The Ganges or Ganga is India’s most sacred river. It is 1,557 miles long and sweeps a valley or basin 200 to 400 miles wide. Its scientific source is in glaciers on the southern slopes of the HIMALAYAS, some 10,300 feet above sea level, but its tradi-tional source is the glacial site Gangotri. Its major flow begins where the Alaknand and Bhagirathi rivers meet at a site called Devprayag. It is joined by the YAMUNA River at ALLAHABAD (known tra-ditionally as Prayag) in Uttar Pradesh and then flows eastward through Bihar, traversing the holy city of BENARES (Varanasi), the city of Patna, and Calcutta (Kolkata) before entering the Bay of Bengal.
   Although the Ganges has long been the most sacred of Indian rivers, it is mentioned unambigu-ously only twice in the RIG VEDA, the oldest extant Morning bathing on the steps to the Ganges River in Benares (Varanasi) (Constance A. Jones)
   Indian text. Its prominent mention and sacred status are fully established only in the PURANAS, Indian texts of mythology. There the river is said to have descended from heaven, taken down to Earth by the prayers of the sage Bhagiratha to sanctify the ashes of the sons of his progenitor Sagara. The latter had dug out a huge hole look-ing for a lost horse, but the Ganges filled this vast expanse to form the ocean. Descending from Lord VISHNU’s toe, the river might have inundated all the Earth, had not SHIVA agreed to let it first flow through his topknot. Shiva has since that time been depicted with the Ganges flowing through his hair.
   Ganga is considered a goddess, the eldest daughter of HIMAVAT (the Himalayas). Ganga’s husband is Shantanu; their son BHISHMA plays an important role in the MAHABHARATA epic, as great uncle of both the warring factions. Ganga’s water is always pure and purifying, and pilgrims take flasks and casks home for rituals and blessings. It is every Hindu’s wish to have his or her ashes thrown into the Ganges after cremation. It is widely believed that such an act confers heaven or liberation on the dead person. Because of the sacredness of the Ganges and its importance to Hinduism India has made great efforts to try to clean up this very heav-ily polluted waterway. Activist movements have for decades agitated for cleaning up this valuable resource.
   Further reading: Jagmohan Mahajan, The Ganga Trail: Foreign Accounts and Sketches of the River Scene (New Delhi: Clarion Books, 1984); Sudhakar Pandey, Ganga and Yamuna in Indian Art and Literature (Chandigarh: Indra Prakashan, 1984); Raghubir Singh, The Ganges (London: Thames Hudson, 1992).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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