Puranic encyclopaedia

by Vettam Mani | 1975 | 609,556 words | ISBN-10: 0842608222

This page describes the Story of Ganga included the Puranic encyclopaedia by Vettam Mani that was translated into English in 1975. The Puranas have for centuries profoundly influenced Indian life and Culture and are defined by their characteristic features (panca-lakshana, literally, ‘the five characteristics of a Purana’).

Story of Gaṅgā

The famous and holy river of India.

Origin and general information.

Gaṅgā had its origin during the incarnation of Viṣṇu as Vāmana. When Vāmana measured the three worlds in three steps the nails on his left feet were raised high. They caused a pore on the upper side of the universe. Gaṅgā, starting from the finger of Viṣṇu’s feet fell in heaven (Bhāgavata).

The famous Viṣṇupadī, the flowing water (tīrtha) of which washes away the sins of the people in the universe is the very same Gaṅgā under discussion. For many yugas (eras) this river confined itself to the heights of the sky, otherwise called Viṣṇupada. This particular spot is known as Dhruvamaṇḍala as it is here that Dhruva, son of King Uttānapāda, does, his penance. The seven sages who constantly go round and round the Dhruvamaṇḍala take their bath in this holy river. The course of the river is thus: starting from Viṣṇupada it falls on devayāna glittering with crores of vimānas and therefrom it descends on Candramaṇḍala which it submerges. It follows its course again from there dividing itself into four tributaries called Sītā, Cakṣus, Alakanandā and Bhadrā and then falls in Brahmaloka wherefrom it flows in all directions. Of the four tributaries Sītā falls on the head of Mount Meru, flows down to Gandhamādana, then circling through Bhadrāśva varṣa falls into the eastern sea. Cakṣus falls on the peaks of mount Mālyavān, flows through Ketumāla and falls into the western sea. Alakanandā falls on mount Hemakūṭa, flows through Bhārata Varṣa and falls into the southern sea. And Bhadrā falls on the head of mount Śṛṅgavān flows through Uttarakuru and falls into the northern sea. Alakanandā flows through Bhārata Varṣa and is regarded as the most sacred of the four tributaries.

Gaṅgā which flowed through heaven fell on the earth after thousands of years of its origin. (Bhāgavata, Pañcama, Skandha, Chapter 17).

Why Gaṅgā became Śiva’s consort.

Mahāviṣṇu was once engaged at Vaikuṇṭha in a pleasant talk with his wives, Lakṣmī, Sarasvatī and Gaṅgā when Gaṅgā cast lustful eyes on Viṣṇu, who, behind the backs of the other two wives returned the lustful glances. Sarasvatī could not put up with that situation for a long time. Therefore, she got up from her seat and beat Gaṅgā. Lakṣmī tried to restrain Sarasvatī lest the quarrel should become fiercer. Angered at this intervention Sarasvatī cursed that Lakṣmī be born on earth. Gaṅgā got angry that innocent Lakṣmī was thus cursed, and she in her turn cursed that Sarasvatī be born as a river on earth. Sarasvatī did not take the curse lying down, but cursed that Gaṅgā also be born as a river on earth and take upon herself the sins of the whole world. When all the three wives of Viṣṇu got themselves thus into trouble he told them as follows: "Everything has happened as it should have happened. Lakṣmī may go to the earth and be born in the home of Dharmadhvaja and grow up as his daughter, but not from the womb of his women. There you will purify the three worlds after which you will be born as the plant called tulasī, and be married by an asura called Śaṅkhacūḍa, who will be born as a part of me. And, after that you will be turned into a sacred river called Padmāvatī, and leaving the river on earth your divine form will return to Vaikuṇṭha." And, to Gaṅgā Viṣṇu said as follows: "You will go to earth as a holy river to wash off the sins of people there. A king called Bhagīratha will be leading you to earth, and you will, therefore, be known as Bhāgīrathī also. And, you remain there on earth as the wife of the ocean of King Śantanu. Your divine form will return to mount Kailāsa as the consort of Śiva." As for Sarasvatī, Viṣṇu asked her to be born as a river on earth, her divine form ultimately returning to Satyaloka and then becoming the consort of Brahmā.

