The Story of River Ganga:

Submitted by Ajoy, October 2006

Since long 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.

Himavan’s 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.’

Sagara 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 meditation.

Sagara 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.’

Anshuman 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 him.

Garuda 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.”

Anshuman 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.

Anshuma’s 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.

Bhagiratha’s 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.

Bhagiratha 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 warning.

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.

As Bhagiratha 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 standing. Ganga 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.

Bhagiratha 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.’


1)      Ganga is also called as the tripathga because she who flowed in Swarga, flowed also on earth and in the neither world. The three paths.

2)      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.

3)  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.

4)  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.

Search articles about India, Hinduism, Whole and cross cultural living, and vegetarian and Indian recipes!:

This page has been visited times since it's inception - October 2006.