The Ganges
by Julie Dunn



The name of the Ganges is known all throughout the land of India. This river that runs for 1,560 miles from the Himalayas all the way to the Bay of Bengal is more than just flowing water. This river is life, purity, and a goddess to the people of India. The river is Ganga Ma, "Mother Ganges." Her name and her story is known all throughout the land. It is the story of how she poured herself down from heaven upon the ashes of King Sarga's sons. Her waters would raise them up again to dwell in peace in heaven. Not only that, but anyone who touches these purifying waters even today are said to be cleansed of all sins.

The Myth of the Ganges


As soon as the day begins, devout Hindus begin to give their offerings of flowers or food, throwing handfulls of grain or garlands of marigolds or pink lotuses into the Ganges. Others will float small oil lamps on its surface. Or as stated in "Banaras City of Light" by Diana L. Eck, "they may take up her water and put it back into the river as an offering to the ancestors and the gods" (Eck 212). In cupped hands they will also take the ritual drink of the Ganges and then fill a container to take with them to the temple. On great festivel occasions, Hindus ford the river in boats, shouting "Ganga Mata Ki Jai!" (Victory to Mother Ganga!)



Every morning thousands of Hindus, whether pilgrims or residents, make their way into the holy water of the Ganges. All of them face the rising sun with folded hands mumering prayers. Eck states:

"There are few things on which Hindu India, diverse as it is, might agree. But of the Ganges, India speaks with one voice. The Ganges carries an immense cultural and religious meaning for Hindus of every region and every sectarian persuasion." (214)



The Ganges is a place of death and life. Hindus from all over will bring their dead. Whether a body or just ashes, the waters of the Ganga are needed to reach Pitriloka, the World of the Ancestors. Just as in the myth with King Sargas' 60,000 sons who attained heaven by Ganga pouring down her water upon their ashes, so the same waters of Ganga are needed for the dead in the Hindu belief today. Without this, the dead will exist only in a limbo of suffering, and would be troublesome spirits to those still living on earth. The waters of the Ganges are called amrita, the "nectar of immoratality".

Cremation anywhere along the Ganges is desirable. If that is not possible, then the relatives might later bring the ashes of the deceased to 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, honored, in heaven."



For the living, bathing in the Ganges is just as important. Hindus will travel miles and miles to have their sins washed away in these holy waters. For years Hindus have declared that there is nothing quite as cleansing as the living waters of the River of Heaven. This "pure" water is suppoce to wash their sins away.

The river Ganges draws all kinds of people and life seems to continually be bustling at its side. On the platforms and ghats are barbers cutting and trimming hair, and children flying their kites. You may see young men wrestling, exercising, or in deep meditation. Washermen are beating their clothes on stones at the edge. Multi-colored saris and all sorts of wet clothes are laid out to dry in the sunshine. A boy may be washing his dog while a mother is taking her yelling child into the Ganges for the first time. "Banaras: India's City of Light" by Santha Rama Rau states:

"There are beggars, idlers, vendors, touts, the young, the old, the curious, the remote, the talkers, the guides, the priests, the families simply out for a stroll, the ascetics, the crippled, the woman scrubbing out household pots and pans, the toughs, the gently curious ones. All are there along the Ganges" (Rau 244).



Unfortunately, with all the life the Ganges brings, pollution is also brought. Some of the worst waterborn diseases are dysentery, hepatits, and cholera. Money is being raised by the government and other groups such as the Swatcha Ganga to clean the Ganges. None the less, the Ganges is still the purifying waters for the Hindus of India. As stated in "Travel in India" by Jean Tavernier, "The land where the Ganges does not flow is likened in one hymn to the sky without the sun, a home without a lamp, a brahmin without a Vedas" (Tavernier 236).


-Eck, Diana. BANARAS CITY OF LIGHT. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
-Rau, Santha. "Banaras: India's City of Light" NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. Feb. 1995

Pictures provided by:

Carolyn Heinz
Other sources:
facts on the Ganges
return to syllabus