Once King Sagara was about to begin an aswamedha yagna or horse sacrifice when suddenly, mysteriously, the horse disappeared. In consternation the king sent his many sons in search of it. These were warriors of great strength and prowess. They searched the sky, the earth, the heavens and lastly went down to the nether world, digging deep into the bowels of the earth. There, sure enough, they saw their horse grazing quietly and nearby, a sage in deep prayer. Without stopping to think, the sons of Sagara called him a thief and were about to strike him when the sage opened his eyes. The flame of anger that shot out of him reduced them to ashes.
Sagara waited long; then in despair he sent his only grandson in search of his sons and the horse. The young prince groped his way under the earth through the tunnels dug by his brave uncles and found the horse there. But he did not know what to make of the huge heap of ashes he saw nearby. The sage appeared before him. “It was my doing” he said. “In my anger, I reduced the sons of Sagara to ashes. They have sinned. They can be restored only if washed with the pure waters of the Ganga.”
Bring the Ganga to the world below! Impossible. She was a celestial river flowing from the feet of Vishnu over the moon into the heavenly regions!
Sadly, the prince returned home with the horse. His old grand-father completed the sacrifice but he could not be happy. The Ganga would not descend to the earth, not to speak of the nether world. The ashes of his sons would lie there for ever. They would never reach heaven. He died of a broken heart. After him, the descendants of king Sagara prayed hard to the Ganga to come down to earth but it was of no avail. At last it was king Bhagiratha, a great great grandson of Sagara who was able to please Ganga with his severe penance and unshakeable determination to win her favour.
The river goddess appeared before him. “I shall descend to earth as you wish but when I come down it will be with such a force that the whole world would be destroyed. Shiva alone is powerful enough to bear it. Pray to him unless you want to see the world devastated by inundation.”
Bhagiratha now set his mind on Shiva. So sincere and earnest was his need and so fervent his prayer that Shiva agreed to grant him his wish. He stood on mount Kailasa, his legs apart, his matted hair spread out ready to receive the heavenly Ganga. The gods and the sages filled the sky waiting with excitement to behold the great wonder. Ganga came down with stupendous force. The heavens shook, and the torrents came roaring down to earth. The deluge and the end of time must have been something like this! What a miracle it was! Ganga, rushing down in formidable cascades, got enmeshed in Siva’s matted locks and found herself imprisoned within. Bewildered, the poor king, weak with penance, implored Shiva to let her go for his sake. Shiva gave him a look of understanding. He seemed to say, ‘Because I love you, I excuse this arrogant behaviour of hers.’
The Ganga now flowed quietly from the matted mound that was Siva’s hair, down the white slopes to the plains below. She split into seven different streams. Three of them flowed to the west and three eastwards. The seventh followed Bhagiratha to the nether world or pathala—there to wash pure the ashes of the sons of Sagara.