Gangâ is the holiest river of India. She is the Mother who washes away all sins and redeems one from the fetters of life. There are many folk songs about the Gangâ, which testify just how much the river has been personified, deified, and made an integral part of Hindu spiritual life.
The origin of river Gangâ is connected with the avatâra (incarnation) of Vishnu as Vâmana. When Vâmana measured the three worlds, the nail of his left foot caused a hole in the upper side of heaven’s shell. From that hole, Gangâ originated and fell into heaven. The point of her origin is called Vishnupadî.
For a long time Gangâ remained in the heavens. The spot where she originated on earth is called Dhruva-mandala, since the sage Dhruva did austerities (tapas) there for many years, resulting in the Gangâ’s descent to earth. The seven Rishis, who are the sages that begin each cosmic age, continually take their holy baths in the Gangâ.
The holiness of the Gangâ is described in scripture (such as the Mahâbhârata and the Agni Purâna). Even today, in spite of its polluted water, a dip in the Gangâ is believed to remove all sins and bless one with heaven. The festival of Kumbhamela (celebrated every twelve years) is attended by many tens of thousands of people to offer their worship (pujas) to Mother Gangâ.
The descent of the celestial Gangâ to earth is described in the Bhâgavata Purâna. Many of the names are mythical, referring to heavenly regions and sacred geography. Gangâ originated from Vishnupâda (the foot of Vishnu) and flowed to devayâna (literally, the way of the Gods). From devayâna it descended to Candramandala.
From Candramandala, Gangâ divided into four tributaries called Sîtâ, Cakshusa, Alakanandâ, and Bhadrâ, and then fell into Brahmaloka (Brahma’s land in heaven). It fell in various directions from Brahmaloka. Of the four tributaries, Sîtâ fell on the head of Mount Meru and then flowed down to earth around Gandhamâdana, went around Bhadrâsvavarsa, and emptied into the eastern sea.
Cakshusa fell on Mount Mâlyavân, went around the land of Ketumâla, and emptied into the western sea. Alakanandâ fell on Mount Hemakuta, flowed around the land of Bharatavarsa (India), and emptied into the southern sea. Bhadrâ fell on Mount Sringavân, flowed around the land of Uttarkuru, and emptied into the northern sea.
One myth connected the river goddess Sarasvatî with Gangâ. Vishnu was talking to his three wives: Lakshmî, Sarasvatî, and Gangâ. During the conversation Gangâ passed playful glances toward Vishnu behind the backs of Sarasvatî and Lakshmî. Sarasvatî saw this and became very annoyed. She got up and started beating Gangâ.
A fight raged between them. Meanwhile Lakshmî tried to intervene. Disliking her intervention Sarasvatî cursed Lakshmî to be born on earth. Gangâ cursed Sarasvatî in return to be born as a river on earth. Sarasvatî immediately cursed Gangâ back to be born on earth as a river too. At this juncture Vishnu pacified all three wives but said that the curses had to have their effects and could not be taken back.
Lakshmî was born as the Tulasi plant (Ocsimum Sanctum) in the as´rama of the sage Dharmadvaja and grew up as his daughter. An asura (demon) named Sankhachuda who was a partial incarnation of Vishnu married her. In due course she became a river called Padmavatî. As the Padmavatî River, Lakshmî left her earthly form and returned to Vaikuntha (Vishnu’s heavenly abode).
Gangâ was led to earth by the prayers of King Bhagî- ratha and became a mighty river. She married a king called Santanu and gave birth to the Ashtavasus (eight Vasus who were attendants to Indra). After their birth she returned to Kailâsa and became the spouse of S´iva. Sarasvatî became a river on earth, and, leaving her mortal form there, went to Brahmaloka and became the spouse of Brahma.
This version was given in the Bhâgavata Purâna. Many other versions are told, including the one when the Gangâ flows to earth from S´iva’s matted hair.