One of the greatest strengths of the ancient Hindus has been their love and reverence for all things natural. According to A Tribute to Hinduism The Book (http://www.hinduwisdom.info/Nature_Worship.htm) “No religion, perhaps, lays as much emphasis on environmental ethics as Hinduism”. Nature has therefore never been considered as a foe to be conquered. As a matter of fact the ancient Hindus were forbidden from the exploitation of nature and its elements. Hindus were also advised to recognize the divinity that exists in all elements and these include plants and animals. The Rishis and Munis perceived “that all material manifestations are a shadow of the spiritual”.
In his book “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Ignorance” Swami B V Tripurari says that Medieval Europe took the “spirits” out of the trees, the mountains and the seas in their so called victory over paganism.
According to the Vedas the king was the administrator of dharma. “He was to be guided by this principle of balance, harmonizing relationships between all kingdoms of nature, mineral, vegetable, animal and man, various groups and administrative units”. In the coronation oath administered to a king, Aitareya Brahmana gives the promise taken from the king by the Purohita. It says “Between the night I am born and the night I die whatever good I might have done, my heaven, my life, my progeny, may I be deprived of it, if I oppress you (Book viii, chapter 4). Further, Satapatha Brahmana says that the consent the king should take from the earth at the coronation ceremony should be “Mother Prithvi (Earth), injure me not, nor I thee”.
This article deals with the Vedic philosophy that asked Hindus to respect the divinity that existed in nature and how this philosophy was pertinent to the reverence for the water bodies in general and the rivers in particular.
The King’s Duties
Somadev in his Niti Vakyamrita gives a hymn that was incumbent upon the king to recite each day. “I am protecting this cow (earth) which bears the milk of four oceans, whose calf is dharma, whose tail is enterprise (purushartha), whose hoofs are varna and ashrama (four groups and four orders), whose ears are desire and action (karma and artha), whose horns are diplomacy and valor, whose eyes are truth and purity, and whose face is law… I shall not be patient with anyone who injures her”.
It is very important to note the value the Vedas attached to nature and its elements that included the oceans and the rivers. It is due to this respect and reverence for nature that while other civilizations that flouted this important aspect of social life have perished, India has honored the need for the preservation of the ecological state and has “honored it in practice”.
Rivers in Vedic Times
Several thousands of years ago during the Vedic times the very rhythm of life was dictated by water. Since then the Hindus have held rivers in great reverence. This reverence was by no means born of a superstitious belief. If the ancient Hindus worshipped their rivers it was also on account of the “all-round prosperity they bring in their wake”. As these mighty rivers “have perennially been a source of livelihood to millions of people living in areas lying along their courses, no wonder people see in them a manifestation of divine female power (shakti)”.
In Rig Veda there are several references to the Sindhu or the Indus. This was obviously due to the fact that the early Aryan settlers in undivided India entered the subcontinent through the northwest and probably settled along the Indus as farmers. There is therefore a passage in Rig Veda “Sindhu in might surpasses all the streams that flow…His roar is lifted up to heaven above the earth; he puts forth endless vigor with a flash of light…Even as cows with milk rush to their calves, so other rivers roar into the Sindhu. As a warrior-king leads other warriors, so does Sindhu lead other rivers… Rich in good steeds is Sindhu, rich in gold, nobly fashioned, rich in ample wealth”. Rig Veda.
There is a mention of the Sarasvati River too in Rig Veda. While the Rig Veda mentions the Sarasvati River’s location as being between the Yamuna and the Sutlej there are later references to the river especially in the Mahabharata that says that this river dried up in the desert. The most well known hymn in the honor of Sarasvati is “Ambitame, naditame, devitame, Sarasvati”. “O best of mothers, O best of rivers, O best of goddesses, Sarasvati”. There appears to be some confusion regarding the reference of the Ganga in the Rig Veda in the eulogy of Sarasvati “The Ganga is a living symbol of an ancient culture’s way of life and the sacred dimension of nature itself. The whole Hindu world still comes to her banks, to sing, to pray, to wash, to ask favors and blessings, to barter, to die”. There is a recent Hindu belief that Sarasvati river actually flows underground ultimately meeting Yamuna and the Ganges at the Sangam (Prayag) in Allahabad.
