||Aum Sri Ramakrishna Sharanam||
||Aum Namo Narayanaya||
Thousands of dancing flames as far as the eye can see... waved in harmony to the tune of an aarthi that glorifies the Mother Ganga. For a moment, night turns to day and the mind is lost in a realm far from all your troubles and worries.... Her waves like little hands extending to receive the offerings of the pious devotees. In order to experience this, a trip to India is necessary. But, devotees in South Africa have the blessed opportunity to experience the purity and grace of Mother Ganga at the Sivananda Cultural Centre in Tongaat. Thousands of devotees and well wishers converged on the Sivananda Ashram situated on a tranquil farm in Tongaat overlooking the serene Indian Ocean to attend the Sivananda Ganga Conference to commemorate the 126th Birth Anniversary of the founding Guru, Swami Sivananda. The Indian Ocean which is shared by both India and South Africa forms the umbilical cord that nurtures great spiritual thoughts and ideas from the spiritual capital of the world, India. The rituals to the Ganges regarded as sacred by humble devotees are sometimes scoffed by onlookers as absurd. I recollect my fond memories of the Ganges from my room window at Belur Math where I witnessed the gentle transition of Her tides -and rest assured with a little understanding of Her symbolism-, I am certain the sceptics will adopt a new-found reverence for Her.
Like Swami Vimokshananda always reminds us... mythology has a very integral role to play in conveying the profound spiritual philosophies from the ancient Vedic times to the current with little distortion. It’s up to the receptive seeker of greater truths to unpack the philosophy from these stories. The origin of Ganga Ma as a story in itself is bound to attract the listener to its every detail.
Once, a King called Sagara was performing a special sacrifice which entailed a white horse who was left free to roam followed by his army. Wherever the horse went, that kingdom was to give the horse freedom and make special gifts to the King in supplication. If they failed to do so, Sagara could challenge them. Knowing his great might and power, all complied. In fear of losing his own throne, Indra Deva (in disguise) led the horse away to Sage Kapila Muni’s ashram. The Sage was in deep meditation. Upon searching for the horse everywhere -the King's army made up of 60 000 of his own sons- finally found the horse at the ashram. In anger and fury they started to insult the Sage. In all the commotion the Sage opened his eyes and immediately all the army in his gaze were reduced to ashes. Upon hearing of the untimely death of his sons -for which they will now roam the earth as ghosts- the King sought the advice of Sage Kapila. The gracious Sage said their only hope was for Ganga Ma to descend from the heavens and wash their ashes.
The King immediately crowned his grandson as King and left for the Himalayas to perform penance to bring Mother to Earth. He was unsuccessful and seven generations later his descendant Bhagiratha was successful in obtaining his wish from Brahma. Brahma however warned that if she (Ganga) came to earth with her force, the earth would be shattered. For this he asked Bhagiratha to pray to Lord Shiva to soften the fall - to which he agreed.
Feeling satisfied that his job was accomplished, Bhagiratha led Ganga to the spot to liberate his ancestors. Ganga noted for being the restless and mischievous maiden... whilst following Bhagiratha, came across Sage Jahnu’s ashram. Inquisitive to know the happenings, she ventured towards the huts and started to flood the site. The Sage, livid by this intrusion, took a sip of the waters and by the power of his mantra swallowed the entire river. This made Bhagiratha very distraught and he pleaded with Sage Jahnu to release her to accomplish the mission. The compassionate Sage then released her and she then also came to be known as Jahnvi (daughter of Sage Jahnu). The mission was successfully completed when the pure waters of Ma Ganga touched the ashes of King Sagar's sons' and released them to liberation. There she entered the vast ocean at the point called Ganga Sagar.
The question then arises in the curious mind... What makes the Ganges so special? She like any other glacier river starts in the icy mountains and meanders its way to the mighty ocean. Yet through millennia, the water of the Ganges has been the treasure of Gods, Saints and Sages. Her banks are sought after real estate for ashrams and hermitages. At points along her 2200km length, She is worshipped, used for irrigation, dammed, powers the many cities through hydro-electric plants, used in industrial processes, is the carrier of corpses and sewage, is the breeding ground for pests and scum and is also home to various species of fish and other aquatic life. The description fits many other rivers in the world but the Ganges is special to India and venerated by billions of Hindus who understand that She is more than just a river, but a symbolic representation of our pure nature itself.
From one mass of indistinguishable melting snow... pure and white, drops become little streams until they join to become the river, flowing through the pure regions of the Gangeatic planes. Then through populated and polluted cities, She finally enters the Bay of Bengal at Ganga Sagar. Amritsya Putrahe -the Vedas proclaim- immortal children of God, we come from that pure source of Brahman, taking up various roles on this earth. Through the course of our life, by our association, we are revered and respected by society and/or polluted by 'adharmic' tendencies... but our goal is the same: the ocean of bliss - Satchidananda(truth, absolute ,bliss).
As much as the Ganga is polluted at various places, the water is still used for pooja; bathing and drinking at the various ashrams after undergoing purification. Her waters are given great sanctity by the austerities of thousands of great Saints who performed immense 'tapasya' and austerities along Her banks. Although we may be polluted by our associations and society pressure, we must perform sadhana; japa and meditation on a regular basis to help purify our mind and help us develop devotion and purity. Like Mother Ganga, although we undergo all these personal trials and tribulations we must also be selfless and serve and support the various 'dharmic' activities of our communities... and help bring peace and joy to all.
Sri Ramakrishna said: "As all rivers flowing crooked or straight finally find their way to the ocean, therefore all rivers are the same, but that river which provides sustenance and service to mankind finds a special place in their heart."
Therefore, as Swami Vivekananda beautifully said: "all are potentially divine", the task then is to manifest that divinity and bring light and love to humanity. Then we transform from a river to the Ganga.
We pay our homage to Pujya Swami Sahajananda, who like Bhagiratha, brought Ganga from India to South Africa to inspire us all. May we all become tributaries of Ganga Ma, is my sincere prayer.
With love and prayers always
*Pranaams to Sri Swami Sivananda on His 126th Birth Anniversary (today) and a blessed Ganesha Chaturthi / Vinayaga Saturthi to all for tomorrow.