Category Archives: Ganga

Ganga (River and Goddess)

Starting in the Himalayas, flowing over 2,000 km across India, going south and east all the way to the Bay of Bengal, is the Ganges River. The river is not just a physical feature of the world, it also has a spiritual connection to the Hindu religion. The river is the goddess Ganga. Hinduism has tales to describe the connection of their religion to the river and why it is important to them. The myths explain who this goddess is and also how the river came to be created and the significance of the river itself. Of all the myths in which Ganga plays a role, the main and most important one is how she came to earth. The main myth describing Ganga’s descent to earth told in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and in Puranas, is widely known in India (Eck 2012:138). The most popular tale of Ganga’s descent includes Siva, who plays an important role in this myth. It was with Siva’s help that Ganga landed on earth and saved the sons of King Sagara. Siva helped by catching Ganga, for the impact from her fall would destroy the earth. The Vedic myths have Indra (god of storms) playing the role of having the waters descend to earth. Indra did this by setting the water free and letting it fall to earth, as told in the Rig Veda (Eck 2012:137).

Although there are many different versions of the tale from different sources, there are themes and facts that remain the same. A main theme in all the different versions of Ganga’s descent is that the water (heavenly, celestial, and divine) descends from heaven to earth, and gave the river a connection, for example a pathway, to the heavens. Other constants within the myths are that the water falls to earth to save it, or that there was another god (Indra or Siva) to help the waters come to earth in one way or another. Another common theme is that the waters have powers of some kind. For example, the water is life-changing, and has a connection to immortality because of the presence of soma (the nectar of the gods) in the water. It is said that the Ganges River is quintessence of the source of all sacred waters, indeed of all waters, everywhere (Eck 2012:159). The Ganges River is sacred water, and is an essential element for all the Hindu rites and rituals (Singh 210).  The important factor of all the myths was that Ganga came from the heavens with her celestial water to save earth in some way.

The goddess Ganga is linked through symbolism to the Trivanti at Prayaga. She is also known as Tripathaga, or the Triple-Path River. Ganga is identified as a triple river, flowing in the three realms – in the heavens, on the earth, and in the netherworlds. The Trivanti express the nature of Ganga, whose mythology connects her with the three major gods – flowing from Visnu’s foot in heaven, falling on Siva’s hair, and carried in Brahma’s water pot (Eck 2012:149). This connection with the triple divinity is distinctly present with the Trivanti at Prayaga. The Ganga has been seen as the white river because it bears the mica-laden waters of her Himalayan course; this description is referred to in the Rig Veda (Eck 2012:145).

Ganga may be depicted as a mermaid on top of Siva’s head. This image is connected to the descent myth, when she fell from heaven to earth (Eck 1986:51). Ganga may also be portrayed on a river or surrounded by water. She is usually depicted sitting on a crocodile (makara), and with an aureole surrounding her head. She is also decorated with jewelry, such as a crown, a necklace, and other ornaments (Darian 2001:72). Like other goddesses and gods she is eerily beautiful and serene. Ganga is known to have a vase (kumbha) with her, which is said to have a connection to the purifying waters (Darian 2001:125). She is also pictured with a water lily, either holding the flower or in some images sitting on a giant flower. The images she is holding are auspicious emblems of her generosity (Eck 2012:132). Ganga’s image sometimes can be golden on a silver throne on her mount, and her holding a water pot and a lotus. The way Ganga is portrayed helps to distinguish her from the other goddesses, and the symbols that connect with water, like the crocodile, strengthens the connection to her myths.

The Ganges River and Ganga are also known as Mother Ganga. She is said to be forgiving, embracing, nourishing, and does not have any anger. Unlike other goddesses she does not have any weapons, but has symbols of auspicious blessings. Those goddesses are seen as gentle with ferocious tendencies, and although Ganga does have this potential, she is acclaimed in unambiguous terms (Eck 2012:161). In some myths she is a mother figure or has a mother role, particularly in the Vedas.

The river and the goddess, do not exist without each other. In the myths the river is the goddess, and the goddess is the river. This connection between Ganga and the river, which is the Ganges River, brings the myth into the real physical world. The myths describe where the river is, which correspond to the actual geographical placement of the river; for example from where it originates to where it ends. The myths of the river and goddess brings the spiritual world into the physical world. This connection of the goddess Ganga and the Ganges River illustrate how interwoven religion and culture are in the Hindu tradition. The myths give the actual river a mystical and powerful meaning. Although the river was originally important for survival, this spiritual connection enhances its importance to Hindus.

Ganga plays a vital role in worship and ceremonies, in rituals of birth and initiation, of purification and religious merit, of marriage and death (Singh 210). For instance, during the initiation or sacred thread ceremony (upanayana), a young man may eat nothing but bread and water from the Ganges. Another example is that Hindus often wish to have a person’s ashes scattered on the sacred river after death (Darian 2001:14). Ganga worshipped as a source of life and generation, and in some rituals water is taken from the Ganges River, put in a pot and used to ensure a good harvest. Another ritual is for newly married women to go to the river and pray for children and the long life for her husband (Darian 2001:37). A ritual at the river is where one takes the water in their hands and pours it back as offerings to the departed ancestors and the gods (Eck 2012:131-132). There is another ritual where the water from the Ganges River is poured on a representation of Siva (linga) at shines and temples. It is to recreate Ganga’s fall from heaven and through Siva’s hair. This ritual is either done constantly, or done by a worshipper who brought the water themselves. This simple ritual is done countless times daily (Eck 2012:140).