And, thus it was that Lakṣmī became the consort of Mahāvīṣṇu, Gaṅgā of Śiva and Sarasvatī of Brahmā. (Devī Bhāgavata, Navama Skandha).

Gaṅgā born on earth due to the curse of Brahmā.

Mahābhiṣak, an emperor of the Ikṣvāku dynasty, went to Satyaloka after he had attained heaven, to worship Brahmā. Gaṅgā too happened to be there. In the devotional atmosphere at Satyaloka a casual breeze removed Gaṅgā’s clothes slightly from position, and Mahābhiṣak then cast a lustful glance at her which she also returned. Brahmā, who was observing this exchange of love got angry and cursed that Mahābhīṣak be born as a King on earth and Gaṅgā as his wife. Gaṅgā prayed for redemption from the curse, and Brahmā told her that she would regain her old status after she had delivered the Aṣṭavasus. As the consequence of Brahmā’s cure Mahābhiṣak was born as King Śantanu in the solar dynasty on earth and he married Gaṅgā. (Ādi Parva, Chapters 96 and 97).

Bhagīratha brought down Gaṅgā on earth.

King Sagara of the solar dynasty had two wives called Sumati (Vaidarbhī) and Keśinī (Śaibyā). A son called Asamañjasa was born to Keśinī, and 60,000 princes were born to Sumati. Sagara drove out of the country Asamajñasaa, who turned out to be an enemy of the people. The 60,000 sons of Sagara also proved to be a menace to the world, and the Devas approached Brahmā for protection from the menace. He assured the Devas that a sage called Kapila will destroy the 60,000 evil fellows.

During the above period of time Sagara performed an Aśvamedha Yajña, and his sons went round the earth with the sacrificial horse. But, when they reached the sea-shore the horse disappeared. When the sons complained about it to their father, Sagara, he asked them to look out for the horse in every part of the world and bring it back. Not finding it anywhere on earth they dug a hole and entered Pātāla, where they saw Sage Kapila absorbed in meditation and the missing horse tied to a pole near the sage. (It was Indra who had carried away the horse and tied it there). The sons of Sagara, believing that it was Kapila who had stolen the horse were about to attack the sage when he opened his eyes, and they were reduced to ashes in the fire of Kapila’s eyes.

His sons having not returned even after a long time Sagara asked his grandson Aṃśumān to seek them out, and after an extensive search he saw Kapila at Pātāla. Aṃśumān pleased Kapila with laudatory phrases and the latter returned to him the sacrificial horse. Kapila also pronounced the blessing that the grandson of Aṃśumān would perform the purificatory rites of Sagara’s sons by bringing down Gaṅgā to earth from heaven. Aṃśumān returned to the palace with the horse and the aśvamedha was duly concluded.

From Aṃśumān was born Dilīpa and from him Bhagīratha. On becoming King, Bhagīratha handed over the reins of government to his ministers and began efforts to bring down Gaṅgā to earth. He did tapas for thousand years on the slopes of the Himālayas when Gaṅgā asked him to please Śiva first as he alone could face her (Gaṅgā) fall on the earth. Accordingly he pleased Śiva by his penance and Śiva agreed to receive Gaṅgā on his head. With a terrific noise Gaṅgā came down on Śiva’s head. The haughty Gaṅgā wanted to carry down Śiva also to Pātāla. Realising this ambition of her Śiva blocked her passage with the result that she wandered about in Śiva’s matted hair for many years without finding an outlet. Bhagīratha again did tapas and pleased Śiva who shook his matted head and made fall some water therefrom on earth. The water fell into Bindusaras, and flowed in seven tributaries, the first three, Hlādinī, Pāvanī and Nalinī towards the east, the next three, Sucakṣus, Sītā and Sindhu towards the west and the seventh tributary followed Bhagīratha. In this manner they progressed a great distance till they reached the āśrama of the sage Jahnu, and the haughty Gaṅgā flooded the āśrama. The sage got enraged at this and drank up Gaṅgā. But Bhagīratha pleased the sage who then let out Gaṅgā through his ears. Thenceforth Gaṅgā came to be called Jāhnavī also. Gaṅgā again followed Bhagīratha to Pātāla and made the sons of Sagara attain salvation by purifying them with her waters. (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Bāla Kāṇḍa, Cantos 43 and 44; Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa, Chapter 97; Devī Purāṇa, Dvitīya Skandha; Droṇa Parva, Chapter 60; Anuśāsana Parva, Chapter 4 and Vana Parva, Chapter 109).

