Personification of the Ganges River
Goddess of Forgiveness and Purification
|Mantra||Om Shri Gangayai Namaha|
(parents in some texts)
|Siblings||Parvati (younger sister in some texts), Vishnu|
Ganga (Sanskrit: गङ्गा or गंगा, romanized: Gaṅgā) is the personification of the river Ganges who is worshipped by Hindus as the goddess of purification and forgiveness. Known by many names, Ganga is often depicted as a fair, beautiful woman, riding a divine crocodile-like creature called the Makara. Some of the earliest mentions of Ganga are found in the Rigveda, where she is mentioned as the holiest of the rivers. Her stories mainly appear in post-Vedic texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas.
The Ramayana describes her to be the firstborn of Himavat, the personification of the Himalayas, and the sister of the mother goddess Parvati. However, other texts mention her origin from the preserver god Vishnu. Legends focus on her descent to Earth, which occurred because of a royal-sage Bhagiratha, aided by the god Shiva. In the epic Mahabharata, Ganga is the mother of the warrior Bhishma in a union with the Kuru king Shantanu.
In Hinduism, Ganga is seen as a mother to humanity. Pilgrims immerse the ashes of their kin in the river Ganga, which is considered by them to bring the souls (purified spirits) closer to moksha, the liberation from the cycle of life and death. Festivals like Ganga Dussehra and Ganga Jayanti are celebrated in her honour at several sacred places, which lie along the banks of the Ganges, including Gangotri, Haridwar, Prayagraj, Varanasi and Kali Ghat in Kolkata. Alongside Gautama Buddha, Ganga is worshipped during the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand.
Ganga is mentioned in the Rigveda, the earliest and theoretically the holiest of the Hindu scriptures. Ganga is mentioned in the Nadistuti (Rigveda 10.75), which lists the rivers from east to west. In RV 6.45.31, the word Ganga is also mentioned, but it is not clear if the reference is to the river. RVRV 3.58.6 says that "your ancient home, your auspicious friendship, O Heroes, your wealth is on the banks of the Jahanvi". This verse could refer to the Ganga. In RV 1.116.18–19, the Jahanvi and the Ganga River Dolphin occur in two adjacent verses.
Ganga is described as the melodious, the fortunate, the cow that gives much milk, the eternally pure, the delightful, the body that is full of fish, affords delight to the eye and leaps over mountains in sport, the bedding that bestows water and happiness, and the friend or benefactor of all that lives.
Since the Vedic period, the Ganga River has been considered the holiest of all rivers by Hindus. Ganga is also personified as a goddess and worshipped as Goddess Ganga. She holds an important place in the Hindu pantheon. Ganga is represented as a fair-complexioned woman, wearing a white crown and sitting on a crocodile. She holds a water lily in her right hand and a flute in her left. When shown with four hands she carries a water-pot, a lily, a rosary, and has one hand in a protective mode. The Rig Veda mentions Ganga but more of her is said in the Puranas.
Ganga is depicted four-armed and mounted on a crocodile or enthroned surrounded by crocodiles. In one of the iconography in Maha Virat-rupa, she holds a jar of amrita, rosary, lotus or shivalinga and varada mudra. She may be depicted in other ways holding only a kalash (or 2 replacing lotus) and lotus, while other 2 hands in varada and abhaya mudra. Another one shows her holding kalasha, Trident, shivalinga and varada mudra.
Crocodile or Makara as her vahana
The Ramayana and several other texts narrate that Brahma created Himavan. He later became the king of Himalayas and married Menavati, daughter of Meru. After several years, a daughter was born and they named her Ganga. After some years, another daughter named Parvati was born, who was an incarnation of the mother goddess Shakti. When Ganga grew up, the Devas took her to heaven and she took a form of a river and flowed there.
The Bhagavata Purana depicts another birth story of Ganga. According to the text, Vishnu in one of his incarnations appeared as Vaman in the sacrificial arena of Asur King Mahabali. Then to measure the universe, he extended his left foot to the end of the universe and pierced a hole in its covering with the nail of his big toe. Through the hole, the pure water of the Causal Ocean (Divine Brahm-Water) entered this universe as the Ganges River. Having washed the lotus feet of the lord, which are covered with reddish saffron, the water of the Ganga acquired a very beautiful pink colour. Because the Ganges directly touches the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu (Narayana) before descending within this universe, it is known as Bhagavat-Padi or Vishnupadi which means Emanating from the lotus feet of Bhagavan (God). It finally settles in Brahmaloka or Brahmapura, the abode of the lord Brahma before descending to the planet Earth at the request of Bhagiratha and held safely by lord Shiva on his head to prevent the destruction of Bhumi Devi (Mother Earth). Then, Ganga was released from lord Shiva's hair to meet the needs of the country according to Hinduism.
Descent to Earth
The Mahabharata narrates that there was war between Devas and Asuras. The leader of the Asuras, Vritra, was killed by Indra so his followers hid in the sea and the Devas were unable to find them. The Devas requested sage Agastya to help. He used his divine powers and swallowed the ocean to reveal where the Asuras were hiding. The Devas defeated the remaining demons and asked sage Agastya to restore the water. However, sage Agastya was unable to release the water despite trying several times. This caused drought conditions on Earth but Lord Vishnu assured that the ocean will be filled by the flow of Ganga on Earth.
