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King Sagara meditated for ages before he ascended to heaven. However, he was unsuccessful in bringing Ganga to Earth. Anshuman was a just king; he ensured the prosperity of the subjects living in his kingdom. Soon a marvelous son was born to Anshuman. He named his son Dileepa. When Dileepa became fit to rule over the kingdom of Ayodhya, Anshuman appointed him as his successor.
One day he told Dileepa, “It’s time for Ayodhya to get a new king. You can rule Ayodhya while I shall attempt to provide salvation to the souls of my uncles.”
After Dileepa was crowned the new king of Ayodhya, Anshuman went to the Himalayas and performed severe penance to bring Ganga to Earth. Despite leading a virtuous and austere life, Anshuman failed in his endeavor but found a place in heaven.
King Dileepa performed several Vedic rituals but failed in his quest to provide salvation to the souls of his ancestors. Before his death, he summoned his virtuous son Bhagiratha and said, “The souls of our ancestors will not find peace till Ganga purifies the ashes with her holy water. I entrust this task to you, son. May you succeed where your ancestors have failed.”
Bhagiratha promised to fulfill the final wish of his father. He took an oath, “I will not sit on the throne till I fetch Ganga on Earth.”
Bhagiratha did not have a son. He entrusted his ministers to look after the welfare of his kingdom and went to the forest to conduct a penance. Bhagiratha performed severe penance for ages. Pleased with his penance, Lord Brahma approached Bhagiratha and said, “Open your eyes Bhagiratha. I have come here to grant you a boon.”
Bhagiratha bowed to Lord Brahma and said, “I wish that River Ganga flows on Earth so that the souls of my ancestors receive salvation.”
Lord Brahma replied, “You pursue a noble cause, but I cannot fulfill your wish at the moment. The Earth cannot support the force generated by Ganga’s descent from the heavens. You must seek the help of Lord Shiva as he is the only one who can withstand the force of Ganga’s descent.”
Bhagiratha thanked Lord Brahma for his guidance. He underwent another severe penance to appease Lord Shiva. Finally, Lord Shiva appeared before him and asked, “What do you desire, Bhagiratha?”
Bhagiratha requested Lord Shiva, “Lord, I want Ganga on Earth, but I been warned that Earth cannot withstand the force of her descent from heaven. Please help me by receiving the force of Ganga before she lands on Earth.”
Lord Shiva knew about the playful nature of Ganga and decided to help Bhagiratha. He replied, “I will receive Ganga when she descends from the heavens.”
Ganga was not happy when the gods instructed her to go to Earth. She thought, “I will fall with such force that I will sweep everything away from my path. They will be forced to send me back to heaven after seeing the mayhem.”
Lord Shiva sensed Ganga’s intentions and thought, “Ganga has become arrogant of her powers and needs a lesson in humility.”
When Ganga fell on Lord Shiva’s hair, he imprisoned her in his matted locks. Ganga tried her best but was unable to set herself free. She remained imprisoned in Lord Shiva’s hair. Bhagiratha was devastated by the turn of events. Once again he performed a penance to appease Lord Shiva. When Lord Shiva appeared before him, he pleaded, “Lord, have pity on me and please set Ganga free.”
Lord Shiva replied, “I am pleased with your devotion. I will allow Ganga to flow to ensure the salvation of the souls of your ancestors. But I must warn you that her movements are unpredictable. She will try to flow in the directions she desires, so you must ensure that she takes the correct path.”
Bhagiratha promised Lord Shiva, “I will ensure that Ganga follows the best path to the ocean and the netherworld.”
Lord Shiva allowed Ganga to flow out of his hair in the form of a trickle. Bhagiratha spoke to Ganga, “I am grateful that you have descended on Earth. Please follow the path shown by me.”
Ganga agreed to follow Bhagiratha. Soon she gained the proportion of a massive river. People thronged to the river to cleanse their sins. They thanked Ganga and addressed her as a mother to show their respect. Ganga was highly pleased with the devotion. On their way, Ganga pointed towards some holy men and asked Bhagiratha, “Where are those holy men traveling?”
Bhagiratha replied, “They are traveling to the hermitage of Sage Jahnu, who is conducting a grand yajna.”
Ganga expressed her desire, “I wish to flow in that direction and see the hermitage for myself.”
Bhagiratha cautioned Ganga, “I have no objection, but you must be careful. If you flood the hermitage, it can disturb his yajna.”
The playful Ganga did not heed to Bhagiratha’s advice and rushed forward. She could not control her flow and flooded the hermitage of Sage Jahnu. Sage Jahnu was furious with Ganga, and to punish her, he drank the entire water in one gulp. Once again, Ganga was trapped.
Bhagiratha apologized to Sage Jahnu and requested him to set Ganga free. The other sages also asked him to release Ganga so that Bhagiratha’s penance did not go to waste. Sage Jahnu accepted the request and released Ganga through his ears. He then addressed Bhagiratha, “Now you can lead Ganga to the ocean and then to the netherworld. The souls of your ancestors will get salvation.”
Bhagiratha replied, “From now on, Ganga will also be known as your daughter, Jahnavi.”
After a long journey, Ganga and Bhagiratha reached the ocean. Bhagiratha then led Ganga into the netherworld. When the holy water touched the ashes, it liberated the souls of Bhagiratha’s ancestors by purifying their sins. Finally, Bhagiratha succeeded in providing moksha to his ancestors.
Lord Brahma appeared before Bhagiratha and blessed him. He said, “You have succeeded in your endeavor due to your single-minded pursuit. Ganga will be known as Bhagirathi due to your efforts to bring her on Earth. You have brought eternal fame to your dynasty.”
Bhagiratha thanked Lord Brahma and returned to his kingdom. He ascended the throne and ruled Ayodhya for a very long time. Lord Rama was one of the descendants of Bhagiratha.