Ganga the Mother, Ganges the River

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Staff Reporter –

The Ganges River flows, often in calm dignity and sometimes in angry turbulence and violent torrent, through the expanse of India in the northern Gangetic Plains.

The River, it is believed, is actually a Hindu Goddess.

The Goddess is shown in white, wearing a white crown, sitting on a crocodile, holding in her right hand a water lily and in her left hand a lute.

The Rig Veda mentions the name Ganga only twice but in the later puranic period, Ganga assumed great importance as a Goddess.

She is called Mandakini in the heaven and Bhagirathi in the underworld.

The Puranas declare that the sight, the name and touch of Ganga takes away all sins and that bathing in Ganga bestows blessings of the highest order.

Hindus consider it propitious to cremate dead bodies at the banks of the River Ganga and then immerse ashes of the dead in its waters.

‘Gangajal,’ the water of Ganga, is considered very sacred and is used in Poojas.


Puranic Reference

A popular belief is that Ganga lived on Kailasa (a mountain peak in the Himalayas, compared with the Greek Mt Olympus and believed to be the abode of the Gods) and flowed with genteel grace for the sole pleasure of the Gods.  Had it not been for Bhagiratha (a powerful Hindu king and sage), she would not have visited earth.

Bhagiratha had a prolific ancestor who sired 60,000 sons.

With a progeny so large, he ruled the world and invaded the nether regions, home of the hermit, Kapila.  This army of young men could not but upset the meditation of the hermit-saint who, in a moment of divine rage, reduced them to ashes with a mere glance.  The souls of the deceased, denied the purification that only water can give, struggled for peace and haunted Bhagiratha.

The King beseeched the Gods to prevail upon Ganga to descend the earth to pacify the souls of his ancestors and bridge the passage from the present to the future.

Gods appeal

The Gods pleaded Bhagiratha’s cause to Ganga but she had no desire to leave Kailasa.

Bhagiratha then prayed to Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvathi.

Parvathi convinced Shiva to receive the violent and angry currents unleashed by the feisty Ganga upon his head and divide the falling waters into a myriad of harmless streams through the locks of his hair.

This accomplished, it became easy to guide the River to the center of the earth, pacify the 60,000 restless souls and lead the River to the ocean.

Filtered through Shiva’s hair, Ganga emerged from the heavens bearing all the reviving powers of the Universe.  Temple cities dot her meandering course, the most important being Varanasi (also known as Banaras and Kashi).

Here, at the break of dawn, hundreds of devout Hindus flock and await a special moment when Indra, the Ruler of the Heavens, unites with the sacred, purifying and reviving waters of Ganga.

Mahabhalipuram Tale

A pictographic or rather, sculptural representation of the story of the descent of the Ganga can be seen carved in the rock sculptures of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), near Chennai, on the south eastern coast.  The astonishing intricacy and detail of the sculpture depicts the joy of Gods and Goddesses, demons and angels, snakes, water nymphs and animals watching the Ganga flow through Shiva’s hair while, Kapila remains serene in his meditation.

Another legend has it that Ganga came down to the earth in human form and married King Shantanu, an ancestor of the Pandavas of Mahabharata on condition that he would not question any of her actions.

She yielded seven children but threw them back into the River.

Shantanu intervened when the eighth child, Bhishma, was about to be the thrown into the River. Ganga leaves the king since he breached the agreement.

Bheeshma played a pivotal role throughout the period of the Kauravas in Mahabharata.


Photo Caption:

  1. The Mighty Ganges River
  2. Goddess Ganga

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