The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002

Engaging pilgrimage to Ganga
Bhavana Pankaj

The Ganges in Myth & History
by Steven G Darian. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. Pages 219. Rs 295.

The Ganges in Myth & HistoryONCE upon a long, long time in a cold cave of the Himalayas was born a beautiful river. This was in the "source of all begotten things, where shadows struggle into form ‘against the white unending canvass of eternity’, where all that has ever been exists unuttered."

Fed by countless icy streams, it began to flow down—for such is the nature of water—on to earth, into the mind of the first sage, the heart of the first devotee, the hand of the first sculptor. Myth, munificence and moksha swirled in its waters as she danced her way out of the mountain pines into the flatlands of northern India. She irrigated soil and soul, yielded crop and culture.

They called her Ganga but her names were many. Then, in this ceaseless continuum of time came a wise man of the West called Steven Darian. He heard of the river and was enchanted by it. "Just as in love few men can resist an utterly devoted woman", so he came to worship the river that would offer him so much. His pilgrimage brought about a book he called The Ganges in Myth and History.

It is hard to tell where Professor Darian’s journey began. But his brilliant treatise on the river of India begins at Gomukh, where "…the entire atmosphere hums with the susurrous discourse of the yakshas and gandharvas… where such a scene might be terrifying except that one can never think of death at Gomukh."


Not indeed, because Ganga is born in this womb of the mountain even as Darian sings of her descent from the heaven in the legend of Gangavatarana. Myth and reality coalesce, magically as it were. The author explains the sanctity of water as the real and imaginary source of life. In particular the Ganga water without which neither birth nor death is complete. He discovers the myth shaped by the hand of an unknown sculptor. In art, as in fact and fiction, the Ganga becomes the Tripathga —traversing heaven, earth and the nether world. She is the complete woman—daughter of the mountain, wife of Shiva and mother to the Vasus, Kartikkeya and of course, Mahabharata’s Bhisma, also called Gangeya.

It is fascinating to see the author explore the many levels in the Gangavatarana theme, including the river’s connection with the gods of the Hindu trinity. But it is in her bond with Shiva that he is at his lyrical best. "…he as the lord, she as mother and child of the mountain; he as the organ of generation, she as the liquid essence of life; he as the mystery, she as the door to mystery; he as the tomb, she as the waters of life…"

From the realm of mythology, Darian draws you into the domain of reality, and history. He goes back into the times of the Indus and the legacy it bequeathed to the Ganga and her concomitant civilisation. Ganga becomes the impetus for Hastinapur like Indus was to the urban centres of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. But more than the archaeological parallels, it is the river’s advancing role as representing fecundity that becomes the more engaging part of the venture.

The venture here is long — unable to contain itself in a few hundred words from a non-academic’s pen. It is enough to say that Darian appeals as much to the thinker as to the lover. His account of the arrival of the Aryans from across the Hindukush down to the Gangetic plains reminds of the Ganga herself who falls from the dizzying heights into the boundless plains. The premise of the Aryan descent may be disputable. But the author’s account of the times reads like a litany to the river and its wild, warrior devotees, telling again of Roberto Calasso’s enigmatic "Ka".

"In the end people grow to worship the things they need. In India, above all, these things included water and the sustenance of the fields…" says the author. And so Ganga becomes a goddess to the new settlers. In a brilliant osmosis between them and the natives, comes an unbroken legacy of the Vedas, their mystical river Sarasvati transforming now and then into Ganga herself, the rise of the Ganges civilisation, the ideas of Shakti, Agni and Soma, the stupas and cenotaphs, art and sculpture…

Ganga becomes in Darian’s consciousness the primal ocean. The land, language, religion, commerce and culture born of it become the waves that appear, disappear and reappear in time. She resonates with Goddess Artemis of the Greeks or Phison, the river of Eden, leading all to paradise.

She destroys like "a hell filled with good things" in Bengal. But from her matrix comes a "giddy invasion" of songs and stories. The disembodied Kali manifests in the image of Ganga. Ballads, riddles, symbols, festivals and dances breed on her shores.

Darian isn’t just another chronicler. His book inspires awe and pride. It reminds me of my own naked feet kissing the Ganga waters at Hari Ki Pauri, the brimming eyes during an aarti on her banks in Rishikesh. It unites me with Lalan Shah, that great Baul poet Darian remembers so well:

"When the water dies, the fish will fly

Man is as deep as the Ganges

Only love can enter there

Lalan says: I drowned to reach the depths."

So does Darian—his love much like the all-pervading Soma and Agni. Lucid but with a fire that burns in the mind of every creator. There is love then. But there is shame too —shame at how well we have defiled a river so revered, so giving. Wonder what this professor-pilgrim would say were he to see her nearly a quarter century after he first published this book that merits reading, not a review. Another pilgrimage, perhaps, unending like the Ganga.