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The Descent of the Ganges - Story of Bhagirata
Beliefs and Legends >>Shiva, Ganga

This legend relates to the descent of the river Ganga from the heavens into the earth.

The ruler of Ayodhya, King Sagar, an ancestor of Rama, of the solar race performed the Aswamedha Sacrifice 99 times, where each time, the horse that he sent around the earth, returned to his kingdom unchallenged. Indra the King of Gods, in an act of jealosy, kidnapped and hid the horse in the hermitage of Kapila Muni - when the 100th sacrifice was being performed.

The sixty thousand sons of Kapila came to the hermitage of Kapila in their search for the horse, and mistaking Kapila Muni to be the abductor, attacked him. An enraged Kapila Muni burnt the 60000 princes to ashes.

One of the grandchildren of King Sagar, hearing about the plight of his father and uncles, came in search of Kapila Muni and asked him for a solution to the problem, and was advised that the waters of the river Ganga would miraculously bring back the dead princes to life.

His descendant Bhagiratha, continued his efforts to bring the Ganga to the earth from the heavens to purify the ashes of his ancestors and bring them back to life. Bhagirata's prayers were rewarded and the Ganges rushed to the earth; however, the might of the river was too much for the earth to withstand. Fearing a catastrophe, Bhagirata prayed to Shiva, who held out his matted hair to catch the river as she descended, and thus softened her journey to the earth. The Ganga thus became an attribute of Shiva. This manifestation of Shiva is known as Gangaadhara.

Bhagiratha patiently led the river down to the sea from the Himalayas; however , being unable to locate the exact spot where the ashes lay, he requested Ganga to follow her own course. The Ganga, therefore in the region of Bengal, divided herself into a hundred mouths and formed the Ganges delta. One of these streams washed the ashes, and offered salvation to the souls of the departed. The island with which this incident is associated is referred to as Sagar Island, where a bathe at the confluence of the river and the sea is considered to be sacred on Makara Sankaranti.

Bhagirata's penance and the descent of the Ganges are portrayed in stone at the Pallava heritage site Mahabalipuram near Chennai.

See Also
All about Shiva
All about Ganga