The Ganges River also known as Ganga Ma or Mother Ganga) is one of the most sacred symbols of the Hindu religion. It has from time immemorial been a place of pilgrimage for those of the Hindu faith. The river was granted divinity by the Hindus due to its importance in their day to day life. According to Foulston,. and Abbott, in their book Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practice, (p. 184) it “provides the source of nourishment for millions of people who depend on the crops that are fertilized by her waters.” It is believed to be a channel for the remission of sins as well as the facilitator of liberation from the cycle of life and death. The Ganges in Hinduism is considered the embodiment of sacredness; the redeemer of the dead; and the purifier of both the physical and spiritual impurities.
The life-giving, and purifying properties of this river are what make it an object of veneration. The Ganges is considered to be sacred and homage is paid to the ancestors and gods by cupping its water in one’s hands and letting it drip back into the river. Monaghan, in Goddesses in World Culture, Volume 1 (p. 35) states that pilgrims “carry away water for worship and purification rituals in temples and homes.”
The symbolic descent of the Ganges from heaven to earth is celebrated by Hindus either in late May or early June of every year. During this celebration, Hindus immerse themselves in the waters of the Ganges believing that doing so will rid them of their sins. To Hindu devotees, the river is a goddess who absolves worldly impurities and rejuvenates the cosmos with her purifying power.
Its waters are considered to be the redeemer of the dead. Since it is descended from heaven, it is also a path of ascent. Hindus believe that it flows through heaven, earth, and the underworld hence connecting these three realms. As such, it is a crossing point for both the living and the dead. One’s death near the waters of this river is given instant salvation and his body is cremated next to the river. For a Hindu to be cremated upon the banks of the river at places such as Varanasi is considered the most blessed of all possible departures from this life. If a person dies at a place other than at the Ganges, then his ashes are taken to the river and immersed in its waters to in order to guarantee his salvation.
The waters of the Ganges are both pure and purifying. Its moving water is believed to be purifying because it absorbs impurities – sins – and takes them away. It not only wipes away the present sins of the one who immerses himself in it but also the sins of an entire lifetime. It is a place of pilgrimage or kumbh mela for those who practice the Hindu religion. This pilgrimage takes place every three years and the major activities of this event are the ritual bathing in the river, devotional singing and religious discussion among the leaders of the various Hindu denominations.
In conclusion,, the Ganges, apart from being one of the most important objects of Hinduism is also its absolute center. It is considered to be the origin of the religion’s worship practices and the culture that comes from these practices and accepts and forgives all of its devotees. Its importance in Hinduism is further enhanced due to its being a consort to three of the major male deities in the Hindu pantheon.