“Mother Ganga”, The Pioneer
The crystal-clear, blue, rushing waters of Mother Ganga cut through the foothills of the Himalayas, carving out the most sacred riverbed in the world. Out of the Mother Glacier more than 13,000 feet above sea level, the Goddess Ganga- daughter of King Himavat, the king of the Himalayas, and Queen Meru, sister of Uma, Bhagawan Shiva’s divine consort-is said to have descended upon Earth, an act of grace and compassion to bring liberation to the fallen sons of King Sagara and all those who came afterwards. It is believed that Lord Brahma, pleased by King Bhagirath’s tapasya, directed him to undertake prayers to Lord Shiva, who would catch the powerful, intractable force of Ganga’s waters in his infinite locks, releasing Her flow from Heaven gently so that She would bring healing and liberation to Earth rather than decimation. Thus, Goddess Ganga gracefully departed from Her Heavenly abode and took the form of a flowing river; Lord Shiva released Her from his tresses into seven streams or tributaries, the main one being the river Bhagirathi from the glacier known as Gaumukh, for it appeared to some to be shaped as a cow’s mouth. Joining at Dev Prayag with Her sister rivers Alakananda, coming from Badrinath, and Mandakini from Kedarnath, Bhagirathi becomes known as Ganga-the confluence of these three sacred rivers from three of the holiest sites. Rushing rapidly through curves and bends in the mountains, flowing across the holy flora of the Himalayas, accumulating mineral-rich soil in Her waters, Ganga finally arrives in Rishikesh where Her breadth increases, Her speed decreases, and She seems to pause, permitting all to have darshan of Her majestic form.
Her riverbanks are lined with rocks, softened and smoothed by Her waters, large ones upon which one can sit for hours, medium-sized ones that fit perfectly in the palm of one’s hand, for holding and meditating upon, and small pebbles, one or two collected by the pious so that Mother Ganga may flow through their home as well.
Where the river ends and people’s lives begin is impossible to discern. Ganga is as inextricable from the lives of Indians as the very blood flowing through their veins. Whether She is a source of tangible water for daily drinking, bathing and cooking, or whether She is a source of intangible inspiration and liberation prayed to with each morning’s bath in innumerable cities across the world, She is fundamental to the lives of more than one-seventh of the world’s population.
When I first arrived in Rishikesh, at the tail end of the monsoon season of 1996, Her waters were still high but the mesmerizing fury of Her flow at its peak had subsided. She was full but gentle. Rushing, flowing, tumbling off rocks and high river banks but clear again in the Autumn after months of carrying high mountain silt.
I do not remember whether I had even removed my shoes and put my feet into Her waters when She swept up my soul. Instantaneously, my life was Hers. Tears of having come home, tears of being in the presence of Truth, tears of witnessing the divinity, it all poured from my eyes the moment I beheld Her. “Just let me stay here on Your banks forever,” I whispered, and I knew the prayer had been granted even before I asked. She carried my life in Her waters and bestowed it upon me the moment I arrived.
She has gifted me with waters in which to bathe my body, waters in which to rinse stale thoughts and patterns from my mind, and waters in which my soul has had tastes of re-uniting with the Source. As my eyes glaze and blur in open-eyed meditation upon Her rushing waters, I have heard-from She who is within me-answers to questions I’ve asked and to questions I have not yet asked. As a mother, She provides for all -life and livelihood for those who depend upon Her as their source of existence, inspiration and liberation for those who meditate upon Her, and spiritual connection to those who invoke Her name in their daily bath across the world.