When Ganga was Born

The Story of the Holy River’s Descent to Earth

India - Varanasi - A Brahmin contemplating the holy Ganga
India - Varanasi - A Brahmin contemplating the holy Ganga.

 Arne Hodalic / Getty Images

When Ganga was born, the holy Indian cities of Haridwar and Banaras or Varanasi did not exist either. That would come later. Even so: the world was already old and sufficiently civilized to boast of kings and kingdoms and shaded forests.

So it came to pass that an angry and aging mother named Aditi sat down to fast and pray that Lord Vishnu - the preserver of the world - would aid her in a moment of distress; her sons, who ruled several planets in the universe, had recently been vanquished by the great king Bali Maharaj, who wanted to become the sole ruler of the entire celestial world. As the humiliated mother of defeated sons, Aditi refused to eat, and closed her eyes, with a hurt soul eager for retribution. She kept praying to Vishnu, till at last he appeared after twelve long days of penance.

Moved by her devotion and strength of purpose, Vishnu promised the aggrieved mother that the lost kingdoms would be restored to her sons.

And so Vishnu disguised himself as a midget Brahmin ascetic answering to the name of Vamandeva. He appeared at the glorious court of Bali Maharaja to plead with the victorious king to give him "just" three pieces of land. Dulled by a sense of invincibility and amused by the midget, the great king lightheartedly consented to the appeal.

In that very moment of thoughtless consent, Vamandeva decided to take his chance and started expanding his form to gigantic proportions. To the king's horror, the giant dwarf walked his first step, which, to the everlasting despair of Bali Maharaj, covered the whole universe. That is how Aditi got her sons' kingdoms back.

But it was the second step that assumed crucial significance. Vamandeva then kicked a hole in the shell of the universe, causing a few drops of water from the spiritual world to spill into the universe. These precious and rare drops of the Other World gathered into the flow of a river that came to be known as the Ganga. That was the sacred moment when the great Ganga came into being to become integrated with history.

Ganga's dilemma

But even so, Ganga remained in the heavenly universe, fearing that stepping onto the earth might render her unsanctified because of the multitude of its sinners. Indra - King of the Heavens - wanted Ganga to remain in his domain so that she could soothe the cods with her cool waters, rather than move to some other world.

But in that earthly world of sinners, there was the great kingdom of Ayodhya ruled by the childless king Bhagiratha, who desperately yearned for Ganga to come down and wash away the sins of his forefathers. Bhagiratha hailed from a royal family that claimed its ancestry from the Sun God himself. Even though he ruled over a peaceful country, with hardworking, honest and happy people, Bhaigiratha remained melancholic, not only because no child had sprung from his loins to continue the illustrious dynasty, but also because he was bearing the heavy burden of completing the task of bringing salvation to his ancestors.

And then there was something else. A long time ago, King Sagar, the then ruler of Ayodhya, had sent his grandson Suman to search for his 60,000 sons which were borne to him by his second wife Sumati. (She had actually borne a gourd which burst open to give way to these sixty thousand.) Now these sons, who were fostered by nurses in jars of ghee till they grew up to youth and beauty, had disappeared mysteriously while they were searching for a lost horse let loose by King Sagar as a part of the great horse sacrifice known as the Ahwamedha Yagna. If this sacrifice had reached its logical conclusion, Sagar would have become the undisputed master of the Gods.

Searching for his uncles, Suman encountered four elephants in the four corners of the world. These elephants were responsible for balancing the earth on their heads, with all its plenteous hills and forests. These elephants wished Suman success in his noble enterprise. Finally, the dutiful grandson came across the great sage Kapila who, impressed by Suman's demeanor, told him that all sixty thousand uncles had been turned to ashes by his angry gaze when they tried to blame him for stealing that special horse. Kapila warned that the dead princes would not arrive in heaven by immersion of their ashes in just any river water. Only the celestial Ganga, which flows with its sacred water in the heavenly world, could provide salvation.

Down to earth

Time passed. Sagar died with a heart grown heavy with his wish for the salvation of the souls of his sons. Suman was now the king, and he ruled his people as if they were his own children. When old age crept upon him, he offered the throne to his son Dileepa and proceeded to the Himalayas to practice ascetic disciplines he wanted to impose on himself. He wanted to bring the Ganga down to the earth but died without fulfilling this desire.

Dileepa knew how deeply his father and grandfather had longed for this. He tried various means. He performed many yagnas (fire ritual) on the advice of sages. Pangs of sorrow at not being able to fulfill the family's aspiration infected him, and he fell ill. Seeing that his physical strength and mental stamina were declining, he placed his son Bhagiratha on the throne; entrusting him with the mission of completing the task still left undone.

Bhagiratha soon handed the kingdom over to the care of a counselor and went to the Himalayas, performing terrible austerities for a thousand years to draw the Ganga down from the skies. Eventually, humbled by the dogged dedication of the ascetic king, Ganga appeared in human form and agreed to purify the ashes of Bhagiratha's ancestors.

But the great river feared earth, where sinful people would bathe in her waters, sullying her with bad karma. She felt that if the sinners of the earth, who do not know what kindness is and who suffered from egoism and selfishness, came into contact with her, she would lose her sanctity. But the noble Bhagiratha, eager for the salvation of his ancestors' souls, assured Ganga: "Oh! Mother, there are as many sacred and devoted souls as there are sinners, and by your contact with them, your sin will be removed."

When Ganga agreed to bless the earth, a fear still persisted: The land of the sinners could never possibly withstand the great pressure with which the frothy waters of the holy Ganges would descend upon ungodly earth. To save the world from unimaginable calamity, Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Shiva - the God of Destruction - who that Ganga would fall first on the matted locks of his head to enable the waters to exhaust their, furious energy beforehand and then descend to the earth with diminished impact.

The joyous moment

The great Ganga rushed in a mighty torrent onto Shiva's gracious head and, making her way through his tangled locks, the Mother Goddess fell upon the earth, in seven distinct streams: Hladini, Nalini, and Pavani flowed east, Subhikshu, Sitha, and Sindhu flowed west, and the seventh stream followed the chariot of Bhagiratha to the place where the ashes of his great-grandfathers lay in heaps, awaiting their journey to the heavens.

The falling waters crashed like thunder. The earth was slashed into a silvery white ribbon. Every earthly being marveled at the arrival of the majestic and beautiful Ganga, who rushed on as though she had been waiting for this moment all her life.

Now she plunged over a cliff; now she made her way through a valley; now she took a turn and changed course. All the while, during her dance of joy and exuberance, she followed the delighted Bhagiratha's chariot. Eager folk flocked to wash away their sins and Ganga flowed on and on: smiling, laughing and gurgling.

Then the holy moment came when Ganga flowed over the ashes of the 60,000 sons of King Sagar and so unshackled their souls from the chains of rage and punishment and delivered them to the gilded gates of heaven.

The waters of the holy Ganges finally sanctified the ancestors of the dynasty of the Sun. Bhagiratha went back to his kingdom of Ayodhya and soon, his wife gave birth to a child.


Time passed. Kings died, kingdoms disappeared, seasons changed, but the celestial Ganga, even at this moment, is still falling from the heavens, rushing and frothing through Shiva's tangled locks, down to the earth, where sinners and worthy men alike flock to her waters.

May her journey continue past the end of time.

Acknowledgment: Journalist Mayank Singh is based in New Delhi. This article by him appeared in www.cleanganga.com from where it has been reproduced with permission.