There is a ten-day festival called Dasahara, which celebrates the descent of Ganga from heaven to earth or Ganga’s birth. During this festival the river is filled with boats and decorated with long ropes of marigold garlands. There is even chanting Victory to Mother Ganga (Ganga Mata ki Jai) (Eck 2012:132). On the 10th of the waxing fortnight of Jyestha (May- June) is the height of the festival. It is believed by devotees that bathing in the Ganga in the morning of this day grants high merit, and destroys ten sins (dasahara) or ten lifetimes of sins. Those who worship Ganga start bathing in the river and do the associated rituals from the first day of Jyestha and complete the cycle on the 11th day (Singh 218). This day is devoted to worship of Visnu.

The myths about the river, with it having power (Shakti), has great significance to Hinduism and the culture. For the devout people who visit and worship at the river every day, it has deep connection to their way of life, and their religion. The water from the Ganges River is seen as pure, has life-giving properties, sacred, and known as the crossing place from earth to heaven. Many Hindus live near the river or pilgrimage to visit the river. Many devout people go to the river in the morning and gather on the steps (ghats) to bathe, to drink a least a few drops of the water, and take blessings or religious instructions from the priests (ghatias) at the steps. Also, there are various offerings, including ancestral offerings, on the steps (Singh 213). The Ganges River is regarded to be holy all along is course, from its source to the sea (Eck 2012:132). The rituals and these offerings show how deeply embedded the Ganga river is in Hindus’ daily lives and their religion.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Darian, Steven (1976) “Ganga and Sarasvati an Incidence of Mythological Projection.” East and West 26 (1/2). Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO): 153–65. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/29756232.

Darian, Steven (2001) The Ganges in myth and history. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Eck, Diana (1986) “Darshan of the Image.” India International Centre Quarterly 13 (1). : 43–53. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/23001674.

Eck, Diana (2012) India: a sacred geography. New York : Harmony Books.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices. Brighton [England] ; Portland, Or. : Sussex Academic Press.

Narayan, M. K. V. (2009) Exploring the Hindu mind: cultural reflections and symbolisms. New Delhi : Readworthy Publications.

Scharfe, Hartmut (1972) “The Sacred Water of the Ganges and the Styx-water”. Zeitschrift Für Vergleichende Sprachforschung 86 (1). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (GmbH & Co. KG): 116–20. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/40849437.

Singh, Rana P. B. (1994) “Water Symbolism and Sacred Landscape in Hinduism: A Study of Benares (wassersymbolismus Und Heilige Landschaft Im Hinduismus: Eine Studie Aus Benares).” Erdkunde 48 (3). Erdkunde: 210–27. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/stable/25646594.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Ganges Valley

Indra

Ganga Sagar Mela

Godavari River

Narmada River

Vaidyanath

Vishnu

Seven Gangas

Dashahara

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganges_in_Hinduism

http://hinduism.about.com/od/godsgoddesses/a/ganga.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganges

http://www.iloveindia.com/spirituality/goddesses/ganga/

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/ganga/

https://journeyingtothegoddess.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/goddess-ganga/

http://www.ancient.eu/Ganges/

 

Article written by Angel Hope (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

Ganga: the River and the Goddess

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).

Bas-relief depicting the goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount at Kelaniya Temple, Sri Lanka
Bas-relief depicting the goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount at Kelaniya Temple, Sri Lanka

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).

Bibliography

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

List of Related Topics for Furthur Readings

Siva

Visnu

Brahma

Kumbha Mela

Ganga Dasahara

Banaras

Mahabharata

Ramayana

Rg Veda

Ganga Lahari

Krsna

Mohenjo-Daro

Puja

Sakti

Gangotri Glacier

 

List of Noteworthy Website 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganges_in_Hinduism

http://kumbhmelaallahabad.gov.in/english/index.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gangotri_Glacier

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/

http://www.krsnabook.com/

 

Article written by: Arth Patel (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

River Goddesses

Evidence of the importance of femininity in the Hindu religion dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization in 2500 BCE (Rodrigues 31), the source of thousands of terracotta female figurines (Hawley and Wulff 1). Further evidence lies in Vedic scripture that dates back to 1500 to 1000 BCE (Rodrigues 496). Vedic literature is still revealed today and has with numerous references to goddesses and women (Hawley and Wulff 2). Evidently, Hindu goddesses were and still are embedded in all aspects of life and land (Foulston and Abbott 1). This close association between India’s geography and the divine is an ongoing theme throughout the Hindu religion. This is evident when one listens to the traditional stories told and heard throughout India (Eck 11). Pilgrimages, rituals, and festivals related to India’s landscape still continue today and help illustrate how symbolic the geography of India really is.

