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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Ganges or Gunga

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a great river in India, important not only in the geography, but also in the religion of Hindustan. The sources of the streams which unite to for as it are within the snowy range of the Himalaya Mountains. Time Bhiagiretti rises from a snowfield near lat. 30' 54' N., and long. 790 7' E. The Aluknaada joins it, with a volume of water one half greater than its own, at about lat. 300 10' N., long. 78° 35' E., where it first receives the. name Gasnqes, or Gangsc. At Hurdwar, in lat. 290 57' N., long. 780 07' E., it enters the great plain of Hindustan. At Allahabad it is joined by the Jumna River and again, about 270 miles below that, by the Ghogra, having previously received the Gumbi,and some others. About half way between Allahabad and the Ghogra is the holy city of the Hinduis-Benares. Farther east it is joined by the Sone Gunduk and Koosy, and below Seeblgunj it begins to divide into the multitudinous streams by which it enters the sea. The one of these many mouths of the Ganges which is most available for commerce is the Hooghly, upon whose banks is the city of Calcutta. The Ganges varies much in its width at different places and with the seasons. Bishop Heber, at the last of June, says that he could scarcely see across it: "It looked like a sea, with many sails upon it." Again, at Boglipoor he writes: "A little below Boglipoor, last year, it was nine measured miles across; and this year though far less ground is covered, it is supposed to be full seven; and here we are perhaps 600 miles, reckoning the windings of the river, from the sea" (Indian Journal, 1:130). At Cawnpoor, after the rains, he writes: "The Ganges is still a noble stream; its width at the usual place of ferrying, I should think not far from a mile and a half, but at this season the water is in many places shallow. At Allehabad it has an average width of four miles, within the limits of which it changes its course annually. Like all rivers that overflow their banks, the Ganges holds a large admixture of mud and sand. It has been computed that it delivers into the sea annually an average of 534,600,000 tons of solid matter."

Its Religious Aspects. The worship of this river is enjoined in the Hindui Shasters. Certain places on it are particularly sacred. At Hurdwar, or the Gate of Vishnu, where the Ganges issues from the Himalaya, the number assembling annually is calculated to amount to two millions and a half. Most of them come to wash away their sins. After every twelve years, which is a more auspicious period, millions assemble on certain festival days, and it requires a strong police force to keep the people from drowning each other, in the rush to bathe at the auspicious moment. At Allahaead, where the Ganges and Jumna unite, a third river, called Saraswatee, sister to these two, according to Hindui notions, flows under them. The junction is called Tribenee, and the sanctifying and purifying influences are secured to the worshipper by lying for a short time in the water in a prescribed position.

The place where the Ganges empties itself into the sea is also sacred (see Dass, Mannesas and Customs of Hindus). According to Ward, the water is used for food, bathing, medicine, religious ceremonies, etc.; and formerly, when a Hindu king was crowned, it was poured upon his head as a part of his consecration. Until recently, the water of this river was used in the English courts of India in administering the oath to Hindus. So much is this river reverenced among the Hindis, that many Brahmans will not cook upon it, nor throw saliva into it, nor wash themselves nor their clothes in it. Some persons perform a journey of five or six months to bathe in the Ganges, or to perform rites for deceased relations, and to carry this water to places in their houses for religious and medicinal purposes. Many rich men, living at a great distance, keep men constantly employed in making the journey to and fro to bring Ganges water. In these cases a relay of men is established at convenient distances, and the water, carried in small bottles, carefully placed in baskets suspended on a bamboo swung across the shoulder. All castes worship Ganga. She is represented, according to Ward, as a white woman wearing a crown, sitting on the sea-animal named Makara, and having in her right hand a water-lily, and in her left the lute. In certain months the merit of bathing in the Ganges is greater than in others. In every month, on the first, sixth, and eleventh of the moon, and at its total wane also, bathing in the Ganges is recommended. According to the Ganga, Yakya, Yalee, there are 3,500,000 holy places belonging to Ganga.

The person who looks at Ganga, or bathes in this river, will obtain all the fruit which arises from visiting all these 3,500,000 places. If a person who has been guilty of killing cows, Brahmans, or his holy teacher, or of drinking spirits, touch the waters of the Ganges, desiring in his mind the remission of these sins, they will be forgiven. "Amongst the rivers which, at the classical and the Pursainic period of India, were held in peculiar sanctity by the nation, the Ganges undoubtedly occupied the foremost rank. In the Vedic poetry it is but seldom mentioned; and, whenever its name occurs, whether in the hymns of the Rigveda, or the ritual text of the Yajurveda, no legendary fact or mythical narrative is connected with it. Nor does the lawbook of Manu justify the conclsusion that its author was acquainted with any of the myths which connect this river in the epic poems and in the Puranas with the Pantheon of India. The earliest, and by far the most poetical legend of the Ganges, occurs in that masterpiece of Sanscrit poetry, the Raimayana. We give its substance, because it explains the principal epithets by which this river is spoken of, or invoked in ancient sand modern Hindu poetry, sand because it may be looked upon as the type of the many fables which refer to the purifying and supernatural properties of its waters. There lived, says the Raimalyana, in Ayodhby (the modern Oude), a king, by the name of Sagara who had two wives, Kegini and Sumati; but they bore him no issue. He therefore repaired to the Himalaya; and after a hundred years' severe austerities, Bhrigu, the saint, became favorable to his wishes, and granted him posterity. Kesini bore him a son, who was named Asamanjas, and Sumati brought forth a gourd, whence sprang 60,000 sons, who in time became as many heroes. Asamanjas, however, in growing up, was addicted to cruel practices, and was therefore banished by his father from the kingdom. His son was Ansumat, who thus became heir to the throne of Ayodhya. Now it happened that Sagara resolved to perform a great horse- sacrifice; and, in accordance with the sacred law, chose for this purpose a beautiful horse, which he confided to the care of Ansumat.

But while the latter was engaged in the initiatory rites of the sacrifice, a huge serpent emerged from the soil, and carried off the horse to the infernal regions. Thereupon Sagara, being informed of the obstruction which had befallen his pious undertaking, ordered his 60,000 sons to recover the horse from the subterranean robber. These then set to work, digging the earth, and striking terror into all creation. Having explored, for many years, the infernal regions, they at last found the sacred horse grazing, and watched by a fiery saint, in whom they recognized the serpent, the cause of their troubles. Enraged, they attacked him; but the saint, who was no other being than Vishnu, at once reduced them to ashes. Waiting in vain for the return of his sons, Sagara sent his grandson, Ansumat, in search of them and the sacred horse. Ansumat went, and soon ascertained the fate of his relatives; but when mindful of his duties he wished to sprinkle consecrated water on their ashes, so as to enable their souls to rise to heaven, Garuda, the bird of Vishnu, and brother of Sumati, came in sight, and told Ansumat that it was improper to use terrestrial water for such a libation, and that he ought to provide the water of the Ganga, the heavenly daughter of Himavat (the Himalaya). Ansumat, bowing to the behest of the king of birds, went home with the horse to Sagara; and the sacrifice being achieved, Sagara strove to cause the descent of the Ganga, but all his devices remained fruitless; and, after 30,000 years, he went to heaven. Nor was Ansumat more successful in his attempt with the austerities he performedfor the same purpose, nor his son Dwilipa, who, obeying the law of time, after 30,000 years, went to the heaven of Indra. Dwilipa had obtained a son, named Bhagiratha. He, too, was eager to obtain the descent of the Ganga; and having completed a course of severe austerities, he obtained the favor of Brahman, who told him he would yield to his prayers provided that Siva consented to receive the sacred river on his head, as the earth would be too feeble to bear its fall when coming from heaven. And now Bhagiratha recommenced his penance, until Siva consented, and told the Ganga to descend from heaven. The river obeyed; but, enraged at his command, she assumed a form of immense size, and increased her celerity, thinking thus to carry him off to the infernal regions.

