Bharti Briggs powerfully evokes the mystery and magic of the sacred Ganges, and its capacity to heal and transform
The river seemed to open her eyelids at dawn, her veil fluttering in the morning air. Her veil of pale blue silk, made of undulating waves and woven by the hands of God rippled in the shimmering light of dawn. Her voice, like a caress, sang in silence of a world before time. Her voice seemed to call me as I boarded the simple wooden boat… I remember even now how the oars of the boat kissed the surface of the water, and then sank momentarily into the translucent folds of soft blue silk. The divine Ganga did not mind the touch of the wood upon her body. Like a woman who willingly bears all burdens, the waters yielded to the slow rhythmic pressure of the oars as the boatman plied his way forward to the rising sun. The voices of prayer coming from the ardent devotees who lined the bank of the river rose and fell like the gentle waves murmuring in the unbounded ocean of silence pervading everything. I saw the straight-backed women carrying puja pots of brass bend low before the waters. They pressed their foreheads to the sand before their holy Mother Ganga."
This passage, taken from my new book, Pilgrimage on the Path of Love, expresses the essence of my feelings for Mother Ganga. The first time I stood on the banks of the River Ganges was in Varanasi in 1992. I’d come to Varanasi to study Sanskrit for six months. One morning just before dawn, I joined a procession of devotees who were moving quietly towards the river.
There was only the pitter-patter of our footsteps on the long winding dirt road. As we approached the river, the atmosphere was vibrant with a quiescent pulse of peace. Above the yellow-blue waters, black crows circled, their cries piercing the silence with staccato notes. I stood near the shore line beside a group of women pouring water from their copper vessels poised above their heads; they stood facing the first rays of the morning sun as it ignited the waters with light. At that moment, I felt that the Ganga was more than just a
river _ this river was the embodiment of pure consciousness. Her fluid waves were a representation of the waves of the Atman, ever-flowing in fullness within Itself. This feeling has been reiterated many times since then in numerous baths taken in many different places. This feeling is magnified when I immerse my body in its waters, so soft like velvet, so nourishing, the touch of outer stillness meeting and melting into one’s inner being.
It is believed that Mother Ganga descended from heaven to purify the earth of sin. Her descent was inspired by the intense tapasya of Bhagiratha which he underwent to purify the souls of his ancestors. The descent of the Ganga was so powerful that Lord Shiva had to trap her waters in his hair so that the earth wouldn’t be crushed. Gangotri is the place in the Himalayas where the Ganga descended, and a temple has been erected on the sacred spot. The waters were doubly blessed by the touch of Lord Shiva. It is traditional in India to offer the ashes of one’s deceased relatives to the Ganga. The spirits of the deceased receive the blessings of Mother Ganga and thereby come closer to attaining moksha.
In India, the Ganga is revered as a goddess. She is a universal Mother in that she embraces all her children impartially. She accepts everyone without reservation, and cleanses them so that their evolutionary journey is accellerated. It is believed by millions that bathing in the Ganga purifies the body and mind, and causes the remission of sins. It is said that the River Ganges is the only river that flows through all three worlds: heaven(swarga), earth (prithvi), and the underworld (patala). The most unforgettable bath I have ever taken was in Gaumukh in 1998. On the trek from Gangotri to Gaumukh, we camped overnight in Bhojwasa and early the next morning made our way to the Gaumukh (cow’s mouth) from where the Ganga flows out. The bank of the river was covered with a blanket of snow and the mouth of the glacier was clad in ice. A lady sitting beside the river had her long hair shaved as an offering to the Ganga. One or two brave souls stripped and took a dip in the icy waters. I was about to depart when I heard a command from my inner voice: “This is the last time you will make this journey. Get in!” I had no choice but to obey! Quickly I doffed my jacket and hat and clad in a thin cotton blouse and trousers entered the waters. One-two-three! I immersed myself from head to toe three times! It was incredible. I felt totally exhilarated! It was the crowning point of the journey, and one of the best moments in my life.Last summer in Uttarkashi, I had another unforgettable tryst with the Ganga. I stayed in an ashram built on the bank of the river and my room was perched directly above a very wide expanse of the rushing river. The roar of the rushing waves of Mother Ganga was mesmerising. Her ceaseless song, gushing forth from the tumultuous flowing forth of her waves inundated each moment of the day and night with a sound like no other. The rapturous dance of the Goddess, swirling and leaping in joyful abandon over rocks and stones as she cascaded forth appeared to me as an unbridled flow of boundless bliss. From the Himalayan heights, her dance was destined to carry her onward across the vast fertile fields and flatlands onward to the crowded plains of West Bengal. Mother Ganga sustained and nourished more than four million people who dwelt on her shores, the most populated river basin in the world.
Sitting on my balcony in Uttarkashi, I watched as several times, small groups gathered together beside the river to bid farewell to a deceased friend or relative. The group assembled as they piled sticks of wood atop one another before lighting the funeral pyre. Then, one member of the group with shaven head and wearing only a simple white dhoti, lit the pyre beside the rushing waves which were destined to carry the ashes, sanctified and blessed by the touch of Mother Ganga, to the other world.
What is the special quality of the river? It is unique to each person as everyone’s experience of the river will differ. Several years ago, when I was feeling rather frazzled because I was having a difficult time finding a good place to live, I telephoned a friend who is an ayurvedic doctor. She advised me to take a bath in the Ganga, or if I couldn’t, then I should just pour some Ganges water on my head. As I was living near the river, I went and took the bath. It helped! Whenever I take a bath in the Ganga, I always feel a subtle transformation: a sense of renewal, a lightness, an inner joyfulness, an increase of peace.The River Ganga is a source of eternal renewal. It nourishes, cleanses and uplifts. Although people pollute the Ganges with all sorts of refuse, she remains ever-pure. I love to see garlands of fresh flowers floating on the surface of the waters. This offering symbolises our love for her innumerable gifts. Ganga Jai Ma! Jai Ma! Jai Ma!
Bharati Briggs is a teacher of the Transcendental Meditation technique. Her new book: Pilgrimage on the Path of Love is available on Amazon
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