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Famous Legends of River Ganga

Posted By ServDharm


Posted on September 27 2021

River Ganga or Ganges, as it is otherwise called, is a sacred river in Hindu mythology. It is considered to be holy because it descended on Earth straight from heaven. The river is represented in Hindu legends as a lady dressed in white. She is also shown to be flowing from the matter locks of Lord Shiva’s hair. This is why the river is also referred to as Jatashankar (jata means hair and Shankar is another name for Shiva.). Hindu scriptures portray her mother as Menu and her father as Himavat who is believed to symbolise the Himalayas. 

There are several interesting legends related to River Ganga. Read on for two of these stories.

The most famous story is associated with Bhagiratha. Long ago, King Sagara ruled over the Ikshvaku dynasty. He had performed 99 Ashwamedha Yagnas and annexed several kingdoms, thereby expanding his empire. The king decided to perform one last yagna to highlight and celebrate his victory. However, his intention made Lord Indra, the king of the gods insecure and anxious. He worried that the king would have more power than him. After a lot of thought, the god stole the horse and tied it to a tree in the ashram of Sage Kapila.

When King Sagara found the horse missing, he asked his 60,000 sons to search for the horse. They searched far and wide and finally found it in the ashram. They caused a commotion when trying to release the horse. This disturbed the sage who was engaged in deep meditation. When he opened his eyes, the princes accused him falsely of stealing the horse. Needless to say, this angered Sage Kapila and he burnt them to ashes with a fiery glance. He also cursed them that they would roam around in netherland without attaining moksha.

The king sent his only surviving son Anshuman to the sage and seek forgiveness as well as liberation of the souls of his siblings. Sage Kapila told him to worship Lord Brahma and ask him to release the Ganga from his water pot. He also mentioned that the holy water would purify their souls. Anshuman and several others from the next generations did their best to appease Brahma but did not succeed. Seven generations later, it was King Bhagiratha who succeeded in pleasing the lord with his penance of a thousand years.

Lord Brahma ordered Ganga to flow to the nether land and grant moksha to Bhagiratha’s ancestors. However, this offended her as she did not want to descend to nether land. and she decided to use her massive force to destroy the earth to show her displeasure. However, Lord Shiva foresaw her intention. On the advice of Brahma, King Bhagiratha then prayed to Lord Shiva and sought his help in controlling the river. Shiva readily agreed to help him. 

As soon as Ganga started to flow with full force towards the earth, the lord caught her and trapped her in his hair locks. He released the river a little so that she would just trickle down without destroying the earth. Shiva then ordered Ganga to follow Bhagiratha. He took the river to where the ashes of his ancestors lay and washed them in his waters. This helped them to attain moksha and be liberated from the nether world.

Ever since, the Ganges has also been called Bhagirathi because it was Bhagiratha who worshipped for the river from earth. On the other hand, Lord Shiva also came to be known as Gangadhar because he caught and trapped Ganga.

River Ganga is also mentioned in the Mahabharata. King Shantanu of the Hastinapur dynasty was once hunting on the banks of the river when he saw Goddess Ganga. He fell for her immediately and proposed to her. Ganga told him to come back to her the next day and the king agreed readily.

When he approached her the next day, she said that she would marry him if he agreed to her condition. The condition was that the king should never question any of her actions or ask her the reason for the same. She would leave him the moment he did so. The king obliged readily and they married each other.

A few years later Ganga gave birth to her first son. The king was overjoyed but was surprised when he saw her take the infant to the river and drown him. Although he wanted to question her, his promise held him back. This went on each time the Ganga gave birth to her next six sons. The ministers wondered why the king remained silent and started discussing among themselves what the reason could be.

When the eighth son was born, the queen proceeded to the river with the baby as usual. The king could take it no longer. He followed her to the river and stopped her from drowning the baby. He went on to ask her why she did so. Ganga reminded the king of his promise and told him about her past. She was the son of Lord Brahma in her last birth and drowned the earlier sons to save them from a curse. Shantanu was Lord Indra’s friend, King Mahabhishan. The king and Ganga along with her father went to heaven one day to see the celestial dance performance of the nymphs. 

The king could not take his eyes off Ganga. When a breeze blew off a part of Ganga’s clothing, all those present but for the king turned away. This enraged Brahma and he cursed them to be born on earth. The king’s questioning about her actions released her from her curse while drowning her sons relieved them from the impact of the curse as well. Ganga then said that she would leave with the eighth son and send him later to the king at the right time. She named the son Devrat, who became more popular as Bheeshma. 

Ganga is believed to be the only river that flows through the three worlds – swarga or heaven, bhumi or earth and patala or netherland. Hindus are of the firm belief that taking a bath in the Ganges helps them to get rid of their sins. It is said that merely touching the river waters can help the person gain salvation. This is why Hindus immerse the ashes of their deceased loved ones in the river. The water is also said to have healing properties.