By Swami Harshananda
Gaṅgā literally means ‘one who descended to this earth’.
The rivers of a country are its lifeline. The country has always looked upon its rivers not just as physical or natural object, but as goddesses of prosperity. Of all the rivers of India, river Gaṅgā has captivated the minds and the hearts of the people most. For a devotee, a bath in this river is like a life-time’s ambition. No religious act can complete without its water being used in some form or the other. It is believed that a few drops of it's water, if poured into the mouth of a dying person, will remove all his sins. Immersion of the ashes of a dead person’s body in it will give him liberation.
Gañgā in the Scriptures
Though the river Gaṅgā has been mentioned in various scriptures contain hundreds of verses eulogizing the greatness and the sanctifying power of the Gaṅgā river. These works are:
- The Ṛgveda
- The Śatapatha Brāhmana
- The Aitareya Brāhmana
- The Rāmāyana
- The Mahābhārata
- The Padmapurāṇa
- The Nāradīyapurāṇa
- The Agnipurāṇa
- The Matsyapurāṇa
- The Bhagavadgītā
Gañgā, the Goddess
Almost all the well-known rivers of (undivided) the country have a dual form which is described in the mythological literature as deities or goddesses. Iconographical works even ascribe them specific forms and give detailed descriptions. For instance, the river goddess Gaṅgā is pictured as a beautiful lady of white complexion riding a crocodile and holding a pot and a lotus in her two hands.
If goddess is shown with four hands, she may be exhibiting the abhaya (protection) and the varada (boon-giving) mudrās in the other two hands. Sometimes Pāśa (noose) and aṅkuśa (goad) are also shown instead of the pot and the lotus.
As per the account in the Mahābhārata, Gañgā was cursed to be born as a human being in this world. The king Mahābhiṣa who had attained heaven was also cursed similarly. He was reborn as the king Śāntanu. Śāntanu married Gaṅgā. Bhīṣma of the Mahābhārata fame was their last son.
Gañgā, the Celestial River
The river Gaṅgā is said to have been born out of the left foot of Viṣṇu in his incarnation as Vāmana-Trivikrama. Hence she is also called as ‘Viṣṇupadi’. At that time it was confined to the celestial regions only. When the 60,000 sons of the king Sagara of Ayodhyā were reduced to ashes by the curse of the sage Kapila, a way had to be found to redeem them from their sins. Bringing the celestial river Gaṅgā to this earth and making it flow on their ashes was the only solution.
King Bhagīratha, a descendant of Sagara, achieved this stupendous task by pleasing Śiva through severe austerities. Thus she came to be known as ‘Bhāgirathi'. Śiva captured the celestial river, that started to jump down with a terrific speed, in his matted locks and then allowed her to stream out. While flowing through the hermitage of the sage Jahnu, she flooded it. The sage was thus provoked to swallow it up. At the earnest entreaties of Bhagīratha, she was allowed to emerge from the ear of the sage. Thereby she acquired the name ‘Jāhnavī’. She finally flowed over the ashes of Sagara’s sons thereby liberating them.
Gañgā, Geographical Parameters
Geographically speaking, the river Gaṅgā takes its birth near Gaṅgotri in the Tehri Garhwal district of Uttar Pradesh. It is then known as Bhāgirathi. Alakanandā is the second rivulet born near the Tibetan border which joins the Bhāgirathi near Devaprayāga about 64 kms. (40 miles) from the well-known place of pilgrimage, Haridvāra.
At this place it enters the plains, and is called ‘Gaṅgā’ hereafter. The various tributaries that join the Gaṅgā over its long course are:
Near the Bay of Bengal another mighty river, the Brahmaputra, joins it. The total length of the river is 2500 kms. (1557 miles). It breaks into a number of branches near the sea. Hoogly and Padmā are the major branches of this river.