Hindu goddesses are known to represent seemingly complex notions such as power and energy. These same goddesses can be found manifesting in simple forms such as water and rivers throughout India (Foulston and Abbott 2). The symbol of water signifies potentiality, fluidity, and a vehicle for creation (Baartmans 210). Water, according to the Vedas is all encompassing; it is foundational to the universe (Baartmans 214-215). Rivers, as sacred entities, are said to be known as “the great descenders” (Eck 18-19). In fact, the latter portions of the Rg Veda claims that anyone bathing where the Ganga and Yamuna meet will rise to heaven (Eck 145). Further evidence for this lies in the Padma Purana, as it states that bathing and drinking in the junction between the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati allows one to achieve freedom (Eck 147). The belief that these river goddesses can grant access to heaven or freedom, which are common goals in Hinduism, demonstrate the extent to which Hindus believe in the power of these goddesses.

India’s rivers and their goddesses are intricately entwined. They form trivenis, or “triple-braids,” as they meet in different forms throughout the land (Eck 7). These trivenis are often interpreted symbolically as “sacred crossings” or tirthas and represent “spiritual ladders to heaven” (Eck 10, 140). The rivers are pilgrimage sites for both humans and the goddesses (Eck 167). Humans visit these holy sites to gain freedom and a deeper devotion to their faith. The river goddesses visit other rivers seeking support when exhausted by their own pilgrims (Eck 167).

River goddesses are referenced by the Vedas as “mothers” (Eck 166). The seven “mother-rivers” are the oldest collection of rivers in India (Eck 167). In modern India, the focus of worship lies around the seven rivers known as the saptanadi: the Ganga, Yamuna, Sindu, Narmada, Godavari, Krsna, and the Kaveri (Eck 168). The water belonging to these river goddesses is said to be analogous with milk belonging to the mothers themselves, as well as soma (Eck 138), a sacred plant and intoxicating beverage (Rodrigues 67). It is the mantras, or sacred verses, (Rodrigues 168) of these rivers and goddesses that are recited while performing modern Hindu water rituals.

Ganga, the holiest of all Hindu rivers (Oestigaard 130), is also known as the goddess “Mother Ganga” (Eck 131). According to myth, the water of Ganga divides into many streams as it descends from the heavens (Kinsley 188). Therefore, Ganga and the rest of the Hindu sacred river goddesses are said to have a divine descent from heaven (Eck 138 – 140). Together, the Ganga and Sarasvati Rivers purify, nourish and fertilize the land of India (Kinsley 57). Today, Hindus worship Ganga by bathing along her river and offering flowers, oil lamps, and even ashes of loved ones while performing sraddha rites, or death rites (Eck 163), in her waters (Eck 131-132). Ganga Dusehra is a ten-day celebration of Mother Ganga on the tenth day of the third month, Jayeshta (Dwivedi 27). During this festival, Hindus bathe in Ganga’s waters, take her clay home with them, chant her name, and meditate along her banks (Dwivedi 28). Bathing in Ganga’s waters is also regarded as a purifying practice during other festivals, such as Makara Sankranti, a harvest festival (Dwivedi 32-33).

Bas-relief of the Hindu river goddess Ganga at the Ellora Caves (Ellora, India)
Bas-relief of the Hindu river goddess Ganga at the Ellora Caves (Ellora, India)

Now extinct, the river Sarasvati used to be associated with her cleansing properties (Eck 145). Today, the goddess Sarasvati is largely recognized as being associated with the theme of arts and learning (McDermott 3608), creativity and knowledge (Ludvik 1), oral artistry and culture in general (Kinsley 55). Sarasvati is also either the daughter or wife of Brahma, the source of creation (Kinsley 55). As a river, Sarasvati is commonly known as representing both purity and abundance. According to Vedic literature she is also known as a “healing medicine” (Kinsley 56). Currently, Sarasvati is celebrated on the fifth day of the twelfth month, Phalguna, during the spring festival called Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 30). During the celebration, Hindus will often wear bright colors, especially yellow, to welcome the arrival of the spring season and honor Sarasvati (Dwivedi 30). Hindus tend to partake in ancestor worship, Pitri-Tarpan, and rooftop kite flying on Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 31).

Myth claims that Krsna, a highly worshipped deity, was forced to grow up in and came to love the lands surrounding the Yamuna River (Eck 170). Many believe that Ganga’s love for Krsna stems from the mergence of Ganga and Yamuna at the site of Prayag (Eck 170). This union is also regarded as sacred to the Hindu religion as death in this location was once thought to be fruitful (Dwivedi 138). Also taking place in Prayag is Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering (Gupta 1329). Every twelve years Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain take turns hosting Kumbh Mela celebrations in which millions participate in the purifying practice of bathing at the union of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers (Gupta 1329). It is regarded as highly sacred to do so when the planets align correctly and a full moon is present (Gupta 1329). Yamuna is recognized as the “daughter of the sun” and the “waters of love” (Eck 169-170). Many Hindus sing hymns and visit Divya Shila, the Divine Stone, and the Ma Yamuna temple at Yamunotri to worship the image of Yamuna (Eck 169-170).

Narmada runs through central India and is known to have the most sacred sites along its riverside (Eck 467). Although there are many myths on the subject of Narmada’s creation, it is widely accepted that both the river and goddess were formed by the very sweat of divine Siva’s face (Eck 172). Another common belief is that Narmada’s main role on earth is to relieve mortals of their sins (Eck 173). Parikrama or Pradakshina, meaning circumambulation, is the highly recommended pilgrimage of the Narmada (Eck 170). It is common for Hindus to divide this nearly nine hundred mile hike into sections. By doing so, what would be a three year journey, is instead, completed over one’s lifetime (Eck 171). Shri Narmada, within the Narmada Mandir temple, is a sacred shrine dedicated to Narmada. Offerings such as white candy Prasad, incense, and split coconuts are brought here to worship Narmada (Eck 173-174).

According to legend, the river and goddess, Godavari, descended to earth on a hill called Brahmagiri as a form of Ganga. Godavari is also known by the name, Gautami, due to a myth involving the sage, Gautama (Eck 175). In this myth, Gautama killed a cow, committing the worst sin possible according to the Hindu religion. Godavari is now commonly referred to as Gautami because of her heavenly descent that relieved Gautama’s sin (Eck 176). Pilgrims today commonly visit a well on top of Brahmagiri, a shrine dedicated to Siva, the ritual bathing site, the Chakra Tirtha, and the Gangadvara, a symbolic representation of the “Door of Ganga”, through which they worship Godavari (Eck 176). Another common pilgrimage to worship the deity Godavari, is to Nasik, famous for the settlement of Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana in the Ramayana (Eck 177), a prominent Hindu epic (Eck 470). This site hosts millions of Hindu pilgrims for mela, or bathing festivals (Eck 467) During mela, the waters are infused with numerous floating lights (Eck 178).

The river Kaveri is said to be the goddess, Vishnumaya, a deity worshipped by lower castes (Hoeppe 126), in liquid form. According to the Puranas, Kaveri was sent by Visnu to water the land as she descends from the heavens and becomes a symbol for blessing (Eck 179). The Kaveri River is the site of many famous Hindu pilgrimage temples such as, Shrirangapattanam, Shivasamudram, and the most well known temple of Visnu on the island of Shrirangam (Eck 180).

Pushkaram is a popular Hindu festival in which the twelve main rivers and their goddesses are celebrated at different astrologically determined times once every twelve years (Dalal no page). The seven “mother-rivers” (Eck 167), previously mentioned, are included in these twelve as well as the Bhima, Tapati, Tungabhadra, Indus, and Pranahita Rivers (Dalal no page). Other minor rivers may be worshipped such as the Tamraparni and the Sangutirtham, but these are less popular (Dalal no page). Ancestor worship, bathing, and making offerings is said to grant spiritual benefits because it is believed that the divine bathe in these rivers during this festival (Dalal no page).

Performance of sraddha or visarjana, the “committal of ashes to the river” is commonly done on the rivers of India (Eck 163). Prayaga, Kashi, and Gaya, the tristhali or “three places”, are popular sites for these death rituals (Eck 163). Many myths surround these acts, but one of the most widespread beliefs is that the rivers can grant liberation or moksa (Eck 147). In the past, one of the death rituals was to commit suicide at Prayaga in hopes to obtain moksa (Eck 165). A common tradition is to honor the loved one’s ashes, release and sink them in the river, and offer rice balls, pindas, to connect the deceased with their deceased ancestors in heaven (Eck 164). It is said that for ten days following a death, one rice-ball a day is to be sacrificed on an altar bordering a river (Oestigaard 158).

The importance of water is displayed in verses dedicated to various deities and also in its life-giving contribution to creation of the universe (Oestigaard 239). With ritual purity and pollution playing such a large role in Hinduism, water and rivers, as life-giving elements, are especially prone to pollution. Pilgrimages, daily bathing, relieving of sins, and countless offerings to the rivers and their goddesses are all efforts to achieve and maintain purity. The consequences of these acts can have negative, polluting effects on the rivers and goddesses themselves (Eck 183-184). In Hinduism, death is regarded as the greatest source of impurity (Oestigaard 241). With that said, India’s rivers and river goddesses face a dilemma both physically and spiritually, as clothes and charcoal from death rituals (Oestigaard 199) are constantly polluting the sacred rivers, with the Yamuna River being the most polluted of them all (Eck 184). Although impure objects should not be cast into the water, it is still a daily occurrence (Narayanan 184). Despite the ongoing restoration efforts, “the rivers that are said to have descended to earth as sources of salvation are now, in their earthly form, in need of salvation themselves” (Eck 188).

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Hawley, John Stratton (1998) “The Goddess in India.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. pp. 1-28.

