Myths & Legends of India: The Origin of the Ganges

Another tale from Myths & Legends of India :


the Ganges river

The holy river Ganges is also a goddess, Ganga, and a famous story tells of how she was brought down to earth. 


Goddess Ganga

She was the daughter of Himavat, god of the Himalayas, and the nymph Mena, and originally, she flowed only through the heavenly regions to which the Himalayas soar. She would have stayed there, had it not been for Sagara, king of Ayodhya. Sagara had two wives who had borne him no children. So, he performed a special homage to a sage called Bhrigu, who was pleased then to grant him a boon: one wife would give birth to a son, and the other would bear a gourd. When the gourd fell to the ground, sixty thousand sons would burst out of it. 

“And so, it happened. But as this veritable army of sons grew up, Sagara became arrogant. He decided to perform the Asvamedha sacrifice, in which a horse is let loose and all the territory it crosses becomes the possession of its owner. Sagara sent the horse across territory owned by Indra, king of the gods, hoping to usurp him. 

“Realizing what was afoot, Indra turned himself into a formidable demon, and drove the horse down into the underworld, leaving it to graze near where the great sage Kapila was meditating. 

“The priest who had been conducting the sacrifice was terrified when the horse was driven down into the underworld like this, for the subversion of the ceremony was deeply inauspicious and would bring ruin to the kingdom. He ran in a panic to Sagara and told him what had happened. 

“Arrogant still with the power of his enormous family, Sagara boasted that however deep underground the horse had been driven, they would be able to recover him, so vast was their combined strength. He then commanded his sixty thousand sons to dig down to the underworld and bring back the horse. 

“Their energetic digging and delving caused agony to the bowels of the Earth, and she went and complained to Brahma. He told her to endure the pain a bit longer, as the sons of Sagara were, he assured her, digging their way to their own destruction. 

“Even sixty thousand laborers, working in shifts, will eventually get tired. The sons returned to their father and begged him to allow them to stop, but Sagara insisted they continue. They dug so far that they emerged where the earth is carried on the backs of gigantic elephants – and near those elephants was Kapila’s hermitage. They searched all around it, and found the horse at last, grazing peacefully. They assumed that Kapila had stolen it, and rushed to apprehend him. Just as the sixty thousand sons of Sagara closed in on the meditating sage – violently and hatefully, furious and exhausted after all their digging – he opened his eyes. He was so incensed with anger at this insult to him, that his eyes burst into flame, and the intense heat of the flame reduced all sixty thousand sons into ashes. 

“Worried at their non-return, Sagara sent his grandson Ansuman to look for them. (Ansuman’s father – Sagara’s son by his other wife – had taken to asceticism, and was therefore of no practical use.) Ansuman reached the sage easily, by following the tunnel dug by his sixty thousand uncles; and when he approached him, his behavior was quite different. Instead of fury and aggression, he offered him reverent, humble greetings, and asked him as politely as he could what had happened to the horse and the sixty thousand. Charmed by the boy, Kapila told him what had happened, and said his uncles could be brought back to life if the heavenly Ganga could be made to flow over their ashes. He also allowed Ansuman to take the horse back with him, so that the sacred ceremony could be completed.  

Sagara, pining for his sons, obsessively searched for a way of bringing Ganga down to earth for the rest of his thirty-thousand-year reign, but without success. Ansuman succeeded him as king, and continued the effort – but failed, too, as did his son, Dilipa. It was Sagara’s great-great-grandson Bhagiratha who finally succeeded.  

Bhagiratha’s Perseverance 

Bhagiratha, Sagara’s great=great=grandson, was exceptionally persevering and self-sacrificing by nature, and was capable of extraordinary feats of asceticism. In order to achieve the feat that had eluded his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he set out to please the gods with his austerities, each of which – whether by fasting, or by staying in one posture for years on end, or walking on burning hot stones – was more daring and self-punishing than the last.  

“Brahma was indeed impressed by his feats, and agreed to let Ganga come down to earth. But the weight and crash of her water coming down would be immense, and Brahma asked Bhagiratha to perform similar penances and austerities to Siva, so as to persuade him to catch the falling river in his hair, and break thereby her tumultuous cascade. 

Bhagiratha thus embarked on another series of penances, and it was by his extraordinary powers of courage and perseverance that he survived the extremes of starvation or immobility that he imposed on himself. 

Siva too was impressed, and agreed to catch Ganga’s waters in his dense matted locks. With this assurance, Brahma commanded Ganga to descend to earth. 

“Ganga liked the serene conditions of heaven too much to want to descend to the earth’s much less secure and peaceful environment, and to express her annoyance at Brahma’s command and Siva’s undertaking she resolved to descend with catastrophic force. She intended thereby to submerge the whole earth, and drag Siva down to the darkest regions of the underworld. 

So she let fly all the weight of her waters at once, and whipped up such turbulence that they ripped out trees and flattened whole mountains. Mount Kailasa, though, where Siva dwells, was too massive to be dislodged, and Siva was too powerful to be swept off the top of it. He caught her as planned in his hair, and the matted maze of his hair was so dense and complex that she meandered through it helplessly, unable to find an outlet. 

“Her meanderings exhausted her, and her haughty spirit was broken. Indeed, she became such a shadow of her former noble self, that Bhagiratha had to embark on yet more austerities to persuade Siva to have mercy on her. 

“Once again – so staggering and unprecedented were the feats he performed this time, culminating in two hundred years of balancing upside down on the little finger of one hand, in a barren desert where there was no protection from heat or cold – his perseverance prevailed, and Siva agreed to release Ganga from his locks. 

“She flooded down graciously this time, relieved and grateful, and divided into several branches. Bhagirathat rode in a chariot ahead of one of the branches, leading it down to the ashes of Sagara’s sixty thousand sons.  

“But that was not the end, for by mischance the river flooded the ground where the sage Jahnu was meditating. So furious was he at this insult, that Bhagiratha had to employ his ascetic powers yet again, and to an even greater degree than the gods Brahma and Siva had demanded. It was only after he had stood on his head, submerged in water up to the tips of his toes and holding his breath for three hundred years, that Jahnu was mollified. He agreed to let Ganga flow on, but with himself as a conduit, so as to derive maximum power and sanctity from the sacred, heavenly river. 

“Grateful to be allowed a final exit and escape into the sea, Ganga now flowed forth calmly from the ear of Jahnu. Her waters sank down through the sea, and down into the underworld, where she reached the ashes of the dead sons, and brought them back to life. 

“Because he had made this possible, Bhagiratha came to be regarded as her second father, and another name for Ganga is Bhagirathi. No one in India has ever been more persevering and persistent than Bhagiratha, and his name is therefore always associated with those qualities.” 

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