There was once a glorious king called Bhagirath in the illustrious dynasty of Ikshvaku. He was a fair and powerful monarch who cared that his subjects were always happy.
But Bhagirath was himself troubled when he remembered the ill-fate of his ancestors. A long time ago his great-granduncles* had outraged a very powerful sage called Kapila, who in a fit of anger burned them to ashes with his fiery gaze. The cursed souls had not ascended to the heavens and were stuck in purgatory.
One day Bhagirath resolved to go on a quest to bring peace to his relatives; he would pray to the goddess Ganga Devi** and ask her to sweep her sacred waters over the kings’ ashes to purge them. But petitioning Ganga Devi was no easy task because she lived in the heavens.
Bhagirath began a long and determined penance to please her. On a mountain peak, he stood on one leg and lived on only water, fruit and roots. For 360,000 years he did nothing but call out to Ganga Devi in prayer and meditation, until she appeared before him.
Moved by his sacrifice, she was happy to pour her holy rivers over his ancestors’ ashes. But now there was another dilemma. If she allowed her colossal river to flow from the heavens down to Earth, its force would be so terrific that it would destroy everything as it fell. Only Lord Shiva, the great demigod who lived on Mount Kailash, was strong enough to catch the water in his long hair and release it gently on Earth.
So Bhagirath went straight to Mount Kailash and did more penance. He prayed in deep meditation until Lord Shiva appeared and agreed to help. Ganga Devi then descended from the heavens and her majestic river burst forth with her. The mighty waves first collected in Lord Shiva’s long dreadlocks and then sprang onto the Earth. The crystal waters washed over the ancestors’ souls and sent them to the heavens.
Bhagirath was jubilant and satisfied. His incredible efforts had brought peace to his family and benefit to everyone in the world thereafter. Even to this day anyone who bathes in the Ganga waters is purified and becomes spiritually strong.
*There were actually 60,000.
**In Vedic understanding all inanimate things have a representative personality who presides over that element or object. Thus, Ganga exists as a river and also as a goddess called Ganga Devi.