The story about Ganga's descent on Earth through the efforts of Bhagiratha, a descendant of King Sagara, is narrated in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas. Wanting to show his sovereignty, King Sagara performed a ritual known as ashvamedha, where a horse was left to wander for one year. However, Indra stole the horse to prevent the ritual from being successful. Learning that the horse had disappeared, King Sagara sent his sixty thousand sons to look for it. They eventually found the horse at the ashram of sage Kapila, in the netherworld. Thinking that sage Kapila had stolen the horse, the sons interrupted him while he was in deep meditation. This infuriated sage Kapila and with his ascetic's gaze burned all sixty thousand sons to ashes.
King Sagara sent his grandson, Anshuman, to ask sage Kapila what could be done to bring deliverance to their souls. Sage Kapila advised that only the water of the Ganges, which flowed flowed in the heavens, could liberate them. Bhagiratha, Anshuman's grandson, undertook ascetic practice and won the favour of Brahma and Shiva. Brahma allowed Ganga to descend on earth, while Shiva broke Ganga's fall in the coils of his hair so that her force would not shatter the Earth. When Ganga descended, Bhagiratha led her to the sea. From there, the river reached the netherworld and liberated the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara.
Because of Bhagiratha's efforts, the river is also known as Bhagirathi. She is also known as Tripathaga because she flows in the three worlds, heaven, Earth, and the netherworlds. Another name that Ganga is known by is Jahanvi because she flooded the ashram of sage Jahnu while being led by Bhagiratha. Her waters extinguished the ritual fire there which angered sage Jahnu, so he drank up all of Ganga's waters. Sage Jahnu later released the water out of his left ear after Bhagiratha explained his mission for Ganga's descent. Due to this incident, Ganga is known as Jahanvi which means daughter of Sage Jahnu.
Marriage and children
In the Mahabharata, Ganga is the wife of Shantanu as well as the mother of the eight Vasus, including Bhishma. Ganga and Shantanu were cursed by Brahma to be born on Earth. Shantanu met Ganga on the banks of the Ganges and asked her to marry him. She accepted the proposal on the condition that Shantanu would not question any of her actions. Shantanu agreed and they married. They lived together peacefully and had eight sons who were the incarnation of the eight Vasus. They too had been cursed and had asked Ganga to end their life when they were born to her on Earth. Due to their request, Ganga began drowning each son upon birth while Shantanu watched without questioning. However, when she was about to drown their eighth son, Bhishma, Shantanu stopped her. Ganga later leaves with Bhishma but gives him back to Shantanu when he is ten years old.
Some traditions associate Bhagirathi with Shiva rather than Shantanu. Ganga is sometimes connected with Vishnu too. According to one text, Ganga was originally a wife of Vishnu. When she had constant scuffles with her co-wives, Vishnu gave Ganga to Shiva.
The Ganga is also the mother, the Ganga Mata (Mata="mother") of Hindu worship and culture, accepting all and forgiving all. Unlike other goddesses, she has no destructive or fearsome aspect, destructive though she might be as a river in nature. She is also a mother to other gods.
The Ganga is the distilled lifeblood of the Hindu tradition, of its divinities, holy books, and enlightenment. As such, her worship does not require the usual rites of invocation (avahana) at the beginning and dismissal (visarjana) at the end, required in the worship of other gods. Her divinity is immediate and everlasting, but only for as long as the river survives.
On this day Ganga was reborn. Legend says that she accidentally destroyed the hut of a sage during her descent to Earth, as a result of which, the sage drank the entirety of the river's water. At the request of Bhagirathi and Ganga herself, he released the river from his ear and she earned the name Jahanvi. Ganga Jayanthi falls on Saptami of Vaishakh month's shukla paksha.
Ganga Maa is worshipped during Navratri as all the forms of Maa Adishakti are worshipped in those days.
Beyond the Indian subcontinent and Hinduism
Ganga is respected in Nepal as a guardian water goddess, worshipped together with another river goddess Yamuna. Her sculptures are found in Patan Durbar Square and Gokarneshwar Mahadev temple is a municipality in Kathmandu District in the Bagmati Province.
In Balinese Hinduism, she is worshipped together with the goddess Danu. Her waters are considered holy in Bali. Her maternal association with Bhishma is known in Bali. Religious sites associated with her in Bali are Tirta Gangga, Pura Taman Mumbul Sangeh, and Kongco Pura Taman Gandasari.
Ganga Talao in Mauritius is considered by the Mauritian Hindus equivalent to Ganga. In 1972, the then Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam brought Holy water from the Ganga's source - Gomukh in India and mixed it with the water of the Grand Bassin and renamed it as Ganga Talao.
Ganga is invoked with Hindu deities Shiva, Bhumi, Surya and Chandra in Thailand's royal Triyampawai ceremony. She is worshipped together with goddess Phra Mae Thorani within Thai Bushhism and goddess Phosop in Tai folk religion. The four sacred pools of Suphan Buri Province have waters from the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers and are used for rituals.
Ganga has been revered in Cambodia since the Khmer empire. In Shiva's iconographical form Uma-Gangapatisvarar (Khmer: ព្រះឧមាគង្គាបតិស្វរ), Shiva is depicted with Ganga and his wife Uma (Parvati). Ganga's images are located in Bakong, Lintel in Thommanon and exhibit in International Council of Museums.
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