Over the course of the last year Srila Bhakti Nirmal Acharya Maharaj has constructed a Temple at Ganga Sagar, the island southeast of Kolkata situated at the convergence of the Ganges and the ocean. Yearly a massive gathering takes place there around the time of Makara Sankranti (14–15 January) known as the Ganga Sagar Mela. This year Srila Acharya Maharaj is holding a week-long sankirtan programme inside this mela and distributing prasadam to more than 100,000 pilgrims.
The origin and glory of the Ganges and the Lord’s Pastimes at Ganga Sagar are described in Srimad Bhagavatam and other Gaudiya Vaishnava scriptures. Here they are presented in summary form.
According to Srimad Bhagavatam (3.36.52–3, 2.5.38–42), the universe is a giant golden egg made up of fourteen planes of existence. The seven upper planes are known as Bhu, Bhuva, Sva, Maha, Jana, Tapa, and Satya, and the seven lower planes are known as Tala, Atala, Vitala, Nitala, Talatala, Mahatala, and Sutala. These fourteen planes are often referred to as ‘the three worlds’: Svarga, Martya, and Patal [heaven, earth, and hell]. The universe, the golden egg made up of these worlds, floats in the Causal Ocean.
tahara bahire ‘karanarnava’ nama
vaikuntha bediya eka achhe jala-nidhi
ananta, apara—tara nahika avadhi
“Past the abode of light outside Vaikuntha lies the Causal Ocean. Surrounding Vaikuntha, it is eternal, impassable, and endless.”
The Causal Ocean is also known as the Viraja River. It divides the spiritual world from the material world. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu explained this to Vasudev Datta:
koti ye brahmanda bhase virajara jale
“As a wild fig tree yields millions of fruits, so millions of universes float on the waters of the River Viraja.”
Once the emperor Bali Maharaj conquered the three worlds. After a long battle, Bali Maharaj ousted Indra and the other demigods from heaven. The demigods’ mother, Aditi, became morose and performed a special sacrifice, the Payo Vrata, to induce the Lord to protect the demigods. Pleased with Aditi, the Lord agreed to descend to the world as her son and re-establish the demigods’ reign. He assumed the form of a young dwarf-brahman, Vamandev, and eventually came to a sacrificial arena where Bali Maharaj was performing an asvamedha sacrifice [horse sacrifice]. There He begged Bali Maharaj for three steps of land. When Bali Maharaj granted this, Vamandev began to expand His form. Gradually He became so large that His form filled the sky and all the directions. Vamandev stepped across the entire earth with His first step and across the heavens with His second step. When Bali Maharaj saw that there was nowhere else for the Lord to step, he surrendered and prayed that the Lord would place His last step on his head.
When the Lord stepped across the heavens, the nail of His big left toe poked a whole in the outer boundary of the universe.
“Water from the Causal Ocean entered the universe through this hole. It was coloured because it had washed the Lord’s kumkum-adorned lotus feet. Though the touch of this water destroys the sins of the whole world, the water itself remains uncontaminated. Because it emanates directly from the Lord’s feet, it is known as ‘Vishnupadi’.”
This water is identified as the Ganges in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi-lila, 5.54):
yara eka kana ganga patita-pavana
“The Ganges, which is the saviour of the fallen souls, is a drop of the Causal Ocean’s spiritual water.”
When the Ganges entered the universe, it flowed into Dhruvaloka, the polestar, and the Saptarshi Mandal, the seven planets that closely orbit Dhruvaloka, which are inhabited by the seven great sages—Kasyapa, Atri, Vasishtha, Visvamitra, Gautama, Jamadagni, and Bharadvaja. The Ganges remained there for thousands of yugas and was known as the Mandakini [‘she who flows gently’].
Meanwhile, on earth, the descendants of Manu, the progenitor of mankind, spread across the planet. The lineage of Manu’s son Ikshvaku, the lineage in which Ambarish Maharaj appeared, was eventually led by a king named Sagar. Once, on the direction of Aurva Muni, Maharaj Sagar was performing an asvamedha sacrifice for the Lord’s satisfaction. During the sacrifice, Indra stole the necessary horse. On his order, Maharaj Sagar’s sixty thousand sons went out to search for the horse and eventually found it on the bank of the ocean at the ashram of Kapila Muni (the Lord’s Saktyaves-avatar Kapiladev, who is described in Srimad Bhagavatam). Maharaj Sagar’s sons wrongly assumed that Kapila Muni had stolen the horse and came forward to kill him. As they did so, their bodies suddenly burned to ashes from within.