Gaṅgā flowed into the sea.

After the purificatory rites of the sons of Sagara were over, Bhagīratha conducted Gaṅgā to the sea and with its waters the sea became full. (Vana Parva, Chapter 109, Verses 18-21).

Gaṅgā set on the thighs of Pratīpa.

Gaṅgā once fell in love with Pratīpa, father of Śantanu, and set on his right thigh when he (Pratīpa) was doing penance on the banks of the Gaṅgā for a son. Pratīpa did not agree to Gaṅgā’s proposal that he should marry her and told her thus: "the right thigh is for the children and daughters-in-law to sit on and the left thigh for the wife; therefore, you be my son’s wife."

Then Pratīpa called his son Śantanu and told him: "Sometime back a divine woman came to me and I promised to wed her to you. Therefore, if any divine woman approaches you for a son you must accept her, and whatever she may do you must not object to that...". Not long after this Pratīpa crowned Śantanu King and left for the forest, (Ādi Parva, Chapter 97).

Aṣṭavasus and Gaṅgā.

While the wife of Dyau, one of the Aṣṭavasus (eight Vasus) was roaming about in the forest she saw Nandinī (the divine cow) grazing with her calf near the āśrama of Vasiṣṭha, and she desired to have the cow to be presented to her intimate friend Jitavatī, the daughter of King Uśīnara. She informed her husband, Dyau about this desire of hers, and Dyau told his relations about it. Next day the Aṣṭavasus, in the absence of Vasiṣṭha at the āśrama, stole off Nandinī and her calf. When Vasiṣṭha returned to the āśrama the cow and calf were missing, and he divined the reason for it with his divine eyes. He cursed that the Aṣṭavasus be born as men on earth, and when they prayed for redemption from the curse Vasiṣṭha told them that they would be born as men within one year from that day, die at once and return to heaven At the same time the sage said that Dyau alone, who took the leading part in stealing the cow, would live on earth for a longer period before he returned to heaven. (The reputed Bhīṣma was this Dyau). The Aṣṭavasus set out for the earth to be born as men and on their way they met Gaṅgā and told her about their curse etc. Gaṅgā also told them about her curse, and permitted them to be born in her womb. (Ādi Parva, Chapter 99).

Gaṅgā became the wife of Śantanu and the Aṣṭavasus were born.

Once while hunting on the banks of the Gaṅgā Śantanu saw a beautiful maiden and they fell in love with each other. She agreed to become his wife on the condition that he would not oppose whatever she said. Śantanu agreed to it and married her. Soon after a child was born to them and in the very presence of Śantanu, she threw the child into the Gaṅgā. As per previous condition Śantanu kept mum at this. She threw into the river the seven Aṣṭavasus, who were born to her in succession. When she was about to throw the last eighth of the Aṣṭavasus (Dyau) into the river Śantanu prevented her. She got angry at this and disappeared with the child. (Ādi Parva, Chapter 98).

Śantanu got back the son.

