Ganga, Ganges, the holy river of India, the most pious river of India

Geographical sacrality in the Hindu tradition is also dramatically
expressed in the reverence shown to almost every river of the Indian
subcontinent. This reverence extends all the way back to the Rg-veda, where the idea is expressed that earthly rivers have their origin in heaven. In the Rg-veda the Sarasvati River is praised as a mighty
goddess who blesses her devotees with health, long life, and poetic- inspiration.’ The earthly Sarasvati River is said to be only a partial manifestation of the goddess Sarasvati, for she is said to exist in heaven as well
as on earth. The earthly river is an extension or continuation of divine
waters that flow from heaven to earth. In Rg-vedic cosmology the crea-
tion of the world or the process of making the world habitable is
associated with the freeing of the heavenly waters by Indra. Indra’s
enemy Vrtra is said to have withheld these waters, thus inhibiting crea-
tion. When Indra defeats Vrtra the waters rush onto the earth like
mother cows eager to suckle their young (10.9). The rivers of the earth
are therefore seen as being necessary to creation and as having a heav-
enly origin. They are brought to earth by the heroic act of a god who
defeats a demon who has hoarded the waters and kept them from fer-
tilizing and nourishing the earth in the form of rivers-38

Reverence for rivers in the Hindu tradition is nowhere more intense
than in the case of the Ganges. Like the SarasvatT River in the Vedic tra-
dition, the Ganges is said to have its origin in heaven. Many myths con-
cerning the descent of the Ganges to earth emphasize this point. The
oldest and probably best known concerns the restoration of the sixty
thousand sons of King Sagara. According to this myth, Sagara’s sons
were dull-witted and impetuous, and while searching the world for their
father’s sacrificial horse they insulted and disturbed the tranquillity of
the great sage Kapila. In anger, Kapiia burned them all to ashes with the
fire that he had generated as the result of his great austerities. Sagara’s
descendants, despite their piety and ascetic efforts, were unable to restore
their incinerated forefathers until the saintly and mighty Bhaglratha, the
great-great-great-grandson of Sagara, undertook the task.

Giving his
kingdom ov,er to a trusted minister, BhagTratha went to the Himalayas
to do heroic austerities. After he had physically mortified himself for
centuries, the Ganges appeared in bodily form and granted his wish: she
would descend to the earth, provided that someone could be found to
break her mighty fall, which otherwise would destroy the earth itself.
Siva was persuaded to receive the Ganges on his head, and so the great
heavenly river descended to earth, her mighty fall softened by Siva’s
massive tangle of hair. In his hair she became divided into many
streams, each of which flowed to a different region of earth and sanc-
tified that area. Her principal artery emerged from Siva’s hair and came
to India, and under Bhagiratha’s guidance it cut a channel to where the
ashes of Sagara’s sons were piled. Moistened by her waters, the souls of
the sixty thousand sons were purified and freed to undertake their jour-
ney fo the land of their fathers, where they could be duly honored by
their descendants.’

Other accounts of the Ganges’ descent feature Visnu and some-
times Krsna. After assuming his dwarf avatara to trick the demon Bali,
Visnu strides across the cosmos to appropriate it ior the gods. On his
third stride his foot strikes the vault of heaven and breaks it. The Ganges
River pours through the hole and eventually finds its way to earth. Falling on Mount Meru, the cosmic axis, the Ganges divides into four parts, and as it flows onto the four world continents it purifies the world in
every direction.1″1 In some versions of the myth the god Brahma, who is
said to hold the heavenly Ganges in his water pot, pours the Ganges on
Visnu’s foot when it stretches into the heavenly sphere.1″ in still other
versions of the myth Visnu becomes liquified when he hears a particu-
larly sublime song sung in his praise, and in this form he enters Brahma’s
water pot, which contains the Ganges, and thus sacralizes her.”

In one way or another, these myths about the Ganges’ coming to
earth stress the river’s heavenly origin, her essentially divine nature, and
her association with the great male deities Brahma, Visnu, and Siva.
Spilling out of heaven from Visnu’s foot, containing Visnu’s liquified
essence according to some myths, and tailing onto Siva’s head, where
she meanders through his tangled locks, the mighty Ganges appears in
this world after having been made more sacred by direct contact with
Visnu and Siva. The river then spreads the divine potency of these gods
into the world when she flows onto the earthly plane. She gives their
sacred presences to the earth in liquid form.” The myths make clear that
the earthly Ganges is only a limited part of the cosmic river that flows in
heaven and descends to other regions and worlds as well as this une. As
mighty as the Ganges appears here, the earthly river is only a limited
aspect of a reality that transcends this world. The Ganges, these myths
insists, points beyond itself to a transcendent, cosmic dimension that
locates the source of the river in a divine sphere.

Another important theme in the reverence for rivers in Hinduism is
the purifying quality of rivers and of running water in general. The
purity-conscious Hindu social system, in which pollution is inevitably
accumulated in the course of a normal day, prescribes a ritual bath as
the simplest way to rid oneself of impurities. This act consists of little
more than pouring a handful of cold water over one’s head and letting it
run down one’s body. Moving, flowing, or falling water is believed to
have great cleansing power; d mere sprinkling of water over one’s head
or a dip in a stream is sufficient to remove most kinds of daily pollution
accumulated through normal human intercourse with those in a state
less pure that one’s own.44 Like fire, the other great natural purifying element in Hinduism,45 water is affirmed to contain intrinsic powers of
purification, particularly when in motion.

The most awesome manifestations of moving water in the Hindu
context are the great rivers of the Indian subcontinent. Ever moving,
ever the same, apparently inexhaustible, such rivers as the Jumna, Cau-
very, Narmada, Brahmaputra, and Ganges are revered in particular for
their great purifying powers. The myths concerning the heavenly origin
of such rivers as the Ganges make the point that the mighty rivers of India are in essence animated by the impurities of the world, that
they arise and for the most part fiow in celestial realms before falling to
earth. Once descended to earth, however, these same rivers literally
wash away the accumulated impurities of the realms they traverse. As
a handful of water sprinkled over a person’s head cleanses that person,
so the river cleanses the entire world when she falls on Mount Meru. The
Ganges, Jumna, Cauvery, and countless other rivers and streams are
understood to perform a continuous, gracious process of purifying the
earth and her inhabitants.

The physical evidence of this continuous process of purification is
the clarity of a river’s swiftly flowing source compared to its broad,
sluggish, murky mouth before it enters the sea. A river may take on an
increasingly impure appearance the farther it travels from its source.
Rivers like the Ganges are nevertheless held to be equally purifying from
source to mouth. While the source of the Ganges and the place where it
breaks out of the mountains onto the plains are important pilgrimage
sites, the lower Ganges also has many places of great sanctity. Banaras
itself, perhaps the most sacred site in all of India, is far downstream on
the Ganges. Though great removers of pollution, the rivers remain un-
contaminated by what they remove, staying ever pure, ever potent, ever
gracious to all those who come to them for purification.

Although all rivers are revered as removers of pollution, the Ganges
is preeminent among India’s rivers as a purifying power. Hymns extoll-
ing the Ganges repeatedly emphasize the miraculously purifying powers
of her waters. The Agni-purdna says that the river makes those regions
she flows through into sacred ground, that bathing in her waters is an
experience similar to being in heaven, that those afflicted with blindness
and other ailments become like gods after bathing in her waters, that the
Ganges has made pure thousands of impure people who have seen,
touched, or drunk her waters.4” To die while being immersed in the
Ganges results in moksa, final spiritual liberation. Being bruslied by
a breeze containing even a drop of Ganges water erases all sins accumu-
lated over lifetimes.47 In the Brhaddharma-puruna a sinful king is said to
have been spared an untimely death because he lived for a while with a
merchant who used to bathe in the Ganges.”” The Mahdbhagavata-
purana tells the story of a robber who, though sent to hell after death,
was subsequently sent to Siva’s heaven because his flesh was eaten by
a jackal who had drunk Ganges water.

In the Gupta and early medieval periods it was common for the per-
sonified images of the Ganges and Jumna to flank the doorways of tem-
ples.”’ The Ganges’ role as threshold figure in these periods probably had
to do with both her (and the Jumna’s) purificatory powers. The Ganges’
heavenly origin and descent to the earth made her an intermediary be-
tween the earthly and heavenly realms. She is a continuous, liquid link
between the two worlds. Her location at the thresholds of temples was
appropriate in that she connected and formed a transition between the
worlds of men and gods. Her position at the doorways of temples prob-
ably also indicated her role as remover of pollution. Before entering the
sacred realm of the gods, which a temple represents, devotees should
cleanse themselves of worldly impurities. Crossing the threshold of a
temple flanked by images of the goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, devotees
probably were symbolically cleansed in the purificatory waters of these

The Ganges’ location as a threshold figure in medieval temples also
suggests the threshold function of the physical Ganges River (and other
rivers). The most common name for a sacred place in Hinduism is tir-
tha, which means a place for crossing over from one place to another,
especially a place for crossing a river, a fording place. As applied to
sacred places the term signifies a place at which one may cross from one
plane of reality to another, in particular, a place where one can cross
from the earthly plane to the divine plane, or from the limited human
sphere to the unconditioned divine sphere. As a sacred place, as a tsrtha,
the Ganges is prototypical. Her waters are affirmed to orginate in
heaven and to flow in a continuous stream into the earthly sphere. The
Ganges is often called she who flows in the three worlds (Triloka-patha-
gamini).50 She is a liquid axis mundi, a pathway connecting all spheres
of reality, a presence at which or in which one may cross over to another
sphere of the cosmos, ascend to heavenly worlds, or transcend human
limitations. As Diana Eck has so nicely put it: “It is because the Gahga
descended in her avatarana that she is a place of ascent as a tirtha.”51
Flowing out into the world, the Ganges moves according to rhythms and
currents that originate in heaven. Her waters have had physical contact
with the great gods Visnu and Siva. She is a sacred bridge to those
realms from which she has come.