When his sons did not return for a long time, Maharaj Sagar sent his grandson Amsuman to search for them and the missing horse. Amsuman eventually came to Kapila Muni’s ashram, where he found the horse and a great pile of ashes. Amsuman prayed to Kapila, and Kapila gave him the horse but said that his uncles could only be saved if Ganges water was sprinkled on their ashes. Amsuman returned to his grandfather with the horse. Maharaj Sagar completed the asvamedha sacrifice and then attained the supreme.
Amsuman performed austerities to bring the Ganges down to earth but was unsuccessful, and eventually passed away. Amsuman’s son Dilip tried to bring the Ganges to the earth but was also unsuccessful. Thereafter Amsuman’s grandson, Maharaj Bhagirath, began to try. Ganga Devi eventually became pleased with Maharaj Bhagirath and appeared before him: “I am pleased with you and ready to grant you a boon.” Maharaj Bhagirath explained that he wanted her to descend to the earth to deliver his ancestors. Ganga Devi replied, “I do not want to go to the earth because the people there will wash away their sins inside me. Where will I wash away those sins? I will have nowhere to go. Also, if I descend to the earth, who will catch me when I fall? If no one catches me, I will pierce through the earth and fall into the netherworld.”
Maharaj Bhagirath replied, “Lord Shiva can catch you when you descend; you will not fall into the netherworld. The sadhus will bathe within you when you come to the earth. They will remove the people’s sins because the Lord, the destroyer of all sin, is ever-present in their hearts.”
haranty agham te ‘nga-sangat teshv aste hy agha-bhid dharih
“The saviours of the world, the sadhus, who are detached, peaceful, and adept in Vedic principles, will remove all the sin by bathing within you. Lord Hari, the destroyer of all sin, resides within them.”
Maharaj Bhagirath propitiated Shiva and requested him to catch the Ganges. Shiva replied, “So be it.” Thereafter Ganga Devi descended from Dhruvaloka through Chandraloka and the other heavenly planes. As she fell towards the earth, Lord Shiva carefully caught the stream of her water on his head. He thus became known as Gangadhar [‘Ganga’s holder’]. Kapila Muni further explains in Srimad Bhagavatam (3.28.22):
tirthena murdhny adhikritena shivah shivo ’bhut
“Lord Shiva became imbued with the quality of shivatva, auspiciousness, by bearing upon his head the holy waters of the greatest of all rivers, the Ganges, whose origin is the Supreme Lord’s foot-wash.”
As Lord Shiva broke the Ganges’ fall, she descended to Mount Meru and from there flowed through the Himalayas towards Bharata-varsha. Maharaj Bhagirath mounted a chariot and raced in front of the Ganges blowing a conch as she flowed across the earth purifying the land and people.
As Maharaj Bhagirath and the Ganges travelled east towards the ashram of Kapila Muni on the seashore, they eventually came to Sri Nabadwip Dham. When they entered Simantadwip, the Ganges stopped. Alarmed, Maharaj Bhagirath worshipped the Ganges, and she appeared before him. Maharaj Bhagirath said, “If you stop here, my ancestors will never be delivered.” Ganga Devi replied, “I am the foot-water of the Supreme Lord, and we have arrived in His abode. After I finish the worship I desire to perform here, I will go and deliver your ancestors.”
Maharaj Bhagirath happily waited for the Ganges to complete her worship, and then they continued on. When they came to Jahnudwip, where Jahnu Muni resided, the muni’s achaman cup fell into the Ganges as her waves passed by him. Jahnu Muni was chanting the gayatri mantra at the time, and when he noticed his cup was gone, he swallowed the Ganges. Maharaj Bhagirath propitiated Jahnu Muni, and the muni released the Ganges through his thigh [‘jahnu’]. Thereafter the Ganges became known as ‘Jahnavi’, the daughter of Jahnu Muni.
From Sri Nabadwip Dham, Maharaj Bhagirath and the Ganges continued towards the ocean. Lastly they arrived at the ashram of Kapila Muni. There Maharaj Bhagirath sprinkled some of the Ganges’ water on the ashes of his ancestors, and they ascended to Svargaloka.
Because Maharaj Bhagirath brought her to the earth, Ganga Devi is known as ‘Bhagirathi’, and because she delivers the fallen souls, even though they offended the Lord (Maharaj Bhagirath’s ancestors, who attempted to attack Lord Kapiladev), she is known as ‘Patit-pavani’ [the saviour of the fallen].
The glories of the Ganges are sung throughout the scriptures.
tam krishna-bhaktim iva murtimatim sravantim
“I offer my obeisance unto Sri Ganga Devi. She is a cascade of joy, a stream of nectar from the Lord’s lotus feet, an embodiment of devotion to Krishna, and like a garland of jasmine flowers on Lord Shiva’s head.”
While the Ganges is commonly praised because she purifies souls of their sins, her true glory is that she blesses souls with devotion to her Lord. Srimad Bhagavatam (9.9.13) indicates this:
punah sraddhaya devim sevante ye dhrita-vratah
“The sons of Maharaj Sagar, whose bodies were burnt because of their offence to the Lord, reached Svargaloka simply by the touch of the Ganges’ waters. So what is the destiny of devotees who faithfully serve Ganga Devi?”
Sriman Mahaprabhu sported in the Ganges during His Pastimes in Sri Nabadwip Dham and He chanted her supreme glories on many occasions.
shiva se tomara tattva janena sakala
sakrit tomara nama karile sravana
tara vishnu-bhakti haya, ki punah bhakshana
tomara prasade se ‘sri-krishna’ hena nama
sphuraye jivera mukhe, ithe nahi ana
kita, pakshi, kukkura, srigala yadi haya
tathapi tomara yadi nikate vasaya
tathapi tahara yata bhagyera mahima
anyatrera kotisvara nahe tara sama
patita tarite se tomara avatara
tomara samana tumi vai nahi ara”
“O Ganga, your divine water is liquid prema. Lord Shiva knows your glory in full. If anyone hears your name once, they develop devotion to Vishnu. So what more do they attain by drinking your water? By your mercy Sri Krishna’s Name appears on one’s tongue. There is no doubt about this. The good fortune of a millionaire who lives elsewhere does not equal that of the insects, birds, dogs, and jackals that reside near you. You descended to deliver the fallen souls. There is no one equal to you.”
In Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math devotees offer their obeisance to the Ganges with following pranam mantra:
sukhada bhaktida ganga gangaiva parama gatih
“O Ganga, you immediately destroy all sins and miseries, and bestow happiness and devotion. May you be my ultimate shelter.”
The word bhaktida [‘giver of devotion’] in this verse is written elsewhere as mokshada [‘giver of liberation’]. In the practice of pure devotion, no prayer is made for liberation. The gist of the pure devotees’ attitude towards the Ganges is exhibited by Maharaj Parikshit.
punati lokan ubhayatra sesan
kas tam na seveta marishyamanah
“What dying man will not worship the extraordinary river which is adorned with holy Tulasi leaves and mixed with Sri Krishna’s foot-dust, which purifies the three worlds and their overseers internally and externally?”
ganga cha devi dhrita-chittam ise
dvijopasrishtah kuhakas takshako va
dasatv alam gayata vishnu-gathah
“O brahmans, may Ganga Devi and you all accept me as a soul who has surrendered his heart to the Lord. Let the curse sent by the brahman or Takshaka, the snake-bird, bite me immediately. May you all continue chanting Vishnu’s glory.”
Lord Kapiladev, who arranged for Maharaj Bhagirath to bring the Ganges to the earth, compares her to His pure devotee’s flow of service to Him.
mano-gatir avichchhinna yatha gangambhaso ’mbudhau
lakshanam bhakti-yogasya nirgunasya hy udahritam
ahaituky avyavahita ya bhaktih purushottame
“The primary characteristic of supramundane devotion is that simply by hearing of My glory one’s thoughts uninterruptedly flow towards Me, the Lord who resides within the hearts of all, just as the waters of the Ganges naturally flow towards the ocean. Such pure devotion to Me, the Supreme Lord, is unconditional and unobstructed (self-manifest and unalloyed).”
Srila Bhakti Nirmal Acharya Maharaj and the Saraswat Gaudiya Guru-parampara travel the world to preach such pure devotion. Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakur has been glorified for this:
shuddha-bhakti-mandakini vimala pravaha ani’
shitala karila tapta-prana
deshe deshe nishkinchana prerila vaishnava gana
vistarite hari-guna gana
“Drawing down the pure current of the Ganges of pure devotion, you soothed the scorched hearts of the conditioned souls (suffering in the fire of material existence). You forcibly inspire surrendered devotees to travel from place to place to spread the chanting of the Lord’s glory.”
Seeing Srila Acharya Maharaj’s service of spreading the Ganges-like flow of pure devotion at the Ganga Sagar Mela, we are overjoyed to witness the practical manifestation of his pranam mantra:
bhakter nirmala-nirjharasya nibhritam samraksakam sadaram
vande sri-gurudevam anata-shira acharya-varyam nijam
“I bow my head in obeisance to my Gurudev, the best of Acharyas, Srila Bhakti Nirmal Acharya Maharaj. He is the ever vigilant, stalwart guardian of the current of pure devotion, whose highest form eternally flows from our most worshippable Sri Rupanuga Guru-varga in their exclusive dedication to Mahabhava, Srimati Radharani.”