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The Descent of Ganga

by Jyotsna Kamat
First Published: May 06, 2004 in Amma's Column
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

Legend of Bhagirath and River Ganga

In ancient land like India super or extra-ordinary traits are associated with divinity. Heroes in the course of time become gods like Rama or Krishna. Bhagirath (a.k.a Bhageerath), son of king Dileep of Ikshvaku dynasty did not become a god. However he is associated with changing the course of Ganga (river Ganges) the divine river, not once but three times, as legend tells. He is a super hero.

Bhagirath's ancestors, known as Sagars or sons of king Sagar on a victorious march offended a sage in meditation, due to a mistaken identity. They were cursed by the sage and were reduced to ashes. Later after calming down, the sage assured that the water of holy Ganga if brought and flown over the ashes of numerous sons of Sagar's sons, would bring them final liberation. Bhagirath, a descendant of Sagar undertook this tremendous responsibility of bringing Ganga from heavenly heights. Bhagirath undertook severe penance on Himalayan heights and propitiated mother Ganga. She agreed to come down on earth but warned that her torrential and powerful flow would be humanly impossible to control and the entire planet would be washed off. She advised Bhagirath to pray and propitiate Mahadeva (Lord Shiva) to control and slowly release her from his matted hair. Shiva obliged the persevering Bhagirath by controlling Ganga. Bhagirath painfully but skillfully released the river in slower streams.

But his agony was not over. Ganga flowed uncontrollably and washed off sacrificial fire of sage Jahnu! The furious sage drank the river right away!

Now it was Jahnu's turn to get propitiated, and prayed by Bhagirath. Finally the sage, released Ganga through his ear (another version says through his thigh). Ganga is also called Jahnavi - Jahnu's daughter.

Ultimately, Bhagirath was successful in bringing down Ganga to the spot where his ancestors were reduced to ashes. Finally 60,000 sons of Sagar clan were laid to rest by the flow of holy water of Ganga.

Hindus believe that Bhagirath changed the course of Ganga flowing north, to southern side of Gangotri, (origin of Ganga), by employing huge Himalayan boulders through rare engineering feat. The big rock on which Bhageerath performed penance over several years is still worshipped. Three spots where river Ganga changed course, are still identified. The river is also called Bhagirathi from the third phase - meaning Bhagirath's daughter.

By Herculean efforts Bhagirath brought the river to barren plains and turned into an evergreen fertile land. Today, superhuman efforts are referred to as "Bhagirath efforts".

Descent of Ganga from heavenly heights to ground reality is a favorite theme with artists and painters. A famous painting of Ravi Varma depicts Shiva ready to control torrential Ganga, being watched by others in anxiety and excitement. The "Gangavatarana" sculpture (a.k.a. Arjuna's Penance) at Mahabalipuram is  regarded as a masterpiece of period art.



The Descent of Ganga River The Descent of Ganga

Descent of Ganga in Indian Art

Gangavatarana ("Descent of Ganga") by Ambikatanayadatta and sung by musician P. Kalingarao is a great classical piece in Kannada. The poet (D.R. Bendre, pen name Ambikatanayadatta) visualized Saraswati (goddess of speech and learning) with river Ganga and prayed her for fluency. For alliteration, prosody, diction and bhava, the poem is a masterpiece.

See Also:

Indian Mythology

Kamadeva and his wife RatiSage Sandipani Teaching Krishna and SudhamaLion Faced Vishnu Destroys HiranyakashipuGaruda, the King of BirdsGaruda the Mythical BirdMatsyavatar -- Vishnu as the Rescuing FishThe Descent of Ganga
Mythical CharacterWriting of MahabharatHanuman Mistakes the Sun for a FruitSati SavitriGandhari with a MaidDraupadis WeddingSavitri and Satyvan by Artist Ardhenduprasad Banerji
Killing of ValiTwo Headed BirdBhishma Lies on the Bed of ArrowsHumiliation of Draupadi and Krishnas RescueContest to Marry DraupadiCelestials from a Sanskrit TextCelestial Creature in Kavi Art
Krishna Rescues the Elephant from the CrocodileSix Headed Deity Riding a SwanVishnu as a Wild Boar (Varahavatar)Eight Handed Lord GaneshLord Brahma and Adhiti - 19th Century IllustrationPainting from Srinivasa Temple, MulbagilWall Painting of Hanuman in Rajasthan
The Humiliation of ShurpanakhiFantastic AnimalsThe Army of Super CreaturesThree Legged Devotee Bhringi Agni the FireArjuna Quenches Bhishmas Thirst as he Lies on a Bed of Arrows and Krishna Looks OnCelestial Dharani rides a Turtle
Divesting of DraupadiFour Headed BrahmaKrishna Kills a Charging ElephantMythical AnimalNaga-Nagini ConjugationNarad Teaching KayadhuNarad Advising a Devotee
Parashurama and RamaIcon of Vishnu as Boar

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