The Origins and Myths of Goddess Ganga

Ganga is an important Hindu goddess. She is considered the personification of the river Ganga, which flows through all of north India. Ganga is considered the holiest of all rivers. The goddess Ganga is the symbol of purification and forgiveness.

She is also known by other names, such as Bhagirathi, Mandakini, and Jahnavi. She is also known as Yogini. Thus, she is someone who is a master practitioner of tantra and yoga. In this sense, Ganga is a sacred feminine force and is considered an aspect of Shakti.

Her water is considered the nectar of life. It is believed that her water is a gateway to a peaceful way to heaven. Even the scientific community gives evidence of the purity of the river. The water keeps the diseases away and provides a way to moksha.

Ganga Origins: From Heaven to Earth

Ganga Origin
Raja Ravi Varma, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the Hindu epic Ramayana, the goddess Ganga is the firstborn daughter of King Himavat (King of the Himalayas) and queen Maneka. So, she is considered the sister of the goddess Parvati. It is said that when Ganga grew up, seeing the purity in her whole existence, the gods took her to Swarga (heaven) with them. She remained there until the time of her descent back to earth.

According to legend, Ganga descended on Earth with the help of sage Bhagirath. He practiced severe penance. The reason for this penance was that the sage Kapila cursed his family. He had burned Bhagiratha’s kinsmen to ashes. He informed Bhagiratha that their moksha could only be obtained through the waters of Ganga. As a result, he practiced penance and pleased Lord Brahma.

Lord Brahma ordered Ganga to go back to earth. So, Ganga followed the chariot of Bhagiratha and descended on earth. It is said that part of her still flows in heaven in the form of the Milky Way.

In her descent, Bhagiratha was assisted by Lord Shiva. It is said that while descending on earth, she was flowing with her full force. To control her flow, Lord Shiva first blocked her in his locks, and she flowed after that in a controlled manner. This occurred at the abode of Lord Shiva, which is Mount Kailash. She, as a river, thus originates at the glaciers of this mountain and enters India after crossing a large area and merging with other rivers within herself.

Alternatively, Ganga is the Daughter of Lord Vishnu

According to one legend, she was born to Lord Vishnu. According to this, Lord Vishnu was in one of his incarnations as Vamana. In this form, he extended his left foot in order to end the universe. He pierced a hole in its covering with his big toe. Through this hole, the pure water of the cosmos entered the universe. This was the river Ganga. She touched the feet of Vamana before descending into the universe and settling in the abode of Lord Brahma.

Representation: Symbol of Purity

She is often depicted with a fair complexion. She is portrayed as a beautiful woman who rides an animal that has the head of a crocodile and the tail of a dolphin. This mythical creature is called Makara. Makara is considered a guardian of gateway thresholds such as the entry gates of temples or the garbhagriha (inner room) of the temples. Her weapon is the Kalasha (a metal pot with a large base and small mouth).

She wears a white crown and holds a water lily in her right hand. Her left hand contains a flute. She is also sometimes shown with four arms. In this picture, her other two hands hold a water pot and a rosary. This water pot is said to contain amrita (holy water). She is also known in various mudras such as varada (boon distribution) and abhaya (fearless).

Legends of Ganga

According to one legend, Ganga was originally one of the three wives of Lord Vishnu. Lakshmi and Saraswati are the other two. One time, Saraswati saw that Ganga was glancing at Lord Vishnu. He was sitting behind both goddesses, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Angry Saraswati accused her of stealing all of her husband’s love. At this point, Ganga requested that Lord Vishnu help her, but he remained neutral. He said that he loved all three of them equally.

Goddess Lakshmi tried to be an intermediary to solve their quarrel. But Saraswati got angry with her too. She cursed her for being born as the Tulsi plant. Seeing this Ganga-cursed Saraswati reincarnated as a river on earth And Saraswati, enraged, cursed Ganga with the same curse. As a result of this curse, sinful people would bathe in her water to atone for their transgressions.

Mother to eight Vasus

Ganga drowning son
Raja Ravi Varma, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Mahabharata, the goddess is the mother of eight Vasus (attendants of Lord Vishnu). It was said that these Vasus were reincarnated because of a curse. They wanted her to kill them as soon as they were born. She accepted their request. She began drowning each son upon birth. 

Her husband Shantunu (the incarnation of Varuna) watched the drowning of their first seven sons, but for the eighth, he stopped her. She stopped but later eloped with him. She gave Bhishma, the eighth son, back to Shantanu when he was ten. Bhishma became a warrior and was granted the wish that his death would be at his own discretion.

