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GANGA MA: SACRED RIVER AND GODDESS
Map of the Ganges from source to sea
There are seven sacred rivers in India, of which the holiest is the River Ganges (Ganga). Its source is high up in the HimalayasIndia’s holiest mountains in a glacial cave. For over 1,500 miles, it flows through the plains and cities of northeastern India, joining the sacred river Jumna (Yamuna) at Allahabad before eventually merging into the Bay of Bengal. Mythologically at least, the Ganges courses way beyond its earthly boundaries to the realm of moksha spiritual liberation.
Satellite image of Ganges delta
The Ganges has been held sacred for millennia and is repeatedly invoked in sacred Hindu texts, including the Vedas, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. In an ancient society that depended on the seasonal monsoons for its agricultural needs, the perennial nature of the Ganga was literally a godsend. Personified as Ganga Ma Mother Ganges the river is revered as a powerful goddess who embodies the cardinal virtue of purity, cleansing the sins of the faithful and aiding the dead on their path toward heaven:
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Ganga is Righteousness in liquefied form. She is energy also running in a liquid form over the earth. The very mother of the heavens, she has sprung from the highest mountain for running over the plains and conferring the most precious benefits on all creatures of the earth. She is the highest cause of all things; she is perfectly stainless. She is as subtle as Brahma.1 Ganga devi on lotus
There are many versions of the Ganges creation myth, but in most stories she transforms herself into a river and flows out of the big toe of the god Vishnu; or perhaps she manifests herself the hair (or ear) of the great god Shiva (“Salutations to Lord Shiva who holds Ganga in His matted hair”), or even the mouth of the silver cow Gomukhi. Ganga’s heavenly origin and descent to Earth makes her an effective intermediary between the two worlds of humans and gods. Images of Ganga on a crocodile and Yamuna on a tortoise flanked the doorways of early temples. Entering the temple, devotees were symbolically cleansed by the purifying waters of these two rivers.