Incidentally, Sarasvati is the “only Vedic goddess whose worship continues in India to the present day; all her modern companions, Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, and others, are creations of a later day”. (Ref Vedic Religion http://www.ibiblio.org/britishraj/Jackson1/chapter07.html).
The Yamuna River is one of the seven holiest rivers for the Hindus. Rising from the Yamunotri in the Himalayas this once mighty river merges with the Ganges at Prayag to form the Sangam along with the mysterious and hidden Sarasvati. The Yamuna is famous because of Gokul and Mathura, the places where Lord Krishna was born and grew up and which are on the banks of this river.
In Story of Yamuna, The River by V S Gopalakrishnan (http://creative.sulekha.com/story-of-yamuna-the-river-1_426929_blog) the author clarifies that Yamuna is another name for Yami, the twin sister of Yama, the god of death. River Yamuna finds mention even in Rig Veda that discusses a total of 31 rivers among which 16 are in Afghanistan.
In Yamunaji’s Origin (http://www.yamunaji.com/about.html) the author states that Yamuna is also known as the Queen consort of Lord Krishna. The divine abode of the Lord is also the home of Yamuna. “When the Lord dictated Yamuna to descend on the earth, she first went around Shri Krishna. Thereafter, with great force, she descended on the peak of Sumeru Mountain. Her journey began thence towards the southern side of the great mountain chains. Today Yamuna is well known throughout the world for the greatest spectacle celebrating the gathering of mankind, The Kumbh Mela that is held once every 12 years at Prayag. It is said that a dip at the time of the Kumbh will release one from all sins and one can attain moksha.
Due to the importance of this majestic river to the Hindus even today, the Ganga will be dealt with separately in this paper. It is sufficient to mention at this point that Ganga or the Ganges is the most sacred river to the Hindus. The river commences its journey at Gomukh in Gangotri, hurtles down to the plains passing holy cities such as Haridwar and Varanasi or Kashi, to meet the Yamuna and the hidden Sarasvati at the Sangam in Prayag before completing her journey in the Bay of Bengal.
The Narmada River is also one of the most sacred among the holy rivers in India. The river originates at Amarkantak, flows between the ranges of the Vindhya and Satpura before emptying into the Arabian Sea. According to the scriptures and folklore the Narmada River sprang from the body of Shiva. In the order of sanctity, the river is said to rank next to the Ganges. The Pradakshina pilgrimage has a route that takes the pilgrims from Bharuch to Amarkantak, “up one bank of the river and down the other”. (Ref http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/403526/Narmada).
According to A Tribute to Hinduism The Book, Brahmaputra is a mighty river that emanates from the Mansarovar region in the Himalayas and thereafter dominates over the landscape of north-east India. Throughout her journey she gushes down with a tremendous force “through the dense forests of north-eastern states of India, particularly Assam”.
Brahmaputra is probably not as revered as the Ganga but she is surely considered to be more beautiful as well as longer than the Ganga by 450km. What is impressive about this magnificent river is her navigability “at an astounding altitude of ten thousand feet! Like the Ganga its waters too are snow-fed and are generously rain-fed, thus making it flow throughout the year”. (Ref http://www.hinduwisdom.info/Nature_Worship.htm)
According to Indian Culture and Arts, (http://blessingsonthenet.com/indianculture/sections/16/river-brahmaputra)
like all other Indian rivers, the Brahmaputra too is worshipped for its waters along the length of the river. The “chief among them is Manasarovar at its source and the temple of Kamakhya Devi near the hills of Guwahati”.
Kshipra, Godavari and Kaveri
Kshipra River, also known as Shipra, rises in the Vindhya Range, flows across the Malwa Plateau and meets the Chambal River. The holy city of Ujjain, an ancient city, is situated on the right bank of the Kshipra. Ujjain is well known for one of the twelve Jyotirlingas that is located here. The venerated Kumbh Mela festival takes place in Ujjain just as it does in Prayag. During the Kumbh millions take the holy dip in the river.
The Godavari River originates in Nashik near Trimbak as it flows towards the Eastern Ghats on its way to the Bay of Bengal. Kumbh Mela is celebrated at Nashik as well and the religious town is therefore considered to be an important place for pilgrimage in India. The Godavari is the largest as well as the longest river in the southern part of India. It is also known as the Dakshina Ganga.
The Kaveri River, also spelt Cauvery, is another sacred river in South India. This river originates from the Brahmagiri Hill in the Western Ghats and thereafter flows towards the Bay of Bengal. The sacred river “travels across the heartland of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is one of the major rivers of the Peninsula flowing east and running into the Bay of Bengal”. Ref Walk Through India (http://www.walkthroughindia.com/attraction/the-7-most-sacred-rivers-of-india/)
The Divinity in Rivers
The ancient Hindus considered the rivers as female divinities. In this form they were worshipped as mothers bestowing food and life. It is also in this form that one will see the rivers personified in art going back to the classical period. Therefore, if one were to consider the Ganga, one would find her personified as Goddess Ganga rising from a bed of ice, almost 14,000 ft above the sea level in the Himalayas.
It is to worship the divinity in the Ganga that pilgrims make the rigorous journey to Gangotri, the source of the river. In mythology, “Ganga is depicted as a beautiful young woman, holding a lotus in one hand, cascading down the tresses of Lord Shiva”. This story of Lord Shiva and how Ganga descended from the heavens in response to the prayer of King Bhagirathi is handed down through generations of Hindus from ages gone by.
The story goes that King Bhagirathi prayed to Shiva in penance at Gangotri and was rewarded with the goddess Ganga, delivered in the form of a river. Since the Ganga would have devastated the area because of her fall from the heavens “Shiva caught her in the locks of his matted hair, permitting a gentle descent”. Here, learned critics have assumed the vegetation of the mountains to be metaphorically compared to the matted locks of Shiva. Thousands visit Gangotri each year to celebrate the divinity of the Ganga. “The deity is brought up the mountain each spring in a colorful procession led by the blowing of horns”.
The divinity in rivers is to be found in their waters too. It is for this reason that devotees traverse long distances to procure the water of Ganga or “Gangajal”, thought to be divine. It is believed by devout Hindus that the Gangajal obtained from the “Har Ki Pauri” in Haridwar or at Kashi remains fresh perennially. The divine prayer therefore goes thus
“O Mother Ganga, may your water, abundant blessing of this world,
Treasure of Lord Shiva, playful Lord of all the earth,
Essence of the scriptures and embodied goodness of the gods,
May your water, sublime wine of immortality, soothe our troubled souls”.
Further, Hindus have always believed that the waters from the Ganga have extraordinary powers and actually prevent disease. It is understood that Akbar the Great called it the “water of immortality” and is said to have always travelled with a supply. There are reports regarding the East India Company using only Gangajal on board its ships during the 3-month voyage back to England, as it stayed “sweet and fresh”. (Ref Mystery Factor gives Ganges a clean reputation” npr.org”).
Rig Veda 1.23 in reverence for water of the Ganga says
“Waters contain all disease-dispelling medicaments, useful for the upkeep of our body, so that we may live long to enjoy the bright sun.
That there is ambrosia in waters, there is healing balm in them, and there are medicinal herbs, know this all, and by their proper use become wiser”.
The Singular Importance of The Ganga
Every river in India receives its share of significance and is generally worshipped by the people that live along its banks. However, no other river in the world can perhaps compare with the adoration, reverence and love that the Ganga is treated with. “The Ganga is a living presence, a protector, a healer of ills. The Ganga, is as alive as it ever was with the hopes and dreams of an entire culture”.
Even the first PM of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, asked that his ashes be cast into the Ganga at Prayag. He wrote
“I am proud of this noble heritage which was and still is ours, and I am aware that I too, like all of us, am a link in that uninterrupted chain which finds its origin in the dawn of history, in India’s immemorial past. It is in testimony of this and as a last homage to the cultural heritage of India that I request that a handful of my ashes be thrown in the Ganga at Allahabad, so that they may be borne to the vast ocean that bears on the shores of India”.
(source: The India I Love – By Marie-Simone Renou p.128). Refer to If the Ganga lives, India lives. If the Ganga dies, India dies – By Vandana Shiva
A description of the Ganga cannot be complete without a mention of two cities along its banks. The first of these is Allahabad that was earlier known as Prayag and the second one is Varanasi or Kashi as it is still known. Allahabad lies at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the lost and mysterious Sarasvati. Both the cities are mentioned in the “Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas”. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma, the creator chose Prayag as the place where the three holiest rivers on earth would meet in harmony. However, it is at Kashi where Count Keyserling describes the ecstasy that signifies Hindu devotion.