The Sage Jahnu Drinks All the Water of Ganga

Once, the sage Jahnu put a curse on the goddess. When Ganga was flowing through the locks of Lord Shiva, her flow was controlled. But she was still in her youth. Her water was still flowing with great force. Sage Jahnu’s fields were destroyed because of her. Infuriated, the sage drank up all the water of Ganga. The gods prayed to him to release the holy water for the good of mankind. So, he finally released her through his ear. This legend gave her the name Jahnavi, which means “daughter of Jahnu.”

Parvati is Mother to Kartikeya

According to one story, after the marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvati, they still didn’t have any children for many years. All the gods were worried about the power of their child, which was about to be born. They thought that the power of a child born out of such a union would be immense. Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati’s radiance could endow their child with unlimited power that, if unchecked, could destroy all three worlds.

All gods thus requested Lord Shiva to do a ritual. Accordingly, Lord Shiva discharged his seed, which, along with forests and mountains, got inseminated. The fire god and wind god also helped in the process. Thus, Kartikeya was born.

However, as the goddess, Parvati desired to give birth to their child on her own. Angry at the plan of the gods, she cursed all of them. Thus, they were not going to be able to get their children through their wives. As their wives were to remain infertile. She also cursed the earth, saying that she would be the wife of many but have no children.

Ganga is Mother to Skanda

She and Lord Shiva went to the Himalayas and started doing penance. All the gods went to Lord Brahma, as there was no commander of their army, Lord Shiva being with Parvati. Lord Brahma said that the fire god would soon have a child with the goddess Ganga. All the gods went to Fire God with the request, and Fire God went to Ganga. He expressed his desire to have a son with her. She agreed and adopted her divine form as a river. The Fire-god drenched the goddess with the radiance of Lord Shiva.

But she couldn’t hold the baby because it was so strong. Seeing her miserable power, the fire-god told her to hide the embryo at the bottom of the Himalayas. The place where it was hidden became a place of gold. The boy born out of the embryo then became the chief of the army of gods. He was known by the name Skanda. He quickly grew into a warrior, defeating the Asuras.

Manifestations 

Goddess Ganga is manifested in the form of a river. She has seven branches. At the start of her flow, she is known as Mandakani. Along with this, she is Bhagirathi, Jahnvi, Bhilangana, Rishiganga, Saraswati, and Alaknanda. After merging with the rivers Yamuna and Brahmaputra, she becomes Padma and finally merges with the ocean as Meghna.

Devotion

People bathe in the Ganges, believing that doing so will wash away all their sins. Hence, their karma will get clearer, and they will be closer to moksha in this birth. As a river, she symbolizes fertility and is an important part of the whole life process.

ganga devotion
Shubvedz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Her worshippers call her Ganga Maiya, which means they see her as a mother figure. People also immerse the ashes of their kin in the river. This is done to make them closer to moksha after death. It is also considered the completion of a cycle. Because all things arise from natural elements, they should continue to exist in these elements after death.

She is worshiped during one of the days of Navratri. Other festivals, such as Ganga Jayanti, are celebrated to honor her. There are many important places, such as the banks of the river in Haridwar, Prayagraj, and Varanasi, where her puja is done with all the decorations and mantras. Kumbh Mela, which is one of the largest festivals in the world, is celebrated on the banks of the river Ganga. People from all over the country and the world come to see the grand ceremonies held in her honor.

Colors/Elements

Water: Ganga is the goddess representing holy water.

Yellow: Worshipers of goddess Ganga offer her yellow flowers during the puja ceremony.

Plants 

Rice: It is believed that offering rice or other delicacies to the goddess Ganga will bring happiness and fortune.

Animals

Crocodile: The goddess Ganga travels on a creature similar to a crocodile. 

Perfumes/Scents

Saffron: Along with rice, devotees also offer saffron to the goddess Ganga.

Sandalwood: Sandalwood has a soothing effect on people, just like the goddess Ganga does as a mother.

Gems and Metals

Kumbha: It is a type of pottery in India. It looks similar to a womb and is thus a symbol of fertility. It is often associated with the goddess Ganga.

FAQs about Ganga

Is goddess Ganga the sister of goddess Parvati?

The goddesses Ganga and Parvati are both daughters of King Himavt. Ganga, being the firstborn, is the elder sister of Parvati.

What does the goddess Ganga symbolize?

Ganga symbolizes purity and forgiveness. She is regarded as the mother of all.

Who helped in the descent of Goddess Ganga as a river?

Sage Bagiratha, through his severe penance, helped in her descent with the aid of Lord Shiva.

Who are the children of the goddess Ganga?

Goddess Ganga gave birth to eight Vasus, and warrior Bhishma was one of them.

Other Goddesses

If you enjoyed this post we are sure you will enjoy getting to know some of the other goddesses we also write about. You can find the complete list of goddesses sorted across regions and religions here.

Featured Image Credit: AKS.9955, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons