Ganga: the Hindu Goddess of the Holy River

Why the Ganges Is Considered Sacred

Grand Palace Reflected in the River Ganges, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
Robert Harding/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The River Ganges, also called the Ganga, is perhaps the holiest river in any religion. Though it is also likely one of the most polluted rivers in the world, the Ganges is of immense significance to Hindus. The Ganges originates from the Gangotri glacier at Gaumukh in the Indian Himalayas at 4,100 meters (13,451 feet) above sea level and flows 2,525 km (1,569 miles) across northern India before meeting the Bay of Bengal in east India and Bangladesh.

As a river, the Ganges contributes to more than 25 percent of India's total water resources.

A Sacred Icon

Hindu legend attributes many holy qualities to the River Ganges, even so far as to sanctify it as a Goddess. Hindus view the river goddess Ganga as a fair-complexioned beautiful woman wearing a white crown with a water lily, holding a water pot in her hands, and riding her pet crocodile. The Ganges is therefore worshiped as a deity in Hinduism and respectfully referred to as "Gangaji" or "Ganga Maiya" (Mother Ganga).

The Hallowed River

Hindus believe that any rituals performed adjacent to the river Ganges, or in its water, see their blessedness multiplied. The waters of the Ganges, called "Gangajal" (Ganga = Ganges; jal = water), is held so sacred that it is believed that by holding this water in hand no Hindu dares to lie or be deceitful. The Puranas—the ancient Hindu scriptures—say that the sight, the name, and the touch of Ganges cleanses one of all sins and that taking a dip in the holy Ganges bestows heavenly blessings.

The Narada Purana prophesied that pilgrimages in the present Kali Yuga to the Ganges will be of utmost importance.

Mythological Origins of the River

The name of Ganga appears only twice in the Rig Veda, and it was only later that Ganga assumed great importance as a goddess. According to the Vishnu Purana, she was created from the sweat of Lord Vishnu's feet.

Hence, she is also called "Vishmupadi"—the one flowing from the foot of Vishnu. Another tale from mythology states that Ganga is Parvataraja's daughter and the sister of Parvati, Lord Shiva's consort. A popular legend cites that because Ganga was so devoted to Lord Krishna in heaven, Krishna's lover, Radha became jealous and cursed Ganga by forcing her to descend to earth and flow as a river. 

Sri Ganga Dusshera/Dashami Festival

Every summer, the Ganga Dusshera or Ganga Dashami festival celebrates the auspicious occasion of the descent of the sacred river to earth from heaven. On this day, a dip in the holy river while invoking the Goddess is said to cleanse a believer of all sins. A devotee worships by lighting incense and a lamp and offers sandalwood, flowers, and milk. Fishes and other aquatic animals are fed flour balls.

Dying By the Ganges

The land over which the Ganges flows is regarded as hallowed ground, and it is believed that those who die in proximity to the river reach the heavenly abode with all their sins washed away. The cremation of a dead body at the banks of Ganges, or even casting the ashes of the deceased into its waters, is thought auspicious and leads to the salvation of the departed.

The famous Ghats of Varanasi and Hardwar are known for being the holiest funeral destinations for Hindus. 

Spiritually Pure But Ecologically Dangerous

Ironically, considering that the waters of the River Ganges are considered purifying to the soul by all Hindus, the Ganges stands as one of the most polluted rivers on earth, due mostly to the fact that nearly 400 million people live near its banks. By one estimate, it is the seventh most polluted river on earth, with levels of fecal matter that are 120 times the level regarded as safe by the Indian government. In India as a whole, it's estimated that 1/3 of all deaths are due to water-borne illnesses. A great many of these originate in the Ganges River basin, largely because the waters of the river are used so readily for spiritual reasons. 

Aggressive efforts to clean up the river have been enacted from time to time, but even today it is estimated that 66 percent of people who use the waters for bathing or washing clothes or dishes will suffer a serious intestinal illness in any given year. The river that is so sacred to the spiritual lives of Hindus is also fairly dangerous to their physical health. 

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Das, Subhamoy. "Ganga: the Hindu Goddess of the Holy River." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/ganga-goddess-of-the-holy-river-1770295. Das, Subhamoy. (2017, October 9). Ganga: the Hindu Goddess of the Holy River. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ganga-goddess-of-the-holy-river-1770295 Das, Subhamoy. "Ganga: the Hindu Goddess of the Holy River." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ganga-goddess-of-the-holy-river-1770295 (accessed November 24, 2017).