Ganga is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. She is the first wife of King Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur. She is the biological mother of Bhishma.
Also in the Mahabharata, the story of Ganga’s first descent to Earth is described. She is coaxed out of heaven by a prince-turned-sage named Bhagiratha.
(For a full list of important Mahabharata characters, see 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Amaze You.)
The Theft of a Cow
Right at the beginning of the Mahabharata, at the start of the Adi Parva, the eight Vasus of heaven – who are elemental beings that control different aspects of the weather – steal Sage Vasishtha’s cow up on Mount Meru.
The chief culprit here is Prabhasa, the elemental of dawn, and the reason he steals Nandini is because he wishes to give it as a gift to his wife.
When the sage comes to know of this, he summons the Vasus to his house and places on them a curse that they will all be born as men on Earth to atone for their sin.
The Vasus then tell the sage that the main culprit was Prabhasa, and the rest of them had sinned merely in being complicit. ‘For such a small sin, O Sage,’ they ask, ‘is it right that you hit us with such a heavy punishment?’
Vasishtha reflects upon the words, and his anger now having ebbed a little with the uttering of the curse, agrees that they are reasonable. So he amends the curse, saying:
‘The seven of you who were complicit in the act will live but short lives on Earth, not amounting to more than a few hours each. But Prabhasa, you who has seen it fit to think of all this a joke, and has planned and executed the act fully, you shall live a long, hard life spanning more than a hundred years and four generations.
‘Let that be your punishment, and your punishment alone.’
The Curse of Prabhasa
With Prabhasa still withering under the sage’s words, Vasishtha continues, ‘And since you did this while blinded by lust for your woman, Prabhasa, you shall spend this long life of a man devoid of intimate knowledge of a woman.
‘You shall remain constantly desiring but never attaining sexual pleasure in the company of a maiden. Let that also be your punishment, and your punishment alone.’
After this incident, Vasishtha sends the Vasus to Ganga, the river goddess. ‘Go to her and reveal all that has happened,’ says the sage. ‘She will know what to do.’
As it happens, around the same time, Ganga has attracted a curse of her own from Brahma. The story behind that is as follows.
Ganga and Mahabhisha
As the Vasus are being admonished by Vasishtha, a council of the gods is meeting in Indra’s hall. Sitting in attendance is a pious king from Earth named Mahabhisha.
He is known to be one of the few king-sages on Earth, a person who is equally well versed in the scriptures and the principles of statecraft and battle. As a result, he attains heaven in his mortal form.
On this occasion, Mahabhisha sees Ganga pass by, and though the rest of them lower their heads in respect, Mahabhisha looks upon her with lust.
Brahma, noticing this, places a curse on the king, saying, ‘You shall be born on Earth for looking at the pious Ganga with desire.’
Mahabhisha accepts the curse with good grace and asks Brahma when he will be released from it.
‘When your wrath is provoked,’ replies Brahma, ‘the curse will let you go and you will return to heaven.’
Why did Ganga marry Shantanu?
It so happens that Ganga likes Mahabhisha as well, and on her way back home from Indra’s hall, she begins to think if there is any way in which she can meet Mahabhisha on Earth.
While she is puzzling out these thoughts, she gets a visit from the Vasus who request her to become their Earth mother and to bear them in their womb.
Her instructions are simple: with the first seven children, she is to drown them in the river immediately after their birth. But the eighth boy is to be cared for and reared, because he is destined to live a long life on Earth.
In all this, Ganga senses opportunity. She resolves to have these elemental gods as sons on Earth – but with Mahabhisha as the father.
However, Mahabhisha takes birth on Earth in the name of Shantanu, born to a virtuous king called Pratipa. The Vasus inform Ganga that it is Mahabhisha who is destined to become their Earth father.
This gladdens Ganga’s heart, and she descends to Earth in her human form when the time arrives.
And it comes to pass that Shantanu, in a few years, meets Ganga on the riverbank, and asks her to be his wife.
Ganga agrees, but as a condition she tells Shantanu that the king is not allowed to question her in any matter. ‘If you break your promise, Your Majesty, I will leave you forever.’
It is not clear why Ganga does not make a clean breast of the matter to Shantanu. Perhaps it is Brahma’s stipulation that Mahabhisha’s curse must come to pass without Shantanu possessing prior knowledge of what is to come.
(For instance, if Shantanu comes to know that he is Mahabhisha and that this is all preordained, then it cannot be honestly called a ‘curse’. Part of serving out the terms of a curse is to suffer under its weight without knowing about it.)
As it happens, Shantanu agrees to Ganga’s condition, and makes her his queen.
Why does Ganga drown her seven sons?
Ganga thus becomes the wife of king Shantanu on Earth, and for a period of nine years, rules Hastinapur as queen.
With each of the first seven births, soon after the son is born, Ganga kills the infant by drowning him in the river. This is also in keeping with the plan, because Vasishtha’s curse requires the first seven Vasus to live very short lives in the world of men.
But Shantanu, who is kept in the dark about these things, gets progressively angrier at his wife for having killed their sons, and by the time Prabhasa is born, he is determined to do anything to save the boy.
What follows is an ugly confrontation between king and queen. Years ago, before their wedding, Ganga had extracted from Shantanu a promise that he would never question her actions. ‘You have forgotten your promise, King,’ she tells him now, ‘and for that I shall leave you.’
Why does Ganga leave Shantanu?
‘At least give me my son!’ Shantanu says.
‘Do not fear, Your Majesty,’ Ganga says, picking up the baby Devavrata and clutching him to her breast. ‘Our son needs me more than he does you at this time. I will rear him to the age of a prince, and when he is ready I shall send him to seek you.
‘Do not worry for his well-being, for at the place I am taking him to, he shall be trained by the best of teachers, and he shall have the best of men as friends and playmates.’
With those words, without giving Shantanu a chance to respond, Ganga disappears with the boy.
This moment of Shantanu’s unbridled rage also frees Mahabhisha from the curse that Brahma has placed on him. In order for him to be liberated like this, Ganga had to provoke him to anger.
The essence of Mahabhisha leaves Shantanu at this moment, and together, Ganga and Mahabhisha ascend to heaven along with Devavrata.
Ganga’s Original Descent
By the time of Ganga’s descent in human form to marry Shantanu, the river Ganga is already flowing on Earth. However, it was not always thus. There was a time when Ganga only flowed in heaven.
Many years before the events of the Mahabharata come to pass, a king named Sagara has sixty thousand sons who are burnt to ashes in the netherworld owing to a sin they commit. Sagara assigns the task of cleansing these souls to his grandson, Anshuman.
But Anshuman lives his whole life preoccupied by ruling his kingdom, and at his deathbed gives the task over to his son, Dilipa.
Dilipa also, during the course of his life, never succeeds in this mighty mission. It comes to his knowledge that the sons of Sagara will only be permitted into heaven if Ganga’s water touches them.
It finally falls to the son of Dilipa to do this deed. His name is Bhagiratha, and he takes and oath that he will not ascend the throne until he has brought Ganga down to Earth.
Agastya Drinks the Ocean
Meanwhile, it also happens around the same time that Sage Agastya – one of the seven great sages – has drunk the entire ocean’s water and digested it. So now the ocean is parched.
He does this at the behest of Vishnu, in order to expose a horde of Rakshasas called the Kalakeyas who are hiding inside the ocean from the gods.
When asked the drink up the ocean and allow the Kalakeyas to be slaughtered, Agastya readily agrees. On the appointed day at the appointed hour, in the presence of all weapon-bearing gods and a host of fellow Brahmins, he falls to his knees on the seashore and proceeds to drink the water of the ocean in no time at all.
The Kalakeyas are thus exposed to the weapons of the gods, and in open battle they do not stand a chance against the strength of Indra’s army.
After they are all killed, the gods return to Agastya and say, ‘We thank you, Sage, for helping us getting rid of this menace. Now you can restore the ocean back to its original form.’
Agastya looks at them, puzzled. ‘I have already digested the water I drank from the sea, O gods. You have to think of another expedient in order to fill it back up.’
This, then, becomes another reason for which Ganga needs to be brought down to Earth – in addition to Bhagiratha’s personal quest to bring salvation to his ancestors’ souls.
Bhagiratha Propitiates Ganga
It is said that Bhagiratha propitiates Ganga for a thousand years, but it is likely that this is an exaggeration, meant to be taken metaphorically. Let’s just say that he spent a long time in the Himalayas, perched on one foot, subsisting on mere air.
Ganga appears before him at last in her human form. When she learns of Bhagiratha’s wish, she says, ‘I am willing to grant you your boon, O Prince, but when I fall from heaven, the world of men cannot withstand my might. There has to be some means by which my force can be curtailed and controlled.’
‘How can this be done, my lady?’ Bhagiratha asks.
‘Why, not far from here lives Shiva, perhaps the only god capable of standing up to me in my unfettered form. You should ask him if he would be willing to perform this task.’
Bhagiratha has to spend a further thousand years (so to speak) to make himself heard to Shiva. When Bhagiratha asks him for help in receiving Ganga on the surface of the Earth, the lord says yes.
The Great Torrent
Thus it comes to be that Ganga flows out of heaven – filled with fish and sharks and whirlpools – in a great torrent onto the Destroyer’s head.
And Shiva, in a bid to restrain her and make her less dangerous to life on Earth, traps her among his locks, and allows her to leave in the form of a gentle stream.
Some say this process continues to this day: Ganga falls from heaven onto Mount Kailasa, over Shiva’s head, and the god acts as a dam, reducing her to a mere trickle so that she would not sweep the Earth away in a great flood.
Some others argue that once Ganga fell to the Earth, she got trapped in Shiva’s hair, so that is where she originates now. She no longer flows in heaven.
Only her human form still lives up there among the gods, but the river itself has severed its connection with the land of the celestials. The act of restraining Ganga, according to this belief, has happened just once, and from then on, she has been a prisoner inside Shiva’s tresses.
Whether you find the first or the second theory more believable, what has happened as a matter of course is that Ganga has come to be known as another of Shiva’s consorts after Parvati.
Ganga fills up the Ocean
Once Shiva lets Ganga out, Bhagiratha guides her course toward the sea in order to fill it up again. He takes care, of course, to lead her through the netherworld where she washes over the ashes of his forefathers.
She thus becomes a river known for flowing in all three worlds. (Her ‘netherworld form’ is called the Vaitarani.)
On the way to the sea, she floods the hermitage of a sage called Jahnu, who swallows her as punishment. Upon being worshipped by Bhagiratha, he allows Ganga to exit his body through the ear. This contact with Jahnu gives the river the name Jahnavi (‘the daughter of Jahnu’).
At long last, after coursing through the length of Aryavarta, Ganga enters the parched ocean and fills it up.
Why does Ganga curse Arjuna?
Ganga also performs another important role toward the end of the Mahabharata, by cursing Arjuna for playing an important role in killing Bhishma in the Kurukshetra war.
Since Ganga is Bhishma’s mother, she is especially hurt by the way Arjuna hides behind Shikhandi and shoots arrow after arrow at Bhishma. The curse is that Arjuna will have to pay for the crime with his life.
The Naga queen Ulupi overhears Ganga and the Vasus speaking angrily about how to punish Arjuna. At this time, Arjuna is escorting Yudhishthir’s Ashwamedha horse around the country from kingdom to kingdom.
When he arrives in Manipura, Ulupi contrives to orchestrate a battle between Arjuna and Babruvahana. Babruvahana ends up killing Arjuna in this duel, after which Ulupi revives her husband using a magic herb.
Ulupi explains to Arjuna then why she had encouraged Babruvahana to kill Arjuna. She also assures Arjuna that his name of ‘Vijaya’ (the undefeated) is still intact despite this loss to Babruvahana because one’s son is considered to be a version of oneself, so Arjuna has merely lost to himself in this fight.
Arjuna thus atones for his sins against Bhishma by dying at the hands of Babruvahana.
Ganga mourns Bhishma
At the end of the Anushasana Parva, after Bhishma finishes his long discourse with Yudhishthir and finally welcomes death into his arms, Ganga arrives to mourn her son.
As celestial kettle-drums play and flowers begin to rain upon him, the siddhas and rishis become filled with delight, and they utter exclamations of wonder.
As the people of Hastinapur gather around the fallen regent, Ganga appears in her embodied form and addresses the Kurus in a quiet voice.
‘O sinless ones,’ she says, ‘listen to me as I say unto you what has occurred with respect to my son. He was endued with wisdom and high birth. He was the benefactor of his race. He could not be vanquished by even Rama of Bhrigu’s race. Alas, he was slain by Shikhandi.
‘At the groom-choosing of Kasi, he vanquished all the assembled Kshatriyas of the land while fighting from a single chariot. My heart grieves as I recall the manner in which he was slaughtered by that wicked Dhrishtadyumna.’
Ganga is then consoled by Krishna, who assures her that Bhishma was the most powerful warrior of them all, and that he was so heroic that even Indra could not defeat him in battle.