Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, , at sacred-texts.com
Gangā (the Ganges), the chief of the sacred streams of India, whose waters are said to have the power of cleansing from all past, present, and future sins, is
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believed to be divine, and the account of her birth and appearance on earth forms an interesting episode in the Rāmāyana. The story is told to Rāma by the hermit
[paragraph continues] Visvamitra, as he was travelling with Rāma and his brother Lakshman. As soon as they reach the banks of the sacred stream,
As soon as they were seated, Rāma said-
The sage next tells Rāma that there was a mighty King of Ayodha named Sāgara † who, being childless,
and most anxious to have a son, propitiated the saint Bhrigu (or, according to other accounts, his grandson) by penances extending over a hundred years. At length the saint, pleased with Sāgara's worship, said—
Hearing this, the wives are anxious to know which of them is to have the one son, and which the multitude; but this the Brāhman leaves them to decide. Kesini wishes for the one; and Sumati is pleased with the prospect of having sixty thousand.
After a time King Sāgara determined to make an Asvamedha, or horse sacrifice, with the object of becoming the reigning Indra, or king of the gods. Preparations for this are accordingly made, and Prince Ansumān, the son of the elder wife, is appointed by the king to follow the horse set apart for the sacrifice; for, according to the ritual, it was to be set free, and allowed to wander for a whole year wherever it would. Indra, knowing the great merit that Sāgar would obtain by this sacrifice, and fearing that he might even lose his crown,
The officiating priest, being aware of this, cries out—
King Sāgara, incited by the Brāhman, urges his sons to search until they find the stolen horse:
The sons commence their search. Each digs a league in depth, and by this means they reach the centre of the earth; but cannot see the horse. Alarmed at their destructive work, the gods repair to Brahmā, and tell him what is happening. He cheers them with the information that Vishnu, in the form of Kapila, will protect the Earth, his bride, and that these sons of Sāgara will be consumed to ashes. The gods, encouraged by these words, repair to their home and patiently wait for deliverance.
After digging sixty thousand leagues into the earth without obtaining any tidings of the horse, the princes return to their father, asking what can be done. Sāgara commands them to dig on, and continue their search until the horse is found. At length they
Hearing no news of his sons, the king became anxious, and sent his grandson Ansumān to look after them. He inquires of all he meets on the earth, and is encouraged by the information that he shall certainly bring back the stolen horse. At length he reaches the spot where his brothers were consumed, and is overwhelmed with grief at their fate. At this moment his uncle Garuda appears and consoles him, saying—
The prince takes the steed; the sacrifice is completed, and for 30,000 years King Sāgara was thinking how he could induce Gangā to come down from heaven. At length, not having succeeded in forming a successful plan, the monarch himself went to heaven. Ansumān
reigned in his stead, who, in his turn, tried to find some means of liberating his brothers. His son Dilipa also made a similar, but equally unsuccessful, effort. It was given to Dilipa's son Bhagirath to accomplish this work. Bhagirath had no son. He, in order to obtain this boon, and also to free his kinsmen from their sad fate, practised most severe austerities, until at length Brahmā said—
"Blest monarch, of a glorious race,
Thy fervent rites have won my grace.
Well hast thou wrought thine awful task:
Some boon in turn, O hermit, ask." *
To which Bhagirath replies as follows—
To this the god replies—
Brahmā then re-ascended to the skies; but Bhagirath remained for a whole year—
Siva, pleased with this devotion, promised to sustain the shock of the descent of the waters on his head; but Gangā was not at all pleased when commanded to descend to earth:
Siva, however, was a match for the wrathful deity. He held her in the coils of his hair until her anger abated, and then she fell into the Vindu lake, from whence proceed the seven sacred streams of India. This lake is not known; and of the seven streams mentioned, two only are familiar to geographers, the Ganges and the Indus. One branch of this stream followed Bhagirath wherever he went. On the way the waters flooded the sacrificial flame of Jahnu, a saint. In his anger he drank up its waters, and Bhagirath's work seemed to be fruitless. But at the intercession of the king and Brahmā, the saint allowed the waters to flow from his ears. From this fact one of the many names of Gangā is Jāhnavi, or daughter of Jahnu. At length Bhagirath reached the ocean, and descending to the depths where Sāgara's sons were lying, Gangā followed until her waters touched the ashes, when—
As a reward for his meritorious work, Brahmā' said to him—
As a consequence of faith in this legend, one of the most frequented places of pilgrimage in India is Sāgar Island, the place where the river Ganges and ocean meet.
In addition to the Ganges, there are many other rivers regarded as sacred by the Hindus; the worship of these, and bathing in them, being productive of almost as great blessings as are to be obtained from Gangā herself. Some of these are considered as males and some as females. The following is not a complete list, but it contains the names of the rivers most generally worshipped.
Male rivers:—The Sona and the Brahmaputra.
Female rivers:—The Godāvarī, the Kāveri, the Atreyī, the Karaloyā, the Bahudā, the Gomati, the Sarayu, the Gandakī, the Varahī, the Charmanwatī, the Shatadru, the Vipāshā, the Goutamī, the Karmanāshā, the Airāvatī, the Chandrabhāgā, the Vitastā, the Sindhu, the Krishnā, the Vetravatī, the Bhairavā. †
461:* Griffiths's "Rāmāyana," i. 171.
461:† Sāgara's birth was supernatural. His father Bāhu, King of Ayodha, was expelled from his kingdom. The mother of Sāgara p. 462 accompanied her husband to the forest, but, owing to a poisonous drug having been given her by a rival wife, she could not bring forth her son, with whom she had been pregnant for seven years. When her husband died, she wished to be burned with his body; but this was prevented by a sage named Aurva, who assured her that her son would yet be born, and grow up to be a mighty king. When he was born, Aurva gave him the name Sāgara (sa, with, and gara, poison). Aurva himself was also born in an extraordinary manner. A king named Kritavirya was very liberal to the Bhrigus, and through his liberality they became rich. His descendants being poor, they asked help of the Bhrigus. On this being refused them, they made an onslaught on the Brāhmans of this family, slaying all they could find, even to children in the womb. One woman concealed her unborn child in her thigh. The Kshattriyas, hearing of this, tried to slay him, but he issued from his mother's thigh with such lustre that he blinded his persecutors. And because he was born from the thigh (uru) of his mother, he was called Aurva.
462:* Griffiths's " Rāmāyana," i. 174.
463:* Griffiths's Rāmāyana," i. 175.
463:† Ibid., 177.
464:* Griffiths's " Rāmāyana," i. 177.
465:* Griffiths's "Rāmāyana," i. 183.
465:† Ibid., 186.
466:* Griffiths's "Rāmāyana," i. 190.
467:* Griffiths's "Rāmāyana," i. 193.
467:† Ibid., 196.
468:* Griffiths's "Rāmāyana," i. 197.
468:† Ward, ii. 217.