Ma Ganga — the River Goddess

Ganga is a river goddess. She is revered in the Hindu culture as the ultimate purifying presence. She is believed to purify everything she touches to the extent that her touch can absolve any person from all his past sins. Even after death, if the ashes of one’s cremated body receives the touch of Ganga, the departed soul is believed to surely reach the heavens. Her water is essential for the successful completion of all Hindu rituals.

Geographically, the River Ganga has its source in the Indian Himalayas in the Gangotri glacier; it flows south-east through northern India and meets the sea in the eastern state of West Bengal. It is the largest river in India, which along with its numerous tributaries and distributaries drains the great Gangetic plains of northern India and makes up the largest mangrove forest in the world – the Sundarbans – at its delta on the Bay of Bengal. For thousands of years great kingdoms have risen and fallen along its banks. Ganga’s importance in the history and development of the Indian civilisation is unquestionable.

River Ganga as pictured in the modern-day town of Hrishikesh

River Ganga as pictured in the modern-day town of Hrishikesh

In religion and mythology, Ganga is the daughter of the King of the Mountains Himalaya or Himavat and the elder sister of the goddess Parvati. She was born and brought up on earth, but due to her incomparable purity and grace, she was summoned to the heavens to take her place among the gods and goddesses. She is also considered the flow of the ‘cosmic ocean.’ The cosmic ocean from which the universe arose is said to enter the universe through a particular point in the form of Ganga and thus purifies it.

As the goddess dwelled in heaven, the inhabitants of the earthly plane remained out of touch with her beauty and purifying presence, until King Bhagiratha decided to bring her back to the earth in order to release his forefathers’ souls from a curse that only Ganga’s touch could wash away. So he left his royal luxuries and started a long, strenuous life of prayers, asceticism and penance to please the gods. At his hardships, tapasya and his commitment to his cause, the gods were finally pleased and granted him his wish that Ganga will return to earth to not only free the souls of his forefathers but will stay back to purify the earth and its inhabitants forever.

Ganga agreed to flow back to earth. But the problem was that the earth was not strong enough to be able to bear the impact of Ganga’s descent. The mighty river goddess was too big and powerful to be contained and there was a real risk of a catastrophe that would drown the earth and destroy life on it. No god or goddess thought themselves to be up to the task of tackling the huge force of Ganga’s descent. The one and only who had the ability to do this was Lord Shiva, the first yogi, the Lord of Time, the destroyer god in the Hindu Trinity, the most powerful among the gods. He agreed to receive and contain the flow of Ganga in his long flowing locks and buffer her impact when she descends to earth. Standing on the Himalayas he received the mighty goddess and eased her descent. Then he released her to flow through the mountains to the plains below to forever rid the earth of its impurities and sin. She flowed to bring life and light to the earthly beings.

Artist: Om Prakash Saini

Artist: Om Prakash Saini

The reverence and love for Ma (Mother) Ganga, as she is called, is still very relevant in India today. She is still worshipped in numerous cities and towns on her banks every day, her water is still considered auspicious, and millions of people still travel to her to take a dip to absolve themselves from their sins. People very often choose to be cremated beside the Ganga and failing that at least to have their ashes sprinkled in her waters. In life and death Devi (goddess) Ganga touches a Hindu’s life in a thousand ways and lives entwined in our daily and eternal lives.


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