The Story of River Ganga:
Submitted by Ajoy, October 2006
past, India has been known
as the ‘Land of Rivers’. The rivers of India hold a
special significance in the hearts and minds of its people. Primarily because being an agrarian society
at large, rivers are very important in terms of providing water and also for
providing rich topsoil in the form of silt. In India this is taken a step further,
rivers are not just considered material wealth but they are very much alive,
and are goddess themselves. Besides the two rivers which are considered male
gods, Brhamaputra (meaning son of Brhama)
and Krishna, the remaining are all considered goddess with names like Ganga, Godavari, Narmada, Yamuan, Jhelum, Sutlaj, Sindu, Kaveri, Mahanadi, Tapti, Panchaganga.
As an attestation to this fact,
rivers are actually worshipped in India as one would worship any god
in temples. A place where the river does not flow its natural course, for
example, from east to the west (in the northern hemisphere due to the west to
east rotation of the earth on its own axis) is treated as very sacred. One
river, the Brahmaputra starts its birthplace near the holy lake of Mansarovar
in the Himalayas, flowing East enters India in the far eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh after traveling hundreds of miles across Tibet
as the Tsangpo. Here it takes a sharp U turn and
flows all the way towards Bengal in the east
towards west direction. The area where the Brahmaputra takes a U turn is considered very
holy by the Hindus and Tibetan Buddhist alike. However, this place may soon be
desecrated by an anticipated huge hydroelectric dam.
There are number of stories woven around each river and are particular
to the local region of India.
However one story which is very famous, concerning the river Ganga and how she was brought down to earth due to the
devotion of Bhagirathi who belonged to the lineage of
Ikshwaku (belonging to Solar) dynasty. This story has
been depicted in the Ramayan and has recounted below.
Himavan the Emperor of all mountains had two daughters by his wife Mena. They were called Ganga and Uma, and
there beauty was a legend. Ganga
was the older one. Indra’s
devas approached Himavan
for her hand, they wanted his daughter for themselves, to make heaven more
perfect than it already was. Himavan gave Ganga to the Devas. She flowed in heaven as a river of light and
purified anything she touched. She flowed through the galaxies as the Akash Ganga (the Milky way), river of the firmament, with suns in her hair.
second child was called Parvati, mountain daughter.
She sat in tapasya and won Lord Siva(The
destructive aspect of the trinity) for her husband.
Later, there was an Ancestor of Rama, in the line of Ikshvaku,
named Sagara. He had two wives Kesini
and Sumati. But he did not have children from them. Sagara,
therefore went to the Himalaya with his queens
and sat in penance for a hundred years. Maharishi
Bhrigu was impressed with their penances and granted Kesini
with One son Asamanja who would become his heir. Sumati bore sixty thousand sons. Asamanja
turned out to be an evil prince. Sagara hoped that Asamanja would improve as he grew, however, that did not happen, therefore he banished Asamanja
from his Kingdom. Sumati’s boys were handsome and
brave, virile and arrogant.
Fortunately for Sagara, Asamanja had a son Anshuaman who was a noble, gentle child and
devoted to his grandfather. When Anshuman was a young
man, Sagara undertook an aswamedha
yagna. He chose the plains between the Himalayas and Vindhya mountains
for this act. He sent his grandson Anshuman riding
it, daring any king to arrest its careen flow. Indra (King
of Devas) Dev played the spoilsport by stealing the
horse and hiding it away. The brahmans
who had charge of the yagna said to Sagara, ‘If the horse is not found and the yagna not completed, calamity will visit the House of Iksvaku.’
called his sixty thousand sons and addressed them to find the horse wherever it
may be. They excavated the earth, razed whole forests, to find where the animal
was hidden. They could not find the horse by land or sea. They burrowed in the
neither world and went deeper down the spiraling paths of the twilight realms.
