She is the lifeblood of India’s heartland, flowing 1,680 miles from Gaumukh in the Gangotri glacier to the Bay of Bengal, ever in motion, like a young woman anxious to meet her beloved.
It is believed that she was cajoled to descend from the heavens (where she is known as Mandakini) to Earth by the intense efforts of Sage Bhagiratha. Bhagiratha’s ancestors had infuriated Sage Kapila, who had reduced all of them to ashes. Without the performance of their funeral rites, Bhagiratha’s ancestors were denied their place in the realms of those who have passed from this manifested world. The only way to achieve this was to have their ashes washed by the flow of Ganga. Satisfied with Bhagiratha’s penance, Ganga appeared before him and asked him what he wanted. He asked that she come down to earth and bless his ancestors. She responded that the force of her descent would plunge her from the heavens, through the earth, and into the nether world. The only one who could control her flow was Lord Shiva.
Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Shiva who agreed to hold Ganga in his matted locks and release her with reduced force. Ganga became proud that she had to be controlled by Lord Shiva. Shiva imprisoned her in his locks! Helpless, Bhagiratha approached Lord Shiva again. And he released her. Bhagiratha started to lead her to the ashes of his ancestors. On the way, her flow disturbed the peace of Sage Jahnu. He absorbed her into his kamandalu (water pot). It took Bhagiratha’s entreaties to release her again as Jahnavi, the daughter of Jahnu. This is the story of her descent.
On Earth, she enraptured King Shantanu, the King of Hastinapura in the Mahabharata (the great grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas). He asked her to marry him. She agreed, but on one condition: he could never question her actions. Besotted, Shantanu agreed. Their first son was born. Ganga drowned the child in the river. This repeated six more times and each time she put the child in the water. Shantanu watched helplessly. When Ganga was going to drown their eighth child, Shantanu could not restrain himself. He questioned her. Ganga told him of the curse of sage Vasishta on the eight Vasus who had to be born as humans and released from their birth within the first year of their lives. She was merely releasing them from their curse. The eighth child was ensured a long life, but never to have a wife or progeny. Ganga said she would take him with her to the heavens and train him in his tradition of being a king. Shantanu was devastated to watch Ganga take his eighth son and leave.
Shantanu committed himself to serving his kingdom. One day, while walking on the banks of his beloved Ganga, he saw a handsome young boy. He did not recognize the child as his son. The child recognized his father and, using his power of illusion, disappeared. Realizing the child could be his son, Shantanu called upon Ganga to reveal herself and his child — Devavrata. Devavrata was established as the heir-apparent and Shantanu was overjoyed. Until he became enraptured again! He was drawn by a powerful scent, this time on the banks of the river Yamuna, emanating from Satyavati, the beautiful adopted daughter of the local fisherman chief. King Shantanu asked her father for her hand. He agreed, but there was a condition: Satyavati’s child had to be the heir to the throne. Shantanu was conflicted as Devavrata was already the crown prince. Devoted to his father, Devavrata gave his word to Satyavati’s father that her child alone would be king. Devavrata took it one step further and committed to a life of celibacy so that he would have no descendants. Thus, he came to be known as Bhishma — the one who has taken an extreme vow.
Shantanu and Satyavati went on to have two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada was killed when Shantanu was still alive. Vichitravirya ascended the throne after his father’s passing and ruled with the help of his step-brother, Bhishma.
If we can control the descent of our thoughts, themselves the result of many actions in our past and then regulate their flow through our present lives with the blessings of the divine and led by the learned, then we too can watch our full potential blossom as we move from our source to the eternal ocean of liberation. That is Ganga’s story.
Her festivals and worship
It is believed that a dip in her holy waters destroys the sins of her devotees and frees them from the cycle of rebirth. From Gaumukh to the mouth of the Ganga as she merges with the ocean, devotees seek to take a bath in her waters.
Some places along her banks have taken on additional spiritual significance such as Gaumukh, Gangotri, Uttarkashi, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Prayagraj, Varanasi, Patna, and Kolkata.
Devotees undertake to walk various lengths of her banks, including to her source Gaumukh to bathe in her icy waters. They balance two pots of her water (kavadi) on their shoulders as they walk back to their homes. The kavadiyas walk barefoot through her varied terrain, carried along by their faith and devotion.
Her most celebrated festival is the Kumbh Mela, which takes place at two places on the Ganga, Haridwar and Prayagraj, as well as in the cities of Ujjain and Nashik. The date and location are established by the position of the planetary positions in particular months in a 12-year cycle.
Devout Hindu families keep a sealed copper pot of Ganga water in their homes. At the time of death, it is tradition that family members place a few drops of Ganga water in the mouth of the departing.
Ganga Stotram by Adi Shankaracharya, translation via Chinmaya Mission
O Goddess Ganga! You are the divine river from heaven, you are the saviour of all the three worlds, you are pure and restless, you adorn Lord Shiva’s head. O Mother! may my mind always rest at your lotus feet.
O Mother Bhagirathi! You give happiness to everyone. The significance of your holy waters is sung in the Vedas. I am ignorant and am not capable to comprehend your importance. O Devi! you are full of mercy. Please protect me.
O Devi! Your waters are as sacred as “Charanamriti” of Sri Hari. Your waves are white like snow, moon and pearls. Please wash away all my sins and help me cross this ocean of samsara.
O Mother! those who partake of your pure waters, definitely attain the highest state. O Mother Ganga! Yama, the lord of death cannot harm your devotees.
O Jahnavi! your waters flowing through the Himalayas make you even more beautiful. You are Bhishma’s mother and sage Jahnu’s daughter. You are savior of the people fallen from their path, and so you are revered in all three worlds.
O Mother! You fulfill all the desires of the ones devoted to you. Those who bow down to you do not have to grieve. O Ganga! You are restless to merge with the ocean, just like a young lady anxious to meet her beloved.
O Mother! those who bathe in your waters do not have to take birth again. O Jahnavi! You are held in the highest esteem. You destroy your devotee’s sins and save them from hell.
O Jahnavi! You are full of compassion. You purify your devotees with your holy waters. Your feet are adorned with the gems of Indra’s crown. Those who seek refuge in you are blessed with happiness.
O Bhagavati! Take away my diseases, sorrows, difficulties, sins and wrong attitudes. You are the essence of the three worlds and you are like a necklace around the Earth. O Devi! You alone are my refuge in this Samsara.
O Ganga! those who seek happiness worship you. You are the source of happiness for Alkapuri and source of eternal bliss. Those who reside on your banks are as privileged as those living in Vaikunta.
O Devi ! It is better to live in your waters as turtle or fish, or live on your banks as poor chandal rather than to live away from you as a wealthy king.
O Godess of Universe! You purify us. O daughter of muni Jahnu! one who recites this Ganga Stotram everyday, definitely achieves success.
Those who have devotion for Mother Ganga, always get happiness and they attain liberation. This beautiful and lyrical Gangastuti is a source of Supreme bliss.
This Ganga Stotram, written by Sri Adi Shankaracharya, devotee of Lord Shiva, purifies us and fulfills all our desires
Victory to Ganga! Victory to Shiva! Victory to Ganga! Victory to Shiva!