The Goddess Ganga and The Ganges River

Regarded as sacred by Hindus, the river is personified as the goddess Ganga in ancient texts and art. Ritual bathing in the Ganges was and is an important part of Hindu pilgrimage and the ashes of the cremated are often spread across her waters.

Goddess Ganga

The River Ganges also known as the Ganga, flows 2700 km from the Himalaya mountains to the Bay of Bengal in northern India and Bangladesh. The Ganges river or goddess Ganga that the river is named after is considered to be the purest and most sacred river in India. It is believed that it is not just a source of water but is the goddess herself. There is a myth that says that Ganga came down to earth to bring salvation to mankind, and anyone who bathes in the Ganga would be purified of their sins.

Ritual bathing in the Ganges is an important part of Hindu pilgrimage and the ashes of the cremated are often spread across her waters in Varanasi.

The Holy Ganges River at Rishikesh near the source of the river.

The Holy Ganges River at Rishikesh near the source of the river.

The great mythological king Bhagiratha had discovered that 60,000 of King Sagara's ancestors had been incinerated by the stare of Kapila, the vedic sage. Bhagiratha who wanted these ancestors to go to heaven asked Kapila how they could achieve this. Kapila told him to pray earnestly to Vishnu and perform ascetic acts for a thousand years. The great god Vishnu, gratified by Bhagiratha's piety, agreed for the goddess Ganga to descend to earth where she might wash over the ashes of the 60,000 and purify them and thus permit them to ascend to heaven. The problem though was that Ganga was so powerful that if she merely dropped from heaven, her swirling waters would do untold damage to the earth. And so Lord Shiva offered to gently lower the goddess in his dreadlocks. It took a thousand years. Safely arrived on earth, Bhagiratha guided Ganga across India, where she split into many subsidiaries, and successfully washed the ashes of Sagara's ancestors in her sacred waters.  And this is why the goddess Ganga is often depicted on Shiva’s head.

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Ganga on Shiva's head.
Praying on the banks the Ganges river.
Annie Wyatt