Why is the Ganges so significant and sacred in Hinduism? Many rivers have nourished humans in our boundless history, and some of the greatest ancient civilizations have been born on the banks of rivers. But none of them achieved such recognition as “the Goddess Ganga”, the river Ganges. Only the great River Nile, which sustained the vast Egyptian civilizations and stretches over the span of ten modern countries, can compare.
The Lifeblood of India
The River Ganges stretches across 1,560 miles (2,510 km) of Indian territory, from the peaks of the Himalayas all the way to the ocean in the Bay of Bengal. On this journey, this river serves a population of around four hundred million people. It flows through more than a hundred cities, both big and small, some of them the most populated and the oldest surviving cities on the planet. The Ganges is like a blood vessel, carrying the lifeblood of India through the subcontinent and feeding and supporting its people.
Further, the Ganges basin serves almost one third of India’s entire population. It is vital for hundreds of millions of people, a river of belief. And it has been so from the earliest times in human history, when one of the oldest civilizations flourished at its bank, right down to the modern day.
Nevertheless, all this is common in many great rivers. So how did one of the world’s most polluted waterways become the most sacred river in human history? Why are festivals held on its banks, including some of the largest religious gatherings in the world?
The Sacred Flow of Hinduism
In Hinduism, even water is held to be holy. Water is taken in hand while uttering a prayer. Water is considered remarkable, and is held to have spiritual and natural cleansing powers to rid the body of sin. But of all water, that which comes from the Ganges is the most divine, sanctifying, sacred water, and the purest gift of nature to Hindus.
This water is one of the essential offerings used in festivals and at prayer. It is offered at Hindu temples, as part of the “yojana” sacrifice, in Hindu rites of passage such as the 16 samskaras, as well as on many other occasions. In the Hindu Santana philosophy, it holds a special place and is offered to the divine.
Millions who come to the Ganges come in the firm belief that bathing in this river, or even the mere sight of River Ganges, will cleanse them of their sins, helping them on their way to their “moksha” or salvation. They believe that drinking Ganges water during their last breath will take their soul to heaven. No “pooja” or ritual is said to be complete without the use of the Ganges water. There are many traditions associated with water from the Ganges, and its purifying properties.
The Ganges, personified as the goddess Ganga, holds a vital position in the Hindu pantheon. Depictions of the goddess Ganga vary, but she is usually portrayed as a beautiful woman wearing a white crown. Her “divine vehicle” or vahana is the “Makara”, a fantastical creature with the head of a crocodile and tail of a dolphin.
She is depicted with either two or four arms, and holds a variety of objects, ranging from water lilies, a Hindu mala rosary, a small pot or jar, or with her hand empty and held in “abhaya mudra”, the gesture of fearlessness. The goddess Ganga is generally seen as a provider and mother figure, and is referred to as “Ma Ganga” or “Ganga Mata” (mother) by Hindus. As befits the personification of the Ganges, she is accepting of all and forgiving of all.
The Source of the Ganges
To understand the river Ganges, one should start where it does: with the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas, more specifically the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, adjoining Tibet. The glacier is one of the longest glaciers in the Himalayas at roughly 19 miles (31km) long and approximately 2 miles (3.2km) wide. In some places, it is even wider, up to 2.5 miles (4km).
The terminus of Gangotri glacier is the primary source of the Ganges, and is called Gomukh, from the Sanskrit, where Gow means “cow” and Mukh means “face”. The snout of the glacier was considered to resemble a cow, and so was named after it. Around 12 miles (19km) from the glacier is the nearest religious town, Gangotri, which can be reached through trekking. The journey to the glacier showcases the raw beauty and remarkable mountain peaks of the region and a picturesque place, the beauty of which is hard to express in words.
Although Gaumukh is the true origin of the Ganges, initially the glacier waters flow into the Bhagirathi river. That is why the Ganges river is also called Bhagirathi in many parts of India, as well as historically in ancient scriptures. The Bhagirathi river is one of the two rivers that become the holy Ganges, and is considered the main tributary.
The Bhagirathi starts its journey at Gaumukh before being joined by different tributaries to become a much larger river. It is quickly joined by the second major river that forms the Ganges, the Alakananda. This river originates from where the Satopanth and Bhagirathi Kharak glaciers join.
The Mythology of the Ganges
In Hindu mythology, Ganga is the only goddess linked to all three of the important gods of the Triad: Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. In the scriptures like the Puranas (Hindu sacred texts), as well as some myths, Ganga is the daughter of King Himavat and Queen Menavati, who were also the parents of Parvati, the wife of Lord Shiva and Ganga’s sister.
Ganga once asked Lord Shiva to marry her, but Lord Shiva rejected her, and would only accept Parvathi as his wife. But he gave a boon to Ganga to remain sacred till the end of the universe, and gave to her the power of removing sins.