By April Thanhauser
King Bhagiratha, the “great-souled,” stood on one foot—in tree pose—for a thousand years, to entreat the gods to let the Goddess Ganga descend from the heavens to Earth. He had learned that the only way to purify the ashes of his ancestors and let them live again in Spirit, was for Ganga’s waters to bathe them. Pleased with Bhagiratha’s severe asceticism, Brahma, Lord of all creatures, promised to grant his wish. But when Brahma heard the King’s plea, he warned that if Ganga, eldest daughter of the King of Snows, were to descend to earth unimpeded, the power of her coming would destroy the world. Only if Lord Shiva consented to break her fall, could she arrive on earth gently enough for all to survive. So, for another thousand years, King Bhagiriatha stood in tree pose and prayer, until Lord Shiva acquiesced and promised to receive the Goddess-River onto his head, slowing her descent through the tangle of his hair. Thus the powerful Goddess became the holy Mother River of India, where she has been loved and worshiped for time beyond memory.
Some believe the River to be so holy that she can purify herself of all pollution, but most agree that now she is badly in need of help from the humans who love and adore her. Ganges and her tributaries have been subjected to (controversial) damming and have been severely affected by industrial pollution and raw sewage. In order to advance efforts to clean and restore the River (who has purified and restored humans through the ages), a high court in Uttarkand State granted the Ganges legal personhood. This would acknowledge her legal rights and make polluting or damming the river equivalent to harming a person. The execution of this order was seen to be fraught with difficulties, and the Indian Supreme Court eventually overturned the ruling. But at least a temporal government had finally acknowledged that living entities in nature have legal rights at least equivalent to those of humans, and humans have a duty to restore the river, for her own sake.
Most agree that the river is dying and quickly. Goddess, river or person, she is a spiritual being in need of help from great-souled humans.