Ganga is considered to be the purest rivers in India. It is believed that anyone who bathes in the Ganga would be purified of all the sins committed by him. Do you know the story of how Ganga came to earth?
In the Vamana Avatar of Lord Vishnu, Bali the Asura King had promised to give Vamana – a dwarf three steps of land to perform his meditation. Lord Vishnu who was the Vamana, then assumed assumed the Trivikrama form, where he became huge so huge that measured the earth in one step, the heaven in another. Bali then offered his head as the third step. Lord Vishnu pressed Bali and pushed him to the netherworld.
When Lord Vishnu measured the heavens, Lord Brahma washed his feet with some water. From that water a beautiful girl – Ganga was born in Lord Brahma's kamandalam.
Ganga was full of mischief and always pulled pranks on everyone. She danced and sang beautifully and the Devas loved to come to listen to her and watch her dance.
Once many of the Devas and the rishis had come to watch Ganga sing and dance. Ganga had just finished dancing, when there was gust of wind.
Sage Durvasa had come to watch the dance. Like all rishis he was dressed in a simple manner. The gust of wind blew away Sage Durvasa's clothing. All the Devas knowing Sage Durvasa's reputation as an angry man, immediately turned their head away and tried not to laugh at him. However Ganga was unable to control herself and burst out laughing looking at the sage.
Furious with Ganga, Sage Durvasa cursed her, 'Proud girl! You are making fun of me instead of helping me! You do not deserve to live in the heavens. You deserve to go to earth. Go and flow as a river on the earth where you rightly belong!'
Ganga was shocked when she heard the Sage's words. Apologetically she ran to Sage Durvasa and fell at his feet. 'Please great sage! I was proud! Please think of me as your daughter and forgive me...'
Sage Durvasa looked at Ganga and softened up inspite of himself. Filled with pity he spoke, 'My words cannot be taken back, Ganga. But since you have asked I will grant you a boon that when you flow on the earth you will be the purest river there. If anyone comes and bathes in your waters, they would be purified of all their sins.'
So saying Sage Durvasa left, leaving Ganga unhappy and sorry as she had to leave her friends and go to earth.
Meanwhile on earth, in the kingdom of Ayodhya, there lived King Sagara. King Sagara had 60,000 sons. King Sagara fought long and hard with all the Asuras surrounding his kingdom. Subsequently after same years of battled, he was finally able to destroy the Asuras. His kingdom was safe again.
King Sagara ruled his people well and soon the treasures of his kingdom were full and people were happy and content. King Sagara decided that now was the time, he had to perform the 'Ashwameda Yagna' to declare his supremacy. In the Ashwameda Yagna, a horse was let loose and went all over the world. If the horse entered the another kingdom, the other king either had to accept the supremacy of the king whose horse it was or fight the other king.
If King Sagar completed the Ashwameda Yagna, he would become the undisputed leader of the world. Looking at this, Lord Indra, the king of the Heavens grew very jealous. He was very afraid that if King Sagara completed his Yagna, he would become more powerful than Indra himself.
Indra turned invisible and went near the horse. He stole the horse and was about to carry it to heaven, when he stopped thinking something...If I carry this horse to my palace, King Sagara may find it and even challenge me to a fight. What if he wins...? ...I will hide the horse in some other place so that my hand should never be suspected..Thinking thus Indra hid the horse in the ashram of a sage Kapila. Now Sage Kapila also had a reputation to have a very bad temper.
King Sagara sent his 60,000 sons to look for the horse. They finally found the horse in the Ashram of Sage Kapila. Sage Kapila was deep in meditation when the sons arrived there. The sons got angry thinking that Sage Kapila had kidnapped the horse.
'You call yourself a sage?' One of them said, 'You have stolen the horse of the Ashwamedha Yagna...?'
The sons angrily yelled, 'Thief! This man is a thief!' Sage Kapila was disturbed by the loud noise made by the sons of King Sagara.
Annoyed the sage opened his eyes. When he opened his eyes, he heard sounds of 'Thief...thief...'
By the power of his penance, he realised that these people thought that he was a thief. This enraged Sage Kapila so much that he used his powers and burnt all of the sons of King Sagara – all the 60,000 of them.
If the last rites of a person are not done properly, it is believed that they do not reach heaven. So the sons of King Sagara roamed as ghosts on earth.
Anshuman, the grandson of King Sagara, when he heard this, ran to Sage Kapila. He fell on Sage Kapila's feet. 'Great sage, please have mercy on us... My uncles..' He said pointing at the ash around him, 'they are doomed...they will never go to heaven...' Anshuman let out a tired sob, 'they will always roam the earth...please...'Anshuman had tears in his eyes, 'my uncles do not deserve this...Please great sage!'
Looking at the teary face of Anshuman, Sage Kapila felt sorry for him. He looked around at the ashes and said, 'Son! There is a beautiful river called as Ganga in the heavens. She is born from Vishnu. If she flows on your uncles, your brothers would attain heaven...'
