Perspectives from the Ramayana-I: Is Ganga a mere river?
“How can Sri Rama be a mortal, you arrogant fool? Is the god of love Manmatha a mere archer, the Ganga a mere stream, the cow of plenty a mere beast, the gift of food an ordinary gift, O ten-headed monster? Listen O dullard: is Vaikunta an ordinary sphere, and unflinching devotion to the Lord of the Raghus an ordinary gain?” 
Even as Angada thus upbraids Ravana, while delivering the message from Rama, in the words of Tulasidas, the divinity of Ganga is just as evident as the divinity of Rama. Denying Rama’s divinity is same as calling Ganga a mere river, just a stream of water. How can Ganga be a mere river?
The banks of Ganga were home to great centers of learning and place for powerful penances of revered rishis. Great cities flourished on its banks for millennia. In fact, it was not too far from the shores of River Ganga that Valmiki uttered the first sloka upon witnessing the killing of the male partner of a krauncha bird couple. The divine poem of Ramayana, which is the very fountainhead of dharma, was itself born out of this melancholy . Ganga nourished not just the land, but the minds and hearts of people of India. She is verily the mother of our civilization.
Rama and Ganga
Sri Rama and Maa Ganga are integral to Indian consciousness — Rama, the one who pleases (ramyatenena iti rama), and Ganga, one who nourishes coming to earth from heaven (gaam bhoomim gatha gangaa). Both are the epitome of patience, love and sacrifice. Rama gave up all comforts and embraced the hardships with a smile for the sake of Dharma and his people. The holy river hurries past the mighty mountains eager to enrich her children. Rama is matchless in his compassion in removing obstacles for his bhaktas on their path to moksha, just as the celestial Ganga cleanses their paapams from all their births. And yet, both are known for their cataclysmic fury – one when faced with transgression of dharma, the other in responding to violence towards nature.
Ganga is extolled in many ancient texts, the Vedas, the Puranas and the Mahabharata, but she has a special relationship with Ramayana and Rama. It was none other than Rama’s ancestor Bhageeratha, a Suryavamsi king of Ikshvaku lineage, who brought Ganga to earth. In Valmiki Ramayana , Rama and Lakshmana themselves learn of this fact at the age of sixteen from sage Vishwamitra, when they witness the beauty of Ganga for the first time on their journey with the sage. It was then that Rama offered Ganga waters as customary oblations to his ancestors for the first time.
As Rama and Sita entered the waters hand in hand, the eternal Ganga appeared, palms folded in greeting, and said, ‘Men and women from all quarters bathe in my waters and lose their sins. But when you, my father, bathe in the same, I lose my sins and gain my soul.’
With his arms extended, Ganga water dripping from his matted locks and Sita by his side, Rama resembled at that moment, the crescent-crested one dancing in front of Parvati. As he stood in the middle of white-foamed Ganga with his slender wife beside him, he was Vishnu himself on the milky sea, rising, as of old, from his bed.
Crossing of the River Ganga is also crossing over from a life of luxury to a life of asceticism and hardships for Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. But, however far they may go, they do not forget River Ganga. She is mentioned in 108 verses of Balakanda, 46 verses of Aryankanada, when Rama encounters the river several times. But, even when far away from the river, in 4 verses of Kishkinda kanda, 3 verses of Sundara kanda and 9 verses of Yuddha kanda, Ganga finds mention.
The Poetry of Ganga
Ramayana’s Ganga is gracious, bold, powerful, courageous, kind and pleasing. Her waters are sweet, clear and crystalline, carrying snow. Who can forget the words that the sage Valmiki uses to describe her descent from heaven  —
kvachitdrutaram yaati kutilam kvachidaayatam
vinatam kvachiduddootam kvachidyaati sanaihi sanaihi
salilaenaiva salilam kvachidabhyahatam punaha
muhururdhwamukham gatwaa papaata vasudhaatalam
Now hastily, sinuously elsewhere, straight here and bent there
gushing forth she cruises, leisurely too she goes
waters dashing into waters, rising up and diving to earth
Oh, river Ganga, forever she flows
In unparalleled display of aesthetics, Kamba, the poet, describes Sita splashing water playfully on Rama, while the boat moved down River Ganga along the soft mounds of sand on either shores of the river[ 7] —
The boat sped along, like a huge crab on long legs, spurred on by its mighty oarsmen,
Sweet Sita and sun-like Rama sported, splashing water at each other. No longer a river, but a woman, Ganga, with sand dunes for ample breasts, decked with sandal, gems and flowers, lifted the boat with her hands, and carried them across without effort.
It is indeed richly rewarding to study what metaphors and comparisons Ganga inspires in various poets and their Ramayanas.
For the supreme bhakta Tulasidas, Ganga is a metaphor for flow of devotion. He uses the word “surasari” for Ganga, the river of celestials. He considers  it as grace of Rama to attain association with holy men, who he considers a “moving Prayaga”, in a reference to the holy confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, the “triveni sangamam”. For Tulasidas, joining the holy satsang of bhakta sadhus is like the flow of River Ganga, performance of karma kandas like the flow of River Yamuna, and the longing for the experience of the absolute Brahman is like the unseen subterranean flow of River Saraswati. Essence of the teachings of Vedas is the same – attain the company of holy men in whom all three streams of quest for God merge, sings Tulasidas.
Tulasidas compares the purity of Ganga with that of Rama. All the harsh words from his stepmother Kaikeyi sounded pleasant to Rama in the same way as waters of all kinds are hallowed through their confluence with the holy Ganga . Elsewhere in Ramcharitamanas, King Dasaratha says to Sita that the river of her fame outshone the fame of celestial Ganga in that it has penetrated (not only one earth, but) millions of universes. While the Ganga has exalted only a few places, the river of Sita’s fame has added to the glory of numerous congregations of holy men, he says . Tulasidas even compares his own poetry to the course of Ganga calling it convoluted.
Describing the purity and divinity of Ganga, Ramacharitmanas says that Sun, Fire, Ganga and Brahman incur no blame. Waters of all kinds, pure and impure, flow into the Ganga; yet no one calls the heavenly stream impure. Tulasidas says holy men would never drink wine, even if they came to know that it had been made of water from the Ganga, but the same wine becomes pure, when it is poured into the Ganga.
In Kamba Ramayana, the poet says that when Sita appeared, all other girls lost their beauty, just as all other rivers lost their holiness, when the river called Ganges came down from the heaven to earth . Sita’s confident and frolicking gait walking ahead of Rama and Lakshmana in the forest is beautifully compared by Valmiki to the flow of Ganga in the rainy season .
Ganga and Worship
We can see people performing the same religious chores today that are described in Ramayana – taking holy dip, giving oblations and doing pinda daan for the moksha of ancestors. Sita herself, the ever graceful wife of Rama, worshiped Ganga while crossing the river during their onward journey of fourteen years of vanavasa. She vows that on their safe return to Ayodhya, she shall give away a lakh of cows, soft clothing and food to brahmanas, and shall worship Ganga with thousand pots of sura (liquor) and meat. She vows to worship all deities dwelling on the banks of river Ganga in temples, visit sacred spots and sanctuaries16.
Visiting sacred places and deities on the river banks as part of tirtha yatras is a practice that continues from times immemorial. The word tirtha itself originally meant “place of learning” that existed along river banks, where people would go to visit and offer obeisance to the learned gurus.
Ganga is also called Mandakini, Bhagirathi and Akash Ganga in Ramayana. Several other rivers which are revered along with Ganga are mentioned in Ramayana, all of which eventually merge into Ganga – Yamuna, Sarayu, Sona, Tamasa and Vedasruthi. All these rivers retain their names from thousands of years ago, except that Sarayu is sometimes called Ghaghara. Many legends say that river Kaveri in the South was born out of Ganga jal from Sage Agasthya’s Kamandalam. The pleasant nature of Pampa river in the South is compared with that of river Ganga by Valmiki 17. The sacred Kaveri, Tungabhadra, Krishna Veni, Gautami [Godavari], Bhaagiirathi in Southern India are called Pancha Ganga.
Sacred Krauncha, Endangered Shimshumaara
Many have studied the fauna of River Ganga from Ramayana, but what is most interesting is to understand the importance of Krauncha birds for Valmiki. Why was he so moved by what happened to the Krauncha bird pair? What is it about these birds that inspired Valmiki to write the story of Sita and Rama, the very fountainhead of dharma for Indians?
In Balakanda, we see how Valmiki is unable to forget the pain of the Krauncha bird whose partner was killed by the nishada and how he involuntarily uttered a sloka on seeing that. He continues to meditate on the significance of his involuntary utterance in sloka meter for days together. It is clear that for Valmiki, the tragedy of separation of Sita and Rama only found voice when he saw the unbearable pain experienced by the female Krauncha bird.
Various picturizations of this story of Valmiki show Krauncha birds as small birds perched on a tree branch necking. In reality, Krauncha birds are large waterfowls. Krauncha bird is the tallest flying bird in the world, with grey plumage and beautiful contrasting red head and upper neck. Also called Sarus Crane (Grus Antigone), it is mostly found around River Ganga and its tributaries and is the state bird of Uttar Pradesh. Krauncha birds always move in pairs and are known for their deep bonding. These birds mate for life and pine for the loss of their mates even to the point of starving themselves to death. For Indians, they are the very symbol of love and companionship. So well-known is the bonding for life of these birds that it is a custom in Gujarat to take newlywed couples on an expedition to show Krauncha bird pairs .
These sacred birds of India were hunted greatly by the British during the colonial period for sport and for the meat of the young ones. Even while their biologists and taxonomists debated on the classification of the bird, the British held sporting events specially organized around killing of Krauncha birds. Keeping these birds captive in menageries was a regular practice in Europe and Mughal India. Today they are declared a vulnerable species with special conservation programs. Likewise, the Ganga river dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica), which finds mention in Valimiki’s Ramayana as shimshumaara, is today an endangered species20. During the time of Babar, these Gangetic dolphins were hunted for their scented oil, which was used for lighting Mughal royal household lamps. The recent IUCN 2010 report lists 18 species of mammals, 55 species of birds, 13 species of reptiles found in Ganga, of which one is critically endangered, four endangered, six vulnerable and five are near threatened species .
Is Ganga a mere river?
Ganga’s course on this ancient land is just a little more than 2500 kms, but about 40% of the Indian population lives along Ganga and is dependent on it directly or indirectly. It is today the most populated river basin in the world, with a large percentage of its population living in abject poverty. The mounds of sand on its banks don’t inspire romantic poetry anymore. The cities are no longer nourished by knowledge, devotion and the quest for beauty in living. The minds of the young are as clouded as the polluted waters of Ganga.
Ganga’s own tragic loss of flora and fauna, and the loss of knowledge and prosperity in people living on the banks of River Ganga are interlinked. When Ganga is fast becoming just a river in our minds, every ritual we perform in worship will only pollute her further. Alas, can cleaning Ganga as a mere river revive our civilization?
1. Sri Rama Charita Manasa (with Hindi Text and English Translation) of Goswami Tulasidas, Gita Press (Gorakhpur)
2. Verses 9-43, Sarga 2, Balakanda, Valmiki Ramayana
3. Srimadramayanamu of Valmiki (with Balandandini vykhyanamu), Acharya Sri Pullela Sriramachandrudu, Arsha Viganna Trust (Hyderabad), 2013.
4. Kamba Ramayana, English translation by PS Sundaram, Penguin Books, 2002.
5. Verses 1942-50, Ayodhya Kanda, Kamba Ramayana, Page 71 of ibid.
6. Verses 23-24, Sarga 43, ibid.
7. Verse 1988 of Kamba Ramayana, English translation from Page 72 of Penguin 2002 edition.
8. Do 2, Chau 1-7, Balakanda, Sri Ramacharitamanasa of Gosvami Tulasidas (Gita Press)
9. Verse 42 of Ayodhya Kanda, ibid.
10. Verse 286 of Ayodhya Kanda, ibid.
11. Do 9, Balakanda, ibid.
12. Verse 68 of Balakanda, Sri Ramacharitamanasa of Gosvami Tulasidas (Gita Press)
13. Verse 69, Ibid.
14. Verse 683, Kamba Ramayana, English translation by PS Sundaram, Penguin Books, 2002.
15. Verse 4, Sarga 16, Sundara Kanda, Valmiki Ramayana
16. Verses 82-91, Sarga 52, Ayodhya Kanda, ibid.
17. Verse 94, Sarga 1, Kishkindha Kanda, Valmiki Ramayana
18. Sundar, KSG; Choudhury, BC (2003). The Indian Sarus rane Grusa.antigone: a literature review. J. Ecol. Soc. 16: 16–41.
19. Finn, F (1915). Indian sporting birds. Francis Edwards, London. pp. 117–120
20. Sinha RK, Kannan K. Ganges River Dolphin: An Overview of Biology, Ecology, and Conservation Status in India. Ambio. 2014;43(8):1029-1046. doi:10.1007/s13280-014-0534-7.
21. Behera, S.K. (1995), ‘Studies on population dynamics, habitat utilization and conservation aspects of Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica) in a stretch of Ganga River from Rishekesh to Kanpur’, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis
22. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010-2.