
to restore his status among his brethren. Coming
up against a rigid wall of rejection, he mused upon
the river Ganges (Ganga), and called upon her to
validate the purity and righteousness of his bearing.
The dejected bard went to the banks of the Ganges
and sat atop the fifty-two steps of the stairs bordering
the river. Gaining from his majestic perch a splendorous
view of the mighty river, he was moved enough to
compose fifty-two soul-stirring lyrics directed
to the river. Legend has it that with each verse
he composed, the river rose a step, consuming him
at the end of his last hymn.
Jagannatha's collection of poems
is entitled 'Ganga-Lahiri', or The Waves of Ganga.
In his verses, the poet addresses the river as a
mother, comforter, and supporter. A typical hymn
runs as follows:
I come to you as a child to his
I come as an orphan to you, moist with love.
I come without refuge to you, giver of sacred rest.
I come a fallen man to you, uplifter of all.
I come undone by disease to you, the perfect physician.
I come, my heart dry with thirst, to you, ocean
of sweet wine.
Do with me whatever you will.
A river that inspires such outstanding
and pious creative devotion must be some river indeed.
Truly Ganga is a river that has been at the core
of sacred Hindu lore and tradition since time immemorial.
The esteem in which she is held and her consequent
deification as a full-blown woman echoes the timeless
ethos of Hindu wisdom.
Here we will attempt to understand
the wonder that is Ganga within the following contexts:
1). Ganga and the Purifying Waters
2). Ganga's Descent to the Earth
3). Ganga as a Mother
4). Iconography of Ganga
5). Ganga and the Hindu Temple
In the Hindu tradition, reverence
is shown to almost every river of the Indian subcontinent.
This devotion extends all the way back to the Rig Veda, the world's earliest text, where all earthly
rivers are said to have their origin in heaven.
In the cosmology of the Rig Veda, the creation of
the world or the process of making the world habitable is associated
with the freeing of the heavenly waters by Indra,
the king of gods. A demon is said to have withheld
these waters, thus inhibiting creation. When Indra
defeated this demon, the waters rushed onto the
earth, like a mother cow eager to suckle her young
(Rig Veda 10.9). The rivers of earth are therefore
seen as being necessary to creation and as having
a heavenly origin.
Another important aspect in the
veneration for rivers is the purifying quality of
running water in general. The purity-conscious Hindu
social system, in which pollution is inevitably
accumulated in the course of a normal day, prescribes
a bath as the simplest way to rid oneself of impurities.
This act simply consists of pouring a handful of
cold water over one's head and letting it run down
one's body. Moving, flowing, or falling water is
believed to have a great cleansing power. This last
is specifically exemplified in the act of sprinkling
of water over one's head, or dipping into a running
stream, these mere actions being thought of as sufficient
enough to remove most kinds of daily pollution accumulated
throughout the ordinary course of human existence.
Water absorbs pollution, but
when it is running, like in a river, it carries
pollution away as well. Correspondingly, the word
'Ganga' is derived from the etymological root 'gam,'
meaning to "to go." Indeed, Ganga is the
"Swift-Goer," and the running, flowing,
and energetic movement of her waters is constantly
mentioned as one of the major reasons behind her
How the river Ganga descended
from the sacred realms to the earth is narrated
In the eternal struggle between
good (gods) and bad (demons), the latter once got
the upper hand. Employing an ingenious strategy,
the demons hid in the ocean during daytime, and
attacked only in the night. The harassed gods in
desperation, appealed to the celebrated saint Agastya,
who solved the problem by gobbling up the entire
ocean in one go. Exposed, the demons were then easily
Their mission accomplished, the
gods then requested Agastya to release the ocean.
His reply astounded them. Taking a deep burp, he
informed them that having partaken of the ocean,
he had now digested it, and thus some other means
would have to be found to fill up the ocean bed
again. The gods and people of the world were aghast.
Perplexed, they approached Lord Vishnu, the savior
of the world, who gave them some good news. Vishnu
asked them not to worry since it was destined that
Ganga, the heavenly river, would flow on earth,
quenching the thirst (both physical and spiritual)
of its inhabitants, and also fill up the dried ocean.
On enquiring when this would happen, the Great Lord
informed them that this would take place in a happy
confluence of auspicious circumstances, the process
towards which had already begun.
Indeed, in a far corner of the
world, a mighty king named Sagara was performing
a great sacrificial ritual, which would herald him
as the undisputed ruler over all earth. Little did
he know that he was destined to be the instrument
for fulfilling the cosmic drama being enacted elsewhere.
