Sprouting from the mouth of Gaumukh, also known as Gangotri glacier, streams of pure sattva flow into the land of Bharat with great fervor. She is none other than the holiest of all rivers, Ganga. Robust rivulets streaming off the glacier meet at five sites downstream called Panchprayag to eventually form the mainstream Ganges. Ganga chisels her way through majestic mountains and narrow valleys to enter the threshold of the vast northern plains at Haridwaar. She spreads her generous waters in the plains, rendering fertile the hearts of fervent men. She finally sprawls to Bengal to merge with the ocean and on to the vastness of eternity.
According to Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Ganga originates from the beautiful lotus feet of Lord Sri Hari Himself. The Lord, during His incarnation as the dwarf brahmana Vamana that was taken in order to subdue the ego of His proud devotee King Mahabali, took the gigantic form of Trivikrama, the One who measured all the three worlds and the entire creation in two steps. When this happened, the Lord’s left foot reached up to Satyaloka, the high realm of Brahma. Thrilled to see the Lord’s holy feet, Brahma immediately offered humble worship with water from his kamandalu.
This holy water, purified and sanctified by the touch of the Lord’s feet, gushed down as the sacred Ganga. Since she washed the feet of Lord Sri Hari (Vishnu) in Brahmaloka, she is called Vishnupadi. She then descended to Maharloka the residing place of Dhruva, the brilliant star among Lord’s devotees. Then she flows through the Saptarishi mandala, the abode of seven great rishis. Here she is further purified as she passes through the matted hair of the sages who are immersed in intense penance. In Swargaloka, the holy abode of Indra and Devas she flows as Mandakini.
It is said that for many thousands of years, Ganga stayed in the heavens and was not willing to come down to the earth for fear of losing her purity. However the compassionate Lord ordained differently!
In ancient times there lived an emperor called Sagara. He had sixty thousand sons. He started to perform an Ashwamedha yaga (a powerful sacrifice that would give him sovereignty over many kingdoms). Indra felt threatened by the yaga and stole the horse, which was an essential part of the yaga. Sagara’s sons were commanded to find the horse. Indra cunningly tied the horse to a tree near the great sage Kapila who was immersed in deep meditation. When the sons found the horse, they thought that the sage had stolen it, and tried to kill Kapila.
When the penance of the sage, who was himself an avatara of Lord Vishnu, was disturbed, the tejas (divinity) around him burnt the sons to ashes. Learning about the tragedy, Amsuman, Sagara’s grandson, went and asked forgiveness of Sage Kapila. The compassionate sage blessed him, returned the horse and said that Sagara’s sons would be redeemed if holy Ganga was brought down to the earth and made to flow on their ashes.
Although the grandson completed the horse sacrifice on behalf of his grandfather, he could not bring Ganga down. Nor could many in the generations that followed. Finally, King Bhagiratha did great penance for thousands of years. Lord Brahma appeared before him and granted him his wish, directing Ganga to descend down to earth. However, as the earth would not be able to withstand her great force as she fell from the heavens, Lord Shiva agreed to bear her thundering force on his head first. A drop from her was then let down to earth gently by Lord Shiva. The vivacious river then followed Bhagiratha—while having many adventures on the way including an encounter with Sage Jahnu—to cool and redeem, not only Sagara’s sons, but all the sinners of the world. She also took on the epithets, Bhagirathi and Jahnvi, on earth.
It is said in the Vedas that even if men have committed millions of sins, merely thinking of Ganga or chanting her name is enough to cleanse them. Even today, millions of people flock to her waters reverently to worship her and cleanse themselves.
Although she was reluctant to first come down to earth for the same reason, Ganga now takes on the countless sins of millions of people daily. And yet she continues to remain pure. How? It is because she herself gets purified when great mahatmas bathe in her waters! This is an assurance that the Lord gave her when she came down to earth—that she could wash away her accumulated sins when her waters were sanctified by the touch of great saints wandering about the earth.
How compassionate is the Lord! How compassionate is Mother Ganga! How compassionate are the great mahatmas! All of who strive constantly to cleanse us and bestow us with eternal peace and happiness!
This month we celebrate Ganga dasami, the day that Ganga is said to have descended on earth. On this auspicious occasion, let purifying thoughts of her fill our minds and hearts!
Lekshmi Nair, Houston, TX