(Other names: Ganges, Bhagirathi, Jahnavi, Mandakini)
Ganga, the most holy river of India starting from Gomukh, a place in the Himalayas, meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal near Ganga Sagar. According to one belief, the origin of Ganga was from the toe nail of Lord Vishnu. That is why she is also called ‘Vishnupadi’ which means “Emanating from the Lotus feet of Supreme Lord Sri Vishnu.”. There are several Hindu beliefs that give various versions of the birth of Ganga.
According to one version, the sacred water in Brahma’s Kamandalu (water-vessel) became personified as a maiden, Ganga. According to another (Vaishnavite) legend, Brahma had reverently washed the feet of Vishnu and collected this water in his Kamandalu. According to yet a third version, Ganga was the daughter of Himavan, king of the mountains, and his consort Mena; she was thus a sister of the goddess Parvati. Every version declares that she was raised in the heavens, under the tutelage of Brahma.
According to the Bhagawat Puran Katha, King Sagar’s sixty thousand sons who were burnt to ashes because of the curse of Sage Kapil, for their deliverance, King Sagar’s great grandson Bhagirath observed penance and brought Ganga from heaven to earth. That is why Ganga is known as ‘Bhagirathi’. Vishnu instigated Ganga to go to earth for the deliverance of Sagar’s sons – Then Ganga asked him as to how long will she have to line on earth? Vishnu told her, “Till 5000 years of Kalyug you will have to live on earth and the sea that is a part of me, will be your husband. Those who will bathe in your holy water will attain happiness and merit.” At the time of Ganga’s landing on the earth, to control her impact, Shiva held her in his matted hair.
From Shiva’s matted hair Ganga came to earth reducing her speed and liberated King Sagar’s sons. Ganga is also called ‘Tripathaga’ because according to Puranas she has three streams – Swarnaganga (Mandakini), Bhuganga (Bhagirathi) and Pataalganga (Bhagwati).
The Hindu epic, Mahabharata tells that the Vasus who were cursed by Vashishta had requested Ganga to be their mother. Ganga incarnated and became the wife of King Shantanu on a condition that at no stage shall he question her actions, or she would leave him. As seven Vasus were born as their children, one after the other, Ganga drowned them in her own waters, freeing them from their punishment and the King made no opposition. Only when the eighth was born did the King finally oppose his wife, who therefore left him. So the eighth son, Dyaus incarnated, remained alive, imprisoned in mortal form, and later became known in his mortal incarnation as Bhisma Pitamah (Devvrata), who is one of the most respected characters of the Mahabharata.
According to an ancient story, at the time of inception of the universe, Laxmi, Saraswati and Ganga, all three were the wives of Lord Vishnu. Once, Saraswati felt that Vishnu loved Ganga more, and then she was very angry and cursed Ganga to become a river. At this, even Ganga became angry and cursed Saraswati back to become a river on the earth.
After sometime, when they were pacified, they realised their mistake and both of them repented and were very sad. At this, Lord Vishnu told them to keep cool and not to be sad. He told them, “I can not make your curse invalid but I will give both of you equal importance. With my blessings, Saraswati will flow in half form as a river and half of her form will remain with Brahmaji. Ganga will go on earth to make it holy and one of its forms will remain in the matted hair of Shiva. I also bless that Ganga will always flow as a holy river and will never dry up and will be known as a holy river that gives fruit of virtue.
In the canons of Indian art, Ganga is visualised as voluptuous and beautiful, carrying an overflowing pot in her hand. The vessel conveys the idea of abundant life and fertility, which nourishes and sustains the universe.
The second distinguishing aspect of Ganga’s iconography is her animal mount, which is often shown serving as a pedestal for her.
This is the Makara, a hybrid creature having the body of a Crocodile (Gharial) and the tail of a fish. The Makara in Hindu thought corresponds to the star sign of Capricorn in western astrology. The Makara is also the vehicle of the Vedic god of waters Varun, thus establishing firmly Goddess Ganga’s Vedic roots.
The belief that Ganga is a holy river that frees one from his/her sins and gives the result of his/her virtues is connected with the blessings of Lord Vishnu. Most of India’s holy pilgrimages are on the banks of the River Ganga. This includes the Sangam of Prayag (Allahabad, U.P.) where Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet and Varanasi (Banaras) which are the most famous. The ‘Kumbh Mela’ which is held at the Sangam of Prayag is a very famous cultural event of India. During the Kumbh festival devotees from all over the world come for a dip in the River Ganga at the auspicious days. For Hindus in India, the Ganga is not just a river but a mother, a goddess, a tradition, a culture and much more. Some Hindus also believe life is incomplete without bathing in the Ganga at least once in one’s lifetime. Many Hindu families keep a vial of water from the Ganga in their house. This is done because it is prestigious to have water of the Holy Ganga in the house, and also so that if someone is dying, that person will be able to drink its water.
For Hindus in India, the Ganga is not just a river but a mother, a goddess, a tradition, a culture and much more. It is the holiest river which helps in attaining heaven and washes away one’s sins. At the time of death, to give Gangajal (water of Ganga) and after the death to flow the ashes of the dead body in the water of Ganga is age old tradition and shows the faith of people in the holiness of this river. After the funeral, Indians often immerse the bodies of their dead in the Ganga, which is believed to purify them of their sins. The British used to carry Ganga water on their ship because it never spoilt for days. It has medicinal qualities.
These days, Ganga is known as Bhagirathi at its originating point. In Devprayag, Alakananda which comes from Badrinath meets Bhagirathi and from there on she is called as Ganga. After this, from Haridwar (Gateway to the Gods is a town of holy pilgrimage to the North of Delhi where for the first time Ganga flows into the plains) and Prayag she meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal.
Ganga has been declared the “National River of India” by the government of India.