The rise of the ganga culture the integrative transformation of the vedic-epic mythology and history-prof. shiva g. bajpai
THE RISE OF THE GANGA CULTURE The Integrative Transformation of the Vedic-Epic Mythology and History Shiva G. Bajpai, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of History, California State University, Northridge. CA.91330-8250 (Email: Shiva.firstname.lastname@example.org)The Vedas are the gift of the Sarasvati River and the epic Mahabharata, the fifthVeda, is the endowment of the Ganga. The two together evolved the great tradition ofthe pan-Indian integrative culture that in many ways has characterized the real historyof India over the last several millennia. Historically the period following the drying upof the mighty, perennial and sea-going Sarasvati in c.1900-2000 BCE ushers in anew era of cultural transformation and dynamic creativity. The epicenter of thispolitical and cultural resurgence was located on the Ganga-centered domain of theKurus or Kuru-Pañchalas that in time embraced the entire Ganga-Yamuna interfluvesand earned the hallowed name of Brahmarṣi-deśa and Antarvedi. It also constitutedthe core of Madhyadeśa and Āryavarta. It recalls the earlier evolution of the Rigvedicculture in the Sarasvatī and the Driṣadatī interfluves (Manu’s Brahmãvarta), theepicenter of the Sapta Sindhu country. These geo-cultural designations reveal acomplex process of historical developments over many centuries. There is sufficienthistorical evidence for the migration of the Aryas and other Vedic people from theSarasvati regions to the Ganga Plains and for the emergence of the powerfulkingdoms of the Kuru, Pañāchla, Kāśī, Videha as well as Kosala and Magadha.
My presentation deals with the historical dynamics of the rise of theGanga culture from the accession of Śāntanu to the Kuru throne atHastināpura to the end of the dynasty in the 4th century BCE. The text ofthe Mahabharata, however, spans a 1000 years from c.800 BCE to 200CE till its extant version. It could be designated as the epic age thatcontinues to excite scholarly as well as poplar imagination because ofthe Mahabharata’s everlasting impact on the Hindu psyche. The Gangatransformed the Vedic culture into a pan-India phenomenon by enablingthe Vedicists and mythopoets to formalize and further advance theVedic literature and culture evidenced by Vyasa’s redaction of theVedas, by the composition of the Brahmanas and the Upanishads andSutra works and other treatises on subjects known as the Vedanga.During the same period, however, there was also vigorous promotion ofnew religio-philosophical theistic and devotional movements and theassimilation of non-Aryan beliefs and cultural features portrayed in theMahabharata that offered an alternative to the strictly Vedic religiousand philosophical prescriptions. The complex process of integration ofthe Vedic and Epic mythologies and history was creative, constructiveand conducive to further advancement of ideas and institutions ofchange and continuity.
Within the vast scope of the subject, I would concentrate on the unique phenomenonof the rise the Ganga River herself. At the outset I would like to make a declatorystatement that the Vedic/ Hindu approach to cosmos, earth and nature is biologicaland meta-biological. It is all alive and derives its existence characterized bywholeness and meaningfulness from that supreme Life-force that is real and infinite(Brhaman). The Ganga’s waters are said to be liquid embodiment of Śakti(primordial energy/power) as well as the sustaining immortal fluid (amṛta) of mother’smilk. The mystery of the purity her water kept in a bottle that doesn’t rot for decadescontinues to this day. Among the myths of the descent of the divine Ganga, the moststriking one is her human personification into a nymph-like seductress who charmedthe Kuru king Śāntanu into marrying her and gave him a son named Devavrata,Bhṣīma, or Gāṅgeya, who played a pivotal role in the epic saga and was the last heroto die in Kurukshetra after the great battle was over. The ethnological, religio-culturaland historical implications of the marriages of Ganga, the daughter of the Himalayas,on the one hand and of Satyavatiī, the daughter of a ferryman of the Yamuna river toŚāntanu on the other are both intriguing and enlightening features of the compositeprocess of the formation of the pan-India personality over time. Ganga is both literallyand figuratively an integral part of the epic history. She is the preeminent River ofunequally enormous resources and limitless bounty. She surpassed the best river(naditame), the best mother (ambitame) andthe best goddess (devitame) VedicSarasvati by appropriating virtually all her attributes and finally making her an augustbut invisible tributary celebrated as the confluence of the three rivers (triveṇ ī) atPrayaga. The Ganga was transformed into the
great Mother Goddess who conferred alone by herself allkinds of benefits and benedictions to countless millions ofpeople through history. She even perpetuated andtransformed the Vedic concept of defining the country by thesacred living Seven Rivers (Sapta Sindhu). While there is anongoing debate over the names of the Rigvedic SevenRivers and the regions through which they flowed, there is afair consensus on those seven holy rivers of the sacredmantra that defines the land of Bharat. They are: theGanga,Yamuna,Godavari,Sarasvati,Narmaada,Sindhu andKaveri.
However, while these as well as all other rivers in a specialway became the holy Ganga, and are called mothers,thereby defining our land as the Mother India, there alwayshas been just the one Ganga, the mighty liquid source ofdivine energy the great Mother Goddess, that flows from theGomukha in the Himalayas to the Gangasagar where shemeets the eastern ocean. In the epic itself the Gangabecomes central to the complex religion and culture thatflourished along her valley and those of her many tributaries.As an integral part of the theistic movement, Ganga becamean uniquely sublime Goddess whose worship provided to thecommon people an alternative path not only to the Vedicsacrificial religion but also to benefits and merits that accruedto the powerful and wealthy performers of Vedic sacrificesincluding the royal ones. Her worship even rivaled that of hersome time consorts the great Gods, Śiva and Viṣṇu.
The hoary concept of pilgrimage was combined with the worship of rivers,especially Ganga resulting in the growth of ever increasing sacred places andthe unending circulation of the pilgrims that has bound India together throughthe ages. The kinds of benefits and merits that an ordinary poor devout personcould obtain from such simple worship equaled and even exceeded those ofthe royalty from their performance of celebrated Vedic sacrifices including theRājasūya, Aśvamedha and Vājapeya. In fact, the Mahabharata clearly statesso in no uncertain terms and asks common folks to undertake holy pilgrimagesto sacred places along the Ganga and take a dip in the holy waters to attainhappiness here and the heaven (svarga) hereafter. One of the verses to Gangain the sacred Hindu texts reads thus:What need of expensive sacrifices or of difficult penances?Worship Ganga, asking for happiness and good fortune,And she will bring you heaven and salvation.The Ganga was also the great redeemer of sins even of one’s ancestors ofseven generations since the most popular version of her descent was inresponse to the penance of king Bhagiratha seeking the redemption of his60,000 ancestors from the curse anda their elevation to heaven. To quote Prof.A.L. Basham “… she is holy and why those who truly love her are. …in a poetic
It is the Mahabharata that first provides the myth and history of theGanga who by her marriage and in myriad different ways becameboth in literal and figurative sense an integral part of the epicsaga. In her own right, as the greatest river of enormousresources anad fabulous wealth, remained a pan-Indiaphenomenon of our history and heritage for at least the last threethousand years. The history and culture of the Ganga, one couldsay, is essentially the history of eternal India. And “ theMahabharata is not only a Veda, it is so important that to read it isto dispose with the need of reading other Vedas.” Vijñeyaḥ sa ca vedānām, Pārago bhāratam paʈ han. MBh.1.62.32