Article of the Month - Oct 2021

This article by Manisha sarade

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The Ganga River has been considered the most sacred river of India in the Puranas. It is called as Ganga Maa (or Mother Ganga) or Ganga ji (or reverend Ganga). People of India believe that a bath in the holy waters of Ganga washes all the past sins of a person. Numerous pilgrimages such as Allahabad, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Varanasi, and Patna are present all along the river. Water from the Ganga is used to cleanse any place or object for ritual purposes. Bathing in the river is believed to wash away one’s all sins.  The word Ganga is considered a synonym of pure and holy water. That is why the word is attached with the names of many other rivers in Central and South India. According to a mythological legend, Lord Brahma collected the sweat of Lord Vishnu's feet and created Ganga. Being touched by two members of the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh), Ganga became very holy. The other synonyms of Ganga are Vishnu Padee (as the river is said to have originated from the feet of Lord Vishnu), Mandakini, Devnadi, Sursari, Tripathga, Jahanvi, Bhagirathi, etc. As mentioned in Mahabharat, when Bhishm was about to die, Arjuna was said to have extracted groundwater, namely, Patalganga, by shooting an arrow that made a hole in the ground and created a fountain.

Goddess Ganga

First and foremost, Ganga has always been regarded as a goddess. Whatever brought her to Earth – a curse or a request from a distressed man – she has always been divine to her faithful. Her form is godly – four arms, three eyes (to view the past, the present, and the future), the well-ornamented, crescent moon adorning her crown, carrying a lotus in one hand, a jar of jewels in another, draped in a saree, fanned by a lady carrying a yak-tail fan and another holding a white umbrella over her head. The goddess rides a Makara – a mythical creature, half crocodile and half fish. The Ganga is said to have streams in the heavens, hell, and, on Earth.

In India, as the evening twilight starts, there is a very special and spiritual ritual that takes place at three major places – Rishikesh, Varanasi, and Haridwar. What is the meaning and history behind this everyday ritual called Ganga Aarti? This ritual is done devotionally by using fire, lamps, and chants near the ghats of the River Ganga. Moreover, it becomes illuminated especially when the small earthen lamps called ‘diya’ are lit with a small fire and some oil and floated onto the river Ganges along with flowers. This offering to Goddess Ganga considered as the sacred river in the country takes place with great significance, especially on the Ganga Dusshera that falls in the middle of the calendar year. It is believed that Maa Ganga, during this time came down from heaven into the world.

The mother Ganga and the offering performed to the river are as ancient as mythology. The specific place where the river contacts the earth is known as ‘Gangotri’. It is believed that the ‘daughter of heaven’ known as Ganga descended down to earth from heaven. Also, she changed into a river in order to wash the sins of the predecessors of King Bhagirath. The Ganga Aarti is a form of thanksgiving ritual performed by her followers and devotees. They want to thank the Goddess for the help by lighting a diya or big lamp. Priests chant slokas and bhajans or religious songs are sung while the daily ritual is performed at River Ganga. People also offer flowers and fruits here. The small diyas and flowers are floated and it is believed that there is divine power that makes people bow in devotion. The Ganga Aarti ceremony takes place at three different places every sunset. Ganga Aarti means prayer for River Ganga. Prayers are dedicated to gods and goddesses. River Ganga isn't just a river in India, it's Divine Mother. River Ganga gives life within the sort of water. The same water also removes sins once you take a dip in its water. River Ganga also gives liberation to souls. It's not just a river but it is considered as a whole culture itself. For agriculture, her water remains precious for India. River Ganga is taken into account the goddess who was originally living in heaven.

Goddess Ganga

A great aarti takes place on a particularly extravagant scale in Varanasi near the end of each year on Kartik Purnima. Over here there is even an early sunrise Ganga Aarti in Varanasi, organized by Subah-e-Banaras. The Haridwar Ganga Aarti is performed at the ghat named Har-Ki-Pauri. The name of this ghat means "Feet of the Lord". A footprint on a fence there's said to belong to Lord Vishnu. In terms of spiritual importance, Har-ki-Pauri is taken into account to be like Dashashwamedh Ghat where the aarti takes place in Varanasi. It has a location of spiritual significance and equivalent because the Varanasi Ganga Aarti isn't as flamboyant and staged. Yet, it's quite the spiritual circus: people, pandits, babas, idols of varied gods, loudspeakers, clanging bells, singing, incense, flowers, and flames.

