Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on April 15, 2012.
A king called Sagar was once performing a yagna. If the ritual was a success, he would become Indra, king of paradise, and have access to all the pleasures of the world, including immortality. But there was already an Indra in the sky, and he could not bear the idea of being replaced. That Indra stole Sagar’s horse and hid it in the hermitage of a sage called Kapil. The sons of Sagar looked everywhere for the horse. They dug so deep that they created a crater that eventually became the receptacle of the sea. Finally they found the horse in Kapil’s hermitage and they accused Kapil of theft. Kapil’s eyes were shut at this time, as he was lost in deep contemplation. He had no idea of Indra’s mischief. Irritated by the disturbance, he opened his eyes. So fiery was his first glance that the sons of Sagar who stood before him shouting accusations burst into flames and were reduced to a heap of ash. Indra smiled and Kapil shut his eyes once again.
A heartbroken Sagar wondered, “My sons have been killed in their youth. I will die of old age. None of us will be Indra. The yagna had been abandoned midway. None of us will sip Amrita, the nectar of immortality. None of us will experience unending joy. Is every living creature doomed to die having lived such incomplete lives?” Sagar searched for an answer. So did his son Anshuman, and Anshuman’s son Dilip and finally Dilip’s son Bhagirath. Bhagirath met Garuda, the eagle, the only creature who had defeated Indra in battle. He said, “If the ashes of your ancestors are washed by the Ganga they will be reborn and have a second chance of life.”
Unfortunately, Ganga flowed in the sky. Bhagirath prayed to Brahma, father of all living creatures, and he promised to persuade Ganga to descend on earth. Today, she flows on earth. She is visualized as a goddess riding a river-dolphin. Everyone bathes in the Ganga hoping to wipe their karmic slate clean. Into the Ganga are thrown the ashes of the dead.
The idea of rebirth and the Ganga cannot be separated. The river comes from the land of Indra, who has access to Amrita, the nectar of immortality. Indra, the hero of Vedic hymns, lives the life everyone on earth wants to live. He is strong and powerful and attractive and invincible. All day he spends enjoying the good things in life. He does not fear aging or death. Kings of the earth, such as Sagar, envy him. They all want to live Indra’s perfect life. They spend their lifetimes working towards it. Eventually everyone fails — those who die young like Sagar’s sons and even those who die old like Sagar himself. And everyone wonders, if there will ever be another chance to become Indra.