Ganga: The River Goddess


1.    Geographical Features:

a.    Ganges flows from North India from the peaks of the Himalayas (source =Gangotri Glacier)

b.    Through the Gangetic Plain (amidst major cities such as Haridwar, and Rishikesh)

c.    Exiting through Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal and later the Indian Ocean

d.    Joins the Yamuna river about midway (also a sacred river)


e.    Other bodies of water throughout the nation are said to be the Ganges in that they are also pure. If one cannot make it to the Ganges a priest may scatter droplets into the home river or they may chant the Ganges name near the nearest body of water to evoke her presence.


2.    Mythological Origins of the Ganges:

a.    Ganga Dasahara: Celebration to honor the descent of the heavenly waters of the Ganges river to earth. Typically observed in May and early June. Hindus line the banks of the Ganges to recognize her “birthday”.

b.    Avatarana: The descent of the Ganges from heaven unto earth. Refer to Ganges as “she” because she is a goddess

c.    Vedic Version: Indra (god of lightning, thunder, rain, and King of heaven in Vedic texts) battles the enormous serpent Vrtra over the vault of heaven. Vtra has coiled his body around the vault which contains the celestial waters, otherwise known as soma, the nectar of the gods. After Indra defeats Vrtra he releases the water onto the earth for nourishment. The divine water released becomes the Ganges river.

d.    Vaishnava Version: In the Rig Veda Visnu pierces the vault of heaven with his toe. This releases the river into heaven, across the milky way, and finally onto earth where she splits in various lotus petal continents. One branch flowed into India as the Ganges.

e.    Mahabharata, Ramayana, Purana Version (most popular): 60,000 sons of the King Sagara are burned to death by the sage Kapila when they interrupt his meditation. Generations later King Bhagiratha seeks to restore his ancestors so he endures rigorous penance. For his asceticism he is granted the Ganges decent onto earth. However, the Ganges is so powerful that she will crush the earth if she falls directly onto it. King Bhagiratha pleas with Lord Shiva to receive the Ganges in his coils of hair. Siva agrees and tames the Ganges through his locks from his abode in the Himalayas.

3.    Beliefs about the Ganges:

a.    Trilokapathagamini (one of the names of the Ganga)

                                     i.     Literally translates to “three worlds” (triloka) + “road” (patha) + “one who travels” (gamini)
= “One who traverses the three worlds,” or “flowing in three worlds”

                                    ii.     The Ganges flows from heaven, to earth, to the netherworld and is a “crossing place” (tirthsthan) for humans both alive and deceased.  

                                  iii.     Tirthsthan: “to cross over” (tirth), “place” (sthan)

1.    A tirthsthan is a spiritual crossing place. Described as a threshold or doorway where one’s prayers intimately heard by the gods and blessings flow.

2.    Tirthas are known as the four divine abodes at each cardinal point (car dhams) or seats of the goddesses (pithas). India is home to many tirthas.

3.    Gangotri, the glacier from which the Ganges flows and Haridwar, a sacred city lining the banks of the Ganges, are said to be tirthas. As well as where the Ganges meets the Yamuna river and the Bay of Bengal.

4.    It is said there is a total of 35 million tirthas or that every wave of the Ganges is a tirtha.

5.    Give ready access to the heavens

b.    Cleansing of Bad Karma: Hindus engage in ritual bathing in the Ganges.

                                     i.     It is believed that a dip in the Ganges cleanses you of ten transgressions or the bad karmic accumulation of ten lifetimes (dasahara).

                                    ii.     The Ganges water is so pure that even a droplet holds enormous power.

                                  iii.     The Ganges is thought of like a mother forgiving, compassionate, and merciful.

                                  iv.     Chanting her name is said to relieve poverty, bad dreams, etc.

c.    Implications for after death:

                                     i.     A flowing staircase to heaven

                                    ii.     Varanasi (cremation grounds) to die on those shores is the aim

                                  iii.     One can achieve moksha by bathing in the Ganges or being cremated along her banks, especially in the Kali Yuga (present day), where traditional means of achieving moksha have become too difficult.

4.    Practices Along the Ganges:

a.    Pilgrimage: Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a particular destination. Many Hindus strive to take pilgrimage to the Ganges in their lifetime. Men, women, children, and Sadus can be found traveling to the banks of the Ganges to engage in bathing and worship.

b.    Puja: Offering to the gods. An act of worship, reverence, and adoration. Puja along the Ganges often takes the form of floating a leaf, flower, and/or candle down the river.

c.    Shrines: Many Hindus will bottle some holy water from the Ganges to take home with them. Household shrines will be dedicated to paying respects to the sacred water of the Ganges.

d.    Ghats: The iconic steps leading down to the holy Ganges river. There are specific ghats used for cremation and scattering the ashes of the deceased into the river. There are also ghats for religious rituals such as cleansing and puja or priestly ceremonies. Finally, ghats for everyday practices such as laundry and livestock.

5.    Environmental Issues:

a.    Waste water: routed from major cities directly into the Ganges

b.    Fecal Coliform- so much higher than any doctor or scientist deem as healthy

                                     i.     Raw sewage routed into river

                                    ii.     Although against the law to put feces right in the water some often go right along the banks and it is washed in. Livestock/wildlife cannot be managed or made to follow this law.

c.    Spread of disease

                                     i.     High spread of disease

                                    ii.     Dysentery, Hepatitis A, typhoid  

                                  iii.     Thousands of those who died from Cholera were scattered in the Ganges spreading the disease

                                  iv.     Holy men, pregnant women, lepers, chicken pox, the poor, and children are not burned but instead free floating which creates unhealthy conditions

                                   v.     Those who cannot afford the wood are not or only partially burned and left to decompose in the water.

d.    The Ganga Action Plan

                                     i.     1985-2000 single largest movement to address pollution in the Ganges -largest movement to clean up a river anywhere in the world --- regarded as a failure.

                                    ii.     10 billion dollars yet kept being pushed back, not enough resources ~estimated 70$ billion is need to clean up the Ganges

                                  iii.     Why did it fail? Did not take into account the human-environment interaction that was occurring and did not involve religious leaders