Today is the seventh day of the brighter half of the month of Vaisakha. This is the day the River Ganga descended to earth from the heavens.
The story of the descent of Ganga begins from the king of the Ikshvaku dynasty called Sagar. King Sagar did penance for the birth of a son. Lord Shiva granted him a boon that both his queens would get pregnant. Very soon, the younger queen gave birth to a beautiful boy and the older queen gave birth to a pumpkin.
When King Sagara was about to throw away the pumpkin, a divine voice told him to plant the pumpkin seeds, with ghee, in sixty-thousand pots. From these pots, sixty-thousand sons were born.
Years later, when King Sagar decided to perform the Ashvamedha yagna, he sent out his sixty-thousand sons to bring the sacrificial horse. The horse had reached a place below the ocean where the rishi Kapil was in meditation. He tied up the horse. When the sixty-thousand warrior sons of King Sagar reached the spot, they mistakenly thought that the rishi had stolen the horse and began to untie it. The sage opened his eyes, and with the power of his penance, reduced the sixty-thousand warriors to ashes.
When his sons did not return, King Sagar asked his grandson, Ansuman, to bring the horse. On reaching the spot where sage Kapil sat in meditation, Ansuman paid his respects to the rishi. Sage Kapil, pleased with Ansuman’s behavior, told him to ask him for a boon. Ansuman asked for the horse, which the rishi gave willingly and at the same time, blessed him that he would become a very great king.
Ansuman asked the rishi what he could do to free the souls of his brothers whose bones were lying there in a heap. The rishi replied that his grandson would bring the river Ganga from the heavens to the earth and when the waters of the river touched these bones, their souls would be free.
Ansuman’s grandson was the great king Bhagirath. He did severe austerities and propitiated the goddess Ganga, asking her to descend to the earth. She agreed on one condition - that Lord Shiva would hold her fall in his matted hair, otherwise the earth would be destroyed with the shock of her fall.
Ansuman prayed to Lord Shiva who agreed to hold Ganga in his hair. Ganga descended with a roar, the shock of her fall held in Shiva’s hair. (Of course, on a lighter note, Ganga was the younger sister of Shiva’s wife Paravati, and she and Shiva shared a mutual attraction. This was a chance to dally a little.)
The river in Shiva’s hair divided into three streams. Two of these streams - the Ganga and the Yamuna - flowed eastward, and the third, the Narmada, flowed westward. When the waters of the river flowed onto the bones of Bhagiratha’s granduncles, their souls were freed from bondage.
Let us try to unravel the esoteric and spiritual symbolism in this story. Sagar is our mind - conscious, subconscious and unconscious. The pumpkin represents our conditioning in thought, emotions, movements and instincts. The seeds or sixty-thousand sons are the sensations, feelings, movements and thoughts born out of our conditioning.
Our mind has sixty-thousand thoughts or ripples. Patanjali calls them vrittis. Thus, Sagar and his sixty-thousand children represent mechanical man. That is, the dark mind of man without the light of awareness.
The sacrificial horse represents our five senses. Behind the horse, there must be a mind full of awareness and free from conditioning. However, the sixty-thousand thoughts are desires that automatically follow the senses. That is why Sagar’s sons behave mechanically with the rishi.
The rishi represents the law of Karma. The high consciousness of the rishi burns the sixty-thousand sons or desires of the senses, but the residue remains. This residue is called Shesha (leftover) in the scriptures. It represents the sleeping Kundalini energy.
In actuality, the sixty-thousand sons burn for their impure thoughts and desires. This is due to the law of Karma. Unless we now purify our thoughts and desires and free the mind from conditioning, we cannot awaken the sleeping Kundalini, that is bring Moksh or Freedom to the heap of bones.
Ansuman means a ray of light. One whose inner darkness has been penetrated with light. He is aware. He goes below the oceans, to the core of the earth, where the rishi is meditating. Our core is our lowest chakra called Muladhara where the Kundalini or Sheshnag sleeps. Here he meets the rishi Kapila. The word Kapil comes from the root word kampan, to agitate. Kapil is one who is free of agitation i.e. the core is free of agitation.
The rishi tells Ansuman that to bring freedom to his uncles, he needs to awaken the kundalini, but to do that he needs right knowledge. Ganga represents gyan or knowledge. Not ordinary knowledge, but the higher knowledge that leads to freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
Ansuman’s grandson Bhagiratha propitiates Ganga. Bhag means prosperity or goodness, happiness. Ratha means the chariot of the body-brain system. Bhagiratha means one who uses the body-brain system to spread happiness and prosperity (not just material prosperity). Ganga tells Bhagirath to do penance to Lord Shiva. Here, Shiva means the height of purification. Only by purifying the three minds and filling them with the light of consciousness, do we become deserving of Higher Knowledge.
Once the purification is complete, Ganga descends and flows to the spot where the bones of his uncles lie and brings freedom to their souls.
Bhagiratha represents the inner soul that wants to walk the spiritual path to free itself of all its karma and conditioning, so that it can rise into pure spirit.
Energy can follow either one of two paths. It can flow down and out. This is how we spend our whole lives, fulfilling our desires and running after objects of the five senses. However, we can also make the path of energy change. The second path, which is through right knowledge, is where we can make the energy rise up from the backbone to the crown of the head, bringing us freedom.