Despite being born and brought up in the holy city of Prayag, also referred as the King of Pilgrimages, I never realised the true significance of river Ganga in our lives. For years, till I entered my adolescence, Ganga was just an ordinary river touching various parts of the country. It was only because of my grandparents that I understood the importance of this sacred river, which is an integral part of Hinduism and an age old symbol of Indian culture & civilization.
My house in Allahabad is situated very close to Ganga and I used to accompany my grandparents, whenever they wished to take a holy dip in its refreshing waters and participate in Hindu rituals, be it Maker Sankranti, Kumbh or any other occasion.
While sitting on the dry sand bed of the river, I often watched my grandparents, immersed waist deep in the waters, offering Surya Pranam. The two of them floated oil lamps and offered floral tributes to the Mokshadayini Ma Gange, which marked the completion of their bathing rituals.
They often insisted me to take a dip in its water but I preferred to sit on the banks and watch sadhus (sages), oarsmen and devotees doing diverse things.
Whenever my grandparents lectured on the importance of the river, which is a Goddess to millions of devotees, and brings life and prosperity, my inquisitive mind used to wonder how could a river clean and alleviate people’s troubles.
I saw the river as an idle place for fishing and often frequented there to learn swimming in its shallow waters.
However, as I grew old and enriched my understanding about the diversity of our culture, I understood why Ganga was Ma Gange throughout the country. I came to know why millions of devotees walked from every nook and corner to participate in the biggest congregation of faith that takes place every year at its banks in the four holy cities of Prayag, Nasik,Ujjain and Haridwar.
The legends behind the origin of the divine river are also very fascinating. According to the beliefs, Ganga descended on the earth to wash away the sins of the mankind.
Ganga has its mention as a sacred river and is worshipped as a living Goddess in the Hindu pantheon. According to Puranas, it is believed that Ganga used to flow in the heaven and sanctified Gods with her holy waters.
There are different stories related to River Ganga’s descent on earth in the Puranas, the Vedas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In some sacred books, it is referred as the sister of Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, being one of the two daughters of King of Himalayas.
According to another legend, the water, which came out of Lord Brahma`s (Creator God) Kamandalam (water-vessel) is personified as a maiden Ganga.
A different legend tells that Ganga is one of the avatars of the supreme Goddess Mahamaya Adishakti and rested in Lord Brahma’s Kamandalam
The most popular story regarding Ganga’s descent to earth relates to ancient King Sagar’s descendent King Bhagirath, who appeased and forced Lord Brahma after years of meditation (Tapasya) to send the sacred river to liberate his ancestors’ souls from earthly cycles of life and death, and provide eternal salvation mukti or Mohsha forever. Ganga followed King Bhagirath where ever he moved and liberated the unfortunate souls of King Sagar`s Sons. It is since then the river came to be known as Mokhshadayini.
Since then, Ganga is sanctifying mankind with her divine waters.
The river carries an immense cultural and religious meaning for Hindus of every region and it is almost difficult to detach the Ganges from Hinduism.
The Ganges, after emerging from its sources in Gangotri in the Himalaya, runs through the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It drains a large part of the northern plains, clips the top of West Bengal and then enters Bangladesh. The Ganges merges with the Brahmaputra river and spills out into the Bay of Bengal. It may not be the biggest river that passes through the country, but in spiritual terms, it is certainly the most important river. It is one of India`s seven sacred rivers which gives nirvana to the bathers and purifies their souls.
It also runs through Varanasi and Haridwar, two of the seven sacred Hindu cities and touches the Buddhist attractions of Bodhgaya and Sarnath and important Muslim sites at Agra and Fatehpur.
During Kumbh, millions of devotees can be seen making their way into the holy water of the Ganges. All of them face the rising sun with folded hands, offer prayers and perform rituals.
The journey of life clearly begins with the Holy waters of Ganges, be it birth or death. As per the Hindu belief, the dead bodies are cremated at the banks of Ganga and the ashes are then immersed in its waters so that the departed soul reaches the Pitriloka, (the world of the ancestors). If cremation is not possible at the banks, then relatives might later bring and immerse the ashes of the deceased into the Ganges. Sometimes, if a family cannot afford firewood for cremation, a half-burned corpse is thrown into the water. A verse from the Mahabharata promises, "If only the bone of a person should touch the water of the Ganges, that person shall dwell, honoured, in heaven."
Without this, the dead will exist only in a limbo of suffering, and their spirits would keep wandering on planet earth. In that sense, the waters of the Ganges are considered as the nectar of ‘immortality", which sets one free from the cycle of life and death forever.
It is believed that bathing during Kumbh cures the bather of all sins and evils and provides salvation. It is also believed that during the Kumbh Yog, the water of Ganga is charged with positive healing effects and it is constantly charged positively by enhanced electromagnetic radiations of the Sun, Moon and the Jupiter.
The flux of which, however, varies in accordance to positions and the phases of the moon, and also by the + and - signs of the sun spots.
Unfortunately, in the last few decades, mainly due to our religious beliefs and various rituals that are performed on its banks, the papnashini Ganga has become heavily polluted. The hazardous leftovers after the conclusion of every Kubmh Mela has led to the spread of some of the worst water-borne diseases like dysentery, hepatitis, and cholera etc.
Although the Centre and the state governments have taken several initiatives like (Ganga Action Plan) aimed at cleaning its water and several NGOs have raised money and launched awareness programmes for the same, a lot still needs to be done.
Considering the religious significance, its impact on our lives, the purity, fertility and the prosperity it offers to those who bath in it, it is our collective responsibility to save the Holy Ganga.