Evidence of the importance of femininity in the Hindu religion dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization in 2500 BCE (Rodrigues 31), the source of thousands of terracotta female figurines (Hawley and Wulff 1). Further evidence lies in Vedic scripture that dates back to 1500 to 1000 BCE (Rodrigues 496). Vedic literature is still revealed today and has with numerous references to goddesses and women (Hawley and Wulff 2). Evidently, Hindu goddesses were and still are embedded in all aspects of life and land (Foulston and Abbott 1). This close association between India’s geography and the divine is an ongoing theme throughout the Hindu religion. This is evident when one listens to the traditional stories told and heard throughout India (Eck 11). Pilgrimages, rituals, and festivals related to India’s landscape still continue today and help illustrate how symbolic the geography of India really is.
Hindu goddesses are known to represent seemingly complex notions such as power and energy. These same goddesses can be found manifesting in simple forms such as water and rivers throughout India (Foulston and Abbott 2). The symbol of water signifies potentiality, fluidity, and a vehicle for creation (Baartmans 210). Water, according to the Vedas is all encompassing; it is foundational to the universe (Baartmans 214-215). Rivers, as sacred entities, are said to be known as “the great descenders” (Eck 18-19). In fact, the latter portions of the Rg Veda claims that anyone bathing where the Ganga and Yamuna meet will rise to heaven (Eck 145). Further evidence for this lies in the Padma Purana, as it states that bathing and drinking in the junction between the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati allows one to achieve freedom (Eck 147). The belief that these river goddesses can grant access to heaven or freedom, which are common goals in Hinduism, demonstrate the extent to which Hindus believe in the power of these goddesses.
India’s rivers and their goddesses are intricately entwined. They form trivenis, or “triple-braids,” as they meet in different forms throughout the land (Eck 7). These trivenis are often interpreted symbolically as “sacred crossings” or tirthas and represent “spiritual ladders to heaven” (Eck 10, 140). The rivers are pilgrimage sites for both humans and the goddesses (Eck 167). Humans visit these holy sites to gain freedom and a deeper devotion to their faith. The river goddesses visit other rivers seeking support when exhausted by their own pilgrims (Eck 167).
River goddesses are referenced by the Vedas as “mothers” (Eck 166). The seven “mother-rivers” are the oldest collection of rivers in India (Eck 167). In modern India, the focus of worship lies around the seven rivers known as the saptanadi: the Ganga, Yamuna, Sindu, Narmada, Godavari, Krsna, and the Kaveri (Eck 168). The water belonging to these river goddesses is said to be analogous with milk belonging to the mothers themselves, as well as soma (Eck 138), a sacred plant and intoxicating beverage (Rodrigues 67). It is the mantras, or sacred verses, (Rodrigues 168) of these rivers and goddesses that are recited while performing modern Hindu water rituals.
Ganga, the holiest of all Hindu rivers (Oestigaard 130), is also known as the goddess “Mother Ganga” (Eck 131). According to myth, the water of Ganga divides into many streams as it descends from the heavens (Kinsley 188). Therefore, Ganga and the rest of the Hindu sacred river goddesses are said to have a divine descent from heaven (Eck 138 – 140). Together, the Ganga and Sarasvati Rivers purify, nourish and fertilize the land of India (Kinsley 57). Today, Hindus worship Ganga by bathing along her river and offering flowers, oil lamps, and even ashes of loved ones while performing sraddha rites, or death rites (Eck 163), in her waters (Eck 131-132). Ganga Dusehra is a ten-day celebration of Mother Ganga on the tenth day of the third month, Jayeshta (Dwivedi 27). During this festival, Hindus bathe in Ganga’s waters, take her clay home with them, chant her name, and meditate along her banks (Dwivedi 28). Bathing in Ganga’s waters is also regarded as a purifying practice during other festivals, such as Makara Sankranti, a harvest festival (Dwivedi 32-33).
Now extinct, the river Sarasvati used to be associated with her cleansing properties (Eck 145). Today, the goddess Sarasvati is largely recognized as being associated with the theme of arts and learning (McDermott 3608), creativity and knowledge (Ludvik 1), oral artistry and culture in general (Kinsley 55). Sarasvati is also either the daughter or wife of Brahma, the source of creation (Kinsley 55). As a river, Sarasvati is commonly known as representing both purity and abundance. According to Vedic literature she is also known as a “healing medicine” (Kinsley 56). Currently, Sarasvati is celebrated on the fifth day of the twelfth month, Phalguna, during the spring festival called Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 30). During the celebration, Hindus will often wear bright colors, especially yellow, to welcome the arrival of the spring season and honor Sarasvati (Dwivedi 30). Hindus tend to partake in ancestor worship, Pitri-Tarpan, and rooftop kite flying on Vasant Panchami (Dwivedi 31).
Myth claims that Krsna, a highly worshipped deity, was forced to grow up in and came to love the lands surrounding the Yamuna River (Eck 170). Many believe that Ganga’s love for Krsna stems from the mergence of Ganga and Yamuna at the site of Prayag (Eck 170). This union is also regarded as sacred to the Hindu religion as death in this location was once thought to be fruitful (Dwivedi 138). Also taking place in Prayag is Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering (Gupta 1329). Every twelve years Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain take turns hosting Kumbh Mela celebrations in which millions participate in the purifying practice of bathing at the union of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers (Gupta 1329). It is regarded as highly sacred to do so when the planets align correctly and a full moon is present (Gupta 1329). Yamuna is recognized as the “daughter of the sun” and the “waters of love” (Eck 169-170). Many Hindus sing hymns and visit Divya Shila, the Divine Stone, and the Ma Yamuna temple at Yamunotri to worship the image of Yamuna (Eck 169-170).
Narmada runs through central India and is known to have the most sacred sites along its riverside (Eck 467). Although there are many myths on the subject of Narmada’s creation, it is widely accepted that both the river and goddess were formed by the very sweat of divine Siva’s face (Eck 172). Another common belief is that Narmada’s main role on earth is to relieve mortals of their sins (Eck 173). Parikrama or Pradakshina, meaning circumambulation, is the highly recommended pilgrimage of the Narmada (Eck 170). It is common for Hindus to divide this nearly nine hundred mile hike into sections. By doing so, what would be a three year journey, is instead, completed over one’s lifetime (Eck 171). Shri Narmada, within the Narmada Mandir temple, is a sacred shrine dedicated to Narmada. Offerings such as white candy Prasad, incense, and split coconuts are brought here to worship Narmada (Eck 173-174).
According to legend, the river and goddess, Godavari, descended to earth on a hill called Brahmagiri as a form of Ganga. Godavari is also known by the name, Gautami, due to a myth involving the sage, Gautama (Eck 175). In this myth, Gautama killed a cow, committing the worst sin possible according to the Hindu religion. Godavari is now commonly referred to as Gautami because of her heavenly descent that relieved Gautama’s sin (Eck 176). Pilgrims today commonly visit a well on top of Brahmagiri, a shrine dedicated to Siva, the ritual bathing site, the Chakra Tirtha, and the Gangadvara, a symbolic representation of the “Door of Ganga”, through which they worship Godavari (Eck 176). Another common pilgrimage to worship the deity Godavari, is to Nasik, famous for the settlement of Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana in the Ramayana (Eck 177), a prominent Hindu epic (Eck 470). This site hosts millions of Hindu pilgrims for mela, or bathing festivals (Eck 467) During mela, the waters are infused with numerous floating lights (Eck 178).
The river Kaveri is said to be the goddess, Vishnumaya, a deity worshipped by lower castes (Hoeppe 126), in liquid form. According to the Puranas, Kaveri was sent by Visnu to water the land as she descends from the heavens and becomes a symbol for blessing (Eck 179). The Kaveri River is the site of many famous Hindu pilgrimage temples such as, Shrirangapattanam, Shivasamudram, and the most well known temple of Visnu on the island of Shrirangam (Eck 180).
Pushkaram is a popular Hindu festival in which the twelve main rivers and their goddesses are celebrated at different astrologically determined times once every twelve years (Dalal no page). The seven “mother-rivers” (Eck 167), previously mentioned, are included in these twelve as well as the Bhima, Tapati, Tungabhadra, Indus, and Pranahita Rivers (Dalal no page). Other minor rivers may be worshipped such as the Tamraparni and the Sangutirtham, but these are less popular (Dalal no page). Ancestor worship, bathing, and making offerings is said to grant spiritual benefits because it is believed that the divine bathe in these rivers during this festival (Dalal no page).
Performance of sraddha or visarjana, the “committal of ashes to the river” is commonly done on the rivers of India (Eck 163). Prayaga, Kashi, and Gaya, the tristhali or “three places”, are popular sites for these death rituals (Eck 163). Many myths surround these acts, but one of the most widespread beliefs is that the rivers can grant liberation or moksa (Eck 147). In the past, one of the death rituals was to commit suicide at Prayaga in hopes to obtain moksa (Eck 165). A common tradition is to honor the loved one’s ashes, release and sink them in the river, and offer rice balls, pindas, to connect the deceased with their deceased ancestors in heaven (Eck 164). It is said that for ten days following a death, one rice-ball a day is to be sacrificed on an altar bordering a river (Oestigaard 158).
The importance of water is displayed in verses dedicated to various deities and also in its life-giving contribution to creation of the universe (Oestigaard 239). With ritual purity and pollution playing such a large role in Hinduism, water and rivers, as life-giving elements, are especially prone to pollution. Pilgrimages, daily bathing, relieving of sins, and countless offerings to the rivers and their goddesses are all efforts to achieve and maintain purity. The consequences of these acts can have negative, polluting effects on the rivers and goddesses themselves (Eck 183-184). In Hinduism, death is regarded as the greatest source of impurity (Oestigaard 241). With that said, India’s rivers and river goddesses face a dilemma both physically and spiritually, as clothes and charcoal from death rituals (Oestigaard 199) are constantly polluting the sacred rivers, with the Yamuna River being the most polluted of them all (Eck 184). Although impure objects should not be cast into the water, it is still a daily occurrence (Narayanan 184). Despite the ongoing restoration efforts, “the rivers that are said to have descended to earth as sources of salvation are now, in their earthly form, in need of salvation themselves” (Eck 188).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Hawley, John Stratton (1998) “The Goddess in India.” In Devi: Goddesses of India. John Hawley and Donna Wulff (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. pp. 1-28.
Baartmans, Frans (2000) The Holy Waters: A Primordial Symbol in Hindu Myths. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.
Dalal, Roshen (2010) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. New Delhi: The Penguin Group.
Dwivedi, Anil Kumar (2007) Encyclopaedia of Indian Customs and Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Eck, Diana L. (2012) India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Random House, Inc.
Foulston, Lynn and Stuart Abbott (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.
Gupta, Om (2006) Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (In 9 Volumes). Delhi: Isha Books.
Hoeppe, Gotz (2007) Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India. New York: Berghahn Books.
Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Ludvik, Catherine (2007) Sarasvati, Riverine Goddess of Knowledge: From the Manuscript-carrying Vina-player to the Weapon-wielding Defender of the Dharma. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.
McDermott, Rachel Fell (2005) “Goddess Worship: The Hindu Goddess.” In Lindsay Jones, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. p. 3607-3611. Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning.
Narayanan, Vasudha (2001) “Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions.” Daedalus, Vol. 130, No. 4: 179-206
Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life-Giving Waters: Cremation, caste, and cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Pilgrimages in India
Water in India
Rivers in India
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Article written by: Jaelee Kryzanowski (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.