All great tales have a message for all time.
One such tale is that of King Bhagiratha.
The sons of King Sagara had been burnt into ashes by Sage Kapila for their arrogance who pronounced that the only way the souls of the dead princes could rise to heaven would be through the waters of the sacred Ganga river, which was then flowing in the heavens. Bringing Ganga back to Earth required tremendous dedication and many years of tapasya. Many Kosala kings of successive generations tried, but failed. As a result, the sins of the princes multiplied in their destructive energy, and began resulting in natural disasters. The kingdom began to lose its peace and prosperity.
It was then that Bhagiratha ascended the throne. Realising that single minded pursuit of the goal of bringing down Ganga was essential, Bhagiratha turned over the kingdom to trusted ministers and set off to the Himalayas, embarking on an arduous tapasya. At the end of one thousand years, Brahma came to him and Bhagiratha asked for the boon of bringing down the river Ganga to earth so that he could set the souls of his ancestors free. Brahma cautioned Bhagiratha that Ganga’s fall would be colossal and it would be impossible to contain the destructive impact of this event unless Lord Shiva stepped in.
Bhagiratha then began to propitiate Lord Shiva, living only on air. The compassionate Shiva appeared relatively soon, after only a year's penance, and assured Bhagiratha that he would take care that Ganga's fall does not become destructive.
As the mighty Ganga flowed down, Lord Shiva captured her Ganga in his matted hair or jata, and let her flow from there at a gentler pace. Different streams of Ganga flowed through to release all the princes and at long last, the souls of Bhagiratha’s ancestors were freed and peace returned to the land.
Due to this, Ganga is also known as Bhagirathi (daughter of Bhagiratha) and Bhagiratha's herculean effort, Bhagiratha Prayatna, is a term that symbolises a dedicated effort to do something noble despite facing overwhelming odds.
Another message that the tale brings out is the responsibility we have to correct the wrongs of the past.
There are many parallels between the story of Bhagiratha and the situation we find ourselves in, while grappling with the creation of an inclusive society where the labels of caste based identity are not a deterrent to progress..
Indeed, we stand at the threshold of correcting wrongs committed and perpetuated, knowingly and unknowingly, in the past. Although the caste division has not been created by the present generation, we certainly have inherited the inequalities and negative ‘karma’ that the practice of this system has brought in.
The first step to a solution is accepting responsibility. By just blaming each other, we will again create a cycle of karma where the oppressor and victim could have different labels, but we will still be far away from an inclusive society.
Reservations and quotas were introduced in our constitution mainly to correct caste driven imbalance. However, these are only one part of the solution. Just focusing on quotas has only lead to vote bank politics that have resulted in further divisions of society. In this process, the core goal of the creation of a society that enables every child, irrespective of birth, to have equal access to education and career options, seems to have been forgotten.
Unfortunately, just like the kings of Kosala before Bhagiratha, we lack determination. Concern on the need for educational and employment opportunities is often raised, but soon forgotten, by the media and by the general public.
Further, just as the Ganga flowed in different streams all over India, the issue requires a multi pronged approach. While not rejecting affirmative action outright, we must examine where the lacunaes lie. Similarly, the provision of quality primary education to all is absolutely essential.
Social change is very challenging and therefore, not one Bhagiratha but a collective consciousness to undertake a “Bhagiratha prayatna” is essential.
We do know that none of these issues have easy solutions and the path would be long, but it must be undertaken with an unstinting focus on the key goals. There will be upheavals like those with Ganga’s mighty fall into the Earth. For this, we need a calm, non partisan voice of reason, playing the role of Shiva, who stemmed the forcefulnesss of the fall.
With all this, perhaps we will ultimately be able to bring in the ‘Ganga’ of oneness, solidarity and equality into our land.