The Ganga is a river, it flows. But wait, stories that abound through ancient Indian history, talk of its descent from another realm. How did a river do that? Well, here is a fascinating mythological story that tells you exactly how the impulsive and wayward daughter of the snow came to call Earth her home.
Once upon a time, as all tales begin, was a king, Sagar who was the supremo of Ayodhya. As was the practice in those days the king had two wives called Keshini and Sumuti.
But for all his fortunes he craved for a child. Sleepless and distraught he worried about his lineage? ‘How can I be blessed with a child?’ he pondered day in and day out! Ultimately he decided to leave the capital and his riches behind and lead an austere life to attain the richest of riches—a child.
King Sagar and his wives departed to the mountains to pray for a child. At the end of hundred years, as the Ramayana states, sage Bhrigu appeared before the trio. He, pleased with their penance, granted them their wish. The queens would soon conceive.
King Sagar and his wives, thrilled with the news, returned home. Soon Keshini gave birth to a son called Asmanja, and Sumati to a gourd-shaped foetus.
Surprised? Well, that is what the story says! When the gourd matured it burst into 60,000 seeds. Each seed was immersed in milk to nurture it. After a few years Sumati found herself surrounded by 60,000 sons. Amazing! We can only hope that modern scientists don’t come out with an idea like that, or else population explosion would acquire horrific connotations.
The Ashwamedha Yajna
Anyway, as time went on Asmanja was blessed with a son, Anshuman, who grew up to be the beloved of the people. Sagar now a proud father and grandfather began to conceive an ambitious project, the Ashwamedha Yajna! A white stallion left to freely roam the kingdoms and provinces would establish his supremacy. How? Well, unlike our modern day neo-colonisation and economic sanctions the method was very simple; if anyone dared to stop the horse it meant war! If they let the horse pass, they became part of the empire and swore their allegiance to the emperor.
The ceremony began with pomp and festivity, The horse of sacrifice as it was called was set free and the king’s grandson, Anshuman, was put in charge of it. As fate would have it, all was well until Indra, the God of rain, took possession of the horse and made it disappear. The agitated priests implored Sagar to find the horse so that they may be able to complete the ceremonies. The king beckoned his 60.000 valorous sons and entrusted them with the search.
Search for the disappeared horse
The 60,000 sons started their hunt with vigour, but alas, years passed and yet the horse could not be traced. Despite repeated disappointments they never stopped trying, and began to dig into the earth relentlessly until they reached the Rasatala, or sixth underground world.
Here they passed the four elephants, guardians of the four cardinal points, with growing rage and impatience. Finally emerging into a clearing they saw the snowy steed calmly grazing. Besides the horse, Vishnu, the protector of the Earth, as sage Kapila, was absorbed in meditation.
The drama now built itself into a climax! The sons of Sagar lost all control and seethed in vengeance hurled themselves on Kapila, assuming his villainy in the heinous crime. The attack ended just as soon as it began! The mighty Kapila’s one angry look struck them like lightning and all that remained of the mighty army was a pile of grey smoking dust.
Anshuman goes searching
King Sagar was worried. Years had passed and neither his sons nor the horse had returned. Anshuman set out again, this time on a quest to look for his lost uncles. Understandably he was grief-stricken when he found the remains of his dead uncles. His only desire now was to conduct their last rites so that their souls may be liberated and they could be allowed to be reborn. But alas, not a drop of water was to be found in these desolate reaches.
Garuda, the celestial eagle-the steed of Vishnu, appeared before the sorrowful Anshuman and advised him to return to Ayodhya with the horse and complete the Aswamedha ceremony. Besides, he informed, only the daughter of the snow could liberate his poor uncles’ souls.
Ganga and Bhagirath
Anshuman ascends the throne but soon resigns as his son Dilip comes of age, to practice, severe penance in white snows of the Himalayas. For three thousand two hundred years, as the Ramayana tells us, the king undertook the severest of austerities, but alas, he died. His prayers were not granted, the daughter of the snow, Ganga, did not descend, and his uncles’ souls were not redeemed.
King Dilip, great grandson of Sagar, crushed by the enormity of the task found himself unable to save his ancestors. However, his son, Bhagirath himself a great sage, was made of another stuff. Determined and stubborn he vowed that he would bring about the descent of the Ganga.
