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Mother Ganga: The Holy River

River Ganga is the second largest river of the Indian subcontinent, emerging from the mighty Himalayas of the serene state of Uttarakhand (India). As per historic beliefs, the princely states of Kannauj and Awadh prospered only because of this Holy River. Several thousand people from various locations take bath everyday in the River Ganga that fall on its course, such as Rishikesh, Haridwar, Varanasi, Ujjain and many others. For Hindus, the river is considered not just sacred, but is also worshipped and loved by them as a Mother. Bathing in this river is considered auspicious and beneficial, especially on occasions of Somvati Amavasya, Kartik Poornima, Basant Panchami, the month of Saavan, Chaudas, Baisakhi, Nirjala Ekadashi and Maha Shivratri. Apart from the religious reasons, Ganga is considered important for various other reasons:

  • This river has a self cleansing attribute as its water can be saved for decades. It can never get spoiled or infected.
  • River Ganga helps irrigate massive regions of northern India. Northern farmers are mostly dependent on this holy river.
  • Bathing in this river cures several skin diseases due to presence of high Sulphur content in it.
  • It is said that taking a dip in Ganga during monsoon is very beneficial for health since many medicinal herbs come flowing in the water from the mighty Himalayas.

Mythological Significance:

Rig Veda writings do not have any particular mention of River Ganga, but in later Vedas, it has been given a lot of significance. The religious scriptures show numerous names that have been given to the holy river along with stories regarding its arrival on Earth.

Bali and Lord Vishnu (Vishnupadi or Bhagavat-padi)

In Bhagavata Puran, Lord Vishnu is incarnated as ‘Vamana’ in the Kingdom of the demon king Mahabali. Mahabali was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu and wanted to become powerful with his blessings. Even the God of Gods, Indra, was afraid that Bali would take over the entire universe with his evil acts; and hence, Lord Indra sought help from Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a Brahmin and knocked the doors of Bali, who always gave in to the demands of Brahmins. Lord Vishnu asked him for 3 steps of land. Bali agreed and decided to grant the Brahmin his wish. The Brahmin then started measuring his three steps and with every single step, he grew in size. He took his first step, with which he covered the entire Earth, and pierced a hole through which Ganga came out; with his second step, he measured the skies and so, nothing was left to be covered by his third foot. Seeing this, Bali bowed his head and Lord Vishnu kept his foot on his head and pushed him into the world of demons. Lord Brahma, who washed the feet of Lord Vishnu, collected that water into his Kamandala. River Ganga touched the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu before entering the universe and due to this reason, Ganga is often addressed as Vishnupadi or Bhagavat-padi (originating from the feet of the God). Sagara (Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Alaknanda)

Another sacred script talks about King Sagara, the descendent of Suryavanshi (sun god) and his ‘Ashvamedha yagya’ where his horse was set free and was followed by his 60,000 sons. Lord Indra once stole their horse and while the sons of Sagara were searching for the horse, they accidentally disturbed the great sage Kapila, who was in his meditation. Aggravated sage cursed them and burnt them (bhasma) into ashes by his Yogic powers. All other princes requested sage Kapila to forgive their souls and bless the deceased, so that they could at least attain salvation (Moksha). Kapila advised them that their souls could be liberated only if the water of ‘Brahmma Loka’ is sprinkled on them. King Bhagirath meditated (tapasya) continuously day and night for several years to please lord Brahama and help his sons achieve Moksha. After years of prayers and dedication, King Bhagirath finally could please Lord Brahama and kept forward his request. Sadly, after hearing the king’s wish, Lord Brahama asked King Bhagirath to request Lord Shiva to hold River Ganga in His mighty hair locks, since He was the only one who could hold the tremendous force of the falling stream of Ganga; which otherwise would have resulted in massive destruction. After endless prayers, Lord Shiva was pleased by Bhagirath’s devotion and blessed him by agreeing to his wish. And this is how River Ganga entered the universe because of undying prayers and dedication of King Bhagirath to liberate the souls of sixty thousand sons of King Sagara. The Holy Ganga fell in different streams from Shiva’s jata (hairlocks) and was respectively names as Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Alaknanda, and so on.

Ramayana (Rama Ganga):

When river Ganga touched the feet of Lord Rama before leaving the universe, Lord Rama gave her a boon that whenever he will take birth on Earth, He will reside along the banks of Ganga. Later, He took birth in Ayodhya, which exists on the banks of river Sarayu (a tributary of Ganga), and during his time of exile in forest (Vanvas), he lived besides the bank of Ganga streams. This is the major reason, why Holy Ganga is also sometimes known as ‘Rama Ganga’.

Cultural Significance:

  • According to Hindu beliefs, one can get rid of all the past sins if taken a dip in the Holy River.
  • Hindus keep the sacred water of Ganga in their houses for various forms of worship and rituals. No Hindu Puja is complete without Ganga Jal.
  • When a person is on death-bed, Ganga Jal is poured in his mouth. It is believed that this act can open the doors of heaven for the deceased person and his soul gets liberated.
  • Hindus’ cremation ceremonies are performed on the banks of the river Ganga and their ashes are immersed into this Holy River, which leads a person to the path of Moksha (bliss). Places like Haridwar, Varanasi, Prayag are considered as holy places due to their location on the banks of Ganga.
  • This Himalayan daughter, Ganga, gathers millions of people from all around the world for a fair popularly known as Kumbh mela, which occurs once in very 12 years. The kumbh mela is celebrated in four sacred cities- Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nasik . According to Hindu mythology, Kumbh Mela is observed on places where Amrit was dropped during the famous Sagar Manthan.
  • River Ganga is not just a river or sacred water for Hindus, it is respected as a mother, a creator and has a lot of medicinal qualities. On several popular banks of Ganga like Haridwar, Varanasi, Rishikesh, the priests worship the Ganga by performing an Aarti which is a worth watching sight and is attended by people of all walks of life.

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