So it came to pass that an angry and aging mother named Aditi sat down to fast and pray that Lord Vishnu - the preserver of the world - would aid her in a moment of distress; her sons, who ruled several planets in the universe, had recently been vanquished by the great king Bali Maharaj, who wanted to become the sole ruler of the entire celestial world. As the humiliated mother of defeated sons, Aditi refused to eat, and closed her eyes, with a hurt soul eager for retribution. She kept praying to Vishnu, till at last he appeared after twelve long days of penance.
Moved by her devotion and strength of purpose, Vishnu promised the aggrieved mother that the lost kingdoms would be restored to her sons.
And so Vishnu disguised himself as a midget Brahmin ascetic answering to the name of Vamandeva. He appeared at the glorious court of Bali Maharaja to plead with the victorious king to give him "just" three pieces of land. Dulled by a sense of invincibility and amused by the midget, the great king lightheartedly consented to the appeal.
In that very moment of thoughtless consent, Vamandeva decided to take his chance and started expanding his form to gigantic proportions. To the king's horror, the giant dwarf walked his first step, which, to the everlasting despair of Bali Maharaj, covered the whole universe. That is how Aditi got her sons' kingdoms back.
But it was the second step that assumed crucial significance. Vamandeva then kicked a hole in the shell of the universe, causing a few drops of water from the spiritual world to spill into the universe. These precious and rare drops of the Other World gathered into the flow of a river that came to be known as the Ganga. That was the sacred moment when the great Ganga emerged came into being to become integrated with history.
But even so, Ganga remained in the heavenly universe, fearing that stepping onto the earth might render her unsanctified because of the multitude of its sinners. Indra - King of the Heavens - wanted Ganga to remain in his domain so that she could soothe the cods with her cool waters, rather than move to some other world.
But in that earthly world of sinners, there was the great kingdom of Ayodhya ruled by the childless king Bhagiratha, who desperately yearned for Ganga to come down and wash away the sins of his forefathers. Bhagiratha hailed from a royal family that claimed its ancestry from the Sun God himself. Even though he ruled over a peaceful country, with hardworking, honest and happy people, Bhaigiratha remained melancholic, not only because no child had sprung from his loins to continue the illustrious dynasty, but also because he was bearing the heavy burden of completing the task of bringing salvation to his ancestors.
And then there was something else. A long time ago, King Sagar, the then ruler of Ayodhya, had sent his grandson Suman to search for his 60,000 sons which were borne to him by his second wife Sumati. (She had actually borne a gourd which burst open to give way to these sixty thousand.) Now these sons, who were fostered by nurses in jars of ghee till they grew up to youth and beauty, had disappeared mysteriously while they were searching for a lost horse let loose by King Sagar as a part of the great horse sacrifice known as the Ahwamedha Yagna. If this sacrifice had reached its logical conclusion, Sagar would have become the undisputed master of the Gods.
Searching for his uncles, Suman encountered four elephants in the four corners of the world. These elephants were responsible for balancing the earth on their heads, with all its plenteous hills and forests. These elephants wished Suman success in his noble enterprise. Finally, the dutiful grandson came across the great sage Kapila who, impressed by Suman's demeanor, told him that all sixty thousand uncles had been turned to ashes by his angry gaze when they tried to blame him for stealing that special horse. Kapila warned that the dead princes would not arrive in heaven by immersion of their ashes in just any river water. Only the celestial Ganga, which flows with its sacred water in the heavenly world, could provide salvation.