Gangā! The very name creates a sense of sanctity, devotion and reverence. It is the only flowing body of sacred waters whose history of origin through superhuman efforts, has been immortalized in legendary films and arts, and termed Gangā Avtaraṇa or even as Bhāgiratha Prayathna. We get a detailed description of Gangā Avtaraṇa in Srimad Vālmīki Ramāyana.
कथं गङ्गावतरणं कथं तेषां जलक्रिया….॥ (बालकाण्ड, द्विचत्वारिंश सर्ग ६)
भगीरथस्तु राजर्षिर्धार्मिको…..राज्यं गङ्गावतरणे रत:॥ (वही, ११-१२)
The water deity, identified with ‘makara’ at her feet, brings with it unique power of salvation from sins. It is the spiritual river that has defined Bhārata’s culture and civilization since time immemorial.
‘The Gangā occupies an unrivalled position among the rivers of the world. No other river is so closely identified with a country as the Gangā is with India’, says Jagmohan Mahajan in Gangā Observed (Foreign accounts of the river). ‘Cities and pilgrimage centers teeming with temples and shrines have sprung up all along its course (milestones in the history of the land and the growth of Indian civilization). The Gangetic plain has indeed been the pole towards which the political, economic and religious life of the country has gravitated’. Gangā is much more.
‘पतित पावनी जीवनदायनी’ Mā Gangā is integral to us from birth to death. Its water is used at every ceremony for purification, as a charm to ward off evil spirits, sprinkled at weddings over the bride and bridegroom, and dropped into the mouths of the dying, and also serving as a medium for oath taking. Geographer Strabo calls it ‘the largest river’. The English traveller Thomas Coryat, who visited India from 1612 to 1617, has called it ‘the captains of all rivers in the world’.
Yet this water of life and death is not just a naturally existing river as perceived by many. Descending from the heavens as rain, she was created as a channel for human salvation with the vision of Solar Dynasty King Sagara and his five generations of descendants, a task finally accomplished by Bhāgiratha with the blessings of Lord Shiva. Gangā is not just flowing waters but divine waters endowed with unique properties for our ‘mokṣa’. Some scholars believe that our current understanding and approach to ‘river’ is based on European ideas and very different from what ancient seers of Bhārata conceived. Dilip da Cunha, in his book ‘The Invention of Rivers: Alexander’s Eye and Gangā’s Descent‘, (published 2018 November by the University of Pennsylvania) attributes the colonial understanding of river and banks, the separation of land and water, to be derivative from Alexander’s concept and ancient Greek cartography. He explains ‘Although Alexander the Great never saw the Ganges, he conceived of it as a flowing body of water, with sources, destinations, and banks that marked the separation of land from water. This Alexandrine view of the river, as per Dilip da Cunha ‘has been pursued and adopted across time and around the world.
Dilip da Cunha, indirectly agrees with the Vedic view that Gangā descended from heavens, when he argues that ‘the articulation of the river Ganges has placed it at odds with Gangā, a “rain terrain that does not conform to the line of separation, containment, and calibration that are the formalities of a river’ He explains that ‘What we take to be natural features of the earth’s surface, according to da Cunha, are products of human design’, thus again authenticating the ‘itihāsa’ of Sagar and Bhāgiratha.
In the 4th century BC, Megasthenes came from Greece as ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, leaving the first detailed account of India by a foreign visitor. He noted that the Indians worshipped the rain-bringing Zeus (Indra), the Gangā River and local deities. The Arthashastra of Kautilya mentions that ‘during drought shall Indra, the Gangā, mountains and Mahakachha (sea or ocean) be worshipped. Textual references prove that the Gangā is actually channeled rainwater (Ṛgveda 1.32.11-12).
इन्द्रो यद् वॄत्रमवधीन्नदी….| (ॠग्वेद १.५२.२)
Mysterious purifying powers
Gangā that we revere is the very special living divine liquid energy with mysterious purifying properties. This unique and mystifying trait of the Gangā has intrigued modern scientists for long but till date none have succeeded in decoding the Gangā’s spiritual powers.
Mark Twain notes that a scientist named Mr. Henkin, who was employee of the government of Agra, concluded experiments to examine the water. He went to Banāras for his tests and took water from the mouths of the sewers where they empty into the river at the bathing-ghāts; Tests revealed that a cubic centimeter of it contained millions of germs; but at the end of six hours they were all dead. He then also caught a floating corpse, towed it to shore, “ … and from beside it he dipped up water that was swarming with cholera germs; at the end of six hours they were all dead’ writes J Mahajan (Virgo Publication, 1994). Repeatedly, he took pure well-water which was barren of animal life, and put into it a few cholera germs, they always began to propagate at once, and always within six hours they swarmed- and were numerable by millions upon millions.
Europeans wondered, as many of us still do, ‘how did they find out the water’s secret in those ancient ages? Had they germ-scientists then? We do not know. We only know that they had a civilization long before we emerged from savagery’ (Mark Twain: Following the Equator, 1897).
This most telling image from Devprayāg distinctly shows here two flowing water bodies of very different colors. It is pertinent to note that this is the sacred place of the ‘divine confluence’ (Devprayāg) of two rivers that join together, creating Gangā’s emergence as the single flow towards the plains. Also, that the chemical properties of such contrasting waters will be different is clear to even an ordinary person.
How does the mixture of two or more variant waters, flowing through mineral rich pristine areas, affect the final properties of the Gangā waters that have mysterious purifying qualities? Was this confluence natural or man-made? We know of Panchprayāg (five confluences) at Uttarākhand. Waters descend crossing through Vishnuprayāg (DhauliGangā-Alakhnandā), Nandprayāg (Alakhnandā-Nandākinī), Karnaprayāg (Alakhnandā-Pindar) and Rudraprayāg where Alakhnandā meets Mandakinī.
What is the significance of the name ‘Devprayāg’ as ancient seers named people or places with certain symbolic identifications? Where or what is the initial source of the mystical properties of Gangā waters? We know that – Gangā water is always sacred as germs do not develop in it. Gangā water is always pure. It has medicinal properties in it. This drinking water has divine traits as stated in ancient texts –
शं नो देवीरभिष्टय आपो भवन्तु पीतये शं योरभि स्रवन्तु न:। (ॠग्वेद १.९.४)
Germ free pure water is also mentioned –
यथोदकं शुद्धे शुद्धमासिक्तं तादृगेव भवति। (कठोपनिषद् २.१.१५)
It is notable that where the Gangā waters fall on Hemkunt as spring, gold particles are found there. In several places in the Gangā valley there is a tradition to strain gold particles. This gold is called ‘Gangāye’ Periplus mentions this.
Gangā is called the ‘Das Pāpa Hara Devī’ as she provides solution for ten problems. Gangā Daśera is festival celebrated in recognition of Gangā’s power of washing away ten ‘Pāpa’ or sins (sin means problems). It is also mentioned by Bhojrāj (Rajmartand) [quoted in गङ्गा नदी : उद्भव एवं देवत्व – एक सांस्कृतिक यात्रा, presented by Prof. Deen Bandhu Pande, at Draupadi Dream Trust Gangā Conference, 6th Dec 2018, Delhi]. Was course of waters having divergent properties chartered to form the miracle water?
Rajnīkānt describes the ten traits of Gangā, by which it helps us keep away problems. These ten natural qualities of Gangā are –
1. शीतत्वम्, 2. स्वादुत्वम्, 3. स्वच्छत्वम् , 4. अत्यन्तरुचत्वम् , 5. पत्थ्यत्वम्, 6. पावनत्वम् 7. पापहारित्वम्, 8. तृष्णामोहध्वंसनत्वम् 9. दीपत्वम्, 10. प्रज्ञाधारित्वम्.
As the British interests in India increased, they also started exploring its natural resources. Gangā, Yamuna, Brahmaputra and other rivers originating from the Himalayas attracted their attention, during 1800s and early part of 1900s. British surveyors surveyed these rivers comprehensively, and Sir William Willcox, the Director General of Irrigation of India has, in his book, shows his understanding of high standards of ancient documentations. He writes that Indian ancient writers wrote about physical facts in a spiritual manner. Regarding the rivers he states that every flow which went southwards whether, big as the Bhagirathi or not, originally started as a canal and that these canals were lined out, dug and placed just at the distance that canals should be placed. Sir William Willcox reasons that Gangā or the River Bhāgirathī was a canal constructed by our ancient visionaries. The bringing of the Gangā from the heights of Meru to the plains of India would be the greatest accomplishment of engineering in India, or even in human history.
What is the mystery of this Divine water?
Modern scientists are gradually realising the science of Ayurveda, Meditation, Yoga and even ‘ritual fasting, but will take many decades, if not centuries, to unlock all the secrets unearthed by our ancient seers. Knowledge of our Rishi’s came through centuries of penance by understanding and connecting with nature. They unravelled the depths of ‘vijñāna’ and planned for welfare of humanity.
The gospel of preventive medicine and science of life ‘Ayurveda’ is the ‘Charak Samhitā’ which means research by travelling to various parts of the land. It was not commercial exploitation as Vedic dharma is based on the principles of
सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः सर्वे सन्तु निरामयाः ।
सर्वे भद्राणि पश्यन्तु मा कश्चिद् दुःख भाग्भवेत्।।
Gangā too was channeled from heavenly waters for the welfare of mankind. It is the perfect blend of nature and culture for social engineering the welfare of a civilization that believed in divine nature of man, nature and all earthy beings.
Gangā Mā is a marvelous gift of visionary King Sagara, dedicated efforts of his 60,000 population and sons Anshumān, Dilipa and especially Bhāgiratha, who is immortalized through Bhāgirathī river which joins Alakhnandā at Devprayāg, to finally form the Gangā we know.
Since time immemorial Mother Gangā is flowing through our heartlands and we use her pure waters for all our holy rituals. But in this auspicious Śrāvan māsa we pay special tribute to the heavenly Divine Gangā. People travel for days, covering thousands of miles up the mountains to bring the freshest waters of Gangā river to pour on Lord Shiva, thanking him for blessing us by bringing Mā Gangā to us mortals. It is like a thanksgiving celebration, so integral to our sanskriti.
Jai Mā Gange!
Om Namay Shivāye!
–Ms. Neera Misra, Independent scholar on Vedic and Mahābhārata Heritage, Chairperson-Trustee Draupadi Dream Trust