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The Ganges | Varanasi

The Ganges (or Ganga, to give it its proper name) is the most sacred river in the Hindu religion. It's also the 3rd longest river in the world and one of the most polluted. 

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Day 16 of India on a Shoestring brings us to Varanasi, a city in Uttar Pradesh and arguably the most holy for Hindus. It may be easy to underestimate the importance of the Ganges to Hindus. After all, isn't it just the river where they go to cremate their dead? The Ganges, however, plays a pivotal role in both the religious and economic lives of millions of people. I could go on for days about various aspects of the river but instead I thought I'd share three of my favourite aspects relating to the Hindu religion.

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The Descent of the Ganges.

The Ganga actually began life in heaven, before she descended to Earth. A sage, by the name of Kapila, was disturbed from his deep meditation one day by 60,000 sons of King Sagara. He was so angry by this that he reduced the sons to ashes and banished them to the netherworld.

Only the water of the Ganga can redeem the sons.

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Years later, a descendant of the sons - King Bhagirath - desperately wants to restore his ancestors, so undertakes religious penance. Eventually he is awarded the Ganga's descent from heaven.

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However, there was a problem. The pure force of the Ganga would shatter the Earth, and so she has to travel down in locks of Shiva's hair to soften the blow. Ganga arrives in the Himalayas and is met by Bhagirath. He leads her to the plains of Haridwar, then to meet the Yamuna river at Prayag, before going on to Varanasi. From Varanasi he takes her to the Ganga Sagar where she meets the ocean and sinks to the netherworld to redeem the sons of Sagara.

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 Ascent from Earth to Heaven

Equally, the Ganga is also the vehicle of ascent from Earth to Heaven. She is known as the triloka-patha-gamini of the Hindu religion.

Triloka - meaning "three worlds";

Patha - meaning "road";

and Gamini - meaning "one who travels".

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Death and cremation are probably the two things that Varanasi and the Ganges are most known for. When the time is near, many Hindus will travel to Varanasi to live out their final days and to be cremated at the Great Crematorium - or Mahashmashana. This will guarantee the deceased instant salvation, regardless of their karma.

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Salvation can also be achieved through immersing the ashes in the water of the Ganges. If, however, the ashes have been immersed in another body of water, relatives of the deceased can still gain salvation for them. This is done by traveling to the Ganga during the "Fortnight of the Ancestors" in the Hindu month of Ashwin (September or October) and performing the Shraaddha rites.

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Another salvation ritual performed on the Ganges is the Pinda pradana, or the rite for the dead. This involves offering balls if rice and sesame seeds to the river whilst reciting the names of the dead. Every sesame seed guarantees 1000 years of heavenly salvation for each relative.

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Purity

Hindus considered all forms of moving water - such as rivers - as purifying because it absorbs impurities and washes them away.Rather than physical dirt or impurities, Hindus believe that the Ganges washes away symbolic dirt and impurities. Furthermore, they will be cleansed of not only their present impurities, but of any impurities in their life.

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