‘I’ve read somewhere that even River Ganga is a Goddess,’ asked my ten year old nephew, ‘can this be true?’

I told him that stories from mythology were all full of bits of truth and bits of a writer’s fantasy. My nephew nodded his head and said nothing because my relaxed posture told him that I was about to tell him the story of the birth of The Ganga.

‘It is an interesting story and begins with a major war going on between the Gods and the demons.’

‘Are demons real?’ asked my nephew.

‘Well, they’re as real as the scammers, criminals, terrorists, and the mafia are today,’ I said, and then went on with the story. This war had been going on for a few thousand years and the demons had, in the meanwhile, developed an exciting new tactical move. They went and hid in the ocean during the day and sneaked out to attack during the night when they were at the peak of their strength and the Gods were tired and asleep. Our armies have probably learned guerrilla warfare from such tactics of the demons. The demons employed all sorts of devious means in this fight, including recruiting moles in the Godly army, ambushing when the Gods were busy watching item numbers of the Apsaras in their midst, and even sending she-demons in demure avatars as honey-traps.

‘The demons were smart,’ remarked my nephew.

‘Well, their likes are smart even today,’ I murmured and then went on with my story. The frustrated Gods then went to Sage Agastya for help. Now this sage, like the others, was full of solutions to problems even though he wasn’t an MBA from any of our IIMs. He suggested that he drink up the entire oceans which would expose the demons during the daytime when they were the weakest. The Gods could then easily defeat them. This is what happened and the Gods were finally able to ferret out every demon from earth and finish him. The Gods were victorious.

After winning this war, the Gods went to Sage Agastya and said, ‘Please release the oceans now, mighty sage! The people of this world need it.’

Agastya was deep in meditation but opened one eye and said, ‘I can’t do that now. The oceans are all digested and now my body has all the minerals, salts, and anti-oxidants forever. Sorry, dear Gods, but this can’t be done.’

You can imagine how much panic this announcement caused to ordinary mortals. The huge reservoir of water was gone forever. Their scientists did not probably use terms like global warming or ‘depleted resources’ but they nevertheless knew that a massive catastrophe was about to happen in real time. The people then began a dharna. After all, what else was there to do? They could have opted for a fast-unto-death like Anna did, but if the Gods agreed to their demands, how would they break the fast in the absence of water?

My nephew watches the evening news carefully and so he asked, ‘What about something like a chakka-jam or a rail-roko or simply sending riot-squads in the cities?’

‘No, no,’ I hurriedly told him, ‘all these modern-day ideas weren’t known to them. And we really need to be thankful to this or we wouldn’t have any nice and interesting archaeological artefacts. We wouldn’t have good-looking ruins a well… and you can imagine what a loss that would be to our tourism department.’

He nodded his head and I went on with my story. I told him that the Gods then sent a small delegation to Lord Vishnu who listened to this unique problem and after consulting with his brain-stormers, said, ‘I have decided to use a new technique called inception. I will plant an idea into the mind of King Sagara on earth that he needs to first have sixty thousand sons and then with their help he would be the King of every kingdom there. I will let you know the rest of my plan when the right time comes.’

This was done without delay. Obviously, there is hardly any sarkari red-tape in the palace of Lord Vishnu and so decision-making is superfast. The Gods were also asked to impregnate protesting people with the idea that they needed to suck fruits for a few generations until the oceans are revived… and so the issue of dharnas had been postponed for some time.

King Sagara had sixty thousand sons and he was happy with his prowess. He thought, ‘If I can have sixty thousand sons, I certainly deserve to fight battles with all the kingdoms and win them. I surely have the blessings of the Gods.’ He didn’t know this, but his sperms were given this special order by Lord Vishnu himself. And anyway, there were no hoardings of ‘Hum do, hamare do’ in his kingdom… no department of family planning in his ministries… and certainly no didis or dais or pracharikas to come to his wife and fill her mind with the hazards of having too many kids! So now his armies commanded by his sixty thousand sons went out and began a crusade to annexe all those kingdoms that did not willingly wanted to be ruled by him.

‘I know what you mean,’ said my nephew, ‘you mean he conducted an Ashvamedha Yagya, right?’

‘You’re a bright child,’ I said, and went on with my story. So this annexation of kingdoms went on and his sixty thousand sons walked behind that white horse… collecting crowns or fighting and then looting crowns! The entire system was quite simple and everyone understood what options they had.

