Category Archives: Hinduism and Ecology

Prakrti: Material Consciousness

The Sankhya Hindu philosophy is one of the six orthodox darsanas (world outlooks). It is considered orthodox because of its adherence to the Vedas and the caste system. In the Sankhya philosophy, prakrti is part of a dualistic philosophy that explains the states of consciousness by listing the components of reality. The Sankhya darsana explains the creation of the world with the intertwining of purusa and prakrti, resembling explanations in the Vedas. The materiality of the world is the workings of prakrti (Larson 167-168). The identification with all material things is what the Sankhya darsana explains as material consciousness. This sense of consciousness cannot be the true self because it is corrupted. Purusa is the true self and can only be achieved when all senses of prakrti are removed. Yoga is applied to the Sankhya darsana to attempt to reach moksa (full liberation) (Burley 36-38).

To list the components of reality that make up the cosmos, Sankhya philosophy begins by dividing pure, real consciousness from the illusion of consciousness that is within all entities of the cosmos. These separate states of consciousness are purusa and prakrti. Purusa is pure consciousness that can only be attained when prakrti returns to it dormant state. To achieve complete consciousness, the Sankhya philosophy promotes the advancement through the different elements of prakrti to realize that the material consciousness is false. Once all false identifications are let go, prakrti is dissolved and purusa is achieved. Reaching the state of purusa is to be free of all false identification (Jacobsen 8).

Prakrti is composed of twenty-three tattvas. Tattvas are elements that can be listed ranging from their coarseness to how subtle they are. As the progression from the coarse tattvas to the subtle ones occurs, the proportions of the three gunas changes (Parrot 60-63). These gunas (qualities) are tamas, rajas, and sattva; each guna is attributed a different set of qualities. The sattva guna is the quality of enlightenment, intelligibility and clarity. The tamas guna is classified as vague and dull, and the rajas guna is passion and activity (Ramakrishna Rao 64-65). Within one’s life, they will experience all three gunas in different proportions. When one is not distracted with the tamas and rajas gunas, the clarity that is the sattva guna is able to dissolve the illusion of consciousness created by prakrti (Jacobsen 8).

The twenty-three tattvas of prakrti can be divided into five categories. The mahabhutas are the coarsest elements; they are; earth, fire, water, air, and space. All materiality of the world is based on these five elements, so the manifestation of prakrti relies on the identification with these elements. The subtle tattvas are what is absorbed through the senses (odor, flavor, texture, sound, shape and color) (Larson 236-237). The tattvas that are necessary for the continuation of material life are the five action tattvas; reproduction, excretion, motion, communication, and accumulation. The five knowledge senses allow one’s ego to identify with the grosser tattvas; these elements of knowledge are the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell). These twenty tattvas make up the materiality of the world. Without the identification and connection that one has with these tattvas the manifestation of prakrti would not be able to occur. Because materiality is intertwined with purusa in the creation of the cosmos prakrti is an evitable part of life. The last three tattvas, that compose citta are essential to the separation of material consciousness and the internal liberation that lies hidden amongst the tattvas that are prakrti.

The material consciousness that is made up the twenty tattvas must be combined with of the last three tattvas is called citta. Citta is attributed to the mind and thought; it is the perceived enlightenment of prakrti. Without the mind to identify with the world there is no consciousness, perceived or real. Citta is comprised of three elements manas, anhankara, and buddhi (Larson 236). Manas is the inner agency that persuades one to believe in the material consciousness that is prakrti. Anhankara is one’s ego. The ego identifies with the heavier tattvas making full liberation a difficult concept to believe. Anhankara generates a false sense of self that is based solely on the materiality of the world around (Parrot 70-72).

The buddhi is the subtlest tattva. This part of citta allows one to realize that the manas and anhankara use the grosser tattvas to create material consciousness and that is not its true self. The ability to discriminate between the false sense of self that is prakrti and the ability to gain true consciousness is what makes buddhi the greatest tattva [Buddhi is often referred to mahat, which means the great or highest intelligence]. To achieve purusa, the sattva guna must be in its highest proportion. In this state of clarity one is able to wish to achieve pure consciousness. The awareness that buddhi has of material consciousness allows one to escape from the false identifications made by manas and anhankara. When one stops falsely identifying they are released from prakrti and are able to achieve the pure consciousness that is purusa. Purusa never stopped functioning when prakrti was present; it acted as an observer, waiting for the right moment to be revealed (Sharma 149-153). The Sankhya darsana promotes that advancement through the different elements of prakrti to the so that the identification of the true self is not another false identification. One must experience the material consciousness so that when it is time to identify the true self it will not mistaken it for something else (Ramakrishna Rao 61-63).

