The greatest of all sacrificial rites is Ashwamedha, the horse sacrifice. In performing Ashwamedha, the owner of a horse will meditate most soulfully and offer some mantras to the horse. Then he will allow the horse to leave his home and roam all over the countryside. The owner has to fight with whoever captures the horse and bring him back. Then only the sacrifice can take place.
Once a great king named Sagar wanted to perform this rite. Already King Sagar had performed Ashwamedha ninety-nine times and this was to be his hundredth time. Indra, the King of the Gods, had only been able to perform this particular sacrifice one hundred times, and he became terribly jealous of the King.
Since Indra wanted to ruin the King’s sacrifice, he stole the horse. Sagar sent his son, with a large army, to find the culprit and Indra was afraid he would be caught. So he entered into the nether world, first tying up the horse near a great sage who was meditating. After some time, Sagar’s soldiers saw the animal near the sage, and they thought it was the sage who had stolen the horse.
The soldiers said, “This sage is so unwise to keep the horse tied so close to him. He should have at least let the horse go away. Now it is obvious who the thief is.” So they started beating the sage most mercilessly. Suddenly the sage opened up his third eye and in a fleeting minute he killed Sagar’s son and the entire army of six thousand soldiers.
When his son and the army did not return, King Sagar sent his grandson to find out where they were. The grandson looked for the horse and finally found the animal near the sage. The sage told him what had happened.
“Please, you have to return the horse,” the boy said.
“No,” said the sage. “Tell your grandfather, the King, that I won’t tolerate this kind of thing. His soldiers struck me mercilessly, thinking I was the thief.”
The boy asked, “O sage, what is to be done now? So many good men have died.”
The sage replied, “Only if the river Ganga comes down from Heaven and touches these dead bodies with its water will they be revived. But for that you will have to pray and meditate for years.”
The grandson returned to the King with the sad news. King Sagar immediately agreed to pray and meditate to please the Goddess Ganga. He began praying and meditating intensely, but in a few years’ time he died.
Then the grandson, Angshuman, began meditating, but in a few years he also died. His son, Dilip, prayed and meditated for a few years and also died. Then his son, Bhagirath, also began praying and meditating most earnestly, and finally his prayer was heard by the Goddess Ganga.
Ganga appeared before him and said, “Before you, your father’s father and also his grandfather all prayed to me. Their accumulated prayer and your prayer have touched the very depth of my heart; therefore, I am going to come down. But if I descend to earth with my tremendous speed, I will destroy the world. There has to be someone who is spiritually very great to hold back my speed and power, and that can only be Shiva.”
Bhagirath then went and prayed to Shiva: “When Ganga descends most powerfully to rescue my family’s army, please restrain the flow of her waters. Only you are powerful enough to perform this feat.”
Shiva was very pleased with Bhagirath’s prayer and he agreed. “I will hold her back with my matted hair.”
When the Goddess Ganga began descending most powerfully, Shiva held her back with his matted hair. But his hair was so thick that Ganga’s waters could not flow down to earth at all, and the dead bodies were not being revived.
So Shiva took out one of the hairs from his head so that the water could flow through. The flow was not as powerful as it would have been if Shiva had not interfered, but it was still very powerful. It descended and passed near a cottage of a sage named Jahnu, and began washing away his cottage.
The sage got mad and started drinking the water, until he had drunk the entire amount that had descended. So all the water entered into Jahnu and none of it touched the soldiers. Bhagirath begged Jahnu to release the water. So Jahnu emptied the water through his mouth and the river continued flowing. Finally it touched the spot where the dead bodies were.
As soon as the water touched them, all the soldiers revived. They were exactly the same age as when they had died.
Because of this story, other names of the Ganga are Jahnabi and Bhagirathi.
GIM 95. 23 January 1979↩