The River Ganga (Ganges) in India is perhaps the most sacred river in the world. The goddess of the river is acknowledged as Ganga Mata (Eck 1996: 137). The river and the goddess are both worshiped as one. Ganga originates from hundreds of miles south of Kailasa in the Gangotri glacier (Darian 3). Hardwar, a place in the Himalayan Mountains also known as the Gagnadvara (“Door of the Ganges”), marks the location of the river where the Ganga River breaks out of the Himalayas and into the plains of northern India (Eck 1996: 137). The Ganges flows from the northern part of India through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal (Rodrigues 30). In Prayag, the Ganga joins the Yamuna River and also the mystical underground Sarasvati River, then continues from the holy city of Banaras (Kasi; city of Siva) where the river makes a “long sweep up to the north”, and then finally into Ganga Sagara where the river meets the Bay of Bengal. Ganga is sacred along its entire length (Eck 1996: 137). The river plays a very crucial role in the lives of Hindus in India. The daily rituals, myths, practises of worship, and belief in the power of the goddess Ganga and her waters are all central part of Hinduism to this day.
The purity of water has been part of Indian tradition ever since the beginning in the Indus Valley and has remained in the tradition ever since. Water is the most sacred symbol of the Indian tradition. It is said to be the purifier and the origin of the mystery of life. Ganga water is said to be the most purified water in the lives of Hindus. Hindus use the water of the Ganges in the rituals of birth and death, as well as in the rituals of the weddings. In the sacred thread ceremony (upanayana), a young man only eats bread and drinks Ganga water (Darian 14). Ganga is the place of crossing between the world of the living and dead. Ganga is said to be flowing in three worlds: heaven, earth, and netherworlds, this also refers to as triloka-patha-gamini (Eck 1996:145). There are three places in India that are known to be holy where the rites of sraddha for the dead and visarjana of the ashes are performed the most. The three places are Prayag, Kasi (Banaras), and Gaya; they are simply known as the tristhali (“three places”) (Eck 2012: 163). After dying, Hindus want their ashes to be put in the Ganga River. It is the Hindu belief that by doing this they achieve moksa through the contact with the purified water of the Ganges. If someone is dying, she or he will try to spend their last days at the banks of the Ganges. Their belief is that if they die near the sacred river, they will be delivered from all of the sins encountered during their life. Banaras, the holiest city of India and also the city of Siva, encounters millions of people from across India who bring the ashes of their deceased and spread them on the banks of Ganga if they cannot die in Banaras. In addition to spreading the ashes of the dead on the banks of Ganga, “the ordinary rite of bathing in the Ganges will usually include simple water liberations with which this nectar of immortality is offered to the departed ancestors” (Eck 1982: 215). By doing this the ancestors attain the happiness of being in heaven by virtue of the sraddha rites and also live in heaven for thousands of years to come for every single sesame seed in the traditional pinda offering (Eck 1982: 215-216).
Every day hundreds of people bathe, pray, and wash clothes in Ganga waters. People also drink and cook with the waters of Ganga. They believe that, it is one of the ways to give everyone the blessings of Ganga. Ritual purification has been important to Hindus from ancient times of pre-Aryan Indus civilization; this is shown by the remains of the large ceremonial cleansing tanks at Mohenjo Daro (Eck 1982: 217). The water of the Ganges is believed to be purifying and absorbs pollution; this is believed to be the spiritual aspect of the River Ganga. When the water of the Ganges is flowing, the pollution is believed to be carried away along with the current (Eck 1996: 144). At Ganga’s tirthas, sacred crossings, Hindus make offerings of flower to the river while shouting the phrase “Ganga Mata ki jai” (“Victory to Mother Ganges!”). Hindus also bathe in the Ganga and making offerings of the water to the pitrs and devas (Eck 1996:137-138). Ganga’s waters also play another major role for Hindus. The river provides water to the land to make it fertile and even grow many healthy crops in the season of monsoon (Darian 15-17). Ganga’s waters are said to be “liquid embodiment of sakti” and “sustaining the immortal fluid (amrta) of mother’s milk” (Eck 1996: 137). If Hindus cannot make the yatra to Ganga, making yatra to the other sacred streams is in comparison of going to Ganga. There are seven streams of Ganga that are believed to possess great purity as Ganga itself: Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu, and Kaveri. Ganga is also believed to be present in every other river and vice versa (Eck 1996: 137-138).
Every year Hindus participate in a festival dedicated to the worship of Ganga; that is called Ganga Dasahara. This takes place when the hot and dry season reaches its peak in May and June, and in expectation of the monsoon season. The festival runs for ten days and it concludes on the tenth day of the month Jyeshtha. On this day, Ganga’s descent (avatarana) from heaven to earth is celebrated. The banks of Ganga are crowded with bathers. A quick dip in the waters of Ganga on the day is thought to get rid of ten sins (dasahara) or ten lifetimes of sins. Hindus that want to celebrate Ganga Dasahara but cannot make it to actual Ganga River can also bathe in one of the other seven streams of Ganga (Eck 2012: 136-137). Hindus are actually praying to the life that is within the water but not to water directly (Darian 17). Another very important festival for Hindus to praise Ganga is called Kumbha Mela (pot festival). The festival occurs every twelve years and gathers millions of people; this is perhaps the world’s largest festival. The complete Kumbha Mela is held at Prayag (Allahabad), last held in 2001, also called Maha Kumbha Mela, and it was estimated that more than sixty million people were congregated. In Prayag, three of the seven sacred rivers meet; they are Ganga, Sarasvati, and Yamuna (“triveni” – “triple braid”) (Jones: 505-506). Millions of people travel to Prayag and take a dip in the Triveni while chanting “Victory to the Ganga. The mela is not just about bathing in the rivers but is about education, commerce, and spectacle. Prayag is the most famous place where the Kumbha Mela is held, but the mela is also held at Hardwar, Nasik, and Ujjain (Eck 2012: 154-155).
