The Descent of Ganga

The Ganges RiverThe river Ganga flows peacefully, and sometimes turbulently, through the breadth of India. But, it has not always been so. Ganga, the goddess, once lived on Kailash, the Hindu Olympia, and flowed demurely for the sole pleasure of the gods. And, had it not been for Bhagirath, king and sage, she would still be there.

Bhagirath had an extravagant ancestor who fathered 60,000 sons. With a progeny so large, he soon conquered the world and invaded the nether regions, home of the hermit, Kapila. This horde of young men could not but disturb the meditation of the saint who, in a moment of divine wrath, reduced every one of them to ashes with a single glance. The souls of the 60,000, denied the purification that only water can give, clamored for peace, haunting Bhagirath's every working hour, banishing sleep. By dint of prayer, meditation and penance, the king gained the favour of the gods, asking but one boon, the descent of Ganga, whose waters alone could reanimate the souls of his ancestors and bridge the passage from the now to the thereafter.

The gods pleaded Bhagirath's cause but the Divine Lady was adamant. She had no desire to leave the heavens and, if compelled she would destroy the earth. The gods were helpless and advised Bhagirath to go to Shiva, the Lord Destroyer, who, if he wished, could prevent the threatened destruction. As the matter was of considerable gravity, Bhagirath begged Parvati, Shiva's wife, for her help. Parvati convinced Shiva to receive the powerful torrents unleashed by the tempestuous goddess on his head and divide the fall of the waters into a myriad of streams through his hair. After which, it was relatively easy to guide the river to the centre of the earth, revive the 60,000 and lead Ganga to the ocean.

The story of the descent of the Ganga is told in the stone of Mahaballipuram, near Madras, on the south eastern coast. The astonishing exuberance of the sculptor is revealed in the countless statues in relief of gods and goddesses, monsters and angels, snakes, water nymphs, and a veritable Ark of animals that crowd the rock to watch Ganga flow through Shiva's hair while, Kapila remains serene in his meditation.

Filtered through Shiva's divine hair, the Ganga comes from the adobe of the gods bearing all the reviving powers of the universe. Temple cities border her course, the most important being Varanasi. Here, at dawn, hundreds of pilgrims await that special eternal moment when Indra, the king of the Gods, source of life, unites with the sacred, purifying, reanimating waters of Ganga.