Thirtytwo years after, Śantanu went hunting again on the banks of the Gaṅgā where he saw the river obstructed in its course with arrows by a handsome boy. Śantanu did not recognise that the boy was his son, who had been named Devavrata by Gaṅgā. Devavrata disappeared after throwing Śantanu into an illusion by his magic power. All of a sudden a doubt dawned in his mind whether the boy was his own son, and he called out to Gaṅgā to show him the boy. Gaṅgā appeared with her son with beautiful ornaments on him and spoke to Śantanu thus: "This is Devavrata, the eighth son whom you entrusted to me. He has mastered everything in archery from Vasiṣṭha, and he is Dyau (the vasu) son of Aṅgiras reborn. You may please take charge of him." After saying this she returned to heaven. (Ādi Parva, Chapter 100).

10) Gaṅgā and Subrahmaṇya. (See under Subrahmaṇya).

Gaṅgā and Bhīṣma. (See under Bhīṣma).

Greatness (divine nature) of Gaṅgā.

Mahābhārata has (Anuśāsana Parva, Chapter 26), the following on the greatness of Gaṇgā.—

If, after death, the bones of the dead are deposited in Gaṅgā the departed will attain heaven. Even if one had sinned throughout his life he would attain Viṣṇupāda (heaven) if he worshipped Gaṅgā. Bathing in the Gaṅgā is as beneficial as performing hundred yajñas. As long as the bones of one remain in the waters of the Gaṅgā so long will he occupy an honourable seat in heaven. He who has come in contact with its water will shine forth as the sun devoid of all darkness. Places which are not favoured by its waters will become barren like night without the moon and trees without flowers. Gaṅgā water is more than enough to satisfy living things in all the three worlds. He who does penance standing on one leg for thousand years, and he who gives up his body in the waters of the Gaṅgā are on a par with each other. God attaches more importance to him who has fallen into the Gaṅgā than to him, who has performed tapas hanging by his head for a thousand years. He who smears the sand on the banks of the Gaṅgā on his body will get the lustre and glow of the devas, and he, who smears the sand on his head will shine forth like the Sun. All the sins of those on whom has blown the air which had come in contact with Gaṅgā water will be swept away. It should be known that Gaṅgā water can wash off all sins and purify mortals. The Agni Purāṇa (Chapter 110) has the following on this subject.

Through whatever places the Gaṅgā flows those places become sublime and sacred. Gaṅgā is the refuge of all created beings who aspire for the final good. If Gaṅgā is worshipped daily it will save families both on the mother’s and the father’s side from evil fate. To drink Gaṅgā water is better than the observance of a thousand lunar months. If one worships Gaṅgā for a month one will derive all the benefits of having performed all the yajñas. Even the blind (the ignorant) who worship Gaṅgā, will attain equal status with the devas. The sight of Gaṅgā, contact with its waters and drinking Gaṅgā water will purify people in thousands and lakhs.

Gaṅgā and Rādhā.

Gaṅgā is Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa liquidified into water. Once in goloka Rādhādevī attempted to drink Gaṅgā dry, who, terror-stricken, hid herself at the feet of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, and the whole world experienced difficulties due to non-availability of water. Śrī Kṛṣṇa came to know of the situation and made Gaṅgā appear again on earth. (Devībhāgavata, Navama Skandha).

Symbols and vehicle of Gaṅgā.

Gaṅgā, white in colour rests on makaramatsya (a variety of fish) holding in her hands a pot and lotus flowers. (Agni Purāṇa, Chapter 50).

Synonyms of Gaṅgā used in the Mahābhārata.

Ākāśagaṅgā, Bhagīrathasutā, Bhāgīrathī, Śailarājasutā, Śaivasutā, Devanadī, Haimavatī, Jāhnavī, Jahnukanyā, Samudramahiṣī, Tripathagā, Tripathagāminī.

Synonyms of Gaṅgā.

"gaṅgā viṣṇupadī jahnutanayā suranimnagā / bhāgīrathī tripathagā trisrotā bhīṣmasūrapi //" (Gaṅgā, Viṣṇupadī Jahnutanayā, Suranimnagā, Bhāgīrathī, Tripathagā, Trisrotā, Bhīṣmasū). (Amarakośa).

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