The National Museum on Janpath in New Delhi unveiled a large exhibition this month exploring the beliefs, histories, traditions, arts and cultures of India emanating from the Ganges – a river and a Goddess.
See below: A bronze vessel inscribed with the 108 names of Ganga, a map of the Ganges and a bronze statuette of the goddess.
Forget the big bang theory. The Rig Veda describes how the Earth began with a cosmic egg (hiranyagarbha). In the Upanishads, the soul of the universe broke in half, gold and silver. All the parts of the cosmic egg metamorphosed into features of our planet – outer membranes of the egg became mountains, inner membranes became cloud and mist. The white of the egg became the oceans, whilst veins developed into rivers.
The exhibition explained how the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and (invisibly or underground) Saraswati rivers at Allahabad is the ajna-cakra, forming a cosmic knot. Yogis who regularly bathe in this area can be liberated from rebirth.
Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Krishna all have connections with Ganga, the Tri-devatya.
Vishnu had three consorts who were jealous of each other. To sort out the cosmic squabbling, Vishnu sent Ganga to Earth as a holy river, to wash away people’s sins.
Another story tells how Indra stole the horse of King Sagar, hiding it at the hut of the ascetic hermit, Kapila. The king sent his 60,000 sons (pretty prolific kind of king) to get the horse back, but they disturbed Kapila during his meditation, so he incinerated them all with an angry glance. It took Ganga water to purge them of their sins.
The Ganga is also the celestial river of the Milky Way, descended to Earth.
Krishna’s consort, Radha, was really angry when his relationship with Ganga intensified. Ganga turned to liquid and hid under his foot when she saw Radha coming.
Brahma glanced at the toe of Shiva’s wife, Parvati, at their wedding, thus committing celestial adultery. To wash away his sin, Shiva gave Brahma a pot of water from the Ganga.
When Vishnu crossed heaven, Brahma used the water in this pot to wash his feet. The run off fell onto Mount Meru, the centre of the universe, and from there it anointed Shiva’s head. As the angry Ganga descended from heaven, Shiva let down his matted, long hair so the river could form tributaries.
Tarakasura was a demon who fought the gods. Like Achilles at Troy, he had a weakness – he could only be slain by a son of Shiva. The problem was that Shiva was a celibate yogi, so the gods sent Kama (as in Sutra) the god of love, to hit him with a sacred arrow. Shiva fell in love with Parvati, but ejaculated prematurely (god knows how long he’d been celibate for). Agni, god of fire, caught the spilled seed and brought it to earth.
Shiva’s sperm fertilised the wives of six holy sages (krithikas). Their husbands threw them out on account of their “adultery”, so they travelled to the Himalayas. They gave birth to a child, Kartikeya, with six heads in the River Ganges. Ganga looked after Kartikeya until he was old enough to defeat Tarakasura after a universe-shaking battle.
During the rains, devotees of Shiva take water from the source of the Ganges into a clay pot and bring it back to their villages without setting the pot down. If they are successful at this task (Kanvad Yatra), their wishes come true. People devise amazing structures to carry the water.
All this mythology and religion was making my head spin, so I was delighted to come across a display of Bollywood film posts, featuring the Ganga.
At the end of the exhibition, there was a room dedicated to bringing people’s attention to pollution of the Ganga.
Fittingly the exhibition displayed some Jaina diagrams depicting torture in hell. Serves the polluters right, I thought.