The description of Ganga is available in Rigveda also. Several legends are famous about the origin of Ganga. It is said that the Ganga originated from the feet of Lord Vishnu. According to the second legend, Ganga was the daughter of mountain king Himalaya. As per Devi Bhagwat, Ganga has been called the wife of Lord Vishnu. According to Mahabharat, Ganga was the wife of King Shantanu as well as the mother of Bhishm.

According to a legend in the Ramayana, Sagara, the king of Ayodhya who had sixty thousand sons, once performed Ashvamegh yagya (a ritual for the good of his kingdom and to demonstrate his supremacy). During the rituals, the horse which is an integral part of the ritual, was stolen by the jealous Indra and placed in the ashram (hermitage) of saint Kapila. Sagara sent all his sons all over the earth to search for the horse. They found it in the nether world, in the ashram of saint Kapila. Assuming that the sage had stolen the horse, they hurled insults at him and interrupted his meditation. The saint became very angry and burnt all sixty thousand boys to death by the fire from his eyes. Since the final rites of these boys could not be performed, their souls continued to wander as ghosts. After many generations, Bhagiratha a descendant of Sagara, learnt about the fate of his ancestors and he vowed to bring Ganga to Earth so that her holy water could be used to liberate the souls of his ancestors and release them to heaven.

Goddess Ganga

King Bhagirath left his kingdom to meditate and prey the Ganga River who was residing in the heavens to descend to the earth. Ganga could come down to the earth only after Lord Brahma (the Supreme God) permitted her to do so. Accordingly, Bhagirath prayed at a place in Uttarkashi where the Gangotri temple is situated these days. He prayed to Lord Brahma for a thousand years, requesting him to permit Goddess Ganga to come down to earth from heaven because only Ganga could release his ancestors’ souls and allow them to go to heaven. On account of the deep devotion of Bhagirath, ultimately Lord Brahma was pleased with him and granted his wish. But He told Bhagirath to pray to Lord Shiva, who alone could sustain the huge force of descent of Ganga. Accordingly, King Bhagirath prayed to Lord Shiva who, after some time, agreed to hold Ganga in his hair.

Accordingly, Ganga descended from the heavens on Lord Shiva’s head and was soon trapped in his thick locks. In the process, the river water got further purified. One the request of King Bhagirath, Lord Shiva opened one of the locks and the river reached the Earth. It is said that Ganga followed the chariot of Bhagirath to the place where the ashes of his ancestors were lying and released them from the curse. An alert reader will notice that this legend is a simple description of the hydrologic cycle. Perhaps King Bhagirath was an ancient civil engineer or a hydrologist.

Since Bhagirath brought Ganga to Earth, one headwater stream of Ganga is known as Bhagirathi. Further, the Hindi term Bhagirath prayas describes the valiant efforts or difficult achievements of a person.

Ganga is also known by another name: Jahnavi. According to a different mythological story, when Ganga came down to earth a long time ago, her fast-moving waters created turbulence and destroyed crops in the fields. She also disturbed the meditation of a saint named Jahnu. Now, Jahnu was so much angry that he drank up all the water Ganga. This made the Devtas (semi-Gods) very sad and they prayed to Jahnu to release Ganga so that she could proceed on her mission. After their persistent prayers, Jahnu was pleased and he released Ganga water through his ears. On account of this, Ganga came to known by the name “Jahnavi” (daughter of Jahnu) also.

Kumbh Mela which is the largest religious gathering on Earth (attended by more than 80 lakh devotees) takes place after every 12 years at two places on the banks of Ganga River.

Key Takeaways

  • The article explores the significance of the Hindu goddess Ganga and her association with devotion.

  • Ganga is considered a sacred river in Hinduism and is worshipped for its purifying properties.

  • The article highlights the mythological origins of Ganga and her descent to Earth.

  • It discusses the religious rituals and practices associated with the worship of Ganga.

  • The article emphasizes the spiritual and symbolic importance of Ganga in Hindu culture.

  • It showcases the artistic representations of Ganga in various forms of visual art.

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