Why did Lord Shiva carry the Ganges River on his head?

In Hindu mythology and religion, it’s believed that the Ganges descended from the heavens, and its force was so immense that it could destroy the Earth.

Lord Shiva agreed to bear the force of the river by capturing it in his matted hair, releasing it as several streams, making it flow gently

The story of Lord Shiva carrying the Ganges River on his head is one of the most popular and symbolic tales in Hindu mythology. It emphasizes Lord Shiva’s role as a protector and the cosmic balancer.

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

According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, carried the Ganges River on his head to mitigate the impact of its descent to the earth. The Ganges, or Ganga, is considered the most sacred river in Hinduism and is believed to have its origins in the heavens. Image: Shiva bearing the descent of the Ganges

Below, World History Edu provides a complete breakdown of the narrative and its significance:

The Descent of Ganga

The tale begins with King Bhagiratha, who performed intense penance to bring the Ganga River to Earth. He wished to do this to cleanse the sins of his ancestors, the 60,000 sons of King Sagara, and help them attain moksha (liberation). The sons had been reduced to ashes due to the curse of the sage Kapila.

The Ganga, both as a river and a deity, holds immense significance in Hindu mythology, representing a confluence of divine energies and natural elements, embodying the essence of life, purity, and spiritual elevation. Image: Ganga in Hindu mythology

Pleased with Bhagiratha’s dedication, Brahma, the creator god, granted his wish and ordered Ganga to descend to the earth. However, the power and force of Ganga’s descent were so fierce that it was believed she could wash away the earth with her torrential force.

The Ganges resided in the heavens, and Sage Bhagiratha performed severe penance, wishing to bring the river down to the earth to purify the souls of his ancestors and liberate them. Pleased by Sage Bhagiratha’s penance, the deity Brahma granted his wish, allowing Ganga to descend to the earth. Image: Descent of Ganga in Hindu religion and mythology

Shiva’s Intervention

To control Ganga’s overwhelming force and prevent the destruction of the earth, Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Shiva for help. Responding to his plea, Shiva bore the brunt of Ganga’s descent by capturing her in his matted hair, breaking her fall and taming her ferocity.

Once contained and controlled, Shiva released the river from his locks in a few streams. This ensured that Ganga’s descent was gentle enough to be beneficial and not destructive. The primary stream followed Bhagiratha and eventually helped in liberating his ancestors.


The depiction of Shiva with the Ganges flowing through his matted hair is one of the most recognizable in Hindu iconography. It serves as a reminder of his role as a protector and the savior of the universe from potential calamities. 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.

The story symbolizes multiple facets of life and spirituality.

First of all, Lord Shiva absorbing the Ganges in his hair signifies his supreme ability to absorb and nullify the negative energies, protecting creation.

Secondly, the tale teaches about the balance of power. Even something as sacred as the Ganga can become destructive if unchecked.

Finally, King Bhagiratha’s unwavering dedication underscores the importance of commitment and the potential of sincere penance.

In Hinduism, it’s believed that the Ganges was divided into various streams by Shiva’s hair. The river then flowed across the Indian subcontinent, eventually reaching the ocean, providing sustenance and purifying waters to the civilizations along her banks. Image; Riverfront steps by the Ganges in Varanasi

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