Symbolic Significance of the Descent Of Ganga
Note: This is a two part essay on the symbolism of the River Ganga. This part deals with the symbolism of the descent of Ganga (Gangavataran). The next one deals with the symbolism of Ganga as the purifier. You can access the same from here.
The River Ganga has a great spiritual and symbolic significance in Hinduism. It is undoubtedly the most sacred river of Hindus. Millions of Hindus take a dip in its water to wash away their sins. The City of Varanasi, which is situated on its banks has at least a continuous history of 2500 years. Historically, the River Ganga came into significance only during the later Vedic period, during the eastward expansion of the Vedic religion.
The Vedas extoll the River Saraswathi more than any other river. It seems when the river dried up due to climate change, people moved eastward, and the River Ganga acquired a religious significance. The river originates in the Himalayan glaciers and flows through the plains of northern India, joined by several tributaries until it finally merges into the Indian ocean.
Apart from Varanasi, the river and its tributaries are home to numerous other sacred temples and pilgrim places, including Haridwar, Prayag, and Dwaraka. It is also the main artery of Hindu civilization and inseparable from its history and culture. Most ancient historic sites are situated on its banks. For generations, Hindus used the river and its tributaries to cultivate their lands, quench their thirst, and cleanse their souls. It is believed that those who take a dip in its waters are cleansed of all their sins and qualify to attain immortality.
In the Hindu pantheon and ritual worship, Ganga is revered as a goddess. The Puranas describe her as a sister of Parvathi and a consort of Shiva. She figures prominently in the Mahabharat as the mother of Bhishma. She and her tributaries are also associated with the birth of Kumaraswami, the son of Shiva, Lord Krishna, Karna, and the legends of Santanu, Satyavathi, and numerous other epic characters. The Buddha and Mahavira wandered on its banks and drank from its waters. Many literary works of ancient and modern times have the river as the backdrop or the main theme. Many historic battles were also fought on its banks or nearby plains.
Unfortunately, in modern times the river has greatly suffered from the industrialization of the Gangetic plains. As a result, India's most sacred river is also its most polluted because of years of neglect and slack regulations. If the river and its tributaries are cleaned up, it can potentially become a major tourist attraction since Hindus revere it and the river offers spectacular scenery.
Geologically, the river either came into existence or acquired new tributaries and grew into a major river system when the landmass, which is now called the Indian subcontinent, collided with the continent of Eurasia due to tectonic movements, resulting in the formation of the Himalayas. The Puranas offer a different explanation and suggest that the river originated from heaven and descended upon earth due to divine intervention to facilitate the cleansing of the souls. In the following discussion we will examine how the river manifested upon earth and the symbolism hidden in the story of Gangavataranam or the descent of Ganga.
The story of Gangavataranam
According to the legends and Puranas, goddess Ganga used to flow in the heavens. It was brought to the earth by the penances of a sage named Bhagiratha. He vowed to rescue his ancestors who were stuck in the underworld. The sage was originally a king of Kosala and a descendent of king Sagara (meaning ocean).
It said that once Sagara performed a horse sacrifice to conquer new territories and as part of the sacrifice set the sacrificial horse free. According to the tradition, wherever the horse went that territory would be annexed to the kingdom, unless he was challenged by a rival king and defeated. As soon as it was set free, the horse galloped away into the open lands, followed by king’s men. After sometime, it disappeared. King’s men searched for it, but it was not found. They went back and reported to the king. Upon knowing the news, king Sagara deputed his 60,000 sons to find the horse and bring it back. Those sons were born to him through his wife and queen, Sumati.
His sons dutifully searched all the places for the horse. For a long time, they could not find it anywhere. At last, one day they found it in the Ashram of a sage named Kapila. They saw that the horse was tied to a pole, and nearby the sage was in deep meditation. Seeing the horse in that condition, without ascertaining facts, they assumed that the sage might have stolen the horse. Without thinking about the consequences, and lacking discretion, they attacked the sage while he was still in meditation.
