Holy Ground: Hindus and the Ganges River

“Would you like a bottle of water?”

If you’re within a reasonable distance of the Ganges River in India, that question probably isn’t intended to satisfy a parched tongue. Instead, the cloudy water inside the bottle is believed to provide far more than hydration—healing, blessing, even salvation.

This conviction, tightly held by millions of Hindus across the Indian subcontinent, propels people to not only pay a good sum for such a bottle but travel hundreds of miles for an encounter with “Mother Ganga.”

The History of the Ganges

The Ganges River begins in the Himalayan mountain range in northeast India, near the border of China. It meanders southeast across the plains of northern India, delivering offshoots of its holy water via new rivers as it makes its way toward the Bay of Bengal on the coast of Bangladesh.

Historically, the river has been a generous source of agricultural and economic opportunities for India’s various ruling parties. With every new authority—the Mauryans, the Mughals, the British, and now Indians—industries dependent on the Ganges were developed to provide a wellspring of economical and practical well-being. Hindu scriptures dating back two thousand years attest to ancient irrigation systems along the riverbanks.

All along, as far back as history has recorded, people have asked more from the Ganges than fish, hydration, and a good bath. As early as one thousand years before Christ, people who would eventually be known as Hindus viewed the Ganges as a birthplace of the divine. It’s believed to be a crack in our physical world where the supernatural can slip through and immerse us mortals in its wonders.

More Than a River

Hindus have submitted various creation narratives about how the Ganges River came into existence. Some believe the river shot forth from the god Vishnu’s big toe. Others believed it sprang from and still flows out of the god Shiva’s luminous locks. Many art forms of Shiva depict a shoot of water off the top of his head.

The Hindu god Shiva is often depicted with the River Ganges flowing from the top of his head. Source.

Still others hold that the river not only sprung from a god but is itself a goddess. Rajiv Malik, a writer for Hinduism Today, summarized this view by writing, “Ganga is a living Goddess who can be felt in one’s life and can have a positive and profound impact every time one has her divine [viewing].” People with Malik’s view will refer to the river as Mother Ganga.

Despite the varied opinions, the cornerstone of most Hindu beliefs about the Ganges River is that because of its divine origin, it offers divine opportunity. For that reason, people travel for days and stay weeks along the riverbanks, hoping to siphon a bit of blessing and peace.

Pilgrims’ Progress along the Ganges

Certain Indian cities along the Ganges River have been built over the centuries to serve as holy places for religious pilgrimage and ritual. Varanasi is considered India’s most holy city for that very reason. In 2016, an estimated 5.9 million people visited. There and in other riverside cities considered holy, Hindus perform rituals with the sole aim to gain something.

Pilgrimage to the Ganges is often largely engineered toward acquiring blessings relating to anything from fertility to finances to good fortune. Most activities involve bathing in the river. Hindus wade in waist-deep, scoop water in their hands or in a bowl, then pour it back out into the river while saying a mantra or a prayer to a god. Hindus believe this ritual honors the god and bends his or her ear to the petitioner’s request. Before going home, Hindus will bottle the water and sell it to people or use it for other rituals.

‘“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters” (Isa. 55:1 NIV)!’

Others believe the Ganges offers actual salvation. Indian journalist Amrit Dhillon explains, “To bathe in the Ganges is to wash away your sins. To die here is to escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve instant salvation.” So not only do people immerse themselves with hopes of erasing their bad deeds, but families bring loved ones on the edge of death because to die at the Ganges River is to achieve immediate salvation, whatever they believe that to be.

Those who happen to die along the Ganges River are cremated, and their ashes are cast into the river. If someone died before making it to the river, then family members will take their ashes to the Ganges as soon as possible. The salvific effect is believed to be the same, simply delayed.

Let All Who Are Thirsty

A friend of mine once visited the Ganges River. While sitting on the bank, he witnessed a man wade into the water, mutter a prayer, then immerse himself in the river’s slow current. When the man surfaced and made his way to shore, my friend asked, “Did it work?” accurately guessing the man came to achieve something. “No,” the man said. “I didn’t feel a thing.”

Most people who visit the Ganges River come because they have a spiritual thirst they want to be quenched. Many are confident in their spiritual journey and are open to dialoguing about matters of faith. Others come in a desperate, last-resort attempt to have a divine interaction that can change the course of their eternity.

Whether you encounter a Hindu on the banks of the Ganges or here in America, you can start a conversation by asking them what they believe about the river. Listen well, and as you sense the Holy Spirit prompting you, ask if you can share how your spiritual thirst has been satisfied by Christ alone. Jeremiah 2:13 describes God as “the fountain of living water” (HCSB), and Isaiah spoke on God’s behalf when he said, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters” (55:1 NIV)! Jesus told us he is the source of that living water (John 4; 7) and has given an open invitation to secure salvation for anyone who is spiritually thirsty.

Like the man my friend met at the Ganges, they may respond to Christ in faith. Others will likely respond by saying our gods are the same—that Jeremiah is talking about their god Vishnu, Shiva, or the Ganges itself. Rather than debate, ask what they personally would seek at the Ganges River, then pray with them in Jesus’s name. You never know how God may use that prayer in the future.

Rachel Cohen is a content editor for imb.org. She has served with her husband and daughter for four years in South Asia.

Caleb Cohen also contributed to the content in this article.