For ages, the river Ganga has been an integral part of Indian spirituality, a river that gives a sense of belonging and pride to the people of India. The river Ganga has been revered by all people of all religions in India as not only an unending source of nourishment, but as part and parcel of their culture.
Ganga in Hinduism
The river Ganga is highly revered in Hindu culture. Referred to as Ganga Mata or Ma Ganga (“Mother Ganga”), the Ganga is not merely a river to Hindus, but rather a Goddess whose divine purity cleanses all the past sins and karma of anyone who washes themselves with her waters, aiding their path towards liberation. Like the pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims or Jerusalem for Jews, life is viewed as incomplete without at least one bath in Ganga. Many Hindus keep a vial or flask of Ganga water in their home, and the water is used in all areas of life. Ganga water is given to the sick, as it is believed to cure all illnesses. Ganga water is sprinkled as a benediction of peace. Ganga water is used to cleanse and purify any place, person or object, as it has the power to purify anything. In fact, it is believed that when mixed with normal water, even the smallest drop of water from Ganga has the ability to turn the normal water holy and give it healing powers. Ganga plays a very important role during the death of a Hindu. As her water is believed to free one’s soul from all past sins and karma, Hindu pilgrims will travel long distances to immerse the ashes of their loved ones in her waters to allow the deceased to move on, peacefully and smoothly, from this world. If someone is dying, Ganga water is given to them to drink, and many pilgrims will actually travel to die along her banks. Hindus revere Ganga not just for her ability to free them from their karma, but also for the lessons that she teaches. No matter what obstacle or obstruction attempts to block her path, the river Ganga keeps flowing. Her waters are for everyone, not just one group or selection of people, and she abundantly provides for all.
History of Ganga in Hinduism
Ganga is first mentioned several times in the Rig Veda, considered to be the earliest of the four Vedas (the principle sacred texts which form the base of Vedic and Hindu thought). In Rig Veda 3.58.6 it says, “Your ancient home, your auspicious friendship, O Heroes, your wealth is on the banks of the Jahnavi [another name for Ganga].”
The Birth of Ganga
While there are many stories regarding the birth and life of the Goddess Ganga, one main story of her birth relates to the story of the dwarf Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. There once was an evil king by the name of Bali who was extremely prideful and arrogant. In a plan to end his unrighteousness, Vamana went to Bali and asked him for three steps of land. Bali arrogantly agreed, thinking it only to be the three small steps of a dwarf. However, Vamana then took on His cosmic form and placed one foot on the earth, one foot in the heavens, and one foot on Bali’s head. According to the story, it was during this time when Lord Vishnu took a step into heaven that the Goddess Ganga was born. When He stepped into heaven, Lord Brahma reverently washed Vishnu’s feet. The water fell from Vishnu’s feet into Brahma’s kamandalu, or pot, and out of this water Ganga was born.
The Descent of Ganga
How the goddess Ganga came from the heavens to the earth is another story in the Hindu tradition, and it is this story that forms the basis of the Hindu belief that Ganga is a purifier of sins. There was once a king named Sagara who had sixty thousand sons. One day, King Sagara decided to perform the Ashvameda ceremony, a ritual in which a horse is sent all over the land to conquer and acquire new kingdoms and establish sovereignty. However, Lord Indra was jealous of Sagara and decided to steal and hide the horse in the underworld. King Sagara sent his sixty thousand sons to find the horse and after searching the entire earth, they found it in the underworld next to the meditating sage, Kapila. Believing Kapila to be the thief, they began to hurl insults at the great sage, thus disturbing his practices. Kapila opened his eyes – eyes which had not been opened for years – and by his spiritual power burned all sixty thousand sons to ashes. Upon death, there are many long and intricate rituals that must be performed for the Hindu, including the immersion of ashes. However, as these sixty thousand sons were deep in the underworld, no one was able to perform their funeral rites, so they wandered as ghosts for years. For generations, the descendants of King Sagara tried, unsuccessfully, to coax Ganga into coming onto Earth to purify the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. Years later, a descendant of King Sagara by the name of Bhagiratha vowed to do intense penance in order to bring Ganga herself down from the heavens to purify the ashes of his ancestors, thus washing away their sins and freeing their souls. After much penance, Brahma agreed to Bhagiratha’s wishes and ordered Ganga to flow down to the earth. However, Ganga is full of Shakti, divine energy. She is rambunctious and intractable. Hence, as she began her descent she swept away everything in her path. Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Shiva to stop Ganga from doing so, as he was the only one strong enough to stop her flow. Thus, as Ganga fell from the heavens, she was caught in the locks of Shiva’s hair. Ganga was sanctified through the touch of Shiva and was released in calm streams from his hair to flow both on the earth and into the underworld, to purify and release not only the ancestors of Bhagiratha but all inhabitants of the earth. To read another interesting interpretation of Ganga’s story, click here. Ganga also plays a role in many other Hindu stories. In the Ramayana, Lord Rama and his wife Sita perform tapasya along her banks. In the Mahabharata, Ganga gives birth to Devavrata, later known as Bhishma, the preceptor of the Kuru and Pandava clans. Later in the epic, Bhishma relates to Yudhisthara the greatness of Ganga and her ability to purify one of all sins. In the Bhagavad Gita 10.31, Lord Krishna declares when imparting the highest spiritual knowledge to Arjuna:
“Of purifiers I am the wind, of the wielders of weapons I am Rama, of fishes I am the shark, and of flowing rivers I am the Ganga.”
