Śiva is also known as Gaṅgādhara. Gaṅgādhara literally means the carrier of Gaṅga (River Ganges). Śiva is said to carry the Ganges in his locks. There is a mythological story describing the descent of the river Ganges from the heavens to earth. The origin of the Ganges is said to be the heavens, where it is known as Ākāśa-gaṅgā. Ākāśa-gaṅgā is personified in the mythology as a goddess. King Bhagīratha prayed to the goddess to descend from the heavens and bless the people of the earth with her prosperity. The prayer was granted. Ākāśa-gaṅgā was willing to come down to earth. The goddess however, warned Bhagīratha that the flow of water from the heavens will be so torrential that the earth would not be able to bear its force. The only person able to receive such torrential flow being Lord Śiva. So Bhagīratha again went to penance and prayer and implored Śiva to bear the flow of descent of the waters. Śiva acceded. He received the waters of the Ākāśa-gaṅgā in his locks where they were imprisoned. Śiva retired to the jungle for meditation. But the Gaṅgā did not flow on the earth. The king again implored Śiva , this time to release the waters of the holy Gaṅgā from his locks for the people of the world. As the story goes the Lord granted this prayer as well. The present Gaṅga is said to be the water flowing out of Śiva’s locks.
Strange as the story may sound it has a deep inner significance. Gaṅga stands for the ultimate Truth, the ultimate Reality, the knowledge of Divinity in being human.
THE SYMBOLS OF HINDU GODS AND RITUALS BY A. PARTHASARATHY.