GANGES RIVER . The Ganges (Gaṅgā), considered the holiest of India's rivers, is 1,560 miles long. Rising at Gangotri in the Himalayas, this great river flows through the North Indian plain and into the Bay of Bengal. To Hindus, the Ganges is the archetype of all sacred waters; she is a goddess, Mother Gaṅgā (Gaṅgā Mātā), representative of the life-giving maternal waters of the ancient Vedic hymns; above all, she is the symbol par excellence of purity and the purifying power of the sacred. These affective and symbolic values of the Ganges hold true for all Hindus, irrespective of sectarian differences.
Celebration of the Goddess-River
According to Hindu belief, the Ganges purifies all that she touches. Her entire course is a pilgrimage route for the faithful. Millions of Hindus visit the preeminent tīrtha s ("crossings," places of pilgrimage) that mark her path: the source at Gangotri; Hardwar (also called Gaṅgādvāra, "gateway of the Ganges"), where the river enters the plain; Prayāg (present-day Allahabad), where she joins both the holy Yamnuā (Jumna) and the mythical river Sarasvatī, thus earning the name Triveṇī ("river of three currents"); Kāśī (Banaras), abode of the god Śiva and the holiest city of the Hindus; and Gaṅgāsagar, where the Ganges enters the sea. Pilgrims go to these places to bathe in the Ganges, to drink her water, to worship the river, and to chant her holy name. Especially in Banaras, many come to cremate their kin, to deposit the ashes of the dead in the river, or to perform religious rites for their ancestors. Some come to spend their last days on the banks of the river, to die there and thus "cross over" the ocean of birth and death. Holy men, widows, and others who have dedicated themselves to the contemplative life live in numbers in the sacred places along the Ganges. They in turn attract millions who congregate at periodic festivals and fairs, the greatest of which is the Kumbha Melā, celebrated every twelve years in Prayāg. All who come to the Ganges come in the firm belief that bathing in this river, even the mere sight of Mother Gaṅgā, will cleanse them of their sins, taking them a step nearer to final release (mokṣa ). Those who cannot make the trip can partake of the river's sacred water from the sealed jars that pilgrims carry home. Ganges water is given to participants and guests at weddings, as well as to the sick and the dying; it validates Hindu oaths; and in an ancient daily rite, every devout Hindu invokes the Ganges, along with the other sacred rivers, to be present in the water in which he bathes. The purifying powers of the Ganges are great indeed.
The Ganges in Mythology and Iconography
The Vedic Aryans celebrated the Indus, not the Ganges, and her tributaries as their "seven sacred rivers." It is in the epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa (roughly fourth century bce), which reflect Aryan settlement in the Ganges Plain, that the Ganges takes her place at the head of seven holy rivers that are now geographically spread over all of India. The principal myths of the Ganges are found in the epics and the Purāṇas (mythological texts that include the lore of sacred places), and in Sanskrit hymns of praise such as the Gāṅgālaharī (The waves of the Ganges) by the seventeenth-century poet Jagannātha. The central myth of the Ganges is the story of her descent (avatāra, avataraṇa ) from heaven to earth, a story narrated with variations in several texts (Rāmāyaṇa, "Bāla Kāṇḍa" 38–44; Mahābhārata 3.104–108; Skanda Purāṇa, "Kāśī Khaṇḍa" 30). In response to the great and steadfast penance of King Bhagīratha, the sky-river Ganges agreed to descend to earth in order to purify the ashes of the sixty thousand sons of Bhagīratha's ancestor Sagara, who had been burned by the wrath of a sage (Kapila) whom they had offended. The great ascetic god Śiva caught the falling stream in his matted hair in order to soften the blow on earth; the Ganges followed Bhagīratha to the sea, whence she flowed into the netherworld to fulfill her mission. This myth explains several of the Ganges's names, including Bhāgīrathī ("she who descended at Bhagīratha's request") and Tripathagāminī ("she who flows through the three worlds"). The descent of the Ganges is the subject of a famous seventh-century rock sculpture at Mahabalipuram in South India.
In the Vaiṣṇava version of the descent myth, the Ganges is said to have descended when Viṣṇu, as Trivikrama who measured heaven and earth, pierced the vault of heaven with his upraised foot. The association of the river with both great gods of Hinduism points to the universality of the Ganges in Hinduism. In minor myths the river is portrayed as the mother of the Mahābhārata hero Bhīṣma and the mother of Skanda-Kārttikeya, who was born from Śiva's seed flung into the Ganges.
The Ganges' most sustained association is with the god Śiva himself. Not only does she flow through his hair, she is considered to be his wife, along with Pārvatī, the other daughter of the god of the Himalaya, Himavat. As powerful river and goddess-consort, the Ganges is śakti, the feminine energy of the universe, and the female aspect of the androgynous Śiva. Like Śiva and the ambrosial moon on his head, the Ganges—whose life-sustaining ambrosial waters flow from the realm of the moon—is connected with both life and death.
The themes of purification, life, and death that appear in the myths and rites associated with the Ganges are also expressed in her iconography, especially in the representation of the Gaṅgā and Yamnuā as goddesses carved on either side of the entrances of Hindu temples of the medieval period (roughly from the fifth to the eleventh century ce). Ancient symbols of fertility (trees, vegetation, overflowing pots, the female herself) appear in these images; yet the Ganges rides on a makara ("crocodile"), who represents the dangers of death as well as the abundance of life. As "goddess of the threshold" the Ganges no doubt initiates, purifies, and blesses with worldly prosperity the devotee who enters the sacred realm of the temple; at the same time, in the esoteric symbolism of Yoga and Tantra, the river-goddess is said to represent iḍā, one of the nāḍī s (subtle channels) through which one's energy is activated in order to achieve the supreme realization of the self—final release from worldly existence. However, in the last analysis, for the average Hindu it is not a matter of esoteric interpretation but of simple faith—reinforced by popular texts—that the goddess-river Ganges is the most accessible and powerful agent of salvation available to him or her in the kaliyuga, the present dark and degraded age of humankind.
Diana L. Eck's essay entitled "Gaṅgā: The Goddess in Hindu Sacred Geography," in The Divine Consort: Rādhā and the Goddesses of India, edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna M. Wulff (Berkeley, Calif., 1982), pp. 166–183, is the best introduction to the religious significance of the Ganges in Hinduism. The same author has a good discussion of the Ganges in the context of Kāśī, the holy city of the Hindus, in chapter 5 of Banaras: City of Light (New York, 1982). Spectacular visual images of the Ganges and the life along her banks, accompanied by a highly informative and readable introductory text, may be found in Gaṅgā: Sacred River of India, photographs by Raghubir Singh, introduction by Eric Newby (Hong Kong, 1974). Steven G. Darian's The Ganges in Myth and History (Honolulu, 1978) is a solid, well-written, well-illustrated historical study of the many dimensions of the Ganges. Finally, Heinrich von Stietencron's Gaṅgā und Yamnuā: Zur symbolischen Bedeutung der Flussgöttinnen an indischen Tempeln (Wiesbaden, 1972) is an excellent scholarly work on the symbolism of the iconography of the great river-goddesses in Hinduism.
Indira Viswanathan Peterson (1987)