Why Is the Ganges Considered to Be Sacred?
The River Ganges is considered sacred by more than 900 million people because of its part in the observance of the oldest organized religion existing in the world, the 3,500 year old religion of Hinduism. For century after century hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have visited its shores every year to wash away their sins in the holy river waters.
Brahmins and outcasts, kings and beggars, people of every caste and race of Hindu India have swarmed down stone steps to wade in “Mother Ganga” for spiritual purification and the good of their souls. Devout Hindus hope to die on its shores and have their ashes strewn on the surface of the holy river. For those unable to make the pilgrimage, quantities of the water are widely distributed and preserved to be drunk as the hour of death approaches.
The Ganges is a sacred river to Hindus along every fragment of its length. All along its course, Hindus bathe in its waters, paying homage to their ancestors and to their gods by cupping the water in their hands, lifting it and letting it fall back into the river; they offer flowers and rose petals and float shallow clay dishes filled with oil and lit with wicks (diyas). On the journey back home from the Ganges, they carry small quantities of river water with them for use in rituals (Ganga jal, literally water of the Ganges).
The Ganges is the embodiment of all sacred waters in Hindu mythology. Local rivers are said to be like the Ganges, and are sometimes called the local Ganges (Ganga). The Kaveri river of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in Southern India is called the Ganges of the South; the Godavari, is the Ganges that was led by the sage Gautama to flow through Central India. The Ganges is invoked whenever water is used in Hindu ritual, and is therefore present in all sacred waters.
In spite of this, nothing is more stirring for a Hindu than a dip in the actual river, which is thought to remit sins, especially at one of the famous tirthas such as Gangotri, Haridwar, Prayag, or Varanasi. The symbolic and religious importance of the Ganges is one of the few things that Hindu India, even its skeptics, are agreed upon.
Hindus consider the waters of the Ganges to be both pure and purifying. Nothing reclaims order from disorder more than the waters of the Ganges. Moving water, as in a river, is considered purifying in Hindu culture because it is thought to both absorb impurities and take them away. The swiftly moving Ganges, especially in its upper reaches, where a bather has to grasp an anchored chain in order to not be carried away, is considered especially purifying. What the Ganges removes, however, is not necessarily physical dirt, but symbolic dirt; it wipes away the sins of the bather, not just of the present, but of a lifetime.
The most sanctified spot of the sacred Ganges is the ancient city of Varanasi, also known as Benares, Banaras, or Kashi, is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism, with its thousand temples, countless idols, and a four-mile curve of ghats, or steps, leading down to the river. Apart from the pilgrims, many boats and steamers gather in the Ganges because it is also a great commercial highway. The vast plain which it crosses in a gentle gradient is a maze of life-giving irrigation projects, for more people live there than in any other river valley except the Yangtze in China.
The source of the Ganges is usually given as the Bhagirathi which gushes from an ice cave more than two miles above sea-level. It flows from west to east for 1,540 miles and drains an area of 430,000 square miles. Finally it pours its silt-laden waters into the Bay of Bengal. Here is the most extensive delta in the world, a fan-shaped formation which the Ganges shares with another river, the Brahmaputra, after the latter’s southward sweep from Tibet.