As you probably know, the river Ganges in India is a very special river. It is the incarnation of the goddess Ganga come to earth. Ganga Dussehra commemorates the day she flowed down from the heavens, through Lord Shiva’s hair, and onto earth. This year the final day of the festival is Sunday June 8th.
Varanasi is the traditional location of this festival. Hindus crowd into the water there because it is said that sins are washed away by the Ganga. (By sins it is meant the karma or consequences from actions, particularly incorrect/adharmic actions).
The celebration lasts for ten days and the last day is the holiest. People bathe and fast and in the evenings they float little lamps on the water. Some believe that immersing in the Ganga at Varanasi leads directly to Moksha/liberation. Sometimes the ashes of relatives are brought to the Ganga so their souls can attain Moksha.
The Ganga used to flow only in the heaven regions (not the same as Christian heaven, but another plane of existence). There was a king, Bhagiratha, whose ancestors had angered a sage and been burnt to ash. Their spirits were trapped and the only way to release them was for the ashes to be touched by the sacred river. So it was King Bhagiratha who prayed and planned and managed to get the Ganga to come down to earth. But she was so powerful, that Lord Shiva broke her fall so that she wouldn’t crush the earth with her power. Instead the Ganga flows over Shiva’s head and drips out through the ends of his dreadlocked hair.
More detailed versions:
How to Celebrate
If you can’t be in Varanasi to dip in the river, you can still celebrate at home.
- Try to get some Ganga Jal (Ganges water) from an Indian grocery store. It is sold in small bottles with the puja supplies.
- During the day on Sunday, fast from both food and water.
- In the evening draw a bath and add a small amount of the Ganga Jal
- Offer a puja to an idol of Ganga Ma and to Shiva (During the puja, offer ten food items, mostly fruit and black sesame seeds)
- Once the moon rises, break your fast with the fruit prasadam
- If possible, float some candles in a bowl of water or visit a river bank to meditate and pray
Rose petals and ghee wick lamps in clay diyas
Examples of Ganga Ma murtis: