Q: Is there an esoteric meaning of Bhagirathi doing intense tapasya to bring Ganga to earth? Also, what is the significance of Lord Shiva and the redemption of Bhagirathi’s ancestors in this episode?
There is a symbolic, esoteric meaning to this, but that does not mean that the account in the shastras is only symbolic.
The Ganga is the water offerings made continually over the feet of Vishnu and which descends to earth through the hair of Shiva, then flows in the form of mist down and into a cave tunnel where it condenses in time into normal liquid and then emerges at Gangotri.
The mysterious source of the Ganga
Many years ago I lived for a while in the Saptarishi Ashram north of Hardwar. There I made the acquaintance with Swami Yogiraj, a permanent residence. One day Swamiji explained to me the meaning of a huge mural on the side of the temple in which the descent of the Ganga was shown.
He told me that although Gangotri is called the source of the Ganga, it only appears there. Some people have traced the source by following the tunnel behind the cave. They have said that at first there is a stream of actual water, but eventually it becomes a mist flowing down and condensing on the walls of the cave and becoming liquid. After awhile they emerged from the tunnel and found a “stream” of mist moving down from higher ground.
As they went on, this mist began to thin out and finally they were standing in a place where it was emerging from what seemed empty space. Obviously it is coming from a higher world.
This is the objective part of the matter.
The spiritual explanation of the descent of the Ganga
Our actions are our “children,” our karma. The bones of his children represent Bhagirathi’s karma–and ours, as well. The Ganga is Atmajnana (Brahmajnana) which flows from the divine heights of our being down through the subtle nadis of the causal, astral and physical brain, the “hair” of Shiva. It takes a long time to complete the journey, but at last it floods our entire lower being, purifying and liberating it.
So this incident, like so many in our shastras, is a lesson in yoga sadhana.