Lord Shiva and Ganga in Hindu Mythology

In Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva and the Ganga River have a profound connection. Ganga is considered the holiest river and is revered as a goddess who can wash away sins, while Lord Shiva is one of the principal deities of Hinduism, part of the Holy Trinity, symbolizing the destructive and regenerative aspect of the cosmos.

READ MORE: How does Shiva destroy and recreate the world?

Ganga, revered by Hindus, is personified as a goddess symbolizing purification and forgiveness. Image: A statue of Ganga, 17th–18th century AD

The Descent of Ganga

According to mythology, the Ganga used to reside in the heavens, and her waters were divine and pure. King Bhagiratha, a descendant of the Suryavanshi Dynasty, wanted to bring Ganga to the earth to purify the souls of his ancestors who had been cursed. He performed severe austerities to please the gods, and after his relentless penance, Brahma, the creator god, granted his wish and ordered Ganga to descend to the earth.

In Hindu mythology, Ganga is depicted with varying origins. The Ramayana portrays her as Himavat’s firstborn, the embodiment of the Himalayas, and a sister to the goddess Parvati. Contrastingly, other texts trace her origin to the deity Vishnu. Image: Descent of Ganga, painting by Raja Ravi Varma c. 1910

However, the force of Ganga’s descent was so immense that it could have submerged the earth. To control her torrential flow, Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Shiva. Shiva, the lord of compassion and asceticism, agreed to help and bore the weight of Ganga’s descent. He caught the falling river in his matted locks and let her out in small streams. The act of catching the Ganga in his hair led to Lord Shiva earning the name “Gangadhara,” meaning “Bearer of the Ganga.”

Lord Shiva

Shiva is often shown with a third eye on his forehead, a crescent moon, the Ganges river flowing from his matted hair, and a trident. His dance, the Tandava, symbolizes the cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction.

The Symbolism

The story symbolizes several aspects of Hindu philosophy and spirituality:

  1. Purification: Ganga, flowing from the heavens through Shiva’s locks, represents purity and sanctity, capable of purifying the souls of the mortals.
  2. Asceticism and Compassion: Shiva’s acceptance to hold Ganga in his hair illustrates his ascetic nature and compassion towards all beings.
  3. Meditative Absorption: The controlled release of the Ganga from Shiva’s locks symbolizes controlled and disciplined flow of energies and meditative absorption.
  4. Destruction and Regeneration: The meeting of Ganga and Shiva also represents the confluence of destruction (Shiva) and regeneration (Ganga), symbolizing the eternal cycle of creation and dissolution.

The Hindu goddess Ganga is often illustrated as a beautiful woman, endowed with fairness and riding a divine creature known as the makara, which resembles a crocodile.


The confluence of Shiva and Ganga is celebrated widely in Hindu culture. Many festivals, like Ganga Dussehra and Maha Shivaratri, celebrate the descent of Ganga and the aspects of Lord Shiva. Millions of pilgrims visit the holy cities along the Ganges, like Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi, to bathe in its waters and offer prayers, seeking purification and liberation. The imagery of Shiva with the Ganga flowing through his locks is a prominent symbol in Hindu art and iconography.

Many names are attributed to Ganga, reflecting her multifaceted significance in Hinduism. Image: Ganga stone statue, 8th century AD, Ellora. Currently at National Museum, New Delhi, India.

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Frequently Asked Questions

The story of Shiva and Ganga illustrates the profound significance of the Ganges in Hinduism and the pivotal role of Lord Shiva in the cultural and spiritual narratives of Hindu tradition. Image: Shiva with Parvati. Shiva is depicted three-eyed, the Ganges flowing through his matted hair, wearing ornaments of serpents and a skull garland, covered in ashes, and seated on a tiger skin.

How did the royal-sage Bhagiratha’s penance help bring Ganga to earth?

The narrative involves Bhagiratha, a king, who performed severe austerities to bring the Ganges, which was in heaven, down to Earth. He hoped that the waters of the Ganges would purify the ashes of his ancestors, allowing them to attain Moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

Representation of Bhagiratha as Ganga descends upon the earth

How did Shiva tame Ganga’s descent and save the world from destruction?

However, it was believed that the force of the Ganges’s descent from heaven would be so overwhelming that it could destroy the Earth. To prevent this cataclysm, Lord Shiva agreed to break the fall of the river. He gathered his hair into a knot, a formation known as “Jata,” and when the Ganges descended from the heavens, Shiva captured the river in his hair, absorbing the immense force and releasing it with a manageable flow.

This way, the Earth was saved from destruction, and the Ganges, tamed by Shiva, became a sacred river that flows through the Indian subcontinent. The place where the Ganges descends to the Earth is considered especially sacred and is called Gangotri in the Himalayas.

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