While Rishikesh belongs to India's TOP 3 most sacred cities (next to Haridwar and Varanasi) and has innumerous temples and ashrams, it would be appropriate to say that the most important and grandest place of worship in Rishikesh is stream of Ganga Ma, the all accepting, all forgiving mother. The river is even personified as Goddess Ganga in ancient texts and art.
She is the holy river that flows sometimes peacefully and sometimes turbulently, eager to enrich, purify and sustain her children. Ganga nourishes not only the land, but also the minds and hearts of people of India. Her divinity is immediate and everlasting (as long as the river survives).
With a length of more than 2500km and originating in the Gangotri glaciers in the Himalayas, Ganga flows through the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Prades and Bihar until it joins the Bay of Bengal further South.
In the past, the banks of Ganga were home to great centers of learning and place for powerful penances of revered rishis. Great cities flourished on its banks for millennia. Today 40% of the Indian population lives along Ganga.
According to Hindu Mythology, Ganga is the one who is coming from Heaven to Earth (gaam bhoomim gatha gangaa).
Hindu mythology descibes her birth like this: Vishnu, the preserver god, in one of his incarnations measured the universe, and he extended his left foot to the end of the universe and pierced a hole in its covering with the nail of his big toe. Through the hole, the pure water of the Causal Ocean (Divine Brahm-Water) entered this universe as the Ganges River. Because the Ganges directly touched the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu (Narayana) before descending, it is known as Bhagavat-Padi or Vishnupadi which means Emanating from the lotus feet of Bhagavan (God). It finally settles in Brahmaloka or Brahmapura, the abode of Lord Brahma before descending to planet Earth. Ganga plunged to Earth with a force so strong that her waters threatened to sweep away the planet. Shiva responded quickly from his abode on Mount Kailash and caught Ganga's fall on his head. Gathering her cascading waters, he released her from his hair as gentle streams to meet the needs of the country.
The other well-known legend focuses on Bhagiratha: The goddess once lived on Kailash and flowed demurely for the sole pleasure of the gods. And, had it not been for Bhagirath, king and sage, she would still be there. Bhagiratha was a legendary king of the Ikshvaku dynasty who brought the River Ganges, personified as the river goddess Ganga, to Earth from the heavens. When he became prince of Sagara Dynasty, learning about the awful end of his forefathers who were unable to attain region of gods, with a sorrowful heart he went for practicing austerities to Himalayas. He did penance for a thousand years to please Ganga, to gain the release his ancestors. Ganga told him if she will descend from the sky to the earth, the force of her fall will be difficult to sustain. She asked him to obtain the favour from sable blue throated god, Shiva, as no one except him is able to sustain her. He then did severe penance for Shiva and asked him to do so. Shiva granted him the boon, which led to descent of the goddess Ganga.
Ganga holds an important place in the Hindu pantheon. Typically wearing a crown, she holds (or sits on) a water lily and holds a lute. When depicted four-armed and mounted on a crocodile (her vahana) she carries a jar of amrita, a water lily, a rosary and holds a protective and blessing mudra.
Ganga is the only river to follow from all the three worlds – Swarga (heaven), Prithvi (Earth) and Patala (netherworld or hell). This is called Tripathagā (one who travels the three worlds) in Sanskrit language.
The Rig Veda mentions Ganga but more of her is said in the Puranas. In Rishi Valmiki's epos 'Ramayana', Ganga is described as the daughter of King Himavat (Lord of the Snow, who was the ruler of the Himalaya Kingdom of Ancient India, as mentioned in the Mahabharata) and Queen Menaka (the daughter of Mount Meru, the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes). Her sister is Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort.
According to the Hindu scriptures like Skanda Purana, the goddess Ganga is foster-mother to Kartikeya (Subrahmanya, Murugan), who was (next to Ganesha) the other son of Shiva and Parvati.
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