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Importance of River Ganga

The Ganges which flows through India and Bangladesh is a trans-boundary river of Asia . The 2,525 km river rising in the western Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, flows south and east through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, and into the Bay of Bengal the river gets empty. By discharge Ganga is the third largest river in the world.

River Ganges is the most sacred river to the Hindus. Being worshipped as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism as it is a lifeline to millions of Indians who live along its course and depend on it for their daily needs. For many former provincial or imperial capitals located on its banks such as Pataliputra, Kara, Kannauj, Kashi, Patna, Munger, Hajipur, Bhagalpur, Baharampur, Murshidabad, Kampilya, and Kolkata Ganga has also been important historically.

It was in 2007 the Ganges was ranked in the world as the fifth most polluted river and this population not only consist of humans, but also more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the endangered Ganges river dolphin. An environmental programme, in the name of the Ganga Action Plan, to clean up the river, has been a major failure due to corruption, poor environmental planning, lack of technical expertise and lack of support from religious authorities.

Image of holiness

Along every fragment of its length River Ganga is a sacred river to Hindus. All along its course, paying homage to their ancestors and to their gods, Hindus bathe in its waters by cupping the water in their hands, lifting it and letting it fall back into the river; shallow clay dishes filled with oil and lit with wicks (diyas) are floated and with this flowers and rose petals are offered to the river. Small quantities of river water (Ganga jal, literally water of the Ganga) are carried by the devotees while returning home from the Ganga for use in rituals. Hindus bring the ashes of the deceased person to the Ganga River when a loved one dies.

In Hindu mythology the Ganga is the embodiment of all sacred waters. Local rivers are said to be like the Ganga, and just because of this they are sometimes called the local Ganga. In Southern India the Kaveri river of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is called the Ganga of the South; the Godavari which is flowing through Central India, is the Ganga that was led by the sage Gautama . Whenever water is used in Hindu ritual the Ganga is invoked, and is therefore present in all sacred waters. In spite of this, especially at one of the famous tirthas such as Gangotri, Haridwar, Prayag, or Varanasi a dip in the actual river, is rousing for a Hindu which is thought to remit sins. One of the few things that Hindu India, even its sceptics, is agreed upon is the symbolic and religious importance of the Ganga. A religious iconoclast, Jawaharlal Nehru himself, asked for a handful of his ashes to be thrown into the Ganga. " He wrote in his will, " that the River Ganga, been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same, Ganga is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats, her hopes and fears.

Redemption of the dead

Pilgrims sitting at the Asthi Pravaha Ghat, Har ki Pauri,Haridwar

Ganga is the vehicle of ascent, from earth to heaven since Ganga had descended from heaven to earth. She flows in heaven, earth, and the netherworld, and, consequently, is a "tirtha," or crossing point of all beings, the living as well as the dead as the Triloka-patha-gamini, (Skt. triloka= "three worlds", patha = "road", gamini = "one who travels") of the Hindu tradition. The story of the avatarana is told at Shraaddha ceremonies for the deceased in Hinduism for this reason and Ganga water is used in Vedic rituals after death. Among all hymns devoted to the Ganga there are none more popular than the ones expressing the worshiper's wish to breathe his last surrounded by her waters.

No place along her banks is more longed for at the moment of death by Hindus than Varanasi, the Great Cremation Ground, or Mahashmashana and for this very reason those who are lucky enough to die in Varanasi, are said and believed to be granted instant salvation if they being cremated on the banks of the Ganga. It is believed that even if the death has occurred elsewhere, salvation can be achieved only by immersing the ashes in the Ganga. If the ashes have been immersed in another body of water, if possible during the lunar "fortnight of the ancestors" in the Hindu calendar month of Ashwin (September or October) a relative can still gain salvation for the deceased by journeying to the Ganga and performing the Shraaddha rites.

A rite for the dead, performed by the Hindus as pinda pradana, in which balls of rice and sesame seed are offered to the Ganga and at the same time the names of the deceased relatives are recited. According to one story, every sesame seed in every ball thus offered, assures a thousand years of heavenly salvation for the each relative. Indeed, in the rituals after death the Ganga is so important that the Mahabharata, in one of its popular slokas, says, " A person shall dwell honoured in heaven if only (one) bone of a (deceased) person should touch the water of the Ganga. The Kashi Khanda (Varanasi Chapter) of the Skanda Purana in order to illustrate this truism recounts the remarkable story of Vahika, a profligate and unrepentant sinner, who is killed by a tiger in the forest. Before Yama, the Lord of Death, his soul arrives to be judged for the hereafter and having no compensating virtue, Vahika's soul is at once dispatched to hell. At the same time this is happening, his body on earth, however, is being picked at by vultures, one of whom flies away with a foot bone. Then comes a bird after the vulture, and in fighting him off, the vulture accidentally drops the bone into the Ganga below. Vahika, on his way to hell, being blessed by this happenstance, is rescued by a celestial chariot which in turn takes him instead to heaven.