Now all this drama unfolding on earth was being closely monitored by the Gods too. They knew that such a powerful king on earth would mean he would soon begin looking towards annexing the heavens too. So they asked Indra to intervene and stop king Sagara from any more conquests. Some of these Gods, let me tell you, have ideas that can only result in destruction. But, unknown to them, it was actually Lord Vishnu who had impregnated Indra with this idea of stealing the Ashvanegha horse and hiding it in the ashram of Sage Kapila. All this neighing of a powerful horse and the search hoots and whistles of Sagara’s sixty thousand sons disturbed Kapila’s meditation. He opened his eyes, got up, and walked out of the ashram to confront this sea of princes! This irritated him to no end and before anyone could even blink, Kapila had cursed them all and reduced them to ashes!

‘What happened then?’ asked my nephew, hardly able to breathe now because of his excitement at all this action.

You’d love to think there was pandemonium on a massive scale? But no, King Sagara was sad but he knew nothing could be done. These sages were powerful beings and could not be won over by armies. So he decided on his duty as a father which was to purify the souls of his cursed sons. But this purification could only be done by immersing their ashes in river Ganga. And Ganga was flowing in the heavens then, not on earth. So Sagara decided to do some tapasya and please Lord Brahma. This he did and would have wanted Ganga to flow down on earth. But the Gods can read our thoughts and they made sure that he died before he could complete his tapasya. So this was carried on by his grandson, as the sons were all dead… and the Gods thought that if this process went on for a long time, they would forget all about wanting Ganga to flow out of their heaven. However, the seventh descendent of Sagara finally completed it! This descendent was Bhagiratha… and he asked for Ganga to flow down to earth.

Obviously, even Brahma was now in a quandary. I’m sure he must have said to himself: ‘These humans must not be given the strength to do tapasya. They have a knack for asking those things that we ourselves treasure so much.’ I’m sure Brahma must have noted this point in his ‘to-do’ list… but then he had a wish to fulfil which he did by asking Ganga to leave heaven and flow down to earth for eternity!

‘What?’ said Ganga, ‘how can you be so cruel on a demure damsel like me? Let me tell you that if you force this uni-lateral decision on me I am going to go down there and unleash my full force and will submerge the entire world in no time. You will need to work overtime controlling all those millions of human souls who will rush up!’

Brahma trembled but played the oldest trick in the history of tricks. He told Bhagiratha about Ganga’s temperament and also told him that only Lord Shiva could control the surges of Ganga. So Bhagiratha went ahead to please Shiva.

‘How did he please Shiva?’ asked my nephew, ‘I’ve read that Shiva loves booze. So did he take this God to some nice bar and treat him there?’

‘Aha!’ I said, ‘this is indeed a wonderful idea and I’ll try it if I happen to meet him some day. But no, Bhagiratha probably went for a few more years of tapasya.’

Once Shiva was pleased, Bhagiratha asked him to help get Ganga down on earth. This was a simple task for this mighty God and he just spread his hair to break her fall and gently released her in hundreds of streams. Now if you think the story is complete, you’re wrong. Yes, Ganga did flow behind Bhagiratha to the place where the ashes of Sagara’s sons were kept and those sixty thousand souls got mukti. But Ganga is so naturally a young temptress and ran here and there like an uncontrollable teenager! She even went on to flood the ashrams of another sage called Jahnu. She just entered Jahnu’s ashram where a Yagya was going on and the turbulent waters of this river put out all the fires lit for the havan. This enraged Sage Jahnu and he swallowed her.

‘Oh my God! There was a lot of water swallowing going on during that period,’ said my nephew.

Yes, these were natural problems during that period. But then Bhagiratha again came to Ganga’s rescue and informed the sage of the thousands of years of tapasya that had been invested in just bring this holy river to earth. Jahnu was a reasonable man and not entirely an autocratic sage, so he pierced his right thigh to release Ganga! The entire river flowed out of his thigh.

This was when I paused and told my nephew that this was the reason why the Ganga is also called Jahnvi, the daughter of Jahnu! The mighty river then flowed on and over time filled the space left by the oceans.

‘That was some story!’ said my nephew.

I said, ‘Yes, and now you must know that the Ganga is also called the Bhagirathi because it was this man who brought her here. And the oceans are called Sagara because it was his idea to conquer the whole world that finally brought in ganga that filled the massive craters that were the oceans once!’

‘I love these stories,’ said my nephew, and then went on, ‘tell me another story some day.’

‘Yes, I will.’

Lord Shiva with a controlled Ganga flowing from his tresses

Lord Shiva with a controlled Ganga flowing from his tresses


Arvind Passey
15 October 2013