Why is the Ganges considered the holiest river in Hinduism?

In Hinduism, the river Ganga (or Ganges) is not just considered a river but is deified and worshipped as a goddess who is regarded as a bearer of purity, sanctity, and forgiveness. The deity is revered by Hindus as a mother, as a goddess who purifies the soul, and as a divine entity that can absolve sins.

Riverfront steps by the Ganges in Varanasi

Manikarnika Ghat, the holy cremation ground on the Ganges river front

Depiction

Ganga is typically depicted as a beautiful and fair woman, often seen riding a divine creature known as the makara, which is a creature with the lower jaw of a crocodile and the body of a fish, symbolizing the water element associated with her. She is also frequently shown with a water pot and a lotus, both of which are symbolic of purity and divinity.

Photograph (1875) of goddess Ganga (Gupta period, 5th or 6th century CE) from Besnagar, Madhya Pradesh, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Earliest Mentions

Some of the earliest mentions of Ganga are found in the Rigveda, one of the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, highlighting the long-standing veneration she has received. In these texts, she is described as the holiest among the rivers, extolling her divine nature and purifying abilities.

Narratives in Later Texts

The narratives and stories related to Ganga mainly appear in post-Vedic texts like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas. These texts contain various legends related to her descent to Earth (known as Ganga Avatarnam), her role in the cosmic order, and her interactions with other deities, sages, and humans.

Descent to Earth

One of the most popular legends is about her descent to Earth from the heavens. According to this legend, King Bhagiratha performed severe penances to bring Ganga to the earth to purify the souls of his ancestors. However, Ganga’s flow was so powerful that Lord Shiva had to intervene, and he caught her waters in his matted hair to break her fall and control her flow. This event is celebrated as Ganga Dussehra.

Image: Descent of Ganga, painting by Raja Ravi Varma c. 1910

Role in Hindu Rituals

Ganga holds a pivotal role in various Hindu rites and rituals, particularly those related to purification and funerary rites. Pilgrims flock to her banks to perform rituals, believing that her waters have the divine power to cleanse sins and grant liberation. The cities along her banks, such as Varanasi, are considered particularly sacred, and many devout Hindus aspire to visit them at least once in their lifetime.

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Symbolism

The reverence for Ganga is not merely about the physical river but also encompasses the spiritual and moral dimensions. She symbolizes life, purity, devotion, and the nurturing aspect of the divine feminine, embodying the compassionate and forgiving nature of the divine.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Ganges

Ganga is considered the holiest river in Hinduism because it is believed to have descended from heaven to purify the souls of humans. It is personified as a goddess and is revered for its ability to cleanse sins and grant Moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death).

Here are some of the frequently asked questions about Ganga in Hinduism, reflecting the multifaceted significance and reverence the river holds in the religion:

How did the Ganges come to Earth in Hindu mythology?

According to Hindu mythology, King Bhagiratha performed intense penance to bring Ganga to Earth to purify the souls of his ancestors. Lord Brahma granted his wish, but the Earth couldn’t bear Ganga’s force, so Lord Shiva received her in his matted locks and released her in a controlled manner to the Earth.

Ganga’s descent to earth is a focal legend, facilitated by the sage Bhagiratha and assisted by Shiva. Additionally, the Mahabharata states that Ganga, through a union with King Shantanu, is the mother of the warrior Bhishma. Lord Shiva, as Gangadhara, bearing the Descent of the Ganges, as the goddess Parvati, the sage Bhagiratha, and the bull Nandi look on (circa 1740).

READ MORE: Lord Shiva and Ganga in Hinduism

How is the Ganges depicted in Hindu mythology?

In Hindu mythology, Ganga is depicted diversely; the Ramayana portrays her as Himavat’s firstborn, representing the Himalayas, and as Parvati’s sister. However, some texts attribute her origin to Vishnu, the preserver deity.

What is the Ganges role in Hinduism?

In Hinduism, the Ganga is honored as a symbol of motherhood and a cleanser of spirits. The faithful release the ashes of the departed into the river with the belief that it aids souls in reaching moksha, releasing them from the cycle of birth and death.

Celebrations in her name, like Ganga Dussehra and Ganga Jayanti, are held at several holy locations along her course, including Gangotri, Haridwar, Prayagraj, Varanasi, and Kali Ghat in Kolkata. Outside of India, she is worshiped during the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand, along with Gautama Buddha.

 

The Ganges River, personified as Goddess Ganga, is worshipped as a living deity. Aarti is a common ritual performed on her banks in places like Varanasi, Haridwar, and Rishikesh.

How is the Ganges depicted in Hinduism?

From the times of the Vedic era, the Ganga River has been held in the highest esteem by Hindus, being both personified and venerated as Goddess Ganga, a deity of considerable importance in Hinduism.

She is visually represented as a fair lady, crowned in white, perched upon a crocodile, possibly holding a water lily, a flute, a water-pot, and a rosary, with one hand typically portrayed in a protective gesture. Although the Rigveda includes mentions of Ganga, it is in the Puranas where more detailed narratives and portrayals of her are articulated.

It is also common to have her shown as a four-armed deity, either seated on a crocodile or enthroned with crocodiles surrounding her. In one particular iconography, the Maha Virat-rupa, she is depicted holding a jar of amrita, a rosary, a lotus, and making a varada mudra gesture.

Alternative representations may depict her holding a kalasha and a lotus, with the other two hands making varada and abhaya mudra gestures.

Especially in Bengal, she is popularly shown holding a shankha, chakra (discus), lotus, and making an abhaya mudra gesture, with the kalasha releasing her sacred water.

The Brahma Vaivarta Purana frequently depicts Ganga with her divine mount, the makara, a creature with the head of a crocodile and the tail of a dolphin.

What is the significance of bathing in the Ganges?

Bathing in the Ganges is believed to purify one’s soul and cleanse sins. It is a common practice during various Hindu festivals and is considered a step towards attaining Moksha.

Women and children at a bathing ghat on the Ganges in Banares (Varanasi), 1885.

What are the major festivals celebrated on the banks of the Ganges?

Major festivals include Ganga Dussehra, Kumbh Mela, and Chhath Puja. These festivals involve numerous rituals like bathing in the holy waters and performing Aartis, and they attract millions of pilgrims.

Why do people immerse ashes in the Ganges?

Hindus immerse the ashes of the deceased in the Ganges as it is believed to ensure the soul’s liberation from the cycle of birth and death and to lead the soul to Moksha.

The ashes of the dead are released along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi

What are the environmental concerns related to the Ganges River?

The Ganges faces severe pollution due to industrial effluents, sewage discharge, and the immersion of religious materials and human remains, leading to significant water quality issues. Numerous initiatives and projects aim to clean and preserve the river.

Cleeaning of the Ganges

Which cities are considered holy along the Ganges River?

Varanasi, Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Allahabad (Prayagraj) are considered holy cities along the Ganges River, and they are significant centers for spiritual activities, rituals, and festivals in Hinduism.

Depiction of Ganga in Hindu art and mythology

Ganga is often depicted as a fair-complexioned woman, riding a crocodile, and holding a water lily. She is shown flowing from the matted locks of Lord Shiva or seated on a lotus. Image: Bhagiratha and Ganga

Are there any specific prayers or mantras dedicated to Ganga?

Several prayers and hymns are dedicated to Ganga, including the Ganga Stotra and the Ganga Lahiri. These hymns praise the river’s sanctity and seek blessings and purification.

What is the source of the Ganges?

The source of the Ganges River is at the Gangotri Glacier, which is situated in the Indian state of Uttarakhand in the Himalayas. The river emerges from an ice cave known as Gaumukh, which is located at the base of the Gangotri Glacier. Gaumukh, which means “Mouth of the Cow,” is so named because it is said to resemble the mouth of a cow. It is considered one of the most sacred places for Hindus.

From Gaumukh, the river flows as the Bhagirathi River until it meets the Alaknanda River at Devprayag, after which it is known as the Ganges or Ganga River. The Ganges is the longest river in India and holds immense significance for the people of the Indian subcontinent, especially Hindus, due to its cultural, spiritual, and historical importance.

Bhagirathi River at Gangotri.

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