Previous Read: Anshuman
The river Ganga is the holiest river in India, possibly in the world. Located in the Gangetic plain in northern India, it begins in the Himalayas and ends in the Bay of Bengal. People in the thousands flock to this holy river for worship. It is said if one bathes in this river, all of their sins are automatically removed. Some of India’s holiest cities like Varanasi are located on the banks of this river.
And one famous king is responsible for giving us humans this treasure. This river used to flow in the heavens, but this king was able to bring the river Ganga down to Earth. His name was Bhagiratha. He was from the Suryavansha dynasty, and thus ruled over Kosala Kingdom with his capital at Ayodhya. He was the son of King Dilipa I. Bhagiratha was able to bring down the river Ganga and liberate his ancestors, a task that had been passed for five generations.
- Father: Dilipa I
- Son: Shruta
- Daughter: Hamsi
King Sagara was conducting an Ashwamedha yagna, but his horse was stolen by Lord Indra. Sagara sent his 60,000 sons to go retrieve the horse. They followed its footsteps and soon found the horse wandering in Patala near Kapila Muni’s hermitage. They assumed that Kapila Muni had stolen the horse and they started insulting him. Kapila angrily glared at them, and in an instant, they were reduced to a pile of ashes. Meanwhile, Sagara sent his grandson Anshuman to recover the horse. Anshuman followed the path of his uncles and soon reached Kapila Muni’s hermitage. When he saw the ashes of his uncles, he started weeping. He asked Kapila Muni to raise his uncles to heaven. Kapila Muni responded, “The river Ganga is currently in the heavens. You must bring down the river Ganga to Earth. When this holy river touches the ashes of your uncles, they will be liberated.”
Anshuman took the horse and went back to king Sagara, who completed his yagna. Later, at the palace, Anshuman told Sagara about what Kapila Muni had said. Sagara assigned this task to Anshuman. After Sagara, Anshuman became king and he tried to bring down the river Ganga, but he died unsuccessful. Thus, the task was passed onto Dilipa, Anshuman’s son.
Bringing River Ganga down to Earth
Soon, even Dilipa was lying on his deathbed without having finished the task. Before dying, he told his son Bhagiratha, “My son, you must complete the task that I failed to complete.” Bhagiratha vowed, “Father, I will not ascend the throne until I have brought the river Ganga to Earth.”
Accordingly, when Dilipa passed away, Bhagiratha did not ascend the throne. Instead, he entrusted the kingdom to his ministers and then went to the forest to perform penance. Bhagiratha performed for decades. Finally, Lord Brahma appeared before him and said, “Ask for a boon, oh king. Whatever you desire shall be granted.”
“Let the river Ganga flow down to Earth from the heaven and liberate my ancestors. This is the boon I desire,” Bhagiratha requested.
“The force of the river Ganga is too powerful for Earth. Lord Shiva can withstand the force of Ganga. You must please him,” Brahma said.
Thus, Bhagiratha prayed to Lord Shiva. Shiva appeared before him and instructed him to ask for a boon. Bhagiratha replied, “Oh Lord Shiva, please receive the force of the river Ganga as it flows down to Earth.”
Shiva acceded to Bhagiratha’s request and then vanished. Meanwhile, Ganga jumped down from the heavens. Halfway down, she thought, “Oh, Lord Shiva isn’t paying attention. I shall sweep him away with me to the nether world.” But Shiva knew what she was planning, so as she was falling to the Earth, Shiva imprisoned her in his matted hair. He kept her imprisoned for many years.
Once again, Bhagiratha prayed to Shiva and requested that he free the goddess Ganga. Shiva agreed to his request and let out a small portion of the river Ganga. Thus, the river reached Earth.
Meanwhile, sage Jahnu was conducting a yagna (sacrifice). Everyone had gathered to participate in his sacrifice. When Ganga reached Earth, he waters disrupted the sacrifice. Sage Jahnu was furious and she swallowed up the entire river. Bhagiratha and everyone else requested Jahnu to release her. Jahnu finally relented and freed Ganga. Because of this incident, Ganga also became known as Jahnavi.
Finally, Bhagiratha led Ganga to the ashes of his 60,000 ancestors. The waters of the river flowed over the ashes and Bhagiratha’s ancestors were liberated. Bhagiratha had finally achieved his goal.
Afterwards, Brahma appeared Bhagiratha and said, “The sons of king Sagara are now in heaven. They have been liberated by the holy waters of Ganga. Since you accomplished this task, Ganga will also be known as Bhagirathi.”
Bhagiratha could now finally return to his kingdom. When he entered the gates of his city, everyone rejoiced. Bhagiratha was crowned and he established a just and peaceful rule in the kingdom of Ayodhya. He married and had two children: a son named Shruta and a daughter named Hamsi. He gave his daughter Hamsi in marriage to Kautsa.
Bhagiratha believed in the importance of donating cows. Thus, he donated hundreds of thousands of cows and calves to Maharishi Kohala.
In the Forests
This story is told in the Yoga Vasistha, Section 6 (a philosophical text by Valmiki Rishi which is structured as a discourse of Vasistha Rishi to Prince Rama)
But after just a couple of years of ruling, spiritual thoughts began arising in Bhagiratha’s mind. Bhagiratha pondered over this and soon realized the dangers of worldly pleasures. Desperate to get answers, he found a guru named Tritula. Bhagiratha asked him, “Guru, how do I become free from ego and detach myself from the world.”
Tritula answered, “You must abstain from all worldly desires and practice the path of spirituality. Only then will you realize your true state: Atma. If you treat yourself as Atma, all of your ego and worldly desires will vanish.”
After listening to Tritula, Bhagiratha went back to his own kingdom and decided to renounce everything. He performed the Agnistoma yagna and then gave away all of his wealth and belonging. He even gave away his own kingdom the the neighbouring enemy king. Left with only his clothes, Bhagiratha prepared to leave the kingdom. His subjects requested him to stay, but he ignored them and enter the forest.
Soon, he had become spiritually detached and realized himself as Atma. One day, in his wanderings, he arrived back at Ayodhya. He went from door to door, begging for food. His subjects recognized him and requested him to assume kingship. But Bhagiratha refused and continued with his forest travels.
One day, he arrived at a kingdom whose king had just passed away. The ministers of the kingdom were trying to find someone worthy of the throne. When they heard that Bhagiratha had arrived, they approached him. After hours of persuasion, Bhagiratha finally agreed and became king. The news of Bhagiratha’s coronation quickly spread and soon reached Ayodhya. The king that Bhagiratha had left in his place had just died, so Bhagiratha’s implored him to resume kingship. Bhagiratha agreed and thus ruled both Kosala and the other country.
When Bhagiratha became old, he decided to leave his kingdom and go the forests to take the spiritual path. Thus, he initiated his son Shruta as king of Kosala and then left for the forest. There, he attained moksha and passed away.