Many pilgrim centers are situated on the banks of the Gaṅgā and its tributaries. They are:
- Kāśī (Vārāṇasī)
Gañgāsnāna, Bath Procedure
Gañgāsnāna is known as the ritual bath in the river Gañgā. A bath in any river cleanses the body. But if a person bathes in the river Gaṅgā through the procedure prescribed in the religious treatises, it purifies the mind too. The following are the various steps given in works, to be followed by an earnest pilgrim who wishes to take a ritual bath in the holy river:
- Saṅkalpa - pious resolve indicating the desire to destroy one’s sins and acquire religious merit
- Select a suitable spot in the river to bathe and utter the famous aṣṭākṣarī-mantra "Om namo nārāyanāya"
- Ācamana - ceremonial sipping of water
- Āhvāna - invitation to the river goddess to be present at that particular spot by uttering her various names such as Dakṣā, Pṛthvī, Vihagā, Amṛtā, Sivā, Kṣemā, Jāhnavī, Śāntā and so on
- Prokṣaṇa - sprinkling the river water on one’s head
- Mṛttikālepana - applying clay taken from the bottom of the river, with appropriate mantras
- Snāna - bath
- Wearing of clean white clothes
- Tarpaṇa - satiating the manes and other beings in all the three worlds
- Arghya to Surya - offering of water taken in the joined palms of the hand
- Visiting a temple of Viṣṇu
- Return home
Purāṇas and the dharmaśāstras have suggested an ingenious method for Gañgāsnāna of the seriously ill, old and poor people. This system is known as 'pratinidhi’ system. On the request made to a pilgrim going to take the bath, he can make a small effigy of kuśa grass and give it the bath with appropriate mantras that include the name of the solicitor. The solicitor then gets one-eighth of the religious merit he would have got if he had actually taken the bath himself.
Gañgāsnāna, Days of Bath
Taking bath in the river Gaṅgā on certain special days is supposed to give infinitely great religious merit. Some of these are:
- Amāvāsyā - no-moon day
- Saṅkrānti - days of the apparent passage of the sun from one zodiacal sign to the next
- Days of lunar and solar eclipses
- Days of puṣkara - the day on which the planet Brliaspati or Jupiter enters the zodiacal sign assigned to the river Gaṅgā viz., Meṣa, or Aries. The puṣkara day for any river comes once in twelve years and the auspicious moment are for a few minutes only.
Festivals Related to the Gañgā
An important day on which a festival called ‘Daśaharā’ is celebrated in North India falls on Jyestha śukla daśamī. It is said to be the day on which the river Gaṅgā descended to this earth. Since a bath in the river on this day, especially at the Daśāśvamedha-ghāṭ of Kāśī (Banaras), destroys ten types of sins hence it is christened ‘daśaharā’ (daśa = ten; harā = destroyer).
The biggest bathing festival connected with the river Gaṅgā is the Kumbhamelā and the Ardhakumbhamelā, held respectively once in twelve years and six years at Haridvāra (Hardwar) and at Prayāga (modern Allahabad), in the States of Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh. Millions of people take bath in the river on these occasions.
Death, Last-rites and the Gañgā
With a rare insight into the human problem of suffering, the dharmaśāstras have permitted religious suicide in certain cases such as decrepitude brought by old-age, incurable diseases with great pain or as voluntary punishment for mortal sins. This has to be normally done by drowning oneself in the sacred river Gaṅgā, especially at the Triveṇī-saṅgama of Prayāga (Allahabad). Ceremonial immersion of either the body or the ashes after cremation is another practice in vogue that is said to bring great religious merit to the soul of the dead person.
Thus it is seen that the Gaṅgā has been one of the major aspects of religion and culture that has helped it to be not only alive but also vigorously active. That is why a popular saying has identified it with one of the three legs of the tripod upon which the religion stands. The other two are the Gitā and the Gāyatrī.
- Nadistuti 10.75.5, 6 and 6.45.31
- Śatapatha Brāhmana 220.127.116.11 and 13
- Aitareya Brāhmana 39.9
- Śrī Kṛṣṇa identifies himself with it among all the rivers. Bhagavadgītā 10.31
- Ādiparva 96-98
- Matsyapurāna 102
- It is the 10th day in the bright fortnight of the month of Jyeṣtha, usually in May.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore