Legends of Ganga
Rivers, for the rest of the world may be just a source of irrigation and drinking water, but for India, they are sacred, a symbol of prosperity and unity, and an inspiration to carry on relentlessly with the cycle of time. They provide us with food and water, as well as remind us of how lucky are we to have born in this country. While there are many rivers in India flowing from time immemorial, one of the most ancient and holiest rivers is the Ganga river. The Hindus consider it as a goddess and mother. In fact, the existence of Hindu religion is very deeply connected with it.
Such is the importance of River Ganga in Hindu mythology that she is positioned at the pinnacle of sanctity. People have worshipped her in all the eras the universe has witnessed. She is respectfully and humbly mentioned in all the ancient scriptures like the Rigveda, Skanda Purana, Ramayana and Maharabharata. Each of these scriptures has an interesting and a different version of the legends of the Ganga. This also testifies that the myths and legends the Ganga is entrenched with are wider, deeper and spectacular.
One of the scriptures considers River Ganga as the daughter of the Himalayas, the ancient name Meru, and Uma, Lord Shiva’s consort. It was Indra who first asked the Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh) to make her reside in heaven, so that her cool water can calm the demi-gods. Another one says that she was living inside the Kamandalu (water vessel) of Lord Brahma. There is also a different version of how she got into the water-vessel of Lord Brahma. According to which, Lord Brahma washed the feet of Lord Vishnu and collected the water in his Kamandalu. And hence, it is believed to be the maiden Ganga.
The story of the origin of the Ganga has been depicted differently in Bhagavat Purana. It says that among the several forms that Lord Vishnu has taken, one of its incarnations that are associated with the birth of Ganga is Vamana. As a Vamana, He enters into the sacrificial arena of the demon King Mahabali. Being at the centre of the arena, he decides to measure the length of the universe. To do so, he extends one of his feet to the end of the universe. To mark the end point, he makes a hole by piercing the nail of his big toe. Water starts gushing out of the hole and having touched the feet of Lord Vishnu, it became divine.
Like the origin of Ganga, her descent to the earth also has many different stories. The most popular one is associated with King Sagar, the ancestor of Lord Rama. He was blessed with sixty thousand sons. Every year he used to perform a yagya during which a horse was sent on its own to roam around the earth. For 99 times, the horse returned to the kingdom unchallenged. When he was about to taste the success 100th time, Indra became jealous of him, and hid the horse in the patala lok (netherworld), where Sage Kapila was meditating.
King Sagar then sent all his sons to find the horse. When they reached the netherworld, they saw the horse next to the sage. Thinking him to be the kidnapper, they insulted him. Their impudence enraged the sage, and he burned all of them into ashes with his fiery gaze. The souls of all those princes have wandered restless in the netherworld since then as no rites were performed on them. When King Bhagiratha, the grandson of King Sagar came to know about the plight of his family, he requested the sage to offer a solution to the problem. The sage, then told him that only the water of Ganga can provide them salvation. King Bhagiratha then invoked Lord Brahma to release Ganga to the earth. Lord Brahma asked him to appease Lord Shiva as no one can handle the weight and the flow of Ganga. Shiva then took Ganga into his matted hair and released her into the earth. After descending down the earth, it goes through the netherworld and liberates the souls of the princes. Since then, Ganga has been known to be helping souls access the heaven.