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by Stephen T. Naylor
Ganga is the goddess who is the incarnation of the Ganges, India's most sacred river. She is the sister of Parvati, and has been linked as a consort of Agni, Vishnu, and Shiva. She is the mother of Jalamdhara through a union with the ocean. Hindus believe that by bathing in her holy waters, one's sins will be washed away. Repeated ritualistic washings in the river will secure one a place in heaven. The ashes of the dead are spread over her. She is usually represented as a beautiful woman with a fish's tail in place of her legs, and she rides on the Makara, a water monster.

Ganga originally flowed only through heaven, where she sprang from the toe of Vishnu, and it was due to a mortal that she came to earth. Saghara, a king, desperately wanted sons. He prayed and performed rituals and penances, so that his two wives both became pregnant. They gave birth to many sons. Some time later, to thank the gods, Saghara made ready to perform a horse sacrifice, a very solemn and powerful ritual, but the horse was stolen. Saghara's sons went searching for the animal, and they began to dig into the earth, thinking it might be underground. When their excavations became too large, Vishnu turned all of them to dust. Saghara learned that his sons would be allowed to go to heaven only when the sacred River Ganges flowed to the earth. The sage Bhagirathi, Saghara's grandson, performed rigid penances, and Brahma agreed to allow the river to fall to earth in the Himalayas and flow through India. Ganga was not at all happy about this, however. She was perfectly happy to stay in heaven. She consented to flow to the earth, but promised she would flood the whole world and destroy humanity. To prevent this, Shiva stood under the spot where she fell from the sky and cushioned her fall. Her stream was divided into seven rivers, which are the Ganges and her tributaries.

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