According to the sculptures of the goddess Ganga, she is depicted to be on top of her vahana (vehicle) crocodile (makara). Makara is viewed as a soma animal, which is an emblem of the waters, the plants, and the entire vegetal substratum of life. It is also a symbol of the unknown sea and an animal that is an object of fear. Ganga also holds a kumbha in her hands (vase of plenty) (Darian 114-115). Ganga as a goddess is known to be the “goodness” of the gods, that is her energy is praised as good. Her vicious force is purified and calmed by the hair of Siva. Ganga is also depicted as a mother where she is nourishing, embracing, and forgiving without any sight of anger. Praises (mahatmyas) of the Ganga are found in the epics of Puranas which can be read in Sanskrit. There are also many hymns devoted to Ganga, one of the most famous hymns is known as Ganga Lahari (“The Ganga’s Waves”) written by Jagannatha (Eck 1996: 138, 148-149). In Ganga Lahari, Jagannatha pictures the river as a Mother, who will love and claim the child that is rejected by everyone else. (Eck 2012: 162). Ganga accepts both the lotus and the kumbha (water pot) as symbols of auspicious blessings. Ganga’s waters are meant to be like milk and said to be the drink of life itself for humans (Eck 2012: 162).
Many myths describe Ganga having the origins of heavens. Ganga is known to be the consort of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Eck 2012: 160). One of the Vedic myths about Ganga’s divine descent from heaven involves Indra, who combats the serpent Vritra who is curled around the doors of the heavens and closed up the celestial waters. These waters in the heavens are believed to be called soma (nectar of the gods). When Vritra was defeated, Indra released these waters for the sustenance of the earth (Eck 2012: 137). In the mythology of the Devi Bhagavata and Brahmavaivarta Puranas, Ganga and Sarasvati both argue with each other and both curse each other to become rivers on earth and bear the sins of humans. Visnu interferes and make Sarasvati the wife of Brahma and Ganga the wife of Siva (Eck 1996: 146). Ganga is also said to be originally flowing from the foot of Visnu in the highest heaven (Eck 1982: 219). Siva’s role in the descent of Ganga is believed to the most important role. The story of the myth has been told in Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas. When Ganga descents to earth, Siva promises to catch her on his head so the fall wouldn’t shatter the earth. When Ganga falls on Siva’s head, Siva’s hair broke her fall and broke Ganga into seven streams, each flowing to a different part of India. Ganga fell to earth to purify and free the souls of the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. The sons of King Sagara were burned to ashes by the sage Kapila because he was accused of stealing the horse that was used in the rites of ashvamedha (“horse sacrifice”). Bhagiratha, a descendent of Sagara, took upon himself to free the souls of the sons of King Sagara by doing ascetic practices in the Himalayas. Bhagiratha led the waters Ganga to restore the ashes of the sons of King Sagara and also to replenish the ocean (Nelson: 231-233), [Eck 2012: 138]. Siva and Ganga are both dependent on each other. Ganga’s living water is the only thing that can cool down Siva’s linga; without Ganga, Siva will remain the burning linga of fire. Without Siva, the fall of Ganga would have shattered the earth (Eck 2012: 140). Siva, also known as Gangadhara or “Bearer of the Ganges”, is said to be the companion of Ganga. They both are portrayed as husband and wife and sometimes in sculptures as a married couple (Eck 1996: 147). The descent of Ganga is continuous and not a single time event; each wave of Ganga touches Siva’s head before touching the earth. Ganga is the liquid form of Siva’s sakti, as well as Siva himself is sakti, the energy that forms and sustains the apparent universe. Being a liquid sakti, Ganga is God’s incarnation, God’s divine descent, freely flowing for all and embodies the energy of all the gods. After the descent of Ganga, Ganga became the “vehicle for Siva’s merciful work of salvation” (Eck 2012: 160-161).
Ganga goddess is more than a single river. Ganga is India’s prime example of all the sacred rivers in India today (Eck 1996: 137-138). The river keeps on flowing, bringing life and conveying the living tradition. Ganga is also only the best known consort of all three important male gods: Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, but she is the only goddess that had acquired the position of being consort which no other goddess can achieve. Ganga is said to be heavenly, whatever is holy, whatever is merciful, and whatever is completely auspicious is already there (Eck 1996: 150-151).
Darian, S. G. (1978) The Ganges in Myth and History. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Eck, D. L. (1982) Banaras: City of Light. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Eck, D. L. (1996) Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography. In J. S. Wulff, Devi: Goddess of India (pp. 137-153). Berkley: University of California Press.
Eck, D. L. (2012) India: A Sacred Geography . New York : Harmony Book.
Melton, J. Gordon, James A. Beverly, Christopher Buck, and Constance A. Jones (2011) Religious Celebration: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations Volume One. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Nelson, L. E. (1998) Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Albany: Sate University of New York Press.
Rodrigues, H. (2007) Hinduism – the ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.jbeonlinebooks.org/ebooks/hinduism
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Article written by: Arth Patel (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.