Worshipped by Millions: The Sacred River Ganges
Why is the Ganges so significant and sacred in Hinduism? Many rivers have nourished humans in our boundless history, and some of the greatest ancient civilizations have been born on the banks of rivers. But none of them achieved such recognition as “the Goddess Ganga”, the river Ganges. Only the great River Nile, which sustained the vast Egyptian civilizations and stretches over the span of ten modern countries, can compare.
The Lifeblood of India
The River Ganges stretches across 1,560 miles (2,510 km) of Indian territory, from the peaks of the Himalayas all the way to the ocean in the Bay of Bengal. On this journey, this river serves a population of around four hundred million people. It flows through more than a hundred cities, both big and small, some of them the most populated and the oldest surviving cities on the planet. The Ganges is like a blood vessel, carrying the lifeblood of India through the subcontinent and feeding and supporting its people.
Further, the Ganges basin serves almost one third of India’s entire population. It is vital for hundreds of millions of people, a river of belief. And it has been so from the earliest times in human history, when one of the oldest civilizations flourished at its bank, right down to the modern day.
Nevertheless, all this is common in many great rivers. So how did one of the world’s most polluted waterways become the most sacred river in human history? Why are festivals held on its banks, including some of the largest religious gatherings in the world?
The Sacred Flow of Hinduism
In Hinduism, even water is held to be holy. Water is taken in hand while uttering a prayer. Water is considered remarkable, and is held to have spiritual and natural cleansing powers to rid the body of sin. But of all water, that which comes from the Ganges is the most divine, sanctifying, sacred water, and the purest gift of nature to Hindus.
Hindu prayers in Haridwar (lazyoldsun / CC BY 2.0)
This water is one of the essential offerings used in festivals and at prayer. It is offered at Hindu temples, as part of the “yojana” sacrifice, in Hindu rites of passage such as the 16 samskaras, as well as on many other occasions. In the Hindu Santana philosophy, it holds a special place and is offered to the divine.
Millions who come to the Ganges come in the firm belief that bathing in this river, or even the mere sight of River Ganges, will cleanse them of their sins, helping them on their way to their “moksha” or salvation. They believe that drinking Ganges water during their last breath will take their soul to heaven. No “pooja” or ritual is said to be complete without the use of the Ganges water. There are many traditions associated with water from the Ganges, and its purifying properties.
The Ganges, personified as the goddess Ganga, holds a vital position in the Hindu pantheon. Depictions of the goddess Ganga vary, but she is usually portrayed as a beautiful woman wearing a white crown. Her “divine vehicle” or vahana is the “Makara”, a fantastical creature with the head of a crocodile and tail of a dolphin.
The Goddess Ganga (Unknown Author / CC BY 4.0)
She is depicted with either two or four arms, and holds a variety of objects, ranging from water lilies, a Hindu mala rosary, a small pot or jar, or with her hand empty and held in “abhaya mudra”, the gesture of fearlessness. The goddess Ganga is generally seen as a provider and mother figure, and is referred to as “Ma Ganga” or “Ganga Mata” (mother) by Hindus. As befits the personification of the Ganges, she is accepting of all and forgiving of all.
The Source of the Ganges
To understand the river Ganges, one should start where it does: with the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas, more specifically the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, adjoining Tibet. The glacier is one of the longest glaciers in the Himalayas at roughly 19 miles (31km) long and approximately 2 miles (3.2km) wide. In some places, it is even wider, up to 2.5 miles (4km).
The terminus of Gangotri glacier is the primary source of the Ganges, and is called Gomukh, from the Sanskrit, where Gow means “cow” and Mukh means “face”. The snout of the glacier was considered to resemble a cow, and so was named after it. Around 12 miles (19km) from the glacier is the nearest religious town, Gangotri, which can be reached through trekking. The journey to the glacier showcases the raw beauty and remarkable mountain peaks of the region and a picturesque place, the beauty of which is hard to express in words.
Gaumukh Glacier, the source of the Ganges (Manhar Sharma)
Although Gaumukh is the true origin of the Ganges, initially the glacier waters flow into the Bhagirathi river. That is why the Ganges river is also called Bhagirathi in many parts of India, as well as historically in ancient scriptures. The Bhagirathi river is one of the two rivers that become the holy Ganges, and is considered the main tributary.
The Bhagirathi starts its journey at Gaumukh before being joined by different tributaries to become a much larger river. It is quickly joined by the second major river that forms the Ganges, the Alakananda. This river originates from where the Satopanth and Bhagirathi Kharak glaciers join.
The Mythology of the Ganges
In Hindu mythology, Ganga is the only goddess linked to all three of the important gods of the Triad: Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. In the scriptures like the Puranas (Hindu sacred texts), as well as some myths, Ganga is the daughter of King Himavat and Queen Menavati, who were also the parents of Parvati, the wife of Lord Shiva and Ganga’s sister.
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Ganga once asked Lord Shiva to marry her, but Lord Shiva rejected her, and would only accept Parvathi as his wife. But he gave a boon to Ganga to remain sacred till the end of the universe, and gave to her the power of removing sins.
The Curse of Sage Durvasa
There is another famous origin myth about the Ganges, the story of the sage Durvasa and the curse he placed on Ganga. Sage Durvasa appears in Hindu mythology as quick to anger, cursing anyone who displeases him. People admired Durvasa, but only out of fear, and the gods and demons of the Hindu pantheon were afraid of his visitations. They were always careful to avoid offending him in his presence.
Durvasa (blue). Note the goddess Ganga in the waters at his feet (Unknown Author / Public Domain)
When the goddess Ganga was small, she was full of mischief. Once, when Durvasa was visiting heaven, a breeze suddenly blew at him and a piece of cloth from his body was blown away. All the gods, knowing Durvasa as an angry sage, turned their heads away. No one dared to laugh at him, even in the slightest.
But Ganga was small and could not contain her mirth, and burst out laughing looking at the sage. Furious with Ganga, Durvasa cursed her immediately, saying that she did not deserve to live in the heavens, and instead needed flow like a river across the face of the Earth. Ganga was upset when she heard the sage’s curse, and ran to Durvasa and dropped at his feet. Sage Durvasa looked down at Ganga and regretted what he had done.
But he could not take his words back. Instead, he offered a blessing to follow the curse. The boon to granted Ganga was she will be the purest river in the world, and that anyone who bathes in the river would therefore be able to purify all their sins. For this reason, Ganga left heaven and came to the world as the river Ganges.
The Sons of Sagara
There are many other myths about Ganga and her descent to Earth, in Hindu epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and various Puranas. One of the most popular and enduring stories revolves around King Sagara’s great-grandson, Bhagirath. This famous myth tells of a great war between the Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons). After many years of war, the gods were triumphant.
After losing, the Asuras tried to hide from the gods and went underground or deep in the seas. The gods tried to search for the Asuras but could not find them. Finally, the seer Agaysta found the demons in the sea. But to reach them, he had to drink all the waters of the sea.
The Descent of Ganga, supported by Shiva’s hair. Bhagirath stands to the right (Raja Ravi Varma / Public Domain)
So he did. The Asuras were helpless to hide and were slain by Indra, the king of the Devas. But after the seer Agaysta had consumed all the waters of the world, a new problem arose: How will anyone survive without the water? Everyone prayed to Indra, and he issued a commandment that a river would be created, flowing from heaven to the earth. He commanded the Lord Shiva to help.
At the same time, a king named Sagara magically acquired sixty thousand sons. He performed a yajna (a Hindu symbolic offering) in which a horse was sent across the world. The horse was captured and hidden by the Asuras, and all the sons of Sagara searched in vain for it.
They came across the seer Kapila, who had been meditating in penance for many years, and mistakenly they accused him of hiding the horse. This disturbed Kapila’s meditation, and he opened his eyes in rage, burning all of the sons to ash.
Later, the grandsons of Sagara found the ashes of their fathers, and began to perform the funeral ceremonies. To do this, they needed sacred water for the rites so the sons could be freed through moksha, and ascend to heaven. Sagara and his grandsons first tried to access the holy river Ganges from heaven, but were unable to do it.
Bhagirath and Shiva at the birth of the Ganges on Earth (Tej Kumar Book Depo / Public Domain)
Not to be deterred, many grandsons tried to cause the Ganges to flow over the earth through displays of great austerity and devotion, but all failed. Then lastly, came Bhagirath, one of Sagara’s great-grandchildren. Bhagirath was an anxious and dedicated king. He discussed with many great seers how to bring down Mother Ganga, so its water could wash off the powerful curse of the seer Kapila.
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Bhagirath performed acts of great penance with all strictness. He performed stern repentance in praise of the goddess Ganga. The goddess, happy at this display of penance, appeared before him, and directed him to seek the help of someone dominant, to hold and balance the flow of Ganges.
It was feared that without this intervention, the sheer size of the Ganges was so much that it would submerge the Earth. Bhagirath then again performed severe penance for the next hundred years in prayer to Lord Shiva. Shiva was immensely gratified with the king and agreed to help Bhagirath to control the flow of the Ganges.
Finally, the Ganges was able to descend from the celestial heaven of the Devas, and the souls of the sons of Sagara could be saved. At first Shiva was careful to allow only a small quantity of water from the Ganges to descend, as the whole Ganges could have swamped the planet. The glacier Gangotri is held sacred as the place where Bhagirath performed his devotions, and this is why the meltwaters at Gangotri that feed the Ganges are known as the river Bhagirathi.
Sacred Cities of the Ganges
To this day, true followers of the Hindu religion believe that the Ganges is not just a river but a true goddess. Bathing in the holy Ganges can wash away all sins, and every Hindu hopes to bathe in these waters. Every year millions of pilgrims visit Haridwar, Rishikesh, Varanasi, Patna, Kolkata, Gangasagar, all religious centers and all located at the bank of the Ganges.
Many millions of Hindus also carry the water of the Ganges to their homes in pitchers, to continue their purification. These values are a key unifying belief for Hindus, irrespective of sectarian differences between the different factions.
Further, the Ganges is believed to purify wherever it reaches. Multiple pilgrimage routes follow the entire course of the river. Gangotri is considered the pre-eminent holy site for pilgrimage. Next downstream comes Haridwar, the “Gateway to Lord Vishnu”, through which the river enters the plains of India. Prayagraj is the third principal city, sited where the Ganges joins two more mythical rivers, the Yamuna and the Sarasvati.
Varanasi, the spiritual heart of India (Babasteve / CC BY 2.0)
Varanasi, also known as Banaras, is the principal sacred city of Hindus, and is considered the soul of India. Here people come to attain “moksha” where they are freed to ascend to heaven, as was first granted by the Ganges to the sixty thousand sons of Sagara. This city has many famous ghats (cremation grounds) which break the circle of rebirth. The cremation fires from the ghats burn ceaselessly throughout the year.
In this city one can constantly hear the echoes of prayers, temple bells, and the sounds of conch horns. Visitors believe life and death are next to each other, and that whoever is born in this world is one day going to die.
The final important pilgrimage site is Gangasagar, where the Ganges enters the sea. People travel from distant places to scatter the ashes of relatives in the waters of the Ganges, this immersion is believed to send the departed to moksha, ending the cycle of reincarnation. These are ancient traditions, and some of these sites, such as Prayagraj, Patliputra or Kasi, are among the oldest living cities on earth.
The Living River
All the sacred scriptures and ancient stories talk about the Ganges. The goddess Ganga can be found in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and even the Vedas. This river Ganges has been visited by many gods of Hinduism, such as Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and many other ancient seers and immortals in Hindu mythology.
In both ancient and modern Hinduism the river Ganges is considered the most sacred river on earth. The Ganges descend from heaven to the world, and therefore it also can be the door to return from Earth to heaven for Hindus. Furthermore, the Ganges is the only river which Hindus believe flows from all three worlds: Heaven (Swarga), Earth (Prithvi), and Hell (Patala).
Kumbha Mela (Vitthal Jondhale / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Many festivals are organized every year on the banks of the Ganges, during which millions of Hindus bathe in this sacred river. One such religious gathering is Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in one single place anywhere in the world. Prayagraj and Haridwar are two cities particularly renowned for their Kumbh Mela festivals.
The Ganges is a place of wonders. One can watch the countless crowds at the Banaras Ghat in Varanasi, teeming into the sacred river to cleanse their souls, or the aarti, the offering of flame to the goddess. There are few activities more spiritual in the present world than performing yoga or meditating on the bank at Rishikesh, the Himalayan birthplace of yoga.
Likewise, to see countless magnificent Aghori, Saints and Yogis from the Himalayas make a rare appearance at the Kumbha festival, is humbling. The festival unites everyone in the desire to praise the goddess Ganga. This is something which many feel cannot be explained, only experienced.
Hindus also believe life is incomplete without bathing in the Ganges at least once in their lifetime. These all are truly unforgotten and life-changing experiences, and everyone could benefit from visiting the Ganges at some point in their lifetime.
Top Image: Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Source: Roop Dey / Adobe Stock.
By Manhar Sharma
Dennison Berwick, A Walk Along the Ganges, 1987
Sudipta Sen, Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River, 2019
Vatsala Sperling, Ganga: The River that Flows from Heaven to Earth, 2008