Bhagirath stood upright for a thousand years in a classic stance that you may have seen in many visuals. After such a harrowing period, Brahma rejoiced his feat and granted him his most coveted wish. But there was a catch to it! Ganga was a frivolous little soul, with an enormity of flow capable of crushing the Earth. As word reached Ganga, being unwilling to come, she vowed to wreak havoc. Thus her direct descent was ruled out. There had to be a middle man – who could tame her and modify her churning waters. And who better that the great Lord Shiva, the only one capable of bearing the load of her waters, to do the task.
Lord Shiva bears the load
Reminds you of the proper bureaucratic channels, doesn’t it? Well, poor Bhagirath started invoking Lord Shiva as advised by the Brahma, the creator. At the end of another thousand years, Shiva appeared and beatifically agreed to receive the daughter of the snow and bear the burden of her descent.
Reports rushed back to the unwilling Ganga whose gaiety turned into anger at the proposition. She vengefully began to build up her swells in a most awesome manner, crashing and plunging with a mad impetuosity down onto the head of Shiva.
But then Lord Shiva being what he is, anticipated her tricks and resolved to punish her impertinence. He opened his colossal locks of hair and caught her cleanly before she could reach the Earth. How desperately our fair maiden struggled, and how Shiva’s deadlocks hold strengthened with her every twist and turn, until the mass of thick intertwined locks started resembling a huge mountain. The more she wanted to come out, winding helplessly this way and that, the more the folds of Shiva’s hair entwined her. Years passed and Ganga continued to meander.
Bhagirath’s third penance
In steps Bhagirath again, who witnessing this, resolved to undertake the severest of austerities for the third time. It was then that Shiva softened and accepted to release Ganga. She was scheduled to fall into a place called Bindusara.
Here she divided into seven bodies of water, three flowing east (Haradini, Pavni and Natal) and three flowing west (Suchaksu, Situ and Sindhu). The seventh followed Bhagirath. The royal sage led the procession, driving a shining chariot with a frolicking Ganga merrily following, happy to be released from the confines of Shiva’s confining deadlocks.
Cascading clear blue water splashed with a deafening roar, carrying multitude of fishes, tortoises, sea-elephants. She had never seemed so beautiful. Wonder struck the musicians and divine sages, beings of light, treasure guardians and gods all wanted to see the splendid descent. Sometimes swift, sometimes lazy, churning and bursting with energy, playfully moving along, spreading and narrowing, leaping and splashing water are all games Ganga indulged in. Thousands of inhabitants of the earth approached, hearts filled with gratitude to cleanse all that was stained. The king continued to proceed and Ganga, the rolling daughter of the mountains continued, following him faithfully.
Swallowing the Ganga
But impulsive as she was, upon nearing the fateful spot where the sage Jahnu was getting ready to prepare the sacrifice, she escaped and swamped the area set aside for the ceremony. The sage outraged by Ganga’s audacity decided to teach her a lesson. Through his exceptional powers he made her disappear instantly, swallowing her in one gulp.
The Gods although apprehensive, admired and congratulated Jahnu and persuaded him to release her as she had been rightfully taught a lesson. Jahnu softened by the praises, expelled all the water from his ears.
Ganga, chastised sufficiently, trotted like a well-behaved youngster, behind Bhagirath’s chariot. Finally she arrived at the enormous excavation dug out by the sons of Sagar. As the waves poured into the cavity, the great Bhagirath, with one last superhuman effort, plunged down into the subterranean regions. Having reached his ultimate goal he collapsed with exhaustion. Poor man!
Well, on regaining consciousness his eyes met with the most soothing sights of all! The soft waters of the Ganga gently lapping at his feet, had already covered the piles of ashes. At last the souls of his ancestors were redeemed.
Brahma, the father of the worlds, then appeared to address the king, “O conqueror you have succeeded in this incomparable exploit. Ganga from now on will be honoured under the name of Bhagirathi. Ganga waters the heaven, earth and the underground. She is the river of the three worlds.” Brahma disappeared and Bhagirath immersed himself in the purifying waters of the river and returned to his capital.