Bhagirath’s great grandfather was Sagar, King Bharat’s illustrious son. He had been without progeny till he had performed great tapa and had pleased Brahma, who gave him the boon of progeny from his two wives. His eldest son Asmanja, had been a wayward prince and had reveled in acts of cruelty towards man and beast alike. When he did not mend his ways even after marriage, and after his wife bore him a dutiful and valiant son, Anshumat, Sagar had been forced to banish Asmanja, from the kingdom for life. He had never been heard of since then. His others sons, Anshumat’s foster uncles, had been upright and dutiful sons and had helped their father in ruling the kingdom and securing its interests. Sagar had, in the latter part of his life, undertaken the Ashwamegh Yagya, a ceremony where a royal horse was let loose to roam free throughout the land, unhindered, after due consecration. Whichever Kingdom the horse entered, the King of that state had two options. If he chose to let the horse through his Kingdom, this would mean he accepted Sagar’s dominion and would pay taxes to him. On the other hand if he did not agree to this he could stop the horse, following which he would have to face the Emperor’s forces in battle. This Ashwamegh was thus a convenient way to create a loose confederation of states and the vassal kings usually consented to accept the suzerainty of the most powerful ruler of that time and thus, usually the horse roamed freely through the land and came back to the king who had let him loose, thus establishing his supremacy throughout the land.
Sagar had embarked on this venture and had taken his vows, consecrated the horse and let it loose. A contingent of his army followed the horse wherever it went. Somewhere along the way, the royal steed had disappeared. Even the small battalion of the royal army did not know where it went. It was as if it had been whisked away by magic. Alarmed, the soldiers had run back to Sagar, and reported the mysterious happening – they suspected a divine hand in the disappearance of the horse. ‘My Lord! Indra, the lord of the devas, the celestial mischief-maker, must have had a hand in this!’ they said, in unison. ‘We have searched and searched the whole area, but it seems that providence prevents us from discovering the horse. Maybe some truant king is playing mischief, Sir!’ the soldiers explained. Sagar was furious, he had taken sacred vows for the ceremony and therefore could not lead the army himself to look for the horse and punish the mischief-maker. He summoned all the royal princes, barring Anshumat, who was himself consecrated and thus could not go. ‘Search all the land, dig up the earth if you have to, scour all the forests, look everywhere my valiant Princes, and bring the royal horse back. Don’t come back without the horse’ the King charged them. And so the royal princes, numbering sixty thousand in all, had left with great fanfare. They went over land and water, they looked in all the kingdoms, they searched the forests, they dug up the earth and looked in the nether regions. Everywhere they went, a great chaos ensued, the princes were angry! They had been charged by their father to look for and bring back the horse at all costs. A great commotion resulted across the whole land. When they had searched almost the whole of Bharatvarsha, they found the horse tied to a peg near a hermitage. The hermitage belonged to the great sage Kapil.
Mistaking Kapil Muni to be the mischief monger who had stolen the horse, and not knowing his great spiritual powers, the princes had, in their rage, freed the horse and then defiled the hermitage. They hurled abuses at the sage, deep in meditation at the time. The inhabitants of the hermitage, men and beast alike, had fled in fear, raising a great noise. The ruckus had roused the sage from his meditative trance. Angry at having been disturbed, the sage had cursed the princes. Uttering a single humkar, a snort, the sage had reduced the princes to a heap of ashes and then calmly gone back to his meditation.
When the princes did not return with the horse for a long time, a worried Sagar had sent Anshumat, his wise and valiant grandson, to look for the horse and for his uncles. Following the same path that his uncles had taken, Anshumat soon found out what had happened at Kapil Muni’s hermitage. In great sorrow, he had fallen down at the feet of the sage to ask for forgiveness, and for permission to take the horse back to Sagar. ‘O great sage! My uncles, the royal princes, lie reduced to ashes due to their own mistake in tormenting you. Please allow me to perform their last rites so that they may ascend to heaven and be cleansed of their sins. With your permission, I would like to perform the water-rites for the dead so that their curse is washed away’ the prince pleaded with the ascetic.
Pleased with the conduct of the wise prince, Kapil Muni addressed Anshumat gently, ‘ O noble prince. You are truly worthy of being the heir to the great Sagar. Your uncles were arrogant and quick-tempered and have paid for their insolence with their lives. There is no easy way to rid them of their sins. Performing the water rites for them will not bring solace to their souls, which are presently wandering between earth and heaven without finding peace. Only the magical waters of the great river Ganga, which flows in the heavens, can now cleanse them of their sins and help their souls find their destination.’
Anshumat had thanked the sage for his advice and, with his permission, had taken the horse back to Sagar. The King had been crestfallen upon hearing about his sons, but also relieved that the wise Anshumat had made it back from there, along with the horse, and had also brought back Kapil Muni’s advice on how to redeem the lost souls of his sons. However, the solution that the ascetic had offered was not an easy one. The celestial river Ganga, flowed in the heavens, washing the feet of Lord Vishnu, hence she was also known as ‘Bhagwatpadi’ or ‘Visnupadi’, one who washes the feet of the Lord. After completing the rituals, the King had started worrying about how best to do this impossible work. He had fretted away with this burden on his shoulders and, after crowning Anshumat as his successor, he had died a broken hearted man.
Anshumat succeeded Sagar and, though he also continually worried about how to accomplish this task, he also could not do anything in his lifetime. Dilip, his son, succeeded Anshumat. Dilip performed severe austerities during his reign, yet, even he could not accomplish the task of bringing the divine river to the earth. After him the mantle for accomplishing this task fell on Bhagirath, Dilip’s son and heir to the Kingdom. Bhagirath was a very pious ruler and he vowed to obtain the release of his ancestors from Kapil Muni’s curse by bringing down the celestial Ganga to this earth and washing away the ashes of his ancestors in its holy waters.
He had performed severe austerities for several years and had succeeded in pleasing Brahma, who had agreed to let Ganga come down to earth. There was one problem though! When the great river descended from the heavens, who would break its fall? The divine waters had such a great flow that its pressure would break open the earth and push it to the patala or the nether regions of the universe. The grandfather (Brahma) had suggested that Bhagirath appease the great Yogi Shiva, to help him out in this venture. Only the Swayambho, the self-born, the Mahayogi, could sustain such pressures. And so Bhagirath had set his mind upon pleasing the Mahadev. The news of his great vow and the austerities he was enduring to please Shiva had spread far and wide and had reached the ears of Shiva. Pleased atBhagirath’s devotion and amused at the prospect of Ganga descending to the earth, the Mahadev had summoned Bhagirath. He had sent his gana, Nandi to bring Bhagirath to Kailash.
And so Bhagirath lay at the great Yogi’s feet and pleaded him to help bring the great river to the earth. Shiva had smiled, knowing what others did not know, and looking into the future beyond what even the Gods could see. ‘Tathastu’ he had said (so be it). Bhagirath felt a great load lift off his shoulders; his tears flowed freely, wetting the ground beneath Shiva’s feet. In one day, he had been granted so much by the Bholenath. ‘Har, Har’ the ganas had intoned, singing praises of their Lord, getting ready to witness the great miracle that their Lord had consented to perform……(to be continued)