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Goddess Ganga

Updated on July 27, 2017

The river Ganges is the third longest river in India and it is home to a host of rare aquatic species including the endangered South Asian River Dolphin which is split or divided into two exotic species, the Ganges River Dolphin and the Indus River Dolphin.

Many ancient kingdoms were situated along the river or close to its shores including the non-Vedic Kingdom of Magadha which was located in present day Bihar, just south of the Ganges River Basin.

The river according to both Hindu mythology and theology is a representation of the Goddess Ganga who comes to light in the Vamana Purana and she is none other than the daughter of Brahma.

The story begins when Vishnu at the behest of Aditi reincarnates in the physical world to end the reign of Bali who despite being born in the asura clan is a pious devotee of Vishnu.

Because of his devotion, he acquires enough powers to usurp the Devas (those who belong to the race of Gods) and conquer the three worlds (Triloka) or the three spheres of existence. The Devas who are suspicions of Bali’s intentions and apprehensive of his sudden rise to power appeal to Aditi, the Primordial Creatrix, as far as the Devas are concerned, for help, and she in turn extols Vishnu to intervene on behalf of the Devas.

Vishnu refuses at first but Aditi continues to plead and the mighty God not unaware of the dangers that Bali could pose to the Devas eventually relents.

As Vishnu’s next avatar starts to take shape, in the belly of the primeval ocean, the laments of the Devas grow louder, to the point that Vishnu is unable to complete the full term and is forced to manifest or appear prematurely and as a result his growth is stunted and he appears as a dwarf. Hence Vishnu’s Vamana avatar is also known as the dwarf avatar.

Vamana approaches Bali when the latter is performing an Ashwamedha and both Bali and Sukracharya, the Lord Preceptor of the Asuras, recognize Vamana for who he is but because Bali is a devote worshipper of Vishnu, he is pleased that the God has decided to grace the occasion with his presence, and offers to grant Vamana anything that he wishes for.

Vamana asks for all the land that he can cross in three steps and Bali readily agrees. As soon as Bali agrees Vamana grows in height and soon towers well above the sky and continues to grow indefinitely until he reaches the highest extremity of the present universe.

With his first step, he reaches Brahmaloka located in the highest precinct of the universe. As soon as Brahma senses that Vishnu has set foot on Brahmaloka he reaches for his water-pot to wash the foot of the mighty God. The water that flows from the sprout of his water pot is the Goddess Ganga.

Ganga swept through the heavens and through the celestial kingdom of Indra, her currents swift and strong, and she remained there until she was brought down to the earth to wash away the remains of Asamanjas and the other sixty thousand sons of King Sagara, with the help of Shiva, after they had been reduced to ashes by the sage Kapila.

According to the story, the spirits of Asamanjas and the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara remained behind and were prevented from crossing over because their last rites had not been completed in the prescribed manner. Kapila later granted the son of Asamanjas, Anśumat, the boon that his grandson will be able to wash away the sins of his father and his uncles.

By the time Anśumat’s grandson, Bhagirath, assumed the throne, the souls had turned malevolent and malicious and had begun to precipitate death and destruction in the kingdom of Kosala.

Bhagirath consulted the sages and discovered that the malady that had befallen his kingdom was caused by the restless souls of the sons of King Sagara and the only way he could rid the kingdom of the evil that plagued it was to wash away the remains of Sagara’s sons or as custom dictated have the ashes scattered in running water.

Unable to retrieve the ashes of Sagara’s sons, he asked Brahma for help who in turn told him that the ashes of Sagara’s sons could only be washed away by the Goddess Ganga. However, he cautioned that Ganga was a willful and turbulent river and should she fall directly onto the earth it would tear the world asunder and therefore he told him to seek the help of Shiva to bring Ganga down from the heavens without destroying the world.

Bhagirath meditated upon Shiva and in time the God appeared before him and agreed to help him. Shiva sat in the meditative full lotus position and with the aid of Brahma convinced Ganga to fall unto the world. In order to break the fall, she first fell on Shiva’s matted dreadlocks and then flowed from his hair to the mortal world. It is said that bathing in the cool, crisp waters of the River Ganges absolves one of his or her sins.

There are very few temples dedicated to the Goddess Ganga and she isn’t worshipped in orthodox or contemporary Hindu circles and that might be due to her forceful and uncompromising nature.

One of the most famous temples dedicated to the Goddess Ganga is in Bharatpur. It is an exquisite two storied red sandstone temple built at the turn of the last century.

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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