Yet the god, becoming aware of her intentions, caught and entangled her in his matted hair, out of which she could find no means of extricating herself, though erring there for many years. Nor would she have been released had not Bhagiratha, by his renewed penance, appeased the god, who then allowed her to descend from his head in seven streams Hladini, Pavini, and Nalini, which went eastwards; and Sita, Suchakshus, and Sindhu, which went westwards, while the seventh stream followed Bhagiratha wherever he proceeded. But it so happened that the king, on his journey, passed by the hermitage of an irascible saint, whose name was Jahnu. The latter, seeing the Ganga over-flooding in her arrogance the precincts of his sacrificial spot, and destroying his sacred vessels, became impatient, and drank up all her waters; thereupon all the gods became terrified, and promised him that, in future, the Ganga would pay him filial respect, and become his daughter, if he would restore her again to existence. Quieted by this promise, Jahnu then allowed her to flow out from his ear, and therefore she is still called Jahnavi, or the daughter of Jahnu. But, because Bhagiratha, by dint of his exertions, enabled his ancestors, now sprinkled with the waters of the Ganga, to ascend to heaven, Brahman allowed him to consider her as his daughter, whence she is called Bhagirathi. And she is also called the river of 'the three paths,' because her waters flow in heaven, on earth, and pervaded the subterranean regions. Such is the account of the Ramayana, and its substance is repeated by the Mahabharata and several of the Puranas, though they differ in the names of the streams formed in her descent by the Ganga, some (for instance, the Vishnu and Vayu- Purana) restricting their number from seven to four, called by the Vishnu- Purana Sita, Alakananda, Chakshu, and Bhadra. A further deviation may be seen in that, while in the Ramayana the Ganga springs from the Himavat (Himalaya), whose daughter she is, the Vishnu-Purana assigns her source to the nail of the great toe of Vishnu's left foot, and allows Siva merely to receive her on his head.

The following passage from this Purana will show the ideas on the history and the properties of this river: 'From that third region of the atmosphere, or seat of Vishnu, proceeds the stream that washes away all sin, the river Ganga, embrowned with the unguents of the nymphs of heaven, who have sported in her waters. Having her source in the nail of the great toe of Vishnu's left foot, Dhruva (Siva) reverses her, and sustains her day and night devoutly on his head, and thence the seven Rishis practice the exercises of austerity in her waters, wreathing their braided locks with her waves. The orb of the moon, encompassed by her accumulated current, derives augmented luster from her contact. This applies to the heavenly Ganges. Falling from on high, as she issues from the moon she alights on the summit of Meru, and thence flows to the four quarters of the earth for its purification. The Sita, Alakananda, Chakshu, and Bhadra, are four branches of but one river, divided according to the regions towards which it proceeds. The branch that is known as Alkananda was borne affectionately by Siva upon his head for more than a hundred years, and was the river which raised to heaven the sinful sons of Sagara by washing their ashes. The offences of any man who bathes in this river are immediately expiated, and unprecedented virtue is engendered. Its waters, offered by sons to their ancestors in faith for three years, yield to the latter rarely attainable gratification. Men of the twice-born orders, who offer sacrifice in this river to the lord of sacrifice, Pumshottama, obtain whatever they desire, either here or in heaven. Saints who are purified from all evil by bathing in its waters, and whose minds are intent on Kesava (Vishnu), acquire thereby final liberation. This sacred stream, heard of, desired, seen, touched, bathed in, or hymned day by day, sanctifies all beings; and those who, even at a distance of a hundred leagues, exclaim "Ganga, Ganga," atone for the sins committed during three previous lives' " (Chambers, s.v.).

The Ceremonies. The following is taken from Ward's Hindus: "Crowds of people assemble from the different towns and villages near the river, especially at the most sacred places of the river, bringing their offerings of fruit, rice, flowers, cloth, sweetmeats, etc., and hang garlands of flowers across the river, even where it is very wide. After the people have bathed, the officiating Brahman ascends the banks of the river with them; and, after repeating religious texts, places before him a jar of water, and, sitting with his face to the north or east, performs what is called Ghata-st' hapana. After this, the Brahman performs other ceremonies; then the worship of the five gods, of the nine planets, of the regions of the ten quarters, etc. To this succeeds meditation. The priest next presents the offerings, which may be sixty-four, or eighteen, or sixteen, or ten, or five, or merely flowers and water, according to the person's ability. To these offerings the worshipper must add sesamum, clarified butter, and barley flour. The officiatin, n next performs the worship of Narayana, Maheshwara, Bramha, Soorya Bhageeral'ha, and Himalaya; then the worship of the inhabitants of the waters, as the fish, the tortoises, the frogs, the water-snakes, the leeches, the snails, the makaras, the shell-fish, the porpoises, etc. The offerings, after having been presented to the inhabitants of the waters are thrown into the Ganges.

