The Descent of the River Ganga
Srimad Bhagavatam 5th Canto 17 Chapter Summary
by His Divine Grace Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
The Seventeenth Chapter describes the origin of the Ganges River and how it flows in and around Ilavrita-varsha. There is also a description of the prayers Lord Siva offers to Lord Sankarshana, part of the quadruple expansions of the Supreme personality of Godhead. Lord Vishnu once approached Bali Maharaja while the King was performing a sacrifice. The Lord appeared before him as Trivikrama, or Vamana, and begged alms from the King in the form of three steps of land. With two steps, Lord Vamana covered all three planetary systems and pierced the covering of the universe with the toes of His left foot. A few drops of water from the Causal Ocean leaked through this hole and fell on the head of Lord Siva, where they remained for one thousand millenniums. These drops of water are the sacred Ganges River. It first flows onto the heavenly planets, which are located on the soles of Lord Vishnu’s feet. The Ganges River is known by many names, such as the Bhagirathi and the Jahnavi. It purifies Dhruvaloka and the planets of the seven sages because both Dhruva and the sages have no other desire than to serve the Lord’s lotus feet.
The Ganga River, emanating from the lotus feet of the Lord, inundates the heavenly planets, especially the moon, and then flows through Brahmapuri atop Mount Meru. Here the river divides into four branches (known as Sita, Alakananda, Cakshu and Bhadra), which then flow down to the ocean of salt water. The branch known as Sita flows through Sekhara-parvata and Gandhamadana-parvata and then flows down to Bhadrasva-varsha, where it mixes with the ocean of salt water in the West. The Cakshu branch flows through Malyavan-giri and, after reaching Ketumala-varsha, mixes with the ocean of salt water in the West. The branch known as Bhadra flows onto Mount Meru, Mount Kumuda, and the Nila, Sveta and Sringavan mountains before it reaches Kuru-desa, where it flows into the ocean of salt water in the north. The Alakananda branch flows through Brahmalaya, crosses over many mountains, including Hemakuta and Himakuta, and then reaches Bharata-varsha, where it flows into the southern side of the ocean of salt water. Many other rivers and their branches flow through the nine varshas.
The tract of land known as Bharata-varsha is the field of activities, and the other eight varshas are for persons who are meant to enjoy heavenly comfort. In each of these eight beautiful provinces, the celestial denizens enjoy various standards of material comfort and pleasure. A different incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead distributes His mercy in each of the nine varshas of Jambudvipa.
In the Ilavrita-varsha, Lord Siva is the only male. There he lives with his wife, Bhavani, who is attended by many maidservants. If any other male enters that province, Bhavani curses him to become a woman. Lord Siva worships Lord Sankarshana by offering various prayers, one of which is as follows: “My dear Lord, please liberate all Your devotees from material life and bind all the nondevotees to the material world. Without Your mercy, no one can be released from the bondage of material existence.”
tatra bhagavatah sakshad yajna-lingasya vishnor vikramato vama-padangushtha-nakha-nirbhinnordhvanda-kataha-vivarenantah-pravishta ya bahya-jala-dhara tac-carana-pankajavanejanaruna-kinjalkoparanjitakhila-jagad-agha-malapahopasparsanamala sakshad bhagavat-padity anupalakshita-vaco ’bhidhiyamanati-mahata kalena yuga-sahasropalakshanena divo murdhany avatatara yat tad vishnu-padam ahuh.
Sukadeva Gosvami said: My dear King, Lord Vishnu, the enjoyer of all sacrifices, appeared as Vamanadeva in the sacrificial arena of Bali Maharaja. Then He extended His left foot to the end of the universe and pierced a hole in its covering with the nail of His big toe. Through the hole, the pure water of the Causal Ocean entered this universe as the Ganges River. Having washed the lotus feet of the Lord, which are covered with reddish powder, the water of the Ganges acquired a very beautiful pink color. Every living being can immediately purify his mind of material contamination by touching the transcendental water of the Ganges, yet its waters remain ever pure. Because the Ganges directly touches the lotus feet of the Lord before descending within this universe, she is known as Vishnupadi. Later she received other names like Jahnavi and Bhagirathi. After one thousand millenniums, the water of the Ganges descended on Dhruvaloka, the topmost planet in this universe. Therefore all learned sages and scholars proclaim Dhruvaloka to be Vishnupada [“situated on Lord Vishnu’s lotus feet”].
In this verse, Sukadeva Gosvami describes the glories of the Ganges River. The water of the Ganges is called patita-pavani, the deliverer of all sinful living beings. It is a proven fact that a person who regularly bathes in the Ganges is purified both externally and internally. Externally his body becomes immune to all kinds of disease, and internally he gradually develops a devotional attitude toward the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Throughout India, many thousands of people live on the banks of the Ganges, and by regularly bathing in her waters, they are undoubtedly being purified both spiritually and materially. Many sages, including Sankaracarya, have composed prayers in praise of the Ganges, and the land of India itself has become glorious because such rivers as the Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Kaveri, Krishna and Narmada flow there. Anyone living on the land adjacent to these rivers is naturally advanced in spiritual consciousness. Srila Madhvacarya says:
.varahe vama-padam tu
tad-anyeshu tu dakshinam
padam kalpeshu bhagavan
.Standing on His right foot and extending His left to the edge of the universe, Lord Vamana became known as Trivikrama, the incarnation who performed three heroic deeds.
yatra ha vava vira-vrata auttanapadih parama-bhagavato ’smat-kula-devata-caranaravindodakam iti yam anusavanam utkrishyamana-bhagavad-bhakti-yogena dridham klidyamanantar-hridaya autkanthya-vivasamilita-locana-yugala-kudmala-vigalitamala-bashpa-kalayabhivyajyamana-roma-pulaka-kulako ’dhunapi paramadarena sirasa bibharti.
Dhruva Maharaja, the famous son of Maharaja Uttanapada, is known as the most exalted devotee of the Supreme Lord because of his firm determination in executing devotional service. Knowing that the sacred Ganges water washes the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, Dhruva Maharaja, situated on his own planet, to this very day accepts that water on his head with great devotion. Because he constantly thinks of Krishna very devoutly within the core of his heart, he is overcome with ecstatic anxiety. Tears flow from his half-open eyes, and eruptions appear on his entire body.
When a person is firmly fixed in devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he is described as vira-vrata, fully determined. Such a devotee increases his ecstasy in devotional service more and more. Thus as soon as he remembers Lord Vishnu, his eyes fill with tears. This is a symptom of a maha-bhagavata. Dhruva Maharaja maintained himself in that devotional ecstasy, and Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu also gave us a practical example of transcendental ecstasy when He lived at Jagannatha Puri. His pastimes there are fully narrated in Caitanya-caritamrita.
tatah sapta rishayas tat prabhavabhijna yam nanu tapasa atyantiki siddhir etavati bhagavati sarvatmani vasudeve ’nuparata-bhakti-yoga-labhenaivopekshitanyarthatma-gatayo muktim ivagatam mumukshava iva sabahu-manam adyapi jata-jutair udvahanti.
The seven great sages [Marici, Vasishtha, Atri and so on] reside on planets beneath Dhruvaloka. Well aware of the influence of the water of the Ganges, to this day they keep Ganges water on the tufts of hair on their heads. They have concluded that this is the ultimate wealth, the perfection of all austerities, and the best means of prosecuting transcendental life. Having obtained uninterrupted devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, they neglect all other beneficial processes like religion, economic development, sense gratification and even merging into the Supreme. Just as jnanis think that merging into the existence of the Lord is the highest truth, these seven exalted personalities accept devotional service as the perfection of life.
Transcendentalists are divided into two primary groups: the nirvisesha-vadis, or impersonalists, and the bhaktas, or devotees. The impersonalists do not accept spiritual varieties of life. They want to merge into the existence of the Supreme Lord in His Brahman feature (the brahmajyoti). The devotees, however, desire to take part in the transcendental activities of the Supreme Lord. In the upper planetary system, the topmost planet is Dhruvaloka, and beneath Dhruvaloka are the seven planets occupied by the great sages, beginning with Marici, Vasishtha and Atri. All these sages regard devotional service as the highest perfection of life. Therefore they all carry the holy water of the Ganges on their heads. This verse proves that for one who has achieved the platform of pure devotional service, nothing else is important, even so-called liberation (kaivalya). Srila Sridhara Svami states that only by achieving pure devotional service of the Lord can one give up all other engagements as insignificant. Prabodhananda Sarasvati confirms his statement as follows:
.kaivalyam narakayate tri-dasa-pur akasa-pushpayate
visvam purna-sukhayate vidhi-mahendradis ca kitayate
yat karunya-kataksha-vaibhavavatam tam gauram eva stumah
.Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has perfectly enunciated and broadcast the process of bhakti-yoga. Consequently, for one who has taken shelter at the lotus feet of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the highest perfection of the Mayavadis, kaivalya, or becoming one with the Supreme, is considered hellish, to say nothing of the karmis’ aspiration to be promoted to the heavenly planets. Devotees consider such goals to be worthless phantasmagoria. There are also yogis, who try to control their senses, but they can never succeed without coming to the stage of devotional service. The senses are compared to poisonous snakes, but the senses of a bhakta engaged in the service of the Lord are like snakes with their poisonous fangs removed. The yogi tries to suppress his senses, but even great mystics like Visvamitra fail in the attempt. Visvamitra was conquered by his senses when he was captivated by Menaka during his meditation. She later gave birth to Sakuntala. The wisest persons in the world, therefore, are the bhakti-yogis, as Lord Krishna confirms in Bhagavad-gita (6.47):
.yoginam api sarvesham
sraddhavan bhajate yo mam
sa me yuktatamo matah
.“Of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all.”
tato ’neka-sahasra-koti-vimananika-sankula-deva-yanenavatar-antindu mandalam avarya brahma-sadane nipatati.
After purifying the seven planets near Dhruvaloka [the polestar], the Ganges water is carried through the spaceways of the demigods in billions of celestial airplanes. Then it inundates the moon [Candraloka] and finally reaches Lord Brahma’s abode atop Mount Meru.
We should always remember that the Ganges River comes from the Causal Ocean, beyond the covering of the universe. After the water of the Causal Ocean leaks through the hole created by Lord Vamanadeva, it flows down to Dhruvaloka (the polestar) and then to the seven planets beneath Dhruvaloka. Then it is carried to the moon by innumerable celestial airplanes, and then it falls to the top of Mount Meru, which is known as Sumeru-parvata. In this way, the water of the Ganges finally reaches the lower planets and the peaks of the Himalayas, and from there it flows through Hardwar and throughout the plains of India, purifying the entire land. How the Ganges water reaches the various planets from the top of the universe is explained herein. Celestial airplanes carry the water from the planets of the sages to other planets. So-called advanced scientists of the modern age are trying to go to the higher planets, but at the same time they are experiencing a power shortage on earth. If they were actually capable scientists, they could personally go by airplane to other planets, but this they are unable to do. Having now given up their moon excursions, they are attempting to go to other planets, but without success.
tatra caturdha bhidyamana caturbhir namabhis catur-disam abhispandanti nada-nadi-patim evabhinivisati sitalakananda cakshur bhadreti.
On top of Mount Meru, the Ganges divides into four branches, each of which gushes in a different direction [east, west, north and south]. These branches, known by the names Sita, Alakananda, Cakshu and Bhadra, flow down to the ocean.
sita tu brahma-sadanat kesaracaladi-giri-sikharebhyo ’dho ’dhah prasravanti gandhamadana-murdhasu patitvantarena bhadrasva-varsham pracyam disi kshara-samudram abhipravisati.
The branch of the Ganges known as the Sita flows through Brahmapuri atop Mount Meru, and from there it runs down to the nearby peaks of the Kesaracala Mountains, which stand almost as high as Mount Meru itself. These mountains are like a bunch of filaments around Mount Meru. From the Kesaracala Mountains, the Ganges falls to the peak of Gandhamadana Mountain and then flows into the land of Bhadrasva-varsha. Finally it reaches the ocean of salt water in the west.
evam malyavac-chikharan nishpatanti tato ’nuparata-vega ketumalam abhi cakshuh praticyam disi sarit-patim pravisati.
The branch of the Ganges known as Cakshu falls onto the summit of Malyavan Mountain and from there cascades onto the land of Ketumala-varsha. The Ganges flows incessantly through Ketumala-varsha and in this way also reaches the ocean of salt water in the West.
bhadra cottarato meru-siraso nipatita giri-sikharad giri-sikharam atihaya sringavatah sringad avasyandamana uttarams tu kurun abhita udicyam disi jaladhim abhipravisati.
The branch of the Ganges known as Bhadra flows from the northern side of Mount Meru. Its waters fall onto the peaks of Kumuda Mountain, Mount Nila, Sveta Mountain and Sringavan Mountain in succession. Then it runs down into the province of Kuru and, after crossing through that land, flows into the saltwater ocean in the north.
tathaivalakananda dakshinena brahma-sadanad bahuni giri-kutany atikramya hemakutad dhaimakutany ati-rabhasatara-ramhasa luthayanti bharatam abhivarsham dakshinasyam disi jaladhim abhipravisati yasyam snanartham cagacchatah pumsah pade pade ’svamedha-rajasuyadinam phalam na durlabham iti.
Similarly, the branch of the Ganges known as Alakananda flows from the southern side of Brahmapuri [Brahma-sadana]. Passing over the tops of mountains in various lands, it falls down with fierce force upon the peaks of the mountains Hemakuta and Himakuta. After inundating the tops of those mountains, the Ganges falls down onto the tract of land known as Bharata-varsha, which she also inundates. Then the Ganges flows into the ocean of salt water in the south. Persons who come to bathe in this river are fortunate. It is not very difficult for them to achieve with every step the results of performing great sacrifices like the Rajasuya and Asvamedha yajnas.
The place where the Ganges flows into the salt water of the Bay of Bengal is still known as Ganga-sagara, or the meeting place of the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal. On Makara-sankranti, in the month of January–February, thousands of people still go there to bathe, hoping to be liberated. That they can actually be liberated in this way is confirmed herein. For those who bathe in the Ganges at any time, the results of great sacrifices like the Asvamedha and Rajasuya yajnas are not at all difficult to achieve. Most people in India are still inclined to bathe in the Ganges, and there are many places where they can do so. At Prayaga (Allahabad), many thousands of people gather during the month of January to bathe in the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna. Afterward, many of them go to the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges to take bath there. Thus it is a special facility for all the people of India that they can bathe in the water of the Ganges at so many places of pilgrimage.
anye ca nada nadyas ca varshe varshe santi bahuso merv-adi-giri-duhitarah satasah.
Many other rivers, both big and small, flow from the top of Mount Meru. These rivers are like daughters of the mountain, and they flow to the various tracts of land in hundreds of branches.
tatrapi bharatam eva varsham karma-kshetram anyany ashta varshani svarginam punya-seshopabhoga-sthanani bhaumani svarga-padani vyapadisanti.
Among the nine varshas, the tract of land known as Bharata-varsha is understood to be the field of fruitive activities. Learned scholars and saintly persons declare the other eight varshas to be meant for very highly elevated pious persons. After returning from the heavenly planets, they enjoy the remaining results of their pious activities in these eight earthly varshas.
The heavenly places of enjoyment are divided into three groups: the celestial heavenly planets, the heavenly places on earth, and the bila heavenly places, which are found in the lower regions. Among these three classes of heavenly places (bhauma-svarga-pada-ni), the heavenly places on earth are the eight varshas other than Bharata-varsha. In Bhagavad-gita (9.21) Krishna says, kshine punye martya-lokam visanti: when the persons living in the heavenly planets exhaust the results of their pious activities, they return to this earth. In this way, they are elevated to the heavenly planets, and then they again fall to the earthly planets. This process is known as brahmanda bhramana, wandering up and down throughout the universes. Those who are intelligent—in other words, those who have not lost their intelligence—do not involve themselves in this process of wandering up and down. They take to the devotional service of the Lord so that they can ultimately penetrate the covering of this universe and enter the spiritual kingdom. Then they are situated on one of the planets known as Vaikunthaloka or, still higher. Krishnaloka (Goloka Vrindavana). A devotee is never caught in the process of being promoted to the heavenly planets and again coming down. Therefore Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu says:
ei rupe brahmanda bhramite kona bhagyavan jiva
guru-krishna-prasade paya bhakti-lata-bija
Among all the living entities wandering throughout the universe, one who is most fortunate comes in contact with a representative of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and thus gets the opportunity to execute devotional service. Those who are sincerely seeking the favor of Krishna come in contact with a guru, a bona fide representative of Krishna. The Mayavadis indulging in mental speculation and the karmis desiring the results of their actions cannot become gurus. A guru must be a direct representative of Krishna who distributes the instructions of Krishna without any change. Thus only the most fortunate persons come in contact with the guru. As confirmed in the Vedic literatures, tad-vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet: one has to search out a guru to understand the affairs of the spiritual world. Srimad-Bhagavatam also confirms this point. Tasmad gurum prapadyeta jijnasuh sreya uttamam: one who is very interested in understanding the activities in the spiritual world must search out a guru—a bona fide representative of Krishna. From all angles of vision, therefore, the word guru is especially meant for the bona fide representative of Krishna and no one else. Padma Purana states, avaishnavo gurur na syat: one who is not a Vaishnava, or who is not a representative of Krishna, cannot be a guru. Even the most qualified brahmana cannot become a guru if he is not a representative of Krishna. Brahmanas are supposed to acquire six kinds of auspicious qualifications: they become very learned scholars (pathana) and very qualified teachers (pathana); they become expert in worshiping the Lord or the demigods (yajana), and they teach others how to execute this worship (yajana); they qualify themselves as bona fide persons to receive alms from others (pratigraha), and they distribute the wealth in charity (dana). Yet even a brahmana possessing these qualifications cannot become a guru unless he is the representative of Krishna (gurur na syat). Vaishnavah sva-paco guruh: but a Vaishnava, a bona fide representative of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vishnu, can become a guru, even if he is sva-paca, a member of a family of dog-eaters. Of the three divisions of heavenly planets (svarga-loka), bhauma-svarga is sometimes accepted as the tract of land in Bharata-varsha known as Kashmir. In this region there are certainly good facilities for material sense enjoyment, but this is not the business of a pure transcendentalist. Rupa Gosvami describes the engagement of a pure transcendentalist as follows:
silanam bhaktir uttama
“One should render transcendental loving service to the Supreme Lord Krishna favorably and without desire for material profit or gain through fruitive activities or philosophical speculation. That is called pure devotional service.” Those who fully engage in devotional service to Krishna just to please Him are not interested in the three divisions of heavenly places, namely, divya-svarga, bhauma-svarga and bila-svarga.