Revered as Ganga Nitya Vaahini or The Eternal River, the Ganga holds a unique position in the collective consciousness of Indians and the river is venerated and is seen as a liberator for she washes away the sins of all those who come to her feet. She is eternally pure and her purity cleanses the sins of those who come to her alive or dead. In most Hindu families, a bottle of water from the Ganga is kept in every house. Indian Posts has also started selling packaged bottled Ganges water in recent times. It is believed that drinking water from the Ganga with one’s last breath will take the soul to heaven. Hindus also believe life is incomplete without bathing in the Ganga at least once in their lifetime. Some of the most important Hindu festivals and religious congregations are celebrated on the banks of the river Ganga such as the Kumbh Mela or the Kumbh Fair and the Chhat Puja. Prime Minister’s Namami Gange project aims to clean and rejuvenate the river and make it the symbol of India’s eternal pride. This project will help in cleansing the river and bring back its lost glory.
The legend of King Sagara
King Sagara was one of the Kings of the Ikshvaku dynasty during the Satya Yuga. He was an ancestor of King Dasharatha and Lord Rama. Sagara had two wives Kesini and Sumati. But he did not have children from them. Sagara, therefore went to the Himalayas with his queens and performed penance for a hundred years. Maharishi Bhrigu was impressed with their penance and blessed 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, as that did not happen, he banished Asamanja from his Kingdom. Sumati’s sons grew up to be brave but arrogant.
Once to prove his supremacy he decided to perform the Ashwamedha Yagna(horse sacrifice). Fearing the results of the yagna Lord Indra stole the horse and left it at the ashram of Sage Kapila when he was in deep meditation. Sagara sent all his sons to look for the horse. Since they found the horse at Sage Kapila’s ashram they thought he had stolen it and were preparing to attack him. At that moment the sage came out of his meditation and burnt them to ashes by his yogic powers. King Sagara then sent his grandson Amshuman to retrieve it. Amshuman followed the path and soon reached Sage Kapila’s ashram who was pleased with his respect and humility. But he informed him that only Bhagiratha who was to be born in a later generation could redeem the souls of the sons of Sagara by bringing the Ganga down to earth. It is said that many of the subsequent generations were involved in prayer and worship until Bhagiratha was destined to succeed.
Bhagiratha ascended the throne and set out to perform the arduous task set before him. He is said to have performed rigorous penance for a thousand years at the end of which Lord Brahma appeared before him pleased with his penance. When Bhagiratha requested him to bring down the Ganga, Brahma asked him to propitiate Lord Shiva for only he could contain the destructive impact of Ganga’s strong fall on earth. Living only on air Bhagiratha then prayed deeply to Lord Shiva. After a year Lord Shiva pleased with his devotion and selflessness assured him of his help.
Origin of Ganga
It is said that when Lord Vishnu as Vamana avatar liberated Mahabali he used three steps, the last of which pushed Bali to the nether world, the first covered all of Earth and the second covered all of heaven. While taking the second step Brahma washed Lord Vishnu’s feet in his kamandalu or water pot and from this water pot Ganga was born. Thus she settled in Brahmaloka. It is said that she became vain and once when a gust of wind blew away Sage Durvasa’s covering she laughed and hence was cursed by him to become a river which would be used by all humans to bathe and remove their impurities and become pure. Meanwhile, Brahma asked her to flow down to earth and though she scoffed at him she could not disobey him.
The might of Ganga subdued
She decided to fall arrogantly and sweep away the whole earth but when she came roaring down Bhagiratha began to pray to Lord Shiva to save the earth. Lord Shiva then appeared under the flow and captured her in his matted locks. Sanctifying and quelling the Ganga, Shiva subdued her and she now flowed calmly in seven streams and reaching the ashram of Sage Kapila freed the 60000 souls.
This story of her descent is traced back to our Puranas. The Ganga is mentioned in the Rig-Veda, the earliest of the Hindu scriptures. According to the Puranas, Goddess Ganga used to exist only in Heaven. Prince Bhagirath performed severe tapas as mentioned earlier imploring Ganga to descend on earth, earning her the sobriquet Bhagirathi.
Himavan, the Emperor of all mountains had two daughters by his wife Mena. They were called Ganga and Uma. Ganga was the older one. The devas approached Himavan for her hand and she flowed in heaven as a river of light and purified all that came her way. She flowed through the galaxies as the Akash Ganga (the Milky Way). Himavan’s second child was called Parvati, mountain daughter. She sat in tapas and won Lord Siva as her husband.
Ganga is associated with releasing the souls of the dead from the bondage of this world. Hindus believe that life is incomplete without bathing in the Ganga at least once in their lifetime. Some of the most important Hindu festivals and religious congregations are celebrated on the banks of the River Ganga such as the Kumbh Mela or the Kumbh Fair and the Chhat Puja. Jawaharlal Nehru hailed the river “The Ganga, 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 Ganga, 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.”
Ganga Saptami commemorates the day Ganga was reborn on earth. It usually comes in the last week of April or first week of May. Ganga Dussehra is held during the first ten days of the month of Jyeshta, corresponding to June and celebrates the descent of the Ganges from the heavens. Devotees believe that if one offers worship during these ten days they will be cleansed of their sins. People flock to the mighty river to take a dip and offer prayers. They perform pujas and offer arati reciting slokas and bhajans singing her glory. These two festivals are celebrated in honour of Mother Ganga.