Disturbed by their actions, the sage opened his eyes and saw the sons of Sagara in a warring mood, with their weapons drawn. Because of the austerities and penances, the sage was brimming with immense spiritual power (tapah). So intense was the tapasic power, which radiated from his eyes, Sagara’s sons had no chance of escape. As soon as his gaze fell upon them, they were instantly burned by the heat that emanated from his eyes and turned them into ashes.
The sage sensed what happened and felt remorse. He conveyed the news to Sagara and suggested that his sons could be revived if the waters of Ganga flowed over their ashes and purified them. Since the river flowed in the heaven only, someone had to make an austere effort to bring her to the earth. For a long time, none of the descendants of Sagara could accomplish the task. The souls of their ancestors remained stuck in the underworld, with no one coming to their rescue. As time passed, the kingdom of Kosala also fell into bad times and lost its former glory. By the time Bhagiratha was born, it was in ruins.
Upon knowing what happened, Bhagiratha decided to rescue his ancestors and a resolve a problem that had been haunting his family for generations. He undertook a great penance to seek the help of gods and persuade the goddess Ganga to flow upon earth. For a thousand years, he performed austerities. In the end Brahma appeared before him and suggested that he should propitiate Shiva, who alone was capable of solving his problem. Then, Bhagiratha meditated upon Shiva for a year. Pleased by his sincerity and resolve Shiva appeared before him and promised to help him.
He summoned the gods and requested them to persuade the goddess to turn earthward. Initially, she was reluctant as she was unsure whether the earth could bear the intensity of her spiritual power. She felt that earth was not yet ready for her descent. Shiva then intervened and suggested that he would act as the intermediary. It would be safe, if the river first descended upon his head where he would absorb much of the force and let her flow from there to the earth with diminished capacity.
As the sister of Parvathi, Ganga had great respect and admiration for Shiva from her childhood. She even dreamt of marrying him, but it did to happen as Shiva married her elder sister. She felt that it was a great opportunity to become associated with him and enjoy his company. Therefore, she readily agreed to his suggestion and landed upon his head with great force of love.
The force was so powerful that as soon as she landed upon his head, her flow broke into seven sub streams, which became tributaries. Three of them flowed to west and three to east. The remaining seventh one, which goes today by the name Ganga, followed Bhagiratha to the place where the ashes of his ancestors lay. As she flowed over them, they instantly achieved liberation.
Ever since, Ganga acquired a great significance as a sacred river. Since she flows from the head of Shiva, her waters can wash away all impurities, including past sins. She also came to be recognized as a consort of Shiva and an integral part of the Shaiva pantheon. Because he bears her upon his head, Shiva also earned the epithet of Gangadhar or Gangadhaari, meaning the bearer of the River Ganga.
Overtime, Ganga became an important cultural symbol of Hinduism and an integral part of the Vedic rituals and folklore. Numerous cities sprung upon its banks. It witnessed the flowering of a great civilization and the birth of several great seers, saints and founders of religions and religious sects. It figures prominently in the Puranas and the epics. Many famous kings, spiritual masters, and even the Buddha and Mahavira wandered on its banks and shared their wisdom. The childhood of Rama and Krishna passed on its banks and in its vicinity. They all drank from its waters and made it even more sacred.
Ganga sanctified the land of the Vedas and made it sacred. Over the centuries, she washed away the sins of countless people and granted them liberation. Even now, people to take a dip in the river to cleanse their sins and find solace from their past karma. Many immerse the ashes of deceased relatives in the river or cremated their bodies on its banks, hoping that it will help them attain liberation.
Symbolic Significance of Gangavataranam
The story of the descent of Ganga (Gangavataranam) has a great symbolic significance in Hinduism. Symbolically, it represents the following.
- The descent of Shakti or Mother goddess (Ganga) into the mind and body (earth) and the liberation of the embodied soul from the sins of the past.
- The flow of divine knowledge, or the knowledge of liberation (Ganga), into human consciousness (earth) by the grace of God (Shiva) and the austere efforts of enlightened masters (Bhagiratha).
- Transmission of the sacred knowledge of the Tantras, by Shiva to Parvathi.
- The duty of a householder (Bhagiratha) towards his ancestors (Sagara’s sons).
- The falling of the rain water from the sky, which eventually becomes a nourishing and life-giving stream or river.
- Spiritual instruction by an enlightened teacher (Shiva) to a student (the mortal world)
- The descent of the soul from the ancestral heaven at the time of rebirth through the rains first into the male body (Shiva) and later into the female body (the earth).
The name Bhagiratha itself became popular in regular usage to denote any strenuous effort by a person to overcome an insurmountable problem. The following is a detailed account of the hidden symbolism of the various characters in the story and their significance.
The legend begins with the reign of King Sagara. In Sanskrit, Sagara means an ocean. Symbolically, he represents the mind or human consciousness. Alternatively, he may also represent the phenomenal world.
The horse in the horse sacrifice represents the senses, which like the horse, moves swiftly in the world of objective and claim their ownership and enjoyment. As the horse was the main cause of suffering in the story, the senes are chiefly responsible for human suffering.
The earth represents the worldly life or the objective world in which the senses become lost. The earth as an aspect of Nature is subject to impurities.
The sixty thousand sons of Sagara represent the wave like formations or modifications of the mind, namely its numerous thoughts, desires and feelings.
As the wife of Sagara and mother of 60,000 sons, Sumati (su+mati) represents right thinking. In other words, her sons or the ancestors of Bhagiratha were not bad people. They were dutiful and obedient, but impatient.
Sage Kapila represents the law of karma and fate. He punishes those who are sinful, but at the same time provides them with the knowledge of self-transformation to escape from it. He suggested to Sagara (the mind) that the way to liberation was by letting pure consciousness (cit-shakti) flow through the mind and cleanse it.
Bhagiratha symbolically represents the embodied soul, or Jivatma. Bhaga means the womb or the female genital organ. Bhagiratha means the occupant of it, which is usually a reference to a man both as the son and the father. In a spiritual sense he represents the Self, the eternal Person (Purusha). Through his actions and penances he lets the Ganga of divine knowledge flow to him, and in the process not only helps his ancestors to return to the earth but also rescues himself from the world of mortality, desires, passions and sinful karma.
Shiva is both the Supreme Self in the highest heaven and the Divine Guru or teacher in the earthly plane. He channels the knowledge of liberation from the highest plane into human minds by translating it into human terms and making it comprehensible and easier to human beings, just as he did with Ganga. Thus, as the divine teacher he is the intermediary in the transmission of divine knowledge to mortal beings.
Ganga is the liberating supreme consciousness or pure chitshakti (pure consciousness infused with the power to cleanse the mind and body and transform it into a vehicle of light and delight). She descends from heaven only at the behest of God to liberate the beings from the cycle of births and deaths. When people come into contact with it, they become instantly purified and enlightened.
Thus, the descent of Ganga is an allegory about the liberation of the soul from the sins, suffering, and limitations of mortal life, and about the descent of higher knowledge or the knowledge of Brahman (brahmavidya) into the mind and body through the austerities, penance, and spiritual practices of their occupant, Bhagiratha, or the embodied Self.
The following is a summary of the symbolism which is hidden in the legend of Gangavataranam, the story of the descent of the River Ganga and its origin upon earth.
- King Sagar: The mind
- The sacrificial horse: Sense organs
- Sumati: Right thinking
- The Earth: Mortal world or worldly life
- Sons of Sagara: Products of the mind
- Kapila: Karma or Divine law
- Ganga: Pure consciousness
- Shiva: Isvara or World Teacher
- Bhagiratha: The embodied Self
If you liked this article, you may also check this article on the symbolism of Ganga as a purifier and liberator of souls.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Samkhya Philosophy and 24 Principles of Creation
- The Bhagavadgita On The Problem Of Sorrow
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Practice of Atma Yoga Or The Yoga Of Self
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- The Triple Gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
- The Practice of Tantra and Tantric Ritual in Hinduism and Buddhism
- The Tradition Of Gurus and Gurukulas in Hinduism
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Hinduism, Way of Life, Beliefs and Practices
- A Summary of the Bhagavadgita
- Avatar, the Reincarnation of God Upon Earth
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Bhagavadgita On The Mind And Its Control
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga
- Hinduism and the Belief in one God
Introduction to Hinduism
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The Chandogya Upanishad