The Ganges’ role as a mediator between this world and the divine
worlds, as a place at which or in which crossings may be made, is clear
in the context of death rituals.” A strong and widespread Hindu belief is
that to die in the Ganges, or to have a few drops of Ganges water poured
on one’s lips just prior to death, is to gain immediate liberation.53
Although any part of the Ganges is believed to have this redemptive
power, the cult of seeking to die in contact with the Ganges is most
active in Banaras, where special hostels for the dying accommodate the
thousands of pious Hindus who make a final pilgrimage from all over
India to die on the banks of the Ganges there.” The Ganges is under-
stood to be a particularly accessible bridge from one mode of being to
the other, a sure crossing point in the difficult transition from life to
death or from bondage to liberation.

Another strong and widespread belief in India is that having their
ashes or bones thrown into the Ganges guarantees the dead a safe journey to the realm of the ancestors. Against this background the story of
the redemption of Sagara’s sons makes sense. Cursed to eternal banishment from the realm of the ancestors, the souls of Sagara’s sons can only
reach the goal of the dead by means of contact with the Ganges, which
provides them a special route to heaven. In this role the Ganges is
known especially by the epithet Svarga-sopana-sarani (she who is a
flowing staircase to heaven).55 Pious Hindus make a pilgrimage to
various points on the banks of the Ganges to cast the ashes of their
ancestors and kin onto the waters of the Ganges so that they, like the
sons of Sagara, will be ensured a successful transition to the realm of the
dead. Just as the mighty waters of the Ganges are envisioned in Hindu
cosmology as continuously descending from heaven to earth, so a continuous procession of souls is ascending the Ganges to transcendent

The Ganges as the surest access between the worlds of the living
and the dead is also seen in sraddha and tarpana rituals, which are per-
formed in honor of ancestors. These rites frequently stipulate Ganges
water as desirable. The intention of these rites is to nourish the ancestors, the pitrs, in the heavenly sphere. The use of Ganges water may be
understood both as nourishing the ancestors directly and as representing
the means by which the other offerings to the ancestors will reach the
desired realm. The use of Ganges water guarantees the efficacy of the
rites by making the Ganges present as a tirtha, a crossing point from the
world of the living to the world of the dead.

A particularly strong motif in reverence to the Ganges is her presence to her devotees as a mother. Ganga Ma, “Mother Ganges,” is probably the river’s most popular epithet. Like a mother or as a mother the
Ganges is here in the world to comfort her children. She is tangible, approachable, and all-accepting. All who approach her for comfort and
blessing are enveloped by her yielding, redemptive waters. She is the distilled essence of compassion in liquid form. No one is denied her blessing, Jagganatha, the author of the Ganga Lahan. probably the most
famous hymn in praise of the Ganges, was outcast by his fellow Hindus
for having a love affair with a Muslim woman. He says that he was even
shunned by untouchables and madmen. He declares that he was so
despicable, so polluted, that none of the tirthas was able to cleanse
him’? The Ganges alone was willing to accept him and cleanse him, and
he in gratitude praises her as a loving mother:

I come to you as a child to his mother.
I come as an orphan to you, moist with love.
I come without refuge to you, giver of sacred rest.
I come a fallen man to you, uplifter of all.
I come undone by disease to you, the perfect physician.
I come, my heart dry with thirst, to you, ocean of sweet wine.
Do with me whatever you will.

The Ganges’ maternal aspect is seen especially in her nourishing
qualities. Her waters are sometimes likened to milk or amrta, the drink
of immortality.” “The concept of the river in India is that of a sustaining
mother. The stream of the river carries payas. The word payas stands
for both water and milk. Appropriately this has been used in relation to
the river as the stream that sustains the people, her children, with water,
as a mother sustains her babies with her milk.””0 Her waters are life-
giving, nourishing to all those who bathe in or drink them.^’ Her waters
have miraculous vivifying powers. The ashes of Sagara’s sons, and the
ashes of the dead in general, are enlivened, invigorated, or otherwise
made strong enough by the touch of her waters to make the journey to

As a mother, the Ganges nourishes the land through which it flows,
making it fertile. Historically, the land along the banks of the Ganges
has been intensely cultivated. It is particularly fertile because of the sediment periodically deposited by the flood waters of the river and because
of irrigation. Images of the Ganges often show her carrying a plate of
food and a purnakumbha, an overflowing pot.'”‘ Mother Ganges is
depicted as a being overflowing with food and life-giving waters,
as one who continually nourishes all she comes in contact with. As giver
of food and as water that makes fields rich with crops, the Ganges
bestows her blessings concretely in this world. She makes the earth
abundant with crops and thereby sustains and enriches life. As the bestower of worldly blessings the Ganges is particularly approached to en-
sure healthy crops and to promote fertility in women. “Today in Bihar,
at the start of the plowing season, before the seeds are sown, farmers put
Ganga water in a pot and set it in a special place in the field to ensure
good harvest. Among those who live along the river, a newly married
woman unfolds her sari to Ganga and prays for children and the long
life of her husband.”

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