The clean Ganga

Followers during the festival of Ganga Dashara taking holy bath at Har-ki-Pauri, Haridwar

Waters of the Ganga is considered to be both pure and purifying by Hindus. More than the waters of the Ganga nothing reclaims order from disorder. In Hindu culture moving water, as in a river, is considered purifying because it is thought to both absorb impurities and take them away. Especially in its upper reaches, the swiftly moving Ganga, where a bather has to grasp an anchored chain in order to not be carried away, is considered especially purifying. River Ganga not only removes the physical dirt, but symbolic dirt; it wipes away the sins of the bather, not just of the present, but of a lifetime.

Consort, shakti and mother

Depiction of Goddess Ganga.Kalighat painting.

To all three major male deities of Hinduism Ganga is a consort. In the form of water in Brahma’s kamandalu (water-pot) Ganga always travels with Brahma as a partner. Ganga being also Vishnu's companion and in the avatarana story, she emanates from his foot as Vishnupadi and is also, with Sarasvati and Lakshmi, one of his wives. In one popular story, the wives begin to quarrel, envious of being outdone by each other. In order to mediate the quarrel though Lakshmi attempts, but nothing could be done as both Ganga and Sarasvati heap misfortune on each other. The result of this quarrel being, they curse each other to become rivers, and by washing, to carry within them, the sins of their human worshippers. To calm the situation soon their husband, Vishnu, arrives and separated the goddesses. He then ordered Ganga to be the wife of Shiva and Sarasvati to be the wife of Brahma, and Lakshmi, as the blameless conciliator, to remain as his own wife. Vishnu is forced to take back his words as Ganga and Sarasvati are very much distraught at this dispensation, and also wailing very loudly. Consequently, they are still thought to be with him in their lives as rivers.

In Ganga theology Shiva's relationship with Ganga is the best-known. Her descent, the avatarana is a continuously occurring event in which Ganga is falling forever from heaven into his locks and being tamed forever. Shiva in Hindu iconography is depicted as the "Bearer of the Ganga," i;e Gangadhara, with Ganga, rising from his hair is shown as spout of water. This relationship of Shiva-Ganga is both intimate and perpetual. Ganga is said to often arouse the jealousy of Shiva's better-known consort Parvati whereas Shiva is sometimes called Uma-Ganga-Patiswara ("Husband and Lord of Uma (Parvati) and Ganga").

This Ganga being Power is filled with the sweet wine of compassion, and was sent out for the salvation of the world by Shiva, the Lord of the Lords. Good people should not think and compare this Triple-Pathed River with thousand other earthly rivers, filled with water.

As per Hinduism, for the purpose of worship and culture, the Ganga is also the mother, the Ganga Mata (mata="mother") accepting all and forgiving all. She don’t have destructive or fearsome aspect, unlike other goddesses, destructive though she might be as a river in nature. She is also a mother to other gods. From the fire-god Agni, She accepts Shiva's incandescent seed which is too hot for this world, and cools it in her waters. Skanda, or Kartikeya, the god of war is produced by this union. She is the wife of Shantanu, and the mother of heroic warrior-patriarch, BhishmaIn in the Mahabharata.

Of the Hindu tradition, the Ganga is the distilled lifeblood of its divinities, holy books, and enlightenment. As is required in the worship of other gods her worship does not require the usual rites of invocation (avahana) at the beginning and dismissal (visarjana) at the end. She has instant and unending pride.

Kumbh Mela

A parade of Akharas walking over a temporary bridge over the Ganga River. 2001 Kumbh Mela at Allahabad

Kumbh Mela is a mass gathering of Hindu pilgrimage at the Ganga River. After every 3 years, the normal Kumbh Mela is celebrated, at Haridwar and Prayag, the Ardh (half) Kumbh is celebrated every six years, at four places (Prayag Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik), the Purna (complete) Kumbh takes place every twelve years. At Prayag (Allahabad) the Maha (great) Kumbh Mela which comes after 12 'Purna Kumbh Melas', or 144 years, is held.

At the banks of the river ritual bathing is the major event of the festival. Religious discussions, mass feeding of holy men and women and the poor, devotional singing and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated and standardized are the other activities of the festivals. Of all the pilgrimages Kumbh Mela is the most sacred and in this mela thousands of holy men and women attend, and the auspiciousness of the festival is in part attributable to this. As per the requirements of ancient traditions the sadhus are seen clad in saffron sheets with ashes and powder dabbed on their skin. Those who are naga sanyasis, may not wear any clothes.


Another major, important and related activity is Tourism. Haridwar, Prayag (Allahabad), and Varanasi the three towns holy to Hinduism –– attract thousands of pilgrims to its waters so as to take a holy dip in the Ganga, to cleanse oneself of sins and help attain salvation. In the summer season the rapids of the Ganga is very much popular for river rafting, and during that period it attracts hundreds of adventure seekers. Also, to attract tourists several cities like Patna and Kolkata have developed riverfront pathways along the banks of the river.