He writes “The whole Hindu world still comes to her banks, to sing, to pray, to wash, to ask favors and blessings, to barter, to die. The Ganga is a living symbol of an ancient culture’s way of life and of the sacred dimension of nature itself. Of all the goddesses Ma Ganga, is the only one without a shadow. She is the unequivocal fountain of mercy and compassion, here in this world only to comfort her children. Her waters are the milk, the nectar of immortality, source of life, and abundance. Countless flowers are strewn across her body daily; millions of lights set sail every evening upon her waters. While stories of gods and goddesses come and go with the ages, while stories replace or rival another, the organic presence of Ganga continues as ever, absorbing her devotees’ offerings and ashes in the same way she has done since time immemorial”.
(source: Travel Through Sacred India – By Roger Housden p. 22-23).
The Kumbh Mela
An article on The Hindu Worship of Rivers will remain incomplete without at least a small description on the Kumbh Mela that actually describes the magic of the mystical Ganga. However, the Kumbh is also about the other holy rivers such as Yamuna, Kshipra (Ujjain) and Godavari (Nashik).
Legend has it that while churning for Amrit or the nectar of immortality a fight broke out between the gods and the demons as to the equality of share that had been agreed to. The fight lasted for 12 years. During the fight Garuda flew away with the pot containing the Amrit. Drops of this nectar are believed to have fallen at Allahabad or Prayag, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain. While the Maha Kumbh Mela occurs only in Allahabad at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati, the Ardh Kumbh occurs at both Allahabad and Haridwar.
Kalidasa, the ancient Indian poet echoed the emotions of the Kumbh Mela pilgrims by saying “When the water of the Ganges and the water of the Yamuna mingle, it appears as though diamonds and sapphires were woven together in a string; as though a flock of white swans had suddenly run into another flock of black swans; as though a garland of white lotus buds were interspersed with blue lotuses; as though streaks of lightning had merged into a sheet of darkness; as though a clear blue sky was spotted with woolly clouds of autumn”. (Ref Kumbha Mela by Jack Heber and David Osborn p 34).
The Mahabharata celebrates the virtues of the Ganga thus:
“Like a moonless night, like flowerless trees, such are the countries and regions deprived of the beneficial virtues of the Ganga.
Like a sunless sky, an earth without mountains, an atmosphere without wind thus undoubtedly are the countries and regions that the Ganga does not bathe.
If the wind which has caressed the waves of the Ganga touches a man’s skin, it immediately carries off all the sin he has committed.
As small children tormented by hunger crowd around their mother begging, so men here below, desirous of attaining their salvation, hurry imploringly to the Ganga!”
During the tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1906, Sir Sidney James Mark Low, journalist, historian and essayist and the author of The Governance of England and Vision of India, was wonderstruck and wrote: “Nothing more impressive, picturesque, and pregnant with meaning and significance than Kumbha Mela can be witnessed in all of India”.
In Kumbha Mela by Jack Hebner and David Osborn (p1-56) the authors write about the Kumbh Mela having gained international fame as “the world’s largest act of faith. Pilgrims attend this holy event with such tremendous faith and in such overwhelming numbers that it could appear quite bewildering to one who is experiencing it for the first time. Being partial to rational and scientific thought, we may mistake faith for sentiment or even ignorance. However, the faith is as substantial as the ground upon which the pilgrims stand. Faith, in the sense of divine experience, has been described as unflinching trust in something sublime”.
In the words of Schopenhauer, “There is no religion or philosophy so sublime and elevating as Vedanta.” As Eurocentrism is becoming identified with ignorance and oppression, Asia’s emergence as the true center of culture and civilization seems inevitable.
Similarly, in the words of Max Mueller, the great Indologist, “If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered over the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant, I should point to India.’’ This is a very important remark that talks well of our heritage since the German Indologist and Sanskrit scholar “was a pioneer, who in his spiritual, romantic and philosophical quest traced the common roots of Indo-European civilizations to the ancient Vedic culture of India.
Our heritage comprises of the Vedas, the Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas among several other philosophical manuscripts or books. The love and reverence of the ancient Hindus for nature and all its elements is well known as it is documented in the Vedas that even today give shape to our cultural and religious events. Rivers have been important to the ancient Hindu as have their waters. All Indian rivers have been looked upon with awe and reverence by the Hindus who continue to worship them. The above work has been collated to indicate this relationship that existed then and exists now between Hindus and their sacred rivers.