When purusa is realized all traces of prakrti disappear. The tattvas engulf into themselves and essentially disappear; this is possible because the Sankhya darsana presents both purusa and prakrti as transcendental, but real entities. When the material consciousness that is prakrti is gone, one is then left with their true self. Liberation is widely known as moksa in Hinduism, but is also referred to as kaivalya in the Sankhya orthodox philosophy. When kaivalya is attained one is fully liberated for all materiality. When one is advancing through the tattvas that make up prakrti it is important that they do not become consumed in them; the ultimate goal is to become liberated from prakrti, not to master living in a world of it. The Sankhya darsana adopts this philosophy while other sects of Hinduism focus on the mastery of the tattvas. Prakrti is escapable if one wishes to find true liberation. Sankhya darsana tells of the difficulty that is prakrti, but encourages and supports that finding one’s true self is much more fulfilling than the materiality of prakrti (Widgery 234-237).



Burley, Mikel (2006) Classical Samkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. Online: Taylor and Francis.

Larson, Gerald James (1998) Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning. London: Motilal Banarsidass.

Parrot, R. J. (1986) “The Problem of the Samkhya Tattvas as Both Cosmic and Psychological Phenomena.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 14: 55-78.

Ramakrishna Rao, K.B (1963) “The Gunas of Prakrti According to the Samkhya Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No. 1: 61-71.

Sharma, Chandradhar (1997) A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Widgery, Alban (1930) “The principles of Hindu Ethics.” International Journal of Ethics Vol. 40 No. 2: 234-237.


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Article written by: Jillian Koenen (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Sacred Lotus Symbol

The lotus is an iconic flower, originating in Southern Asia, which has claimed a place as a prominent symbol in ancient history, remaining as such today. It is through a combination of religious and symbolic connotations, nutritional and medicinal applications, and sheer aesthetics and laudability in its natural life cycle that have facilitated the lotus’s significance. While there are many species of lotus flowers across Asia, the Hindus’ Sacred Lotus is scientifically known as the Nelumbo nucifera. This perennial flower grows in the muddy waters of shallow pools throughout Asia (Kew n.d.). It possesses a unique nanostructure of its leaves which provides an uncanny self-cleaning ability, allowing the flowers to emerge from the mud without tarnish (Kew n.d.). This natural trait has facilitated symbolic reference towards the flower; rising out of the mud, untouched by the filth, resonated with ancient thinkers, philosophers, and religious peoples. Furthermore, beyond its life cycle, the lotus holds many unique properties which benefit human nutrition and health. Studies have found that this ancient plant, consumed throughout Asia, is highly nutritious and retains a number of medicinal properties from gastrointestinal regulation to bad breath remedy to insomnia reduction (Zhang et al 323,324). The relevance to health and wellness worked well with the divine reference in ancient Vedic scripture, where the lotus gained connections to the gods, to build the foundations of an icon.

Even as far back as the holy sruti texts of the Rgveda, the lotus finds its home in Hinduism’s spiritual origins. One translation of the Rgveda expresses the first mention of the lotus in the form of a metaphor (RV 5.LXVIII.7-9). The verse seems to describe a well wish for an unproblematic delivery of a child. One interpretation is that the metaphor of the wind ruffling the lotuses evokes auspiciousness in regard to the delivery (Garzilli 295). The lotus also appears in connection to the birth of Agni in Rgveda hymn XVI (Garzilli 300). There Agni is recognized as one of the two most worshipped gods of the scripture alongside Indra, God of Thunder. This initial reference to birth and divinity can be seen as a starting point for the symbolism of the lotus in later literature and practice. Although its presence in the sacred text elevates it to a status of divinity, its connection with the gods does not end with Agni and the Rgveda; rather it appears again and again throughout Hindu scripture.

Laksmi is the consort of Visnu, one of the most renowned gods in the Hindu pantheon, and she appears in each of Visnu’s reincarnations as his wife, should he have one. She is seen by the followers of Visnu as the “mother of the world” (Kapoor 1083), and maintains a close connection with the lotus, having her abode within the flowers themselves (Mahabharata LXVI). The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism details the story of her birth: from the great churning of the sea, Laksmi was brought forth inhabiting the lotus and was “…covered in ornaments and bearing every auspicious sign…” (Kapoor 1083). She held lotus flowers in each hand and was called the Goddess Padma, meaning Lotus. Laksmi holds many names and many titles, just as the sacred flower does; she is the goddess of wealth, auspiciousness, fortune and luck. The auspiciousness of the lotus may be due in part to the connection between the flower and the great goddess of luck. Indeed, followers of Vaisnavism, one of the main sects of Hindusim, hold Laksmi in high regard, believing she is the very power of Visnu to govern and protect the universe (Encyclopedia of Asian History 1988). As the goddess of the Lotus, this symbol becomes specifically significant to the Vaisnavas, although its significance is by no means confined to them.

