The Ganges River as Sacred Geography
The Ganges is hugely significant for Hindus because they believe that bathing in the river remits sins and releases the soul from the cycle of life and death. That’s why people travel to the Ganges to immerse the ashes of their loved ones in her sacred waters. How did the Ganges become so important? There are several reasons.
The Ganges is the personification of the goddess Ganga, who represents purity and holiness because she first existed as the pure water of the heavens. Bathing in her waters is very powerful, and even simply looking at the Ganges assures sanctity. Like rivers everywhere, the Ganges is a symbol of plenty and prosperity because she provides sustenance for many people. Added to all of this is Ganga’s association with the gods Vishnu and Shiva, which makes her even more potent.
Birth of Ganga
Ganga was born when Vishnu stretched his left foot to the end of the universe in order to measure it. The nail on his big toe pierced a hole in the covering of the universe and out poured heavenly water. The water washed over Vishnu’s feet and entered our universe, becoming the Milky Way. Befitting her celestial origins and her association with Vishnu, Ganga was extremely beautiful and extremely proud.
Several years later, there was a king named Sagara who had 60,000 sons. The sons, while searching for a horse for Sagara, managed to disturb a hermit sage while he was meditating. The sage, by the name of Kapila, was so enraged at having his peace shattered that he burned the 60,000 to ashes with a single glance. Their unfortunate souls wandered the earth because their final rites had not been performed.
Ganga and Shiva
Sagara’s great-grandson, Bhagirath, wanted to purify his ancestors’ ashes so their souls could enter heaven. To accomplish this, he needed Ganga to descend to earth and flow over the ashes. However, Bhagirath knew that Ganga was so powerful that her strength would shatter the earth as she fell from the heavens. So he convinced Shiva to let the heavenly waters land first on his head and then flow through his matted hair. Shiva agreed, and Ganga, annoyed and insulted at being ordered to perform the task, decided to drown Shiva. But she hadn’t counted on Shiva’s great power, so instead of wreaking havoc and destruction, Ganga found herself trapped within Shiva’s hair. Once trapped, she flowed benevolently to earth and became the all important Ganges River.
The story of Ganga is an important theme in Indian art and culture. You’ll find her on the doorways of temples across India. In the south, she appears on both jambs, and in the north, she is on one jamb and Yamuna (the personification of the Jamna River) is on the other. You’ll also find Ganga in the caves in Ajanta and Elephanta. So the next time you find yourself in the waters of the Ganges, treat the goddess with the respect she deserves!
Photo: Sunset over the Ganga by mckaysavage, reproduced under a Creative Commons license from Flickr