BHAGIRATHA, Sagara’s great-great grandson, was a courageous, self-sacrificing person who could perform great austerities. To complete the task that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather failed to perform, he embarked on a series of austerities to please the gods. Pleased with his feats, Brahma assented to allow Ganga to descend to earth; but knowing she would descend in a cascade of tumbling water, he asked Bhagiratha to perform another set of austerities to convince Shiva to catch the falling river in his locks, and halt her ferocious torrent.
Shiva was impressed with Bhagiratha’s austerities and said he would willingly catch Ganga’s waters in his tangled locks. Thus assured, Brahma ordered Ganga to descend to earth. Ganga was dismayed, for she preferred the tranquil atmosphere of heaven too much to exchange it for earth’s unsettled environs. To show her anger, she decided to descend with incredible force. Her plan was to submerge the whole earth and to drag Shiva to the depths of the underworld. She tumbled down in a cascade, leveling everything in her path. But she could not dislodge Mount Kailasa, and Shiva, who sat meditating atop it. She became hopelessly tangled in the dense mat of his hair, unable to force her way through.
Her attempts finally exhausted her; she became a shadow of her former self, so much so, that Bhagiratha had to undertake yet more austerities to convince Shiva to have pity on her. This time he went even further in his austerities, supporting his entire weight on the little finger of one hand in a desolate desert. Pleased with this display, Shiva released Ganga from his locks, and she flowed down smoothly, separating into small branches. By misfortune, the river inundated the area where the sage Jahnu sat meditating; to mollify the sage’s anger at this terrible insult, Bhagiratha embarked on a new set of austerities. Finally, the sage allowed the Ganga to flow on unabated. Grateful to be allowed an exit to the sea, Ganga finally reached the underworld where she flowed over the ashes of the dead sons and brought them back to life.