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GANGA DASHERA – The descent of Mother Ganga

This is literally the “birthday or descent of mother Ganges – Ganga Ma”. Throughout India this festival lasts ten days beginning on the Amavasya (dark moon night) and going through to the dasami tithi (tenth phase of the Moon, the day of Pandava Nirjal Ekadasi)

“Festivals connected with rivers are essentially bathing festivals. Ganga Dussehra is celebrated on the tenth day of Jyeshtha. River Ganga is worshipped as a mother as well as a Goddess, particularly by people of Uttara Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal through which the river flows. On this day, if a devotee is unable to visit and bathe in the river Ganga, then Ganga jal (water) kept in most Hindu homes is used for purification. A bath in the river is said to purify the bather of all sins. The Ganga is revered all over India even in places far from its course.

Initially, river Ganga flowed in the heavens. She was brought down to earth by the severe penances of the sage Bhagiratha and that is why she is also called Bhagirathi. According to the story, of the descent of the Ganga, once a number of demons were harassing the hermits by disturbing them in their ascetic duties. During the day, they would be chased into the ocean. But in the darkness of the night, they would emerge from the ocean and start harassing the hermits again. In desperation the hermits appealed to Rishi Agastya. Agastya, known for his gastronomic powers, drank all the water of the ocean. Though this was done in good faith, it resulted in depriving the world of the water needed for sustenance and the earth became parched and dry. Bhagiratha brought this drought to an end.

According to the legend, King Sagara of the Ikshvaku dynasty ruling at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh had two queens, Keshani and Sumati, but neither had a child. Sagara performed severe austerities before his wives could produce sons. But whereas Keshani gave birth to a son called Asmajas, Sumati bore 60,000 sons. Sagara performed the Ashwamedha sacrifice to declare his suzerainty over the neighbouring kingdoms. According to the prevalent custom, the sacrificial horse was let loose and allowed to wander into the neighbouring kingdoms. If the horse was caught, a battle ensued and the outcome decided the winner. The 60,000 sons of Sagara were following the horse when they saw him enter a cavern where sage Kapila was meditating. Not seeing the horse in the cavern, they presumed that Kapila had captured it. They did not kill Kapila as he was a sage but they started disturbing his meditations. Annoyed at being disturbed, Kapila with a curse burnt the 60,000 sons of Sagara. Time passed and later Bhagiratha, the great grandson of Sagara, chanced to come across the bones of his dead ancestors. He wanted to perform the shraddha of his ancestors but there was no water available for the ceremony. Agastya having drunk all the waters of the ocean, the country was passing through a severe drought. Bhagiratha prayed to Brahma, the Creator, to end the drought. Brahma asked him to pray to Vishnu, the Preserver, to allow the heavenly Ganga, issuing from His big toe, to come down to earth. Vishnu when prayed to by Bhagiratha agreed, but asked him to request Shiva, the third member of the Hindu trinity of Gods, to allow the torrential rain to fall on his head before it came to the earth as the river was very forceful and if she were allowed to come down unchecked, her fall would split the earth. Shiva agreed to take the gigantic weight of the cascading Ganga on the matted hair piled high on his head. This ensnared and delayed the progress of the river which, in meandering through the labyrinth of his hair, lost its force and then gently descended to the Himalayas from whence it flowed to the plains bestowing its waters on the parched earth. And that is why the anthropomorphic image of Ganga is shown in the matted hair of Shiva who is also called Gangadhara. Being born in the Himalayas, Ganga is considered the elder sister of Parvati, who is also a daughter of the Himalayas.

According to the Agni Purana and Padma Purana, the Ganga descended to the earth on Ganga Dussehra day and a bath in the holy river on this day is said to purify one of all sins. To die on the banks of the Ganga is considered most auspicious. If that is not possible, then the immersion of the ashes after cremation in the river Ganga is a must, as it then releases one from the cycles of birth and re-birth.

The seven ways of worshipping the Ganga are: by calling out her name, ‘Oh Ganga’; having darshan of her; by toughing her waters; by worshipping and bathing; by standing in the waters of the river; and by carrying clay dug out of the river. Ganga in her anthropomorphic form is shown as a beautiful young woman standing on a crocodile and holding a waterpot in her hands. Her image, with that of the Goddess Yamuna, another sacred river deity, is often depicted on the doors of temples and palaces. In Gujarat, there is a legend according to which Ganga came down to the earth on Rishi Panchami, the fifth day of Bhadra (September) at Tarnetar. There is a sacred tank where people congregate for a holy bath on that day.

The first ten days of the month Jyeshth, known as Dashahara, are dedicated to honour the river Ganges, or Mother Ganges. The Ganges is believed to flow in the three worlds: in heaven it is called Mandakini, on earth the Ganges (or Ganga), and in the nether region the Bhagirathi. Thus the Ganga is known as “Tripathaga”, or the “Three Path River”. People believe that by bathing in the Ganga sins are washed away. The principle centres for the worship of the Ganga are Gangotri, the source of the river; Haridwar, where she comes down to the plains; Allahabad, where she joins the Yamuna; Varanasi, the holy city; and Sagara Island in her estuary where she finally flows into the Bay of Bengal.

 Ganga is supposed to be the daughter of the Himalayas and the goddess Mena. According to the Puranas, the heavenly Ganga flows from Vishnu’s toe. Ganga sometimes assumed a human form. In one such appearance, she married King Shantanu and was the mother of Bhishma, grandsire to the warring Pandava and Kaurava clans (see Mahabharata).

Long ago there was a king named Sagar. Once he performed the horse sacrifice known as Ashvamedh. After much wandering one day the king’s horse reached the ashram of Kapil Muni. Then seven thousand of the king’s boys also reached there in search of the horse. They had wickedly imagined that Kapil Muni had deliberately kidnapped the horse, and they decided to destroy the muni. Kapil Muni got angry and cursed them. There upon they all were burnt and reduced to ashes.

Since neither the horse nor his soldiers returned King Sagar became anxious. He sent his grandson Anshuman to search for them. Kapil Muni told Anshuman the whole story. Anshuman asked, “How can the sin of the king’s boys be destroyed?”

Kapil Muni answered, “They will be saved if the water of the Ganga will flow over this land.” 

Anshuman tried but did not succeed in bringing down the Ganga on earth. Then his son Dilip also tried, but without success. Finally his son Bhagirath after performing terrible austerities managed to bring down the Ganga to this earth. Mother Ganga was pleased with Bhagirath, but asked him to obtain also the good pleasure of Shankar (Lord Shiva). Shankar agreed to take the burden of bringing the Ganga on earth. Thus on the tenth day of the bright half of Jyeshth, Mother Ganga began to flow from heaven to the matted hair of Shankar, and from the hair of Shankar she began to flow on this earth. In this way the children of Sagar were saved. For this reason the Ganges is also known as the Bhagirathi. END.

If you are so fortunate as to be in a place in Bharat Bhumi where the sacred Ganges flows or one of the mystical magical places where She appears contrary to material science, such as Mana Sarovara, Manasi Ganga (Bhubaneshwar), Madhwa Sarova (Udupi), etc., then you will be able to go down to her waters and pay your obeisances, say your prayers and take that water upon your head. Then please say a prayer to invoke the blessings of the Lord upon all of us not so fortunate as to be there with you. 

For most of us reading this that will not physically be possible, although certainly through Manasa puja – meditation one may still perform that worship.

Whether you are in Gangotri (the place where she manifests first in this realm) or if you are at (H)Rishikesha or Haridwar, Benares (Varanarsi), Allahabad (Prayag) or in Mayapur, West Bengal, or as I am here writing this remembering those wonderful places the purifying association of Mother Ganga remains the same.

Scientists’ still cannot understand how unlike ordinary water, when you take a bottle of that and keep it for YEARS, it never becomes green and slimmy. It always remains in its pure condition.

My memories of early morning (03:30am) dips at Haridwar (Vishnupadi) still leave me as near breathless as entering into her icey waters as we did in January (winter in the Norther Hemisphere). In the evening the floatila of thousands of leaf boats laden with flames, flowers, and sweetmeats, bobbing gently as they flow with the current to the resounding sounds of the bells and arati songs, and disappearing flickering into the distance. A sight worth seeing.

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