The Ganges: Hinduism's Holy River

Why the Ganges Is Considered Sacred

Goddess Ganges
Goddess Ganges on pylons on bridge in Haridwar, Uttranchal.

Images from India / Getty Images 

The River Ganges, running for more than 1500 miles across some of the most densely populated areas in Asia, is perhaps the most religiously significant body of water in the world. The river is considered to be sacred and spiritually pure, though it is also one of the most polluted rivers on earth.

Originating from the Gangotri Glacier, high in the Himalayas of northern India, the river flows southeast through India, into Bangladesh, before spilling into the Bay of Bengal. It is the primary source of water—used for drinking, bathing, and irrigating crops—for more than 400 million people.

A Sacred Icon

For Hindus, the River Ganges is sacred and revered, embodied by the goddess Ganga. Though iconography of the goddess varies, she is most often depicted as a beautiful woman with a white crown, riding the Makra (a creature with the head of a crocodile and the tail of a dolphin). She features either two or four arms, holding a variety of objects ranging from water lilies to a water pot to a rosary. As a nod to the goddess, the Ganges is often referred to as Ma Ganga, or Mother Ganga. 

Because of the purifying nature of the river, Hindus believe that any rituals performed at the banks of the Ganges or in its water will bring fortune and wash away impurity. The waters of the Ganges are called Gangaajal, meaning literally "water of the Ganges".

The Puranas—ancient Hindu scriptures—say that the sight, the name, and the touch of the Ganges cleanses one of all sins and that taking a dip in the sacred river bestows heavenly blessings.

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A Brahmin priest and his assistant pray beside the Ganges River. Christopher Pillitz / Image Bank

Mythological Origins of the River

There are many renditions of the River Ganges’ mythical origins, owing in part to the oral tradition of India and Bangladesh. It is said that the river gave life to the people, and, in turn, people gave life to the river. The name of Ganga appears only twice in the Rig Veda, an early sacred Hindu text, and it was only later that Ganga assumed great importance as the goddess Ganga.

One myth, according to the Vishnu Purana, an ancient Hindu text, illustrates how the Lord Vishnu pierced a hole in the universe with his toe, allowing goddess Ganga to flow over his feet into heaven and down to earth as the waters of the Ganges. Because she came into contact with Vishnu’s feet, Ganga is also known as Vishnupadi, meaning a descent from Vishnu’s lotus feet.

Another myth details how Ganga was intent on wreaking havoc on the earth with her descent as a raging river seeking revenge. In order to prevent the chaos, Lord Shiva caught Ganga in the tangles of his hair, releasing her in the streams that became the source for the River Ganges. Another version of this same story tells how it was Ganga herself who was persuaded to nurture the land and the people below the Himalayas, and she asked Lord Shiva to protect the land from the force of her fall by catching her in his hair.

Though the myths and legends of the River Ganges are numerous, the same reverence and spiritual connection is shared among the populations that live along the banks of the river. 

Festivals along the Ganges

The banks of the River Ganges host hundreds of Hindu festivals and celebrations each year.

For example, on the 10th of the month of Jyestha (falling between the end of May and the beginning of June on the Gregorian calendar), the Ganga Dussehra celebrates the descent of the sacred river to earth from heaven. On this day, a dip in the holy river while invoking the Goddess is said to purify sins and wipe away physical ailments.

The Kumbh Mela, another sacred ritual, is a Hindu festival during which pilgrims to the Ganges bathe themselves in the sacred waters. The festival occurs in the same place only every 12 years, though a Kumbh Mela celebration can be found annually somewhere along the river. It is considered to be the world’s largest peaceful gathering and is featured on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Dying by the Ganges

Cremation Ceremony on River Ganges
VARANASI, INDIA - JANUARY 28, 2018: Burning pyres seen during cremation ceremonies in Manikarnika Ghat on January 28, 2018 in Varanasi, India. Manikarnika Ghat is one of the holiest among the sacred riverfronts (ghats), alongside the river Ganga. It is believed that a dead human's soul finds salvation (moksha), when cremated here.  Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

The land over which the Ganges flows is regarded as hallowed ground, and it is believed that the holy waters of the river will purify the soul and lead to a better reincarnation or liberation of the soul from the cycle of life and death. Because of these strong beliefs, it is common for Hindus to spread cremated ashes of dead loved ones, allowing the sacred water to direct the soul of the departed.

Ghats, or flights of stairs leading to a river, along the banks of the Ganges are known for being holy Hindu funeral destinations. Most notably are the Ghats of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and the Ghats of Haridwar in Uttarakhand. 

Spiritually Pure but Ecologically Dangerous

Though the sacred waters are linked to spiritual purity, the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Nearly 80 percent of the sewage dumped into the river is untreated, and the amount of human fecal matter is more than 300 times the limit set by India’s Central Pollution Control Board. This is in addition to the toxic waste caused by dumping of insecticides, pesticides, and metals, and industrial pollutants.

These dangerous levels of pollution do little to deter religious practice from the sacred river. Hindus believe drinking water from the Ganges brings fortune, while immersing oneself or one’s belongings brings purity. Those that practice these rituals may become spiritually clean, but the pollution of the water afflicts thousand with diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, and even typhoid each year.

In 2014, the government of India pledged to spend nearly $3 billion on a three-year clean-up project, though as of 2019, the project had not yet begun. 

Sources

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  • Mallet, Victor. River of Life, River of Death: the Ganges and Indias Future. Oxford University Press, 2017.
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  • Scarr, Simon, et al. “The Race to Save the River Ganges.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 18 Jan. 2019.
  • Sen, Sudipta. Ganges: the Many Pasts of an Indian River. Yale University Press, 2019.
  • “The Ganges.” Word Wildlife Fund, World Wildlife Fund, 8 Sept. 2016.