Ten lamps of clarified butter are then lighted up, and all the other offerings presented. After this the names of certain gods are repeated, with forms of praise; the fee is presented to the priest, the Brahmans are entertained, and the offerings sent to the houses of Brahmans. At the close of these ceremonies the people perform obeisance to Ganga, and then depart. Great multitudes assemble on the banks of the river on these occasions, and expect much, both in this life and hereafter, from this act of worship. If a person place on his head ten fruits of any kind, and thus immerse himself in the Ganges on this day, the sins of ten births will be removed. In this month also images of Ganga are set up in domestic temples and worshipped, and the next day thrown into the river. In some places clay images of this goddess are preserved in clay temples, and worshipped daily. Persons escaping dangers on water present offerings to Ganga, as well as to Varoona, the Indian Neptune, as mariners, having escaped the dangers of the sea, used to offer a sacrifice to Venus. On the thirteenth of the decrease of the moon in Choitra, the people descend into the water, and, with their hands joined, immerse themselves, after which the officiating Brahman reads a portion of the Shastra, describing the benefits arising from this act of bathing. The people repeat after the priest certain significant words, as the day of the month, the name of Vishnu, etc., and then immerse themselves again. Gifts of rice, fruits, and money are offered to the poor, the Brahmans, and the priests. On this occasion groups of ten or twelve persons stand in the water in one spot, for whom one Brahman reads the formulas. These groups are to be seen extending themselves very far along the river. At the moment of the conjunction of the moon (on the thirteenth of its decrease) with the star Shatabhisha, this festival is called the Great Varoonee. The merit arising from bathing at this lucky moment is supposed to be very great. The people fast till the bathing is over. When there is a conjunction as above, and the day falls on Saturday, the festival is called the Great Great Variuni."

The exposure of sick and dying on the banks of the Ganges is of uncertain date. The following summary is from the Calcutta Review, No. 20, volume 10:1848: "The Kurma Purana says, 'Those that consciously die on the banks of the Ganges shall be absorbed into the essence of Brahma; and those who die unconsciously shall surely go to the heaven of Brahma.' The Agni Purana says, 'those who die when half their body is immersed in Ganga water, shall be happy thousands of ages, and resemble Brahma.' In the Skanda Purana, Shiva says, 'To him who dies in Ganga I give my footstool to sit upon.' There are a great many traditionary stories concerning Ganga believed by the majority of Hinduis. The following is a specimen: 'On the banks of the Bhagirathi there grew a stately banian-tree, in whose ample folds a paddy-bird had made her nest. On a certain day the tree was torn up by the roots by the violence of the storm. The bird was destroyed, and its bones buried in the deep channel of the Ganga. The paddy-bird, in the next transmigration, was taken up into heaven simply because her bones had accidentally been deposited in the river. After this she became one of Indra's queens in his heaven.' In consequence of this sort of teaching the Hindus almost universally throw into the river the bones of those who had died at some distance from its shores. Even the bodies of those that die on the banks of the Ganges, and suffer: cremation there, are not wholly burnt. Some part of the body, generally the part surrounding the navel, is thrown into the river. Those who are too poor to burn their dead throw them bodily into the river.

The exposure of the lick and dying is as follows. When the patient seems to be beyond recovery the relatives make preparations to 'give him to Ganga.' This is a stronger duty than seeking his recovery'. 'Life and death are in the hands of God, but the carrying of the sick to the river lies in our own hands, therefore we must do our duty.' A couch is procured, called the khal, for the dead, a number of torches if it be night, and notice is given throughout the neighborhood ... . On the way the attendants repeat loudly the names of the gods and goddesses. At the ghat they lay him close to the water, and cause him to say that he has come to see the Mother Ganges. He is laid in a miserable hut, amid dirt and nuisance, and multitudes of dying sick, whose shrieks and groans fill the air. A few minutes before his death he is again brought down on the brink of the rivers half immersed in water, to give up the ghost. 'The habit of choking the dying patients with water and mud is unquestionably a legitimate portion of the rite, but is not uniformly put in practice.' ... If any one survives the exposure, and return from the bank of the river, he ought to be regarded as rejected by the goddess, and be treated thenceforward as an outcast 'an alien to his mother's children.' The British government, which has so nearly extirpated satti, and is doing its utmost to abiish infanticide, whether in the Ganges or elsewhere, is giving its attention to the subject of these ghat murders." Ward's Manners and Customs of the Hindus; Vishnu Purdna (Wilson's transl.); Calcutta Review volume 10; Moore's Hindu Pantheon. (J.T.G.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Ganges or Gunga'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/g/ganges-or-gunga.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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