Mythology for the Millennial: From feisty goddess to earthly river, navigating the rich lore of Ganga

  • Ganga came into our universe thanks to that little meddler, Vamana, who we last saw torturing Mahabali and making him give up his entire kingdom and die because the gods couldn't handle his success.

  • While Vamana was counting his steps across the sky, his toenail poked the edge of the world and a hole appeared in the universe, causing a divine ocean to flow out and become Ganga as soon as it reached our atmosphere.

  • The river, not yet a person, stays in heaven until an enterprising guy called Bhagirath asks for it (now her) to come down to earth and wash away the sins of people and what not.

It's not surprising that people make up myths about rivers. Think of ancient times: you're a simple person, tilling your land, trying to stay alive, and the one thing that keeps you nourished is the river next to your village. It gives you fish, it keeps your crops watered, it takes on a life of its own — sluggish in some seasons, torrential in others. It can kill if you take too many liberties with it, but on the whole, it makes a pretty good deity. Just powerful enough to be worthy of respect. Just useful enough to gain a reputation of being benevolent. No, I get it. What I don't get is how the Ganga, a 2,525 km-long river, flowing through India and Bangladesh (where its name changes to the Padma) got this whole history of being a saucy and mysterious little minx, when really, this is such a mighty river, you'd think its myth would tally accordingly.

Here, I'll explain. The Ganga — for our story, just Ganga, pronouns she/her — as you know, is perhaps the holiest river in India. She's also the longest river within Indian boundaries, and probably one of the most polluted, but we won't get into that just yet. She also enjoys a nice space in the Hindu pantheon, always depicted as this fair-skinned woman, sitting on a makara. Which, by the way, is one of the most horrific -sounding hybrid animals you've ever heard of: the front half is a land animal, something gentle like a deer or vast like an elephant and the back half is a water one, so a fish or a seal, but then, there's also a chance the back is a snake or a peacock, so just imagine stumbling across one, you're minding your own business, going about the wood, what's that? Oh a stag, how lovely, wait, the back half is a python, this is terrifying, the stag turns to you and bares its pointy, fangy teeth....

Sorry. But also the makara is the origin word for “magar,” the Hindi for “crocodile,” and is also a guardian creature for temples and also the mount for sea-god Varuna. But for this story, this creature is Ganga's mount, and it's pretty bad-ass if you think about it, this delicately beautiful woman riding around on essentially India's Loch Ness Monster.

Ganga came into our universe thanks to that little meddler, Vamana, who we last saw torturing Mahabali and making him give up his entire kingdom and die because the gods couldn't handle his success. While Vamana was counting his steps across the sky, his toenail poked the edge of the world and a hole appeared in the universe, causing a divine ocean to flow out and become Ganga as soon as it reached our atmosphere. The river, not yet a person, stays in heaven until an enterprising guy called Bhagirath asks for it — now her — to come down to earth and wash away people's sins and what not.

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 Mythology for the Millennial: From feisty goddess to earthly river, navigating the rich lore of Ganga

Ganga and Shantanu, painting by Raja Ravi Varma. Creative Commons

Bhagirath was one of those high-achieving sorts himself. The kind of cousin your mother always compared you to. “Oh, if Bhagirath can get 95 percent in Maths, why have you only got 60?” as well as other unanswerable questions you'd long to reply to with rude remarks about Bhagirath's nerdiness versus your own coolth. But in this case, all his rellies were like, “See that Bhagirath, he brought Ganga down to earth, and you can't even get a decent job” or they would've, if he had that many aunts and uncles, but a lot of them were dead and wandering around earth like lost souls because they hadn't been properly set to rest when they died. (Which is another long story and involves Indra as a horse thief and 60,000 sons being burnt to death because Indra framed a sage for doing it, and as you know, you don't randomly accuse sages of things unless you want to: a. die or b. live out a powerful curse.)

Anyhow, Bhagirath, being such a Good Boy, was shocked at this wandering about by his relatives, very unseemly behaviour for Ancient Uncles, so he prayed to Brahma and asked him to send Ganga down to earth. Which Brahma, being easily flattered, did, but without so much as a by-your-leave or an if-you-please, which is no way to treat a woman, let alone an independent powerful woman like Ganga. Pissed, she decided to fall to earth so hard she'd create a massive tsunami and kill everything and everyone in her path.

That's when Shiva intervened and trapped her in his dreads instead. His hair was so matted, she had to hang out there for a while, while he let her go in little bits, which is kind of like the Curly Girl method and no shampoo, except you have dreadlocks and you're rinsing with a divine river goddess. Still better than chemicals!

***

So Ganga's on earth, and a mortal king (Shantanu, succeeded to the throne after his eldest brother got leprosy and quit and his middle brother decided he'd rather inherit his mum's brother's kingdom so went off there) falls in love with her when he sees her on a river bank. Shantanu, by the way, is sort of the great-grandfather of the Pandavas and the Kauravas and given to falling in love with women on river banks and if I can plug my own book here, I turned all of it into a novel called The One Who Swam With The Fishes, so read that for more Shantanu adventures. (I say “sort of” because he's actually not blood-related to any of the Kauravas or Pandavas at all.)

Ganga, being the independent woman we have learned to respect by now, is all like, “Hmm, not sure if I want to marry you, dude, but might be fun to be a queen, so fine.” But she has conditions, because goddesses (and gods) always have conditions, so she says, “You can never question me about anything” and Shantanu's like, “Cool, I'm okay with that” which was a rookie error, but he was kind of blind with love at this point.

Anyway, so because of an earlier curse involving these eight deities and a stolen cow this time, Ganga gives birth to seven sons and systematically drowns them all at birth, because of this curse and them being deities in a previous life and so on. She doesn't explain any of this to Shantanu, which would have been the easy thing to do, the curse doesn't say you can't tell anyone, so he's a bit stunned that he has to give up all his babies. Finally, she takes the eighth baby down to the river to drown him and Shantanu, driven mad by eight years of this (assuming a divine pregnancy lasts as long as a human one, and that Ganga needed time to recover in between) is like, “Oh my god, please do not kill my kid” and she says, “Bzzzt! Wrong answer! Now I'm leaving because you questioned me.” And off she goes, taking baby 8 with her.

The baby turned out to be Bheeshma, who is the subject of another column (and a character in the same novel I mentioned above!) but that's about the biggest role Ganga plays for a bit, I think.

Now, the river is the sixth most polluted river in the world, and all the marine life living in it is slowly dying. It's hard to think of that feisty goddess brought down in her old age by all these people just wanting a piece of her. Maybe she'll disappear again, beg all the men to take her back to heaven again, and leave us here, without a river, and served entirely right.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Nov 08, 2019 10:09:49 IST