The River Ganga is the most revered river of the Hindus and all of us are aware of its journey from Gangotri in the Himalayas through all the major cities of the plains till it finally flows into the Bay of Bengal in Calcutta. On its journey, it flows through the holy and ancient cities like Haridwar, Allahabad, and Varanasi where the river is worshipped and also polluted with the waste of the cities. Today the print and electronic media are buzzing with talk of cleaning the river system as our Government is committed to this project. The waters of River Ganga are sacred and kept in every household. Bathing in the waters of Ganga washes away our sins. My granny’s simple solution to purify anything was to sprinkle a little ‘Gangajal’. The river system is very important as religious and economic activity flourishes along its banks.
There are innumerable legends and stories in our mythology related to River Ganga. In our temples and also in the stories narrated in stone at various sites, the iconography is very rich. It is believed that Ganga lived and flowed in heaven and following is the story of how she descended on earth. The day Ganga arrived on earth is celebrated in India as ‘Ganga Dushehra’ and this year it falls on Thursday 28th of May, 2015. She is treated as a mother and worshiped as a Goddess.
Long long ago, in ancient times, much before the birth of Lord Ram, there was a King named Sagar. King Sagar was the ruler of Ayodhya and he was a very brave and powerful king. Any King who wanted to increase his influence and territory performed the Ashwamedha Yagya. In this ritual, the king performing this Yagya would decorate a white horse as representative of the kingdom and send it on a guided tour followed by the king’s generals, ministers, and army. This Yagya is announced in advance and the horse also goes through enemy kingdoms. If challenged then it could mean war but if the horse is unchallenged and returns safely then it means that the King’s authority is supreme and his suzerainty is accepted by all the neighboring kingdoms, which then become his Vassals.
King Sagar had already performed this Yagya 99 times. He now decided to perform the Ashwamedha Yagya for the 100th time. King Sagar was also blessed with 60,000 sons. Lord Indra, the king of Gods became jealous of this power and decided to act. Lord Indra kidnapped the horse and hid it in the ashram of a sage called Kapil. Sage Kapil was meditating with his eyes closed for many years. The sons of King Sagar went out to search for the missing horse all over the kingdoms. They finally reached the ashram of Sage Kapil and saw the horse there. They thought that the sage was responsible for kidnapping the horse and were very angry. Sage Kapil was unaware of what had transpired thanks to Lord Indra. He was in deep meditation for the last several years. So he was surprised when he was insulted and attacked by King Sagar’s sons. As soon as the sage opened his eyes all the sons were burnt to death. Their last rites of cremation could not be performed and so their soul kept wandering on earth as ghosts.
Bhagirath was a descendent of King Sagar and on hearing the fate of his ancestors he vowed to work for their salvation. He decided to bring the river Ganga to earth from heaven and for this, he prayed to Lord Brahma. Lord Brahma agreed to Bhagirath’s request and ordered Ganga to descend on earth and the nether regions to wash the sins of the 60,000 wandering souls and provide salvation. River Ganga was offended and felt insulted on leaving heaven, so she decided to sweep the earth with her turbulent flow. Bhagirath was a very worried person and he now prayed to Lord Shiva to break her fall to which Lord Shiva agreed. Lord Shiva opened his matted hair and trapped the mighty river in his locks. She is said to have wandered in his locks till he let her out in small streams to flow on earth. Bhagirath’s effort enabled Ganga to come on earth and so she is also called the Bhagirathi River. Bhagirath then led Ganga from the Himalayan Mountains through the plains to the sea. He was unaware of where the ashes of his ancestors were so he requested Ganga to follow her own path. So before reaching the sea Ganga divided into hundreds of streams and washed the ashes of the departed souls so they could go to heaven. So on Ganga Dushehra, devotees throng to the Ghats to pray and take a dip. Goddess Ganga is worshiped and people bathe in her waters to wash their sins. To this day, people still walk for miles and it seems that all roads lead to the river Ganga.