Last year I made a trip to my hometown Haridwar. My parents took me to the Har-ki-pauri. As the car passed the railway station I saw a familiar sight of tall villagers in white dhoti kurta with red turbans on their head and gold rings in their ears. The women in bright multi coloured saris with veils over their faces. Several boys rushing to them, “kaun des, kaun gaon, kaun jaat?” (Which state, which village, which caste?)
The travellers will soon be guided to Dharamshals (lodges) built by the people of their region and caste. Once they have had refreshments and rest, an emissary would present himself to guide them to his master the ‘Panda’ who holds the ‘Bahi khata’ of their past several generations, a normal way to begin the pilgrimage.
Soon we reached the last motor-able road near the market. Since we had to enter the narrow lanes, we parked our car at the nearest place and left on foot. My father waved to his acquaintances since six decades. The shops are most unique selling God’s idols, Pooja utensils, rosaries, Ayurvedic medicines, walking sticks, and gemstones. These are among numerous items that devotees carry for family and friends when they return.
Lazy stroll ended on the main platform of Har-ki-pauri. As we sat there enjoying the breeze, my eleven-year-old daughter saw the ceremony of Asthi visarjan (dipping the ashes in the river) being performed. A man sat holding a metal pitcher covered with a red cloth and the priest was conducting the ceremony. Daughter was most intrigued and asked, “What are they praying for?” I replied what I had heard from my father years ago, “Someone in their family passed away, we Hindus cremate or burn the lifeless body after death. The ashes are then immersed in Ganga to grant peace and liberation to the departed soul.”
I was expecting my inquisitive daughter to go on with the queries and she did not disappoint us, pat came the next question, “Why do we burn the body?” I knew my parents were hearing what I told her and were happy to see their lessons travelling generations. I replied, “We believe that the mortal body is made with five elements, earth, air, space, fire and water by cremating we return it back to these five elements of nature, fire accepts it and distributes it to air space and earth as smoke and ashes. Some non combustible ashes are finally put in the last element water.”
“Mummy when someone dies the family would feel so bad, how can they burn the body?” This had got a little precarious and my father came to my rescue, “Yes it is natural to feel bad after a death, when your mother’s grandfather means my father passed away, I was inconsolable, he was my anchor how could he go? I was in denial of his death, felt angry with God and even bargained with him that if he returned my father, I would do all the good deeds I hadn’t done. When that didn’t happen I was depressed, lost my appetite and interest in work. It is only after the funeral, cremation and talking to people who came for condolence that I reconciled and accepted the reality.”
“Nanu why do people travel so long to put the ashes in Ganga why don’t they put it just anywhere in water?” the interviewer was not so easily satisfied.
“Because it is believed that the Ganges is the most sacred river that has descended from the heavens to liberate ancestors of Ram. This town is also where Shivji grieved and reconciled with the death of his first wife Sati and this placed is believed to be charged with Amrit the nector of immortality after Samudra manthan (See supermoon-chandra-or-soma-myth-and-science-of-the-moon-part-2), because of which people believe their dear ones will gain heaven after death. Your mother will tell you all these stories tonight.” My father cleverly returned the ball in my court.
My daughter made me immensely proud when she declared, “Nanu I already know two stories, I have already read about Sagar manthan how when Dhanvantari rose out of the ocean with Amrit. Devas and demons fought over it and Garuda the ride of Vishnu, flew away with the pot in its huge bill. Four drops fell on earth and Haridwar is one of the four places.” My father was delighted and probed further, “….and which is the other one you know?”
“I know how Sati immolated herself at Daksha’s yagya havan-kund and Shivji destroyed it all. He roamed around this place with the lifeless, charred body till Vishnuji cut it with his Sudarshan Chakra and Shivji finally accepted her death. I don’t know about story how Ganga descended from the heaven.”
My father rose up and assigned me the task to update her with the story, after which he would explain how the system of last rites is cleverly designed to help a grieving person accept loss of loved one and get on with normal life.
At night she lay in bed ready to hear the next story, I began:
Ramayana has mention of Rama’s ancestors. One very glorious ruler was Sagar he held the Ashwamedh Yagya (Horse sacrifice rite) where a horse is left to wander and the army follows it, wherever the horse goes, the ruler either peacefully accepts patronage of the sender king or fights his army, once defeated the kingdom adds on. Sagar is said to have sixty thousand sons. They had been following the horse and winning kingdoms one after the other. They became arrogant.
Some versions say that a rishi Kapil was doing his meditation in that area and Indra was scared he would gain the seat of heaven so Indra stole the horse and tied it near the meditating Kapil muni. There are versions that the horse itself escaped the eye of the army and wandered away to that spot. However it caused a lot of commotion in the Sagar’s sons and they madly went around looking for it. When they spotted it, accused Kapil muni of stealing their horse and rebuked him. Meditation was disturbed and their insolence infuriated the sage, he saw the crowd with anger and they were reduced to ashes there and then.
This became a cursed and untimely death which the Hindus believe keeps the spirit trapped between the two worlds. To be liberated divine intervention is required.
Sagar’s grandson Anshuman came searching for his uncles he apologised to Kapil muni and asked how his ancestors could be liberated? Kapil muni disclosed that Brahma’s daughter Goddess Ganga lives in heaven, she is blessed with powers to touch and liberate the sinners. If she descends on earth in the form of a river your ancestors will be able to cross over to next world.
Anshuman’s grandson Bhagirath finally took the onus upon himself and is said to have prayed to Brahma for several years to send Ganga to earth. Finally Brahma agreed but warned Bhagirath that she was very mighty, if not controlled, she could cause havoc and destroy the earth. Bhagirath now prayed to Shiva to bear the fall of the mighty river. Ganga accepted her father’s order but was intrigued how the earthlings would handle her vigor. As she roared down from the clouds, Shiva stood upright hands on his waist waiting to bear her weight. Ganga was amused to see him and jumped with accelerated momentum to dis balance him. Shiva reprimanded her by tying her up in his matted locks, Ganga could not force her way out, it remained circling in a whirlpool in the hair.
At Bhagirath’s behest he opened one of the locks of hair and instructed her to follow him where he led her. Ganga’s pride shattered, she promised to obey. Bhagirath directed her to the mound of his ancestor’s ashes and she washed them all away with her water. Her touch liberated their spirits and they left for heavens thanking Ganga and blessing Bhagirath. He then led her to chart out her path from Gangotri to the sea. Haridwar is the first town where Ganga touches the northern plains.
Once the story was over my daughter slept peacefully waiting for the next day for her Nanu to explain the resolution of grief in this holy city.
(To continue see- why-is-river-ganga-so-scared-to-hindus-part-2)