Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XIII:  The Holy Gaṅgā

Bijoy Misra

April 19, 2016


Vālmīki is a nature poet.  The events become natural through his poetic skills.  He is an observer of the sky, the stars, the mountains, the clouds, the forest, the trees, the animals, the snakes, birds, the rivers, the fish, the women and men.  His discharged arrow bites like a “poisonous snake”, his jubilant heroes walk like “intoxicated elephants”, his garlands glitter as “stars in a night sky”, his fear appears as the “look of a deer in front of a lion”, his wailing is like the “state of a fish taken out of water”, his description of beauty is the “cool radiance of the moon!”   The entire nature gets animated in Vālmīki’s hands.  All objects have life.  They interact.  His animals talk.  The River Gaṅgā becomes the Mountain Himalaya’s daughter.  Then it becomes the Holy Mother through the words of Divine Sītā!

The banks of River Gaṅgā have been an auspicious abode for the inhabitants because of the fertile soil conditions and on account of the cool flowing water.  Unlike many other rivers, the flow is swift and the volume is large. The discovery of Gaṅgā by the Vedic composers is believed to have happened late in the Vedic period when there was eastward migration from the original Punjab area.  It is possible that the beneficial aspects of the waters of the river were well known to the inhabitants.  We have a reference in the Rgveda where the river is idolized along with the other rivers like Yamunā, Sarasvatī and Satadru. (Rgveda X.75.5)

Because of her trajectory high up in the mountains and eventual strong discharge to the sea, the Gaṅgā has been called tripathagā, the river that flows in the sky, on the earth and then that enters the areas below the ground.  That an object can connect the sky to the “underworld” did bring certain amount of hope and aspiration in celebrating the “holiness” of the river.  When the concepts of karma and liberation emerged in India, the River Gaṅgā became the vehicle through which the “karma” of a person could be “washed off” and the person could become eligible to enter the “heavens”.   Such thought became stronger in course of time.  People lately dispose ashes, body parts and dead bodies in the river with the thinking that the “soul” of the deceased could be liberated by the Holy River!

Vālmīki must have been aware of the Gaṅgā’s high mountain origin and the deep descent that the river must go through in order to reach the ground.   Possibly he was aware of the many streams that joined together to make the river and the cascades of waterfalls that the river must create in her own descent.  The swirl and speed of water could sweep away the ground serpents, and drop them and the aquatic animals through the steep waterfalls.  It is possible that Vālmīki had visited the mountains and he is at his best when he imagines that the forests in the mountain were like the knotted locks on Lord S’iva’s head!  Vālmīki animates the river by introducing Lord S’iva into the story.  Further up, the river has to flow from the feet of Lord Viṣṇu in the heavens in order to come to earth!

Because of the connection to the heights, Vālmīki connects the majestic river to the Milky Way in the sky.  The later literature have used the phrase ākāśa gaṅgā as a metaphorical name to the Milky Way.  Vālmīki’s task is to connect the Milky Way to the terrestrial Gaṅgā through the Himalayan mountain range.   He creates a story that Gaṅgā needs to flow on earth and get to the “underworld” in order to “release” the sixty thousand sons of Sagara who had entered there in search of their father’s sacrificial horse.  Vālmīki weaves the story that a later king called Bhagiratha in Sagara’s dynasty was instrumental in getting Gaṅgā descend from the sky and made her flow on the land to the sea on way to the “underworld.”

The story goes as follows.  Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa went with the Sage Viśvāmitra and guarded his ritual location for him in order that he could successfully complete his austerities.  Then the Sage wished to escort them to Mithilā and they crossed the River S’oṇā and reach the banks of the River Gaṅgā.  Rāma had crossed the river once before near Ayodhyā while he was proceeding towards the Vindhyas with the Sage.  At that time he asked about the River Sarayū that flowed near the town of Ayodhyā.  At this return journey, Rāma asked the Sage about the riddle of tripathagā for Gaṅgā.    

Vālmīki talks about two daughters of the Mountain Himalayas and the elder one was the Gaṅgā. Gaṅgā  was operating on her “free will.” She was given away to the “gods” for the “welfare” of the “three worlds.”  The other daughter Umā lived an ascetic life and successfully became the consort of Lord Rudra.  Then came the King Sagara in the line of kings in Ayodhya and he hosted a horse sacrifice.  The horse was mischievously stolen by Indra and was left at the hermitage of Sage Kapila, deep inside the under-belly of the earth.  The king dispatched his sixty thousand sons to locate the horse.  They dug through the sea and eventually located the horse, but were reduced to ashes by the curse from the Sage.