The ritual consisted of letting
lose a white horse, who would be free to wander
anywhere upon earth. Following it would be the mighty
army of Sagara. Wherever the horse ventured, the
king of that domain would have to give him free
way, and accept the suzerainty of Sagara, presenting
him with material gifts of supplication. In the
event of this not happening, Sagara's army was free
to challenge the errant ruler in question. Not surprisingly,
given king Sagara's prestige and power, no ruler
on the way dared hold up the horse.
The news of the impending victory
of Sagara reached the ears of Indra, the king of
gods. Fearing a challenge to his own throne, Indra
disguised himself as a human being, went to the
earth and laid his hands on the sacrificial horse.
Taking it by the rein, he hid it in the hermitage
of sage Kapila. This sage was an extremely accomplished
yogi, his inner being made extremely potent by long
spells of extreme asceticism.
It was not long before the army
of king Sagara, led by his sons (legend puts their
number at sixty-thousand), traced the horse to the
ascetic's retreat. Incensed at the sage's perceived
temerity, the haughty princes rushed towards him
in a fit of anger, calling him a thief. The sage,
who had hitherto sat unperturbed and unaware throughout
the entire proceedings taking place behind his back,
was roused from his meditations. Opening his eyes,
he had merely gazed at the princes with trepidation,
than they were reduced to ashes.
The news of the unfortunate demise
of his sons soon reached king Sagara. Now the traditional
Indian belief is that if someone dies an untimely
death, he or she remains a ghost and is not liberated
until something is done to purify the soul from
the residue of its accumulated sins. Sagara too,
was extremely desirous of ridding the souls of his
sons from the after-effects of curse of the wise
sage Kapila. On asking, the latter informed the
monarch that it was only Ganga, having the auspicious
nature of purifying anybody and everybody who crossed
her path, who was capable of liberating his sixty
thousand sons, and wash away their ashes in her
Hearing this, king Sagara immediately
handed over the throne to his surviving grandson
and went to the Himalayas to perform austerities
to Brahma, the Supreme Creator, attempting to convince
him to ask Ganga to flow to the earth. Though he
tried hard and sincerely, Sagara died before accomplishing
his goal. After him his grandson tried to call upon
Brahma, but he too was unsuccessful. In this manner,
generation after generation of Sagara tried to woo
and please Brahma to no avail. It was only the seventh
descendant of Sagara, a just and noble king named
Bhagiratha who could manage enough austerities to
make Brahma appear before him. Happy with Bhagiratha's
conduct and also that of his preceding ancestors,
Brahma asked Bhagiratha for any boon he wished.
Naturally enough, he asked Brahma to request Ganga
to flow to the earth from her current abode in heaven.
Brahma acquiesced, but also informed the prince
that since Ganga flowed with a massive torrential
force, if she coursed directly to the terrestrial
world the earth would be helpless against her overwhelming
current, and all life would be washed away in its
flood. The only recourse open was to pray to Lord
Shiva, whose matted hair held sufficient power to
withstand the onslaught of Ganga's forceful fall.
Thus the prince began another
severe penance, this time directed towards Lord
Shiva, who appeared soon before him and agreed to
soften Ganga's fall in his matted hair locks. Having
tied up all loose ends, and acquiring the grace
of both Brahma and Shiva, Bhagiratha now felt secure
about accomplishing his objective. But there were
still hiccups on his path, before all issues could
be successfully resolved.
Ganga is visualized in Indian
thought as a virtuous, but mischievous and restless
maiden, just as many young lasses are. She followed
Brahma's diktat to descend to earth, but couldn't
playfully resist the unwarranted and undeserved
feeling that she could sweep away even the mighty
Shiva in her forceful current. Shiva, gauging her
thoughts, decided to teach her a lesson. Spreading
open his serpentine coils of hair, he covered the
entire sky, and collected all the waves of Ganga
in his outspread locks.
Then with a mighty swoop, he
collected his hair, tied into a neat and tight bun,
and captured Ganga in the infinite swirls and whirls
of his hair. Ganga still flowed with tremendous
force, but could not escape, and remained imprisoned
and confined inside Shiva's hair.
Bhagiratha, perplexed at the
happenings, appealed to Shiva to release Ganga,
so that she could wash away the sins of his ancestors,
symbolized in their mortal remains. Shiva relented,
and in any case Ganga had learnt her lesson. Thus
Ganga again followed Bhagiratha, who showed her
the way. But there were still more adventures to
Just near their ultimate destination
lay the hermitage of another accomplished sage,
known as Jahnu. Ganga, ever the playful maiden,
hurried over to what she perceived was a new and
curious place. And lo, barely had she entered upon
the precincts of the ashram (hermitage), that it
became flooded, and all sacrificial fires were extinguished.