Ganga in Everyday Spirituality
For Hindus, spirituality is an integral part of everyday life; it permeates every level of culture. Thus, Ganga figures into numerous everyday rituals Hindus perform, and for many her presence is a most auspicious and sacred blessing. Due to this reverence for Mother Ganga, one can find hundred of temples line the entire length of Ma Ganga. During all rituals, pujas, and yagna/havan ceremonies – rituals which are performed every day throughout India – Ganga acts as a purifier. Before beginning, participants drink from her waters and wash their hands, ritually purifying themselves for the ceremony. Gangajal (the sacred water of Ganga) is considered to be so powerful that if you mix even one drop into a bucket full of normal water, the entire volume will become regarded as the holy Ganga. Ganga is not just interwoven into all stages of Hindu culture, but it is even believed that by worshipping Ganga alone can elevate the soul to attain the highest merit. Fortunately, Hindu scriptures not only tell of the glories of those who should be worshipped and why they should be worshipped, but they also tell us exactly how to worship them. According to ancient Hindu scriptures there are seven main ways to worship Ganga:
- By calling out her name: “O Gange, Gange!”
- Having darshan (divine glimpse or presence) of her
- By sparsh (divine touch) of her waters
- By worshipping her
- By taking a snan (bath) in her
- By standing in the waters of the river
- By carrying clay dug out of the river
It is believed that if you are able to snan (ritually bathe) in Ganga at least once in your lifetime, than you are very fortunate. Even more fortunate are those who have the opportunity to visit and stay on her banks and meditate, serve and self-reflect, and most fortunate are those who have the blessing to live on her banks forever. Along her banks, thousands of Hindus come to bathe in her waters and have her darshan every day, but this is not mere bathing. During this bath, Hindus chant prayers, offer her nectar to their ancestors, and perform arghya (the offering of sacred water to the Sun), showing a humble acknowledgement that all they have to offer really belongs to her. There is a beautiful line in a popular Hindu bhajan that says, “Tera tujhko aarpan kai laagya hai more.” This essentially means, “That which You have given us – which is really everything – we humbly offer back to You.” Hindu saints have long known that Vedic mantras, chanting and sincere prayer hold powerful positive vibrations that can penetrate down to the atomic level of all objects, animate or inanimate. In fact, there is now scientific research showing this to be true. There is, in fact, a special prayer that can evoke the power of Ganga into normal water before bathing. Essentially, this is another alternative offered to the sincere seeker to worship their beloved Ganga if they cannot be on her banks and take a dip in her. In this ritual, the expression of piety and devotion are key. The prayer is offered to the seven sacred rivers (of whom Ganga is supreme), representing the seven divine Hindu Goddesses, for it is believed that merely mentioning their revered names cleanses and purifies one’s body and soul. The mantra is:
Gange ca Yamune caiva Godaavari Sarasvati Narmade Sindhu Kaaveri jalasmin sannidhim kuru
“O Holy Mother Ganga! Yamuna! O Godavari! Sarasvati! O Narmada! Sindhu! Kaveri! May you all be pleased to manifest in these waters (with which I shall purify myself).”
However, performing these rituals alone does not bring about her grace, as it is through bhakti (deep devotion) and surrender that she becomes more than just another river. It is through devotion, grace and love that one experiences the magnificent Goddess who delivers her devotees to moksha (liberation). Just as true devotees can never praise and glorify their beloved enough, at night Ganga devotees perform aarti, another expression of their deep gratitude. The Ganga Aarti (a bhajan venerating Mother Ganga is sung at sunset along the banks of Ganga while devotees rhythmically move in sweeping circular motions lit dias or oil lamps, symbolizing the light that the Sun and Ganga offer to us every day. Aarti is way of giving thanks to God, and on the banks of Mother Ganga the ceremony is performed to the Goddess herself, for providing every day – with no hesitation, no vacation, no discrimination and no expectation – for all people. In essence, it is a prayer to recognize the divinity and magnificence of Ganga, signifying all of Nature, and requests that we in turn be graced to become like them.
Festivals Along the Ganga
The largest of these festivals are the various Kumbh Melas, which take place alternatively in Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik and Allahabad (Prayag), being celebrated in each place every twelve years. This festival, which dates back to Vedic times, is one of the most sacred of all pilgrimages for Hindus, and literally tens of millions of pilgrims, sadhus and saints come from all over India to participate in the festival. The story behind the Kumbh Mela is found in several of the Hindu texts. According to the story, the devas (gods) desired to churn the primordial ocean of milk in order to procure the pot (the kumbha) of the nectar of immortality (amrita) which lay at the bottom. In order to do this, the devas enlisted the help of the asuras (demons), promising to share the nectar. Together they churned the ocean for one thousand years, yet when the amrita began to surafce, the asuras desired to steal the pot and not share any of the nectar with the devas. For twelve days and twelve nights, the asuras and devas fought for the pot of amrita. After the pot of nectar emerged from the sea, Jayant, the son of Indra, ran away with the kumbha in order to prevent the demons from absconding with it. As he ran, he stopped to rest four times. In each place, drops of amrita fell to the earth, landing in four locations: Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik and Allahabad. Kumbh Mela holds great importance for Hindus everywhere. The main event of the Kumbh Mela is bathing in the river Ganga which is believed to contain these drops of the nectar of immortality. It is believed that by bathing in Ganga, and particularly by bathing during the Kumbh Mela, people are freed of all past karma they have committed, and the way for the attainment of moksha, or liberation, is cleared. It is said in the scriptures that taking one single bath in Ganga during the Kumbh Mela has the same effect as performing millions of other rituals.
The Chhat Puja is a Hindu festival dedicated to honoring the sun god Surya, in order to give thanks for sustaining life on earth. However, this festival also directly involves Ganga. The rituals of this festival take place over four days and are very rigorous, including bathing, fasting without water, standing in water for long periods of time, and offering arghya to the sun. On the first day of Chhat puja, worshippers take a bath in Ganga and bring her water home to prepare offerings for the Sun. After a day of fasting, worshippers return to the banks of Ganga on the third day to make prayers and offerings to the setting sun. On the final day of Chhat, devotees return once again to Ganga at dawn to make offerings to the rising sun, thanking it for the eternal energy it provides.
The Ganga Mahotsav is a special five-day festival that is observed in Varanasi created to celebrate the various facets of Ganga. This festival celebrates the spirituality, purity and power of Ma Ganga, the identity and pride Ma Ganga gives the people of India, as well as the nourishment the river provides. On this day, the gods themselves are believed to come down from heaven to bathe in Ganga. Hundreds of people celebrate Ganga Mahotsav by lighting dias (oil lamps), chanting Vedic mantras, and bathing in Ganga.
Ganga Dussehra is celebrated in the first ten days of the month of Jyesththa (in June) commemorating the day Ganga came down from the heavens to Earth. On this day, devotees worship Ganga as the mother and goddess, and special pujas and aarti are performed to Ganga. One special ceremony that takes place on Ganga Dussehra is Ganga Chunari, in which the murti (statue) of Ganga is wrapped in 108 colorful saris. During Ganga Dussehra, pilgrims also gather clay and water from Ganga to take home for use in their daily worship.
Ganga As A Path to Realization
In their journey to Self-realization, many learned saints, spiritual leaders and divine souls have came to the banks of Ganga. They have come with the aastha (faith) that Gangajal is the direct wire to the Divine. Many prominent Hindu spiritual masters have not only reached enlightenment on her banks but have also risen deeply in love with her. In fact, it is said that Ganga and revered saints have a very special relationship. In the Puranic story of Ganga’s descent to Earth to answer King Bhagiratha’s intense tapasya (penance) and liberate the souls of his ancestors, Ganga asks him, “All the sinners of this world will wash their sinful bodies in my holy waters. Where shall I wash the immense store of sins deposited in my watery body?” King Bhagiratha replies, “O Sacred Mother! Holy saints will bathe in Ganga and purge you of all your sins, because Lord Vishnu, the dispeller of all sins, dwells in their heart (29).” H.H. Swami Sivanandaji instructed seekers in his book Mother Ganga to come “sit alone on the banks of the Ganga. Meditate. Concentrate. Realise how spiritual vibrations accelerate your inner heart, even overriding your guilty conscience. Where one experiences the supreme joy that fills you now (all of a sudden). How does She instantaneously withdraw your mind and conscience from the physical world to the regions of immortality, only to suckle you with bliss and blessedness! (19)”