THE holy river Ganges, known to us as Ganga, is also a goddess, and the account of her origins makes a fascinating read. Himavat, god of the Himalayas, was her father, and the nymph Mena was her mother. During those times, she flowed only across the vast heavens, pierced by the lofty Himalayan peaks. She would have happily stayed there, but for the intervention of Sagara, king of Ayodhya. Though he had two wives, he had no issue, so he prayed to a sage called Bhrigu, who granted him a boon – one wife would give birth to a son and the other would produce a gourd. When the gourd fell to the ground, sixty thousand sons would spill out of it. Soon, this came to pass. But as his sons grew to manhood, Sagara became arrogant. He organized an Asvamedha yagna, in which a horse is let loose and the owner has the right to claim all territory it crosses. Sagara let the horse wander through the territory possessed by Indra, supreme among all gods, hoping to knock him off his pedestal. But Indra drove the horse away to the underworld, where the great sage Kapila sat meditating.
Sagara asked his sixty thousand sons to dig down to the underworld and recover his horse at all costs. The sons set to the task with gusto. But all the digging caused agony to the earth, and she complained to Brahma who told her to wait a bit longer as Sagara’s sons were digging their own graves. As soon as Sagara’s sons dug to the end of the world, they spied the horse grazing peacefully beside Kapila’s cottage. Angered and exhausted by their digging, and believing him to be the thief, they rushed to apprehend him. Kapila opened his eyes and angered at this gross insult, he reduced them to ashes through the power of his eyes. Worried at their absence, Sagara sent his grandson Ansuman to look for them. Ansuman approached the sage with reverence and asked him if he knew about his uncles. Softened by the boy’s demeanour, the sage said his uncles could be restored to life if the Ganga could be made to flow over their ashes. Neither Sagara nor Ansuman could accomplish this task; it was ultimately Sagara’s great-great-grandson Bhagiratha, who finally succeeded. But this, as they say, is another story altogether!