Baartmans, Frans (2000) The Holy Waters: A Primordial Symbol in Hindu Myths. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Dalal, Roshen (2010) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. New Delhi: The Penguin Group.

Dwivedi, Anil Kumar (2007) Encyclopaedia of Indian Customs and Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Eck, Diana L. (2012) India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Random House, Inc.

Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.

Gupta, Om (2006) Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (In 9 Volumes). Delhi: Isha Books.

Hoeppe, Gotz (2007) Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India. New York: Berghahn Books.

Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Ludvik, Catherine (2007) Sarasvati, Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-wielding Defender of the Dharma. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.

McDermott, Rachel Fell (2005) “Goddess Worship: The Hindu Goddess.” In Lindsay Jones, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. p. 3607-3611. Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning.

Narayanan, Vasudha (2001) “Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions.” Daedalus, Vol. 130, No. 4: 179-206

Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life-Giving Waters: Cremation, caste, and cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Water rituals

Hindu goddesses

India’s geography

Pilgrimages in India

Water in India

Rivers in India

Trivenis

Mother rivers

Seven sindhus

Saptanadi

Ganga

Yamuna

Sindhu

Narmada

Godavari

Krsna

Kaveri

Mantra

Sraddha rites

Ganga Dusehra

Makara Sankranti

Vasant Panchoumi

Prayaga

Pradakshina

Ritual pollution

Ritual purity

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yamuna_in_Hinduism

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/ganga/

http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/Seven-Sacred-Rivers-1.aspx

http://hinduism.iskcon.org/practice/504.htm

http://history-of-hinduism.blogspot.ca/2010/06/water-and-hinduism.html

http://www.stephen-knapp.com/sarasvati_goddess_of_learning.htm

http://www.mapsofindia.com/events/india/ganga-dussehra.html

Article written by: Jaelee Kryzanowski (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

Ganga: Goddess and Sacred River

The goddess of the river Ganges is known as Ganga, and she and the river are worshipped as one. The river plays an integral role in the lives of the millions of Hindus in India. Ganga’s myths, forms of worship, usage in daily rituals, and faith in her power all have an extremely important place in Hinduism today.

Many myths describe Ganga as having heavenly origins, and illustrate her descent (avatarana) to earth in various ways, all involving association with the important male gods Brahma, Visnu, and Siva. In one account, Ganga descends to earth using Siva to break her fall. As she falls through his hair, she becomes divided into many streams, each flowing to a different part of the earth. She does this in order to wash over the ashes of the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara, in order to purify and free their souls. His sons had deeply offended the great sage Kapila, who, in anger, burned them to ash. Eventually, Bhagiratha, a descendent of Sagara, takes upon himself to free the souls of his ancestors by doing many austerities. After centuries of doing this, Ganga appears and grants his wish and goes to earth. Another variety of the myth describes that the god Brahma, who, holding Ganga in his water pot, pours her onto Visnu’s foot when it stretches into the heavens (Kinsley 188-189). The three parts of the Ganges have their own names. The section remaining in heaven is known as Mandakini. The earthly portion is known as Ganga, and the part that goes to the final region is called Bhagirathi (Singh 48). All accounts of the myth stress the importance of Ganga’s heavenly, divine nature, and of being made sacred by coming into contact with Visnu and Siva. Due to Ganga’s descent from heaven to earth, she becomes a continuous link between the earthly and heavenly realms (Kinsley 192). It is because of this link that the Ganges is so revered as a way to be in closer contact with the divine.

Ganga is related in the myths to various deities, but it is the relationship between Ganga and Siva that is the most emphasized. Both are dependent on each other. It is only Ganga who can cool the lingam of Siva; otherwise he would always be as a burning linga of fire, and it only with Siva’s help that Ganga does not flood the earth. Both are vehicles for each other. This relationship is demonstrated through the daily ritual of pouring water over the Siva linga (Eck 148).

Bas-relief depicting the goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount at Kelaniya Temple, Sri Lanka
Bas-relief depicting the goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount at Kelaniya Temple, Sri Lanka

When depicted in different art forms, Ganga is shown as a fair complexioned woman, wearing a white crown and sitting on a crocodile. Many deities are depicted holding special objects, and Ganga is no exception. When shown with two hands, she holds a water lily and a lute. If having four hands, she carries a water lily, a water pot, a rosary, and one hand is held in a protective position (Singh 47). Poet seers of the Vedas started the tradition of praising Ganga for her blessings and power centuries ago. Many praises (mahatmyas) of Ganga can be read in various Sanskrit epics and Puranas, and there are also numerous hymns devoted to the goddess, one of which is known as Jagannatha’s “Ganga Lahari.” These praises and hymns emphasize her greatness, glory, and life giving waters. Different levels of protection and help is also said to be achieved through certain actions involving Ganga. For example, chanting Ganga’s name alone is believed to reduce poverty or get rid of bad dreams. Bathing in Ganga’s waters or being cremated on her banks can even result in liberation (moksa) (Eck 138-144).

Since the river is such a major physical feature and is so important in Hindu mythology, it is only natural that it has major significance in people’s daily lives and rituals. One such role is that played in death rituals. Many Hindus want their ashes or bones put into the Ganges, because they believe that in doing so, they are guaranteed a safe journey to the ancestral realm. It is believed that one can receive liberation immediately through contact with the Ganges. This can occur either by dying in the Ganges, or simply having its water put on the lips right before death. The link that Ganga provides to the heavens from earth is once again observed in the belief that when one’s ashes touch the waters, they are rejuvenated and strengthened enough to make the journey to heaven (Kinsley 193 -194). If one is particularly devout, he or she will try to spend their last days on the banks of the river. They do this according to the belief that one who dies there will be delivered from all sins. These actions strongly support the belief that the Ganges has the power to provide deep spiritual cleansing (Singh 83). Varanasi, which is India’s holiest city, sees the journey of millions of Hindus each year, who come to cremate their dead and wash in the waters (Hammer 80). At the cremation ceremony, the funeral pyre is usually lit by the eldest son. As it burns, a priest will chant Vedic verses. The following day, the ashes are gathered up and taken to Haridwar, a holy city and the place of the headwaters of the Ganga. The ashes are then placed into the holy water (Singh 84). Haridwar is also known as Gangadvara, or “Door of the Ganges”, and is a place of pilgrimage (Eck 137). People want to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges so that they are in her care.

This characteristic of being caring points to another major faith in Ganga, which is her portrayal of being motherly and loving. She is commonly known as Mother Ganges. As Mother, she has the powers of compassion and comfort, and is a provider of blessings to her children (Kinsley 193). Her motherly care can lead to a place that is free from sorrow, fear, old age and death. The goddess is also said to be aware of everyone’s deepest fears and desires. Ganga takes these feelings upon herself, leaving the individual purified and strengthened. Everyday, millions bathe in and drink from the river, and pray on its banks. Using the water for washing, bathing, and cooking is a way to make sure one can receive Ganga’s blessings and grace (King 155-161). Ganga’s waters are understood to be the life giving, immortal liquid (amrta) of mother’s milk (Eck137). The waters are life giving, both physically and spiritually. Physically, the river gives life to the land, making it fertile. The Ganges can create and support life, and is often appealed to in order to ensure healthy crops. Spiritually, the water can purify and cleanse one of pollution. Flowing water has cleansing capabilities, and the power to get rid of one’s daily impurities. This can be done by simply pouring water over one’s head, or taking a ritual bath. These methods are often approved as a way to remove pollution (Kinsley 189-194). In these ways, Ganga fulfills the role of universal mother, protector, and purifier.

Pilgrim journeys are a major way of life for many Hindus. Different festivals, the customs and castes of an individual’s community, and one’s life crisis’s and rituals all dictate how and when a pilgrimage may take place. Millions of pilgrims travel to the Ganges each year. For many, the natural beauty of the river and the Himalayas is very calming, and can be a way to express emotion towards the gods. Pilgrims come to the Ganges seeking healing, and to be rid of any pain or suffering. Hindus from all over the world travel to Haridwar to pour the ashes of loved ones into the river and to make offerings (Kinsley 160-163). Many come to not only appeal to Ganga, but also to touch, see, and bathe in the river itself. The physical river is worshipped as one may worship the image of a deity. Garlands of flowers are often placed around the neck of the image; in this case, garlands are strung out across the river (Kinsley 196). Flower offerings are common, as each day, thousands of pilgrims will drop bags filled with flowers into the river, as offerings to Ganga (Hammer 79). The mahatmyas (praises) say that every part of the Ganga is a tirtha, which is a spiritual ford and a place of pilgrimage (Eck 142).

A certain special event in the endless worship of Ganga is the day known as Ganga Dasahara. It is recognized as the birthday of the Ganga. The banks of the river are filled with bathers, and it is said that by going into the water at this time, ten lifetimes of sins are destroyed. This day celebrates Ganga’s descent (avatarana) from heaven to earth, and is done in expectation of the eventual monsoon rains (Eck 144). Another extremely important Hindu festival is Kumbha Mela. This festival is often considered the most extravagant and impressive, for at any given time there can be more than twenty million people present. It celebrates the glory of Ganga, and all her richness and power. It reenacts a cosmic event when, at a certain astrological union, the Ganga waters became nectar. The main purpose is to have a ritual bath in the river, and millions of pilgrims make the journey to participate in this festival and wash away their sins. There are many processions with elephants, dancing, music, and the general feeling of happiness and joy. These feelings are often increased by the closeness and presence of the Ganges (King 171-172). Gifts to the Ganges are very common, and pilgrims will give many different kinds. Milk, fruit, saris, jewelry, and coins, and many others are all presented as gifts to Ganga. Various offerings are also done, especially in cases of appealing for future prosperity and health. Newly married couples will bathe in the river after marriage and after the birth of their child. Women will wash in the river for fertility and to give birth to a son, and some will contribute a basket filled with clothing or cosmetics (suhagpitari) to Ganga. The gift is believed to ensure the long life and prosperity of their husbands and family (King 177).