King Sagara discovered through his grandson Aṁśumāna that the dead sons would be liberated if they would be given fresh water.  So, the question came how to bring fresh water to the deep underworld well below the ground.  Many generations later King Bhagiratha in the clan of the Ikṣvāku performed deep austerities on the mountains to please Lord Brahmā in order that the Gaṅgā be allowed to descend from the heaven.  Lord Brahmā arranged Lord S’iva to show up and “hold” onto the massive flow of water arising from the great heights.  The mighty Gaṅgā got lost in the “matted locks” of Lord S’iva leading King Bhagiratha to once again go on austerities in order to “release” Gaṅgā from S’iva’s “locks”.   King Bhagirtha guided the river flow towards the sea, but the “free-willed” river “meandered” arbitrarily.

On the journey over the mountains the Gaṅgā disappeared in mountain caves and reappeared downstream.  Vālmīki imagines the disappearance to the Sage Jahnu drinking her up since the river flooded his hermitage! The Sage then releases her through his “ears”.   So Gaṅgā gets the name Jāhnavī.  Finally the river reaches the sea and the poet is aware of the need of fresh water for the aquatic creatures in the sea.  Apparently there is knowledge of fresh water discharge to the deeper levels.  Hydrologists have not yet probed if there are any deep water streams in the Indian seas. Vālmīki suggests the existence of such flow.  Thus we complete the tripathagā, the three part journey:  in the sky, on the earth and deep underground.

The Gaṅgā story has been repeated in the Mahābhārata and many of the later purāṇa(s).  Rāmāyaṇa  being the older text, we can conclude that the original story was due to Vālmīki and others have borrowed from him.  The concept of three levels and the geologic evidence of taking fresh water deep down is a peculiar scientific feature of Vālmīki.  He excels in the description of the flow and becomes a master storyteller when he imagines the Himalayan mountain forests as the great matted locks of Lord S’iva, thus perpetually creating the myth of origin of the terrestrial river from Lord S’iva’s head.  Thousands of stories follow from such myth and the holiness of Gaṅgā increases exponentially by the proximity to the Lord S’iva.   Then the link goes to Lord Viṣṇu in the sky.

As Rāma rests on the banks of the River Gaṅgā on his way to the exile, Vālmīki gives a vivid description of the river.  Following literally from the 50th Chapter of Ayodhyā Kāṇḍa one sees the grandeur of Vālmīki’s description. “Gaṅgā was beautiful.  Water was covered with the noisy swans and cranes.   The mysterious cakravāka birds played around.  Other colorful and joyful birds dipped on her waters.  The trees on the banks decorated the river as a garland.  There were blue lotus pools, sometimes a whole lotus forest.  With colorful flowers painted around, Gaṅgā looked like a woman in passion.  The river flowed from the feet of the Lord Viṣṇu.  Her waters washed away the sins of people; the water stayed clean as a crystal.  Elephants guarded her quarters; wild elephants roamed her forests.  Tame elephants walked on the banks of the river in order to carry the entourage of Indra to the forest.  She was like a woman carefully decorated with the best of the jewels.  Covered with trees, plants, fruits, flowers, shrubs, and birds, the sinless river washed away the earthly sins.  In deeper waters, there were sharks, snakes and crocodiles. They had fallen from the matted locks of Lord S’iva, invited because of the austerities of King Bhagiratha.”   

Sītā gets emotional when the party crosses the river.  She exclaims: ““O’ Gaṅgā, may you protect this son of the wise King Daśaratha in order that he can keep up the King’s vow.  O’ Blessed Gaṅgā, you fulfill all desires.  I shall offer you satisfactory worship when he returns back to your banks with me and his brother after spending fourteen years in the forest.  O’ goddess, you travel in three ways together in the Brahmaloka and you appear as the wife of the Ocean-king on this earth.  O’ Charming River, I bow down to you and extoll you.  O’ Sinless Gaṅgā, bless us such that the great pious Rāma may reenter Ayodhyā after his exile.”   So was Sītā’s prayer to the Holy Gaṅgā in the middle of the river.  We call Gaṅgā now the Holy Mother!

Let Sai bless all.

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