Ganga and the Purifying Waters of Heaven:
In the Hindu tradition, reverence is shown to almost every river of
the Indian subcontinent. This devotion extends all the way back to the
Rig Veda, the world's earliest text, where all earthly rivers are said
to have their origin in heaven. In the cosmology of the Rig Veda, the
creation of the world or the process of making the world habitable is
associated with the freeing of the heavenly waters by Indra, the king
of gods. A demon is said to have withheld these waters, thus
inhibiting creation. When Indra defeated this demon, the waters rushed
onto the earth, like a mother cow eager to suckle her young (Rig Veda
10.9). The rivers of earth are therefore seen as being necessary to
creation and as having a heavenly origin.
Another important aspect in the veneration for rivers is the purifying
quality of running water in general. The purity-conscious Hindu social
system, in which pollution is inevitably accumulated in the course of
a normal day, prescribes a bath as the simplest way to rid oneself of
impurities. This act simply consists of pouring a handful of cold
water over one's head and letting it run down one's body. Moving,
flowing, or falling water is believed to have a great cleansing power.
This last is specifically exemplified in the act of sprinkling of
water over one's head, or dipping into a running stream, these mere
actions being thought of as sufficient enough to remove most kinds of
daily pollution accumulated throughout the ordinary course of human
Water absorbs pollution, but when it is running, like in a river, it
carries pollution away as well. Correspondingly, the word 'Ganga' is
derived from the etymological root 'gam,' meaning to "to go." Indeed,
Ganga is the "Swift-Goer," and the running, flowing, and energetic
movement of her waters is constantly mentioned as one of the major
reasons behind her purifying attributes.
Ganga as a Mother:
A particularly inspired motif is the visualization of Ganga as a
mother, which is made explicit in the epithet 'Ma Ganga' (Ma meaning
mother), and which undoubtedly is the most popular and endearing term
used to address her. As a mother, Ganga is tangible, approachable, and
all accepting. To put it in the immortal words of David Kinsley, "She
is the distilled essence of compassion in liquid form." No one is
denied her blessing.
Ganga's maternal aspect is seen especially in her nourishing
qualities. As a mother, she nourishes the land through which she
flows, making it fertile. Historically, the land along the banks of
the Ganga has been intensely cultivated. It is particularly fertile
because of the sediment periodically deposited by the floodwaters of
the river. A parallel is often drawn here with the menstrual flow in
women, which renders a woman fertile, and capable of generation.
An evocative example of Ganga's mothering capacity is provided in the
myth describing the birth of Shiva's second son, Karttikeya. The story
goes that a powerful demon once wreaked havoc on the world and the
oppressed victims came to the conclusion that only a son born to the
powerful Shiva could redeem them. Hence, they prayed to Shiva. He
agreed, and first released his seed to Agni (god of fire). But even
Agni found Shiva's seed too hot to handle, and cast it into the river
Ganga, where it developed into a foetus. Thus Karttikeya is also
called Gangaputra, the son of Ganga.
And finally, there is the stark truth staring us. No child is too
dirty to be embraced or cleansed by its mother. Mother Ganga
indiscriminately purifies her devotees, whether they be virtuous or
sinful. She is non judgmental, and all her children are equal in her
Ganga and the Hindu Temple:
It is not unusual to encounter an image of Ganga flanking the doorway
of a Hindu temple. There is a profound reason behind this positioning.
Ganga's heavenly origin and descent to the earth makes her an
effective intermediary between the two worlds, a continuous, ever
flowing link between the two realms. Her location at the threshold of
a temple is appropriate in that she connects the worlds of men and
gods, and represents a transition between the two. Ganga's icon at the
doorway also implies her status as a remover of pollution. Before
entering the sacred realm of gods, which a temple signifies, devotees
should first cleanse themselves of worldly impurities. Often Ganga is
accompanied by Yamuna (a tributary of Ganga) at the gateway. Entering
a temple flanked by the images of these goddesses is believed to
symbolically cleanse the devotees in the purificatory waters of these
two rivers. In a delightful display of artistic license, the current
and ripples of their flowing waters are amply reflected in their
swaying body stances. Indeed, to look at them is equal in effect to a
ritual bath in their waters.
The intense devotion and love which her devotees feel for Ganga is no
small measure due to the fact that she is the only accessible physical
entity that flows both in the heavens and on the earth. Ganga is
indeed divine grace flowing on to our material world, as is visible in
the prosperity of the fertile and rich crop-yielding regions adjacent
to her banks. The consequent deification of Ganga, as both a
nourishing mother, and also as a guardian of the Hindu temple, is but
a natural evolution, when from the depths of the human mind springs a
natural ode to her benign nature, manifesting itself in all realms of
References and Further Reading
Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths: Oxford, 2000.
Bhattacharji, Sukumari. Legends of Devi: Hyderabad, 1995.
Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols:
Darian, Steven G. The Ganges in Myth and History: Delhi, 2001.
Dasa, Jaya Vijaya. Our Merciful Mother Ganga: Noida, 2000.
Eck, Diana L. Banaras City of Light: London, 1984.
Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols: London, 1997.
Hawley, John Stratton., and Wulff, Donna Marie. Devi Goddesses of
India: Delhi, 1998.
Johari, Harish. The Birth of the Ganga: Mumbai, 1998.
Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Delhi, 1998.
Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple (2 Vols.): Delhi, 2002.
Majupuria, Trilok Chandra. Sacred Animals of Nepal and India:
Pal, Pratapaditya. A Collecting Odyssey (Indian, Himalayan, and
Southeast Asian Art): Chicago, 1997.
Rice, Edward. The Ganges A Personal Encounter: New York, 1974.
Sahi, Jyoti. The Child and the Serpent (Reflections on Popular
Indian Symbols): London, 1990.
Seshadri, Lakshmi. Ganga (Comic Book): Mumbai, 2002.
Biswas, T.K., and Tandon, O.P. Ganga in Indian Art (Exhibition
Catalogue): Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi, 1986.
Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
Walker, Benjamin. Hindu World: New Delhi, 1983.
Wilkins, W.J. Hindu Mythology: Calcutta, 1986.
Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: