Reading Guide. During their time together, Vishvamitra tells Rama various stories. One of the most famous of these stories is about how the goddess Ganga (the river Ganges) came down to earth from heaven. There is a place called Sagar Island even today which is supposed to be where the goddess descended.
Image: The 18th-century watercolor illustration shows the goddess Ganga crashing down on the head of the god Shiva.
Source. The Great Indian Epics by John Campbell Oman (1894). [800 words] This is from yet another prose version of the Ramayana, and the author, J. C. Oman, also wrote a prose version of the Mahabharata.
Vishvamitra told Rama this story:
In ancient times lived Sagara, a virtuous king of Ayodhya. He had two wives but no children. As he and his consorts longed for offspring, the three of them went to the Himalayas and practiced austerities there.
When they had been thus engaged for a hundred years, a brahmin ascetic of great power granted this boon to Sagara that one of his wives should give birth to a son, Asamanja, who should perpetuate his race, and the other should be the mother of sixty thousand manly and high-spirited sons.
When his numerous sons had grown to man's estate, the king their father determined to offer a horse sacrifice. In accordance with this resolution, a horse was in the usual way set free to wander where it wished, attended for its protection by mighty warriors of Sagara's army.
Now it came to pass that one day Indra, assuming the form of a rakshasi, stole the horse away, The sixty thousand sons of the King of Ayodhya thereupon commenced at their father's command a diligent search for the missing animal.
They at last found the stolen horse and observed quite close to it the sage Kapila upon whom they rushed with blind but impotent fury for he, uttering a tremendous roar, instantly reduced them all to ashes.
As the princes did not return home, Sagara became alarmed for their safety and sent his grandson Anshumat, Asamanja's son, to look for tidings of them. This heroic prince, following the traces they had left of their eventful journey, at length reached the spot where the missing horse was detained and there discovered also the ashes of his sixty thousand uncles.
Being piously desirous of making the usual oblations of water to the ashes of his deceased relatives, Asamanja's son looked about for water but could find none. However, he met in these nether regions a maternal uncle of his and from him he learned that the sixty thousand dead princes would be translated to heaven if only the waters of Ganga could be brought down from the celestial regions to lave their dust. Seeing there was nothing that he could do for his dead relatives, the young prince took the horse and, returning with it to Ayodhya, helped to complete Sagara's sacrifice.
Sagara himself died after a reign of thirty thousand years. Anshumat, who succeeded him, practiced rigid austerities on the romantic summit of Himavat for thirty-two thousand years and left the kingdom to Dilipa, whose constant thought was how he should bring Ganga down from heaven for the benefit of his dead ancestors. But though he performed numerous sacrifices during his long reign of thirty thousand years, he made no progress in this matter.
Dilipa's son Bhagiratha earnestly devoted himself to the same object and practiced severe austerities with the view of obtaining the wished for boon. Restraining his senses and eating once a month and surrounding himself with five fires and with arms uplifted, he for a long lapse of time performed austerities at Gokarna.
Brahma, pleased with the king's asceticism, appeared before him and granted his wish, advising him at the same time to invoke the aid of Shiva to accomplish it as the earth would not be able to sustain the direct shock of the descent of Ganga from the celestial regions.
To obtain the assistance of Shiva, Bhagiratha spent a whole year in adoring that god who, at the end of that period, was graciously pleased to say to the king, "O foremost of men, I am well pleased with thee. I will do what will be for thy welfare. I will hold the Mountain's Daughter on my head."
Upon this, Ganga precipitated herself from the heavens upon Shiva's head, arrogantly thinking to reach the earth without delay, but Shiva, vexed by her proud thought, caused her to wander for many a year amongst the tangles of his long hair.
It was only when Bhagiratha had recourse to fresh austerities that Shiva cast Ganga off in the direction of the Vindu Lake, and she flowed in many channels over the joyful earth to the delight and admiration of the celestials who witnessed her wonderful descent from the sky.
Having reached the ocean, Ganga entered the underworld where the ashes of the sixty thousand sons of Sagara still lay. Her sanctifying waters flowed over their earthly remains, and their spirits ascended to heaven.