The ritual utensils and tools were washed away,
and the inhabitants of the sanctuary became frightened
and anxious. The leader of the ashram, sage Jahnu,
became livid at Ganga's intrusion. He then chanted
a mantra, and took a sip of the water flowing all
around his hermitage. With the power of his mantra,
he swallowed away Ganga with all her waters. All
traces of Ganga were gone. Bhagiratha was in a fix.
No sooner had he overcome one hurdle, than another
was created, mostly due to the impulsiveness and
restlessness of Ganga. He hurried over to Jahnu,
and explained to him the magnitude and significance
of the task he was out to accomplish. Jahnu gave
him a sympathetic hearing and appreciated his hard
work in bringing Ganga to the earthly realm. Consoling
Bhagiratha, he said: " For you, I will release
Ganga immediately," and saying this, he made
a cut in his left thigh, and the waters of Ganga
flew out like a fountain. Hence did Ganga came to
be known as Jahnvi, the daughter of sage Jahnu.
Thankfully, the rest of the way
was without any further adventures, and Bhagiratha
successfully showed Ganga the way to the ashes of
his ancestors. As soon as Ganga touched the ashes,
the ancestors arose, glowing forth in their astral
bodies, and ascended towards heaven. Carrying away
their mortal remains, Ganga merged into the ocean,
which hitherto had been dry. From that day onwards,
the ocean came to be known as 'Sagara,' in honor
of the king who started it all in the first place.
The place where Ganga merged in the ocean, came
to be known as Ganga-Sagar, and to this day, a great
festival is held here every year, to celebrate Ganga's
birthday, or the day when she came to earth. This
occasion is knows as Ganga Dassehra.
This legend makes amply clear
that Ganga's purity and auspiciousness springs in
no small measure from her proximity to various important
divinities and holy sages. Falling onto Shiva's
head, where she meanders through his tangled locks,
the mighty Ganga appears in this world after having
been made more sacred by her direct contact with
Shiva, and also the accomplished ascetic Jahnu.
The river then spreads the divine potency of these
hallowed personalities into the world, when she
flows into the terrestrial realm.
Ganga's fall from heaven is replicated
daily in the millions of Hindu temples where the
water of the Ganga river is poured over the sacred
Shiva Linga. Here it is important to note that the
linga of Shiva is often thought of as incandescent
pillar of fire. By cooling the linga with her soothing
waters, Ganga is in a sense saving the world from
Shiva's fiery linga, whose extreme heat could destroy
all life on earth. Bearing her on his head, Shiva
becomes the facilitator for Ganga's smooth fall
to the earth. But if Shiva saves the world from
the power and force of Ganga's torrent, it is also
Ganga, who in a similar manner, saves us from Shiva's
scorching powers of destruction.
Another legend associates Ganga
with all the three deities of the Indian triumvirate,
Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It begins with the celestial
sage Narada, who is distinguishable by his veena,
a sitar like musical instrument which constantly
hangs from his shoulders.
A loud singer, he loved to sing
sacred psalms during his sojourns across the heavens.
One day, he came upon a group of extraordinary beings
in a forest, writhing with uncontrollable agony.
Both concerned and curious, the sage approached
them and made enquiries regarding the cause of their
suffering. Their replies completely floored him.
Apparently, these creatures in distress were the
personifications of the various ragas (musical modes).
Narada, through his inept rendition, was tormenting
their souls and spirits, and hence their agony.
Narada's sympathetic heart was stirred enough to
make him promise that he would not sing or play
music until he had mastered its finer points. Of
more pressing concern however, was the present state
of the ragas, which required immediate succor.
There was only one way out. There
needed to be organized, without any further loss
of time, a concert by a prefect musician, whose
soulful and skilful rendition would seep through
the ragas, curing them in the process. Such a perfect
musician could only be Lord Shiva. Shiva of course
had no reservations about giving an impromptu concert,
but for his perfect music, he needed a perfect listener
too, who could appreciate and grasp the subtle nuances
of his delightful renderings. Thus he requested
Brahma and Vishnu to be his audience. They readily
agreed. Who wouldn't?
As soon as Shiva struck his first
note, the ragas began to heal. It had a visual affect
on his divine listeners too. Identifying totally
with the soft and melting notes of Shiva's symphony,
Vishnu actually started melting himself. Noticing
this, Brahma scooped whatever liquid dripped from
Vishnu and deposited it in his water pot (kamandalu).
Later, he fashioned a beautiful and charming girl
out of this liquid. This maiden, because of the
auspicious circumstances of her birth, was especially
refined herself, and also purified everything that
came into contact with her. She was Ganga.
A particularly inspired motif
is the visualization of Ganga as a mother, which
is made explicit in the epithet 'Ma Ganga' (Ma meaning
mother), and which undoubtedly is the most popular
and endearing term used to address her. As a mother,
Ganga is tangible, approachable, and all accepting.
To put it in the immortal words of David Kinsley,
"She is the distilled essence of compassion
in liquid form." No one is denied her blessing.
Ganga's maternal aspect is seen
especially in her nourishing qualities. As a mother,
she nourishes the land through which she flows,
making it fertile. Historically, the land along
the banks of the Ganga has been intensely cultivated.
It is particularly fertile because of the sediment
periodically deposited by the floodwaters of the
river. A parallel is often drawn here with the menstrual
flow in women, which renders a woman fertile, and
capable of generation.
An evocative example of Ganga's
mothering capacity is provided in the myth describing
the birth of Shiva's second son, Karttikeya. The
story goes that a powerful demon once wreaked havoc
on the world and the oppressed victims came to the
conclusion that only a son born to the powerful
Shiva could redeem them. Hence, they prayed to Shiva.
He agreed, and first released his seed to Agni (god
of fire). But even Agni found Shiva's seed too hot
to handle, and cast it into the river Ganga, where
it developed into a foetus. Thus Karttikeya is also
called Gangaputra, the son of Ganga.
And finally, there is the stark
truth staring us. No child is too dirty to be embraced
or cleansed by its mother. Mother Ganga indiscriminately
purifies her devotees, whether they be virtuous
or sinful. She is non judgmental, and all her children
are equal in her eyes.
n the cannons of Indian art,
Ganga is visualized as all other major Indian goddesses
are, voluptuous and beautiful. Their ample breasts
and, sturdy, child bearing hips, giving adequate
testimony to their fecundating powers.
In addition, there are two other
significant motifs adorning the image of Ganga.
The first is the full pot she holds in her hands.
This is a symbol of the sustaining womb, holding
within itself the force of life. A woman is like
this vessel, carrying in her the vital and throbbing
life essence. The overflowing pot is the grace of
nature in abundance. Indeed, the figure of a woman
is herself based on the rounded form of the pot
- her globular breasts being symbols of her nourishing
powers. In Indian aesthetics, wherever the pot appears,
it conveys the idea of abundant life and fertility,
which nourishes and sustains the universe.
The second distinguishing aspect
of Ganga's iconography is her animal mount, which
is often shown serving as a pedestal for her.
This is the makara, a hybrid
creature having the body of a crocodile and the
tail of a fish. The makara in Hindu thought corresponds
to the star sign of Capricorn in western astrology.
The crocodile is a unique animal
in that it can live on both land and sea. It thus
denotes the wisdom of both the earth and waters.
The fish meanwhile is a universal
symbol of fecundity and of the life-giving properties
of water. It represents life in the depths, and
deep water is recognized in Indian philosophy as
the intangible and infinite consciousness, the source
of all creative instinct. Interestingly, when represented
in this manner, the tail of the hybrid animal is
often shown transformed into patterns of swirling
vegetation, further implying Ganga's association
with vegetative growth and fertility.
The makara is also the vehicle
of the Vedic god of waters, Varuna, thus establishing
firmly Ganga's Vedic roots.
It is not unusual to encounter
an image of Ganga flanking the doorway of a Hindu
temple. There is a profound reason behind this positioning.
Ganga's heavenly origin and descent to the earth
makes her an effective intermediary between the
two worlds, a continuous, ever flowing link between
the two realms. Her location at the threshold of
a temple is appropriate in that she connects the
worlds of men and gods, and represents a transition
between the two. Ganga's icon at the doorway also
implies her status as a remover of pollution. Before
entering the sacred realm of gods, which a temple
signifies, devotees should first cleanse themselves
of worldly impurities. Often Ganga is accompanied
by Yamuna (a tributary of Ganga) at the gateway.
Entering a temple flanked by the images of these
goddesses is believed to symbolically cleanse the
devotees in the purificatory waters of these two
rivers. In a delightful display of artistic license,
the current and ripples of their flowing waters
are amply reflected in their swaying body stances.
Indeed, to look at them is equal in effect to a
ritual bath in their waters.
The intense devotion and love
which her devotees feel for Ganga is no small measure
due to the fact that she is the only accessible
physical entity that flows both in the heavens and
on the earth. Ganga is indeed divine grace flowing
on to our material world, as is visible in the prosperity
of the fertile and rich crop-yielding regions adjacent
to her banks. The consequent deification of Ganga,
as both a nourishing mother, and also as a guardian
of the Hindu temple, is but a natural evolution,
when from the depths of the human mind springs a
natural ode to her benign nature, manifesting itself
in all realms of artistic expression.
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