Anshuman gratefully nodded his head. 'Thank you great sage! I will go about immediately to perform penance so that she can come to earth...'
Sage Kapila held up his hands, 'Son! Ganga was brought up by Lord Brahma. She is his daughter. Pray to him so that he may send his daughter to earth...'
'Thank you wise sage, ' Anshuman said. He completed his duties as a king and immediately set about to perform penance to please Lord Brahma.
However neither Anshuman, nor his son Dilip were successful in bringing down Ganga from the heavens. Their penance did not bear any fruit. Finally Dilip's son Bhageerath also started the penance for bringing down Ganga to the earth.
Finally pleased with him, Lord Brahma appeared before him, 'Arisee, son of Dilip, what do you wish?' He asked Bhageerath.
Bhageerath fell on Lord Brahma's feet, 'Lord, there is nothing that you do not know.. I am praying so that my ancestors are relieved from their curse and ascend to the heavens. Please send your daughter to the earth...'
Lord Brahmaa thought for some time, 'Son! I can send Ganga down, but she is extremely powerful...She was bron from Lord Vishnu, so she has some of his powers. If she falls straight from the heavens, she will flood the earth, that is more than the earth can take...'
Bhageerath looked anxious, 'Then what do I do, my Lord? How can my ancestors become peaceful?'
Lord Brahma said thinking that over, 'Bhageerath, pray to Lord Shiva, He can control Ganga. Pray to him so that he can release Ganga slowly so that she does not flood the earth...'
Bhageerath closed his eyes and breathed deeply. His job was only half finished. He still needed the blessings of the three eyed God. He nodded and sat down to again start his penance as Lord Brahma vanished.
Seeing that Bhageeratha was not disheartened Lord Shiva was delighted. He appeared before Bhageeratha, 'Arise Bhageeratha, I know what you wish and I am very pleased with your determinations...I will take care of this...'
Saying this the three eyed God spread his locks all over the sky and asked Ganga to fall down from the heavens. He caught her in his hair and did not let even a single drop fall on earth. Then slowly he released Ganga from his matted hair, 'Ganga, follow Bhageeratha and fulfil your destiny...'
Ganga obeyed and followed Bhageeratha for some time...
However Ganga again became very playful. She reached the ashram of the Sage Janu when she decided to have some fun...Why should I do nothing other than follow Bhageeratha....I will have some fun...I will now flood the ashram of this sage...It will so funny to look at their faces when they see their ashram wet and watery...Ganga giggled as she flowed inside the ashram of Sage Janu and flooded the place. However the reaction that Ganga got was not what she expected...
Sage Janu after finishing his penance opened his eyes and saw his ashram flooded. He stared blankly wondering what had happened...Then he closed his eyes and with the power of his penance realised that Ganga was upto some mischief...I will teach that brat a lesson...Sage Janu thought. He then used the power of his mind and swallowed up all the water...
Ganga was flabbergasted. Once she was free and flowed everywhere. Now she was trapped inside the stomach of the sage. She tried pounding the walls but she was trapped...Oh God! I acted without thinking...She thought cursing herself.
Meanwhile Bhageeratha was happy as the river followed him. Finally my ancestors will know peace...He was hearing the sound of the river churning, which abruptly stopped. Bhageeratha was stunned and saw that the river had vanished. Panic stricken he looked around and found only a sage in his hermitage and no signs of Ganga. Oh Lord No...what happened....
Almost sobbing he ran to the Sage, 'Great Sage! There was a river here...Where... Have you seen where it went?' He politely asked the sage.
The sage looked at Bhageeratha, 'Oh you mean Ganga?' Bhageeratha nodded mutely looking at the sage. The sage patted his stomach and said, 'She was too proud of herself...I swallowed her...'
Bhageeratha was almost reduced to tears, 'Please great sage! That river was the means by which my ancestors were to reach heaven...My grandfather...my father all of them before me have tried and it was only now that I was able to bring down Ganga, please...please release her...' Broken hearted Bhageeratha told him the entire story.
Sage Janu looked at Bhageeratha with pity, 'For you my son, I will release that river...' So saying he released Ganga from his stomach.
Ganga flowed out of came out of Sage Janu's stomach a much wiser and sober person, joyfully experiencing freedom after being locked down in the stomach. She promised herself that she would never misbehave now.
Bhageeratha thanked the sage and slowly Ganga came towards Sage Kapila's ashram to where the 60,000 souls waited for liberation.
Finally after years and years of waiting, Ganga flowed on the ashes of the sons of Sagara. Bhageeratha was tear faced as he felt the souls being released from the earth. He fell to ground, thanking the Gods to give him the strength to complete his job...
The river Ganga is also called as Jahnvi as she emerged from Sage Janu's stomach. As Bhageerath brought her down, she is also known as Bhageerathi.
Even now, if something is fulfilled after facing extreme difficulties it is called as 'Bhageeratha Prayatna' [Prayatna means 'trials'].