They came to a dark cavern and heard the whinny of horse in tether. They went in to see Maharishi
Kapila Vasudeva, his eyes
shut, absorbed in the Brahman. Thief they roared and rushed at Kapila with their weapons raised. The muni’s
eyes flew open to see who dared disturb his samadhi
and instantly those sixty thousand sons of Sagara
were made ashes. Then Kapila went back into
waited for long for his host of sons to return to him with the horse. But with
no sign or word he sent Anhsuman after them to the
neither world. Anshuman followed the trail his uncles
had left. Here, he saw the form of the rishi’s body
and went in quietly. Later when Kapila
opened his eyes and looked gently at the prince. Anshuman
prostrated himself at the rishi’s feet. Kapila smiled at the noble youth. Your horse is with me
child. Indra left it here. He pointed at the ashes
strewn across the caves floor. ‘Your uncles came here in violence’ he said, ‘and
I was forced to burn them.’
grieved for his uncles. He wanted to offer condolence for them, so their souls
could rise into heaven. But he could find no water in neither
world. Suddenly he heard a sound of vast wings. Garuda
(greatest of Eagles), Sumati’s brother, flew down to
said to the distraught Anshuman, “No common water
will wash the sins of your uncles. They violated mother earth and outraged the
spirits who are her guardians. Only the waters of Himalaya’s daughter
who flows through the stars can purify their souls. You must bring the Ganga down to wash their ashes;
only then will they find deliverance.” Anshuman stood in awe of Garuda
and terrified by the task he had inherited. The eagle-winged one said to him, “But
it is not yet time for the sacred river to flow on earth. Take your horse home
to your grandfather. He waits for you and the ashwamedha
must be completed.”
went back home, Sagara was able to complete the yagna. But the king was a broken man after he learned of
his sons’ death. He left his kingdom in Anshuman’s hands, as soon as the prince was old enough. Anshuman was a just king, but ruling his kingdom absorbed
him entirely. He found no time to undertake a penance that would bring the Ganga down to earth.
son Dilipa was a great king as well. But not even he
could bring the Ganga
down to redeem his ancestors. The destiny of the Ikshavaku
line was impeded by the unresolved sins of the sons of Sumati.
Dilipa had a
son called Bhagiratha. Dilipa
ruled his kingdom for long and then handed it over to his son Bhagiratha. Bhagirata soon
realised the urgency to atone for his ancestors sins, so he left his kingdom in
the hands of some trusted ministers. He left for the mountains to sit in deep
meditation. At last one day, at the end of thousand years Brahma (creative
aspect of the trinity) appeared before him granting him a boon.
eyes swam with tears finally he said, ‘Father of the worlds, grant that I may
perform the niravapanjali for my ancestors with the
waters of Ganga; and
that they attain Swarga. Unable to refuse this king
of tapasya anything, Brahma said,’ You
will have a nobel son, to be king after you. But just
think, if the Ganga
comes down into the world, who will break her fall?
The very earth will be shattered. If you want her to flow here, you must
petition Siva to bear her fall.
turned in bhakti to Lord Siva, who is easily moved.
When he fasted in Siva’s name, living on just air for a year, the God of Gods
appeared before the Ikshvaku King. Siva said, “You
should not have to sit in tapasya for a cause as just
as yours. I am pleased with your devotion to your ancestors. I will break Ganga’s
fall, and her pride as well.”
After ages of flattery, verging
on worship, by the Devas of the sky who adored her, Ganga had grown vain. When
Brahma told her to flow down in the world, she scoffed at him. The earth will
perish from this madness. For there is no one who can bear my
descent!’ But she could not
refuse to do as Brahma had asked. On the appointed night, the Devas gathered in the sky, while in the plateau of the Himalaya in the icebound north, Bhagiratha
stood with his gaze trained on the heavens. There was no sign of Siva.
Suddenly a deafening roar shook
the firmament. High above him, beyond the chariot of the Devas,
Bhagiratha saw her coming: she was a sheet of silver,
filling the night sky. He shut his eyes in prayer. He was sure this was the end
of the world; for who indeed could support the fall of that ocean? Like a
cosmic flood she came, hurtling down the milkyway,
and laughing as she did, she was amused that Brahma had not cared to heed her
But then, another figure loomed
beside Bhagiratha. He appeared out of the very air.
He was the Lord of the night, Sarvaripati Siva. The Devas began to sing his praises when they saw him like
that. But Ganga
swept on, and only Siva knew what was in her arrogant heart. Exhilarated by her
plunge down the constellation, she thought to herself, ‘I will show Siva who I
am. I will thrust him down to the neither world’.
Siva stood smiling, his head
exposed to her mad descent. With a crash like thunder in the Galaxy, Ganga fell straight down upon
Siva’s hallowed head. Bhagiratha shut his eyes,
certain this was the end. Even the Devas above fell
silent; they, too, did not believe anyone could survive that crystal cataract.
A hush fell on the earth and the
sky. But not a drop of water, let alone a deluge, fell on the terrified Bhagiratha. Siva was not crushed under Ganga’s tidal fall.
He stood smiling, lustrous in the moonlight. But she, endless river had
vanished; she was lost in Siva’s jata (hair). And
struggle as she would, she could find no way out from where she was absorbed like
a water drop. One drop in the ocean that he was.
At his inexorable will she was a
lake at the root of one strand of his hair. She trembled when he laughed. His
time for prayer not yet over, Bhagiratha lay on his
face before the Lord. For fear that Siva might never set Ganga free he worshiped Mahadeva,
for the sake of his ancestors.
At last Siva released Ganga along the hair of his
head at the root of which he held her. Drop by drop,
he wrung her down onto the earth. High on the Himalayan tableland a pool
formed, gleaming in the rising sun. Ganga
humbled was called Alaknanda.
and the Devas watched, entranced, the pool grew into
a lake, and the lake flowed into seven streams. Three of these
flowed west and three east, down the Himalaya.
The seventh stream followed Bhagiratha’s chariot
south, onto the plains of the sacred continent. She followed him playfully and
in wonder at being in this new world, which was once, in dim memory, her home.
Her foam was white as milk as she
flowed after the Ikshvaku king’s chariot, which he
rode like the free wind in his fervor to fulfill his task of such long
followed that chariot, At times she would flow straight and quick as a arrow, keeping easy pace with the horses; but at others,
she meandered, coy and difficult, or undulated sinuous as a serpent. She who
had washed the starry feet of Mahavishnu and had
plunged through the zone of the moon, she who was purified for the third time
when she fell on Siva’s head, had come down the mandals
to liberate some ashes that lay on the subterranean cave floor.
and the shinning river finally arrived at the place where Bhagiratha’s
ancestors had entered the neither world. The earth yawned open. Ganga swirled into the neither
world and fell in cascade into the cave where Kapila
once sat. Bhagiratha saw the baptismal waters flow
into the cave mouth. Then he saw his ancestors rise form the ashes in sudden
spirit fire, their astral bodies purified, their long ordeal ended. Blessing
him in sixty thousand ringing voices, they rose in heaven. The curse on the Ikshvaku line had ended.
Brahma appeared and said to Bhagiratha, ‘Nobel child, you have done the impossible!
From this day, whenever any man prevails against the most difficult of odds of
fate, his efforts will be called a Bhagiratha prayatna. And the Ganga
will be your daughter in the eyes of the Gods. I name her Bhagirathi.’
is also called as the tripathga because she who flowed in Swarga, flowed
also on earth and in the neither world. The three paths.
On all pictures of Lord Siva, we see a fount of water
flowing onto his head. This is the river Ganga as described in the above story.
The Ramayana is an epic tale set in the forested India (present day Afghanistan,
Pakistan, India, Nepal,
Mayanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Java
Sumatra) of prehistoric times. One of India’s most beloved and enduring
legends, it represents historical fact to millions, who worship Rama (root Ramanchak = Divine
love in Sanskrit), prince of Ayodhya, as an incarnation
of God Vishnu (The preserver aspect of the trinity). Regardless of their
religious orientation, Indians see it as a great work of literature, the story
of war between good and evil, and as a document prescribing a code of conduct
that is still widely regarded. Rama is the hero of
the legend, and the ayana is his journey both
physical and spiritual.
The Ramayana was authored by Sage Valmiki
who was blessed by Lord Brhama to compose this poem.
This poem is also called as the Adi Kavya, the first poem of the earth.
Reference: The Ramayana by Ramesh Menon.