The Ganges River can be viewed as an embodiment of life, purity, and power. From its use in daily tasks to more spiritual applications, the Ganges maintains its place as a dominant entity in Hinduism. In recent years, pilgrimage to the Ganga has become more popular. The Ganga is a very powerful force, and she is the link between nature, humans, and divinity (King 187). Respect and adoration for physical nature is reflected in the spiritual importance given to the sacred river and the general landscape. The Ganga is proclaimed to be the most supreme river of all, and all agree that her power is unending and divine (Eck 137-138).

Bibliography

Eck, Diana L. (1996) “Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography.” In J.S. Hawley and D.M. Wulff (eds.) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hammer, Joshua (2007) The Ganges: Sacred and Profaned. Smithsonian November 2007

King, Anna S. (2005) “Waters of Devotion”. In A.S. King and J. Brockington (eds.) The Intimate Other: Love Divine in Indic Religions. New Delhi: Orient Longman

Kinsley, David (1998) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications.

Singh, Dharam Vir (2003) Hinduism: An Introduction. New Delhi: Rupa & Co.

List of Related Research Topics

Brahma

Visnu

Siva

Mahatmyas

Ganga Lahari

Puja

Ganga Dasahara

Kumbha Mela

Pilgrimage in India

Moksa

Related Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganga_in_Hinduism

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/ganga/

http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_epics_and_stories/the_life_of_ganga.htm

http://www.dollsofindia.com/ganga.htm

http://www.webonautics.com/mythology/ganga2.html

http://www.hinduwisdom.info/articles_hinduism/197.htm

Written by Genevieve Golas (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its conten

The Ganga River

Sacred Geography

The Ganga River, often referred to as the anglicized Ganges in the west, is a major watershed of the Indian Continent, with its origin in the Himalayan Mountains at Mount Kailasa, to its drainage at the Indian Ocean (Darian 1). The Ganga is formed near the town of Deoprayag where the Alakananda River joins with the Bhagirathi River, which has its source at Gangotri Glacier (Darian 7-9). The ice cave Gaumukh in the Uttaranchal state of India, close to the Gangotri Glacier, is a well known bathing source in the waterway (Backshall 1). There are many important tributaries as well as geographical sites such as Vasudhara Falls and Lake Manasarovar that are attributed to the Ganga River. Lake Manasarovar is the highest freshwater lake in the world and is a site of religious pilgrimage. It is believed that Lake Manasarovar is the summer refuge for swans, a wise and sacred animal. In the foothills of the Himalayan mountains is Hardwar, known as Gangadvara, “Door of the Ganges” which marks the rivers geographic entrance into the North Indian Plains (Eck 1996:137). Another notable landmark is Prayag where the formerly parallel flowing Yamuna that originates near the Bhagirathi and the underground mystical Sarasvati River also join the Ganga (Eck 1996:137). The Sarasvati is a mystical river mentioned in the Rg Veda which is tied to the Ganga (Darian 58). The location of the Sarasvati is unknown, and post-Vedic Hindu literature does not detail its disappearance. Descriptions of the Sarasvati from the Rg Veda have been applied to the Ganga (Darian 58-68). Near the mouth of the Ganga is the island of Sagar, considered sacred, and which is believed to be the entrance to the netherworlds (Eck 1996:145). The Ganga is referred to by different names including “Child of the Mountains” and the “River of Heaven” (Eck 1982:74,211).

Massive bas-relief depicting how the sage Bagiratha (upper left) performed austerities to lift a curse and cause the Ganga to flow; Mahabalipuram, India
Massive bas-relief depicting how the sage Bagiratha (upper left) performed austerities to lift a curse and cause the Ganga to flow; Mahabalipuram, India

As a Goddess:

In Hindu tradition, the Ganga is regarded as a goddess and is thus known as Ganga Mata, or “Mother Ganges” (Eck 1996:136). The Ganga embodies the sacred geography of India as she is the essential hub of India’s development, civilization and religious culture. The Ganga’s descent to earth is known as her avatarana, and her revered descent marks the return of life-giving water for cultivation of many of India’s primary resources (Eck 1996:137). Furthermore, the Ganga is worshipped as the embodiment of female energy known as sakti, and is also sacred for her mothering capacities (Eck 1982:72). Although Hindu goddesses often have an ambivalent nature, being both nurturing and destructive, the Ganga is worshipped primarily for the nourishment she provides while her potentially destructive nature is mostly overlooked. The entire length of the Ganga is considered sacred and is scattered with many auspicious crossings known as tirthas, which are the objectives of many pilgrimages (Eck 1996:137). In iconographic representation, the goddess Ganga is mostly depicted as a women atop her mount (vahana), a makara or crocodile. She holds a kumbha, the vase of plenty (Darian 114). The makara is an ambivalent creature. It may be regarded as an animal form of the God Soma, and is an emblem for the waters, plants and vegetal layer of life (Darian 114-115). However, the makara is also a symbol of the unknown ocean and an object of fear (Darian 114-115).

The Goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount on a bas-relief carved on a column at Mahabalipuram, India
The Goddess Ganga atop her crocodile (makara) mount on a bas-relief carved on a column at Mahabalipuram, India

Myths on the Goddess:

There are many myths about the Ganga, who is considered consort to both Siva and Visnu (Eck 1996:137). In the mythology of the Devi Bhagavata and Brahmavaivarta Puranas, Ganga quarrels with Sarasvati, the other consort of Visnu, and both curse one another to become rivers. For this behavior, Visnu allows Ganga to become wife of Siva, who breaks her mighty torrent through his hair (Eck 1996:146). Siva, also known as Gangadhara, “Bearer of the Ganges,” is the companion of Ganga and they are often depicted in sculptures together as bride and groom (Eck 1996:147). This intimate union between Siva and Ganga often angers the other consort of Siva, Parvati, which causes great jealousy (Eck 1982:219). The Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other Hindu literature describe the myth of Ganga falling from heaven to revive the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. Flowing from Siva’s hair and being caught by Bhagiratha led her to become the purifying water for Sagara’s sons (Eck 1996:145).

Festivals:

The festival of Ganga Dashara is celebrated on the tenth day of the month of Jyestha, when monsoon rains signal the descent of the Ganga from heaven to earth (Eck 1996:143). The Ganga Dashara is regarded as the birthday of the Ganga and bathing in the water is believed to destroy sins of ten lifetimes (Eck 1996:143-144). In one Vedic myth, Indra combats the serpent Vrtra that has trapped the celestial waters and by defeating Vrtra releases the sacred Ganga waters (Eck 1996:143).

The Sanctity of Water:

Water has been an important symbol of spirituality in India since the beginnings of the Indus Valley Civilization (2500 to 1500 BCE) (Darian 15). Ganga water is used in many ceremonies including daily rituals, death rituals, weddings and births. The sacred thread ceremony (upanayana) in Bengal requires the participant to consume only bread and Ganga water (Darian 14). The Ganga is considered to be flowing in three worlds; heaven, earth, and the netherworlds, often referred to us triloka-patha-gamini (Eck 1996:145). This has become important in death rites, as the Ganga is a place of crossing from the world of living to the dead. Cremated remains arrive daily in the city of Banaras where they are immersed in the Ganga, as those sanctified by Ganga water will reside in heaven (Parry 24). Furthermore, ritual cleansing has been historically important to Hindus, as shown by the archeological remains of ceremonial cleansing tanks at Mohenjo Daro and other sites (Eck 1982:217). The Ganga waters are considered to be purifying and an absorber of pollution. They naturally serve as an abundant and accessible source of sanctifying flowing waters for a wide variety of Hindu ritual activities. The name Ganga is derived from the verb gam meaning “to go” which emphasizes the energetic, flowing nature of the water (Eck 1996:144). As the water absorbs the pollution, it is believed to also carry it away, thus erasing sins of lifetimes in “an instant!” (Eck 1996:144). Many pieces of Hindu literature such as the Rg Veda and epics, praise the Ganga. Merely chanting the name of the Ganga is believed to relieve poverty, bad dreams and even protect from the inauspiciousness of being bespattered by crow feces (Eck 1996:138). Pilgrims often make offerings of flowers to the Ganga while calling out “Victory to Mother Ganges!” Hindus frequent pilgrimage sites (tirthas) all along the course of the Ganga. They bathe in its waters, and even use the water to make offerings (Eck 1996:138). Ganga water is also collected and taken to homes and temples for other rituals (Eck 1996:138).

The Ganga is more than a single river. In Hindu belief, it is a representation of all of India’s sacred waters, and thus aptly demonstrates the cultural significance of water (Eck 1996:139). Since the Ganga’s waters are not accessible to all Hindus, especially those in the diaspora (i.e. outside India), other waters are substituted and transformed into the sacred fluid, merely by adding drops of Ganga water to them, or by uttering mantras of praise to the Ganga (Eck 196:138). This capacity for transformation is not restricted to the Ganga. There are said to be seven rivers that may be used as a sacred water source and hold the same sanctity, including the Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindu and Kaveri (Eck 1996:138). However, the Ganga is regarded by pious Hindus as the foundation of all rivers and, therefore, visiting any river in India, or the world, with reverence, is considered to be akin to visiting the Ganga itself ( Eck 1996:138).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Backshall, Stephen (2004) Birth of a River. National Geographic Traveler. Vol 21 (8).

Darian, Steven G. (1978) The Ganges in Myth and History. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Eck, Diana L. (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd.

Eck, Diana L. (1982) Banaras City of Light. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fuller, C.J. (2004) The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Deoprayag

Alakananda river

Bhagirathi river

Gangotri Glacier

Hardwar

Prayag

Sarasvati river

Sakti

Tirthas

Mohenjo-Daro

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/ganga

http://www.dollsofindia.com/ganga.htm

http://www.mydivineplanet.com/theholyganga/ganga.htm

Article written by Allie Becker (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.