Beyond the auspiciousness and fortune of the lotus in its connection to Laksmi, the creator god Brahma ties in early references of the lotus to the concept of rebirth. Though there are many stories regarding the origins or birth of Brahma, one depicts the god being born on a lotus flower from the navel of Visnu, the great unifying principle (Coulter and Turner 105-106). In fact, it is common for Hindu gods and goddesses to be depicted sitting on a lotus throne, as a gesture of divinity, purity, and a power (Lee and Nadeau 69). Even beyond its connection to the creator god, the lotus is one of Visnu’s four attributes, standing as a symbol of creation (Timalsina 70). Furthermore, the sacred plant and deity, Soma, is believed, by some, to be the Sacred Lotus (MacDonald 150-152). Referenced in the Rgveda, (RV 8. XLVIII.3-4,11) Soma is deified, worshipped, and even expressed as offering immortality.  There are numerous theories on the true identity of Soma and the Lotus would indeed be a likely candidate with its medicinal properties and previously established connection to the divine.

Each of the factors mentioned have played a role in the Sacred Lotus becoming an icon of Hinduism. The flower’s natural life cycle and biological properties make it both admirable and valuable. Its presence in the Vedas and its connection to popular deities, including its potential identity as a deity (i.e. Soma), make it sacred and spiritual; these aspects, and more, have elevated the wild flower of Asia to an icon of the Hindu faith. And yet, beyond its religious connotations, the sacred symbol of the lotus has spread, with the Hindu tradition, into the very culture of India.

In Indian art and architecture there are 8 symbols of auspiciousness. Among other key symbols like the conch shell (sankha) and the wheel (cakra), the lotus (padma) is incorporated into Indian art, bearing powerful symbolism in regard to divinity, purity, and auspiciousness (Gupta 30). Throughout numerous temples and shrines erected to worship various gods such as Siva and Surya are stone carvings, motifs, and statues accents by the image of the lotus (Harle 139, 144). Beyond the presence of lotus imagery, there is a further, subtle connection between Hindu architecture and the lotus in the very structure of Hindu temples. Rising up in tiered domes, or buds, the temples are said to resemble Mount Meru, a sacred cosmic center in Indian religions (Gupta 30). The mountain itself holds extensive symbolic reference to the cosmic lotus, standing as point of origins of creation and divinity (Mabbett 71,72). The intertwining of lotus imagery and symbolism into such a vast range of concepts as mountains to temples to health to the divine creates a picture of the depth of the symbol’s place in Hinduism.

As the powerful symbolism of the lotus transcends the centuries, it ultimately finds its place in the modern day as an icon for businesses, a symbol of peace or tranquility, a reference to Indian religion, and more contemporarily so, as an image of a movement sweeping Indian politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a popular political party in contemporary India with a unique platform of defining “. . . Indian culture in terms of Hindu Values. . .” (Britannica 2014). The party poses the lotus as their logo, utilizing the religious symbol to gain the favor of Hindus (Malik and Singh 321). For the Hindu population, standing behind a banner bearing the Sacred Lotus of India, a central icon in the ancient tradition, may mean standing behind Hindutva, or Hindu national identity, embodied in the sacred meaning of the lotus. This connection between the divine flower and the national identity of India reveals just how deep the roots of the lotus symbol are. Even before the rise of the BJP party, the lotus held the title of national flower for its sacred symbolism, according to the Government of India (Government of India 2016). The connection between the Indian subcontinent and the lotus, beyond any single faith, expresses the significance of the flower even beyond its place as a religion icon.

To this day, the lotus stands as a symbol related not only to Hinduism, but also to numerous other religions, historical and modern alike. The lotus appears historically in ancient Egyptian religion where it held connections to birth, including that of the sun god, Ra (Renggli 220), and was used as an apparent hallucinogen (Sayin 291). Buddhists adopted symbolic meanings of the lotus very similar to the Hindus, viewing it as a representation of one’s personal journey through the muddy waters of samsara towards blossoming, pure and perfect, into Nirvana (Prasophigchana 103-104). The lotus is also representative of enlightenment through the idea that those who have attained it will rise above the world like a lotus rises above the muck and filth. Jains also view the lotus as a sacred symbol of purity and power. Within the tradition are 14 auspicious dreams and eight auspicious marks, the lotus claiming a place in both lists (Fischer and Jain 22). The Jains also maintain the portrayal of their founders (tirthankaras) as seated or standing on lotus blossoms, as seen Hinduism with respect to their gods (Lee and Nadeau 69). As the religions of India spread across the globe, the iconic image of the lotus continued to diversify and grow, maintaining its significance while transforming with the times. From the Rgveda to Indian Politics, the sacred flower of Hinduism has certainly left its mark on history and continues to do so today.


Coulter, C.R. and Turner, Patricia (2000) “Brahma.” Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities pg 105-106. North Carolina: MacFarland & Company Inc. Publishers.

Brittanica (2014) Bharatiya Janata Party. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

Fischer, Eberhard and Jain, Jyotindra (1978) Jaina Iconography. Part 12: 22. Leiden: Brill

Garzilli, Enrica (2003) “The Flowers of Rgveda Hymns: Lotus in V.78.7, X.184.2, X.107.10, VI.16.13, and VII.33.11, VI.61.2, VIII.1.33, X.142.8. Indo-Iranian Journal. Volume 46, Issue 4: 293-314. Dordretch: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Government of India (2015) “National Symbols.” National Portal of India. New Delhi: National Informatics Center.

Gupta, Swarajya Prakash (2002) Elements of Indian Art. 29-30. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Harle, J.C. (1994) The Arts and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Kapoor, Subodh (2000) “Laksmi.” The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Volume 3. Edited by Subodh Kapoor. 1083-1087. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Kapoor, Subodh (2000) “Symbolism.” The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Subodh Kapoor. Volume 4: 1171-1714.  New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Kew (n.d.) “Nelumbo nucifera.”  Kew: Royal Botanical Gardens. Surrey: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Lee, Jonathan H.X. and Nadeau, Kathleen M. (2011) Enclypedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife. Edited by Jonathan H.X. Lee and Kathleen Nadeau. Volume 1: 22. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mabbett, I.W. (1983) “The Symbolism of Mount Meru.” Chicago Journals. Volume 23, Issue 1: 64-83. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macdonald, Andrew (2004) “A Botanical Perspective on the Identity of Soma (Nelumbo Nucifera Gaertn.) Based on Scriptural and Iconographic Records.” Economic Botany. Volume 58: 147-150. Texas: Economic Botany.

Mahabharata. “SECTION LXVI. Sambhava Parva.” Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-96).

Malik, Yogendra K. and Singh, V. B.  (1992) “Bharatiya Janata Party: An Alternative to the Congress (I)?” Asian Survey. Vol. 32, Issue 4: 318-336. DOI: 10.2307/2645149

Prasopchigchana, Sarunya (2011) “Symbolic Representation in Buddhism.” International Journal on Humanistic Ideology. Volume 4, Issue 2: 101-111. Cluj-Napoca: International Journal on Humanistic Ideology.

Renggli, Franz (2002) “The Sunrise as The Birth Of A Baby: The Prenatal Key to Egyptian Mythology.” Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health. Volume 16, Issue 3: 215-235. Forestville: Association for Pre & Perinatal Psychology and Health.

Rgveda. “HYMN LXXVIII. Aśvins.” Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896).

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism the Ebook. Pennsylvania: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sayin, H. Umit (2014) “The Consumption of Psychoactive Plants During Religious Rituals.” Neuroquantology. Volume 12, Issue 2: 276-296. Bornova Izmir: Nova Science Publishers.  DOI: 10.14704/nq.2014.12.2.753

Timalsina, Sthaneshwar (2012) “Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantric Traditions.” International Journal of Hindu Studies. Volume 19, Issue 1: 57-91

_____ (1988)”Vaishnavism.” Encyclopedia of Asian History. Charles Scribner’s Sons (1988). World History in Context.

Zhang, Yi , et al, (2015) “Nutritional composition, physiological functions and processing of lotus (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) seeds: a review.” Phytochemisrty Reviews. Volume 14, Issue 3: 321-334. Netherlands: Springer. DOI: 10.1007/s11101-015-9401-9


Recommended areas of Research:

Padma (Sanskrit word for Lotus)

8 symbols of auspiciousness

Visnu & Laksmi

Mount Meru


Nelumbo nucifera


Useful Websites:


Useful Books:

The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent by James C. Harle

Elements of Indian Art by Swarajya Prakash Gupta



Article written by: Jessica Knoop (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its contents.


River Goddesses

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).

Bas-relief of the Hindu river goddess Ganga at the Ellora Caves (Ellora, India)
Bas-relief of the Hindu river goddess Ganga at the Ellora Caves (Ellora, India)

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).



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

Water rituals

Hindu goddesses

India’s geography

Pilgrimages in India

Water in India

Rivers in India


Mother rivers

Seven sindhus










Sraddha rites

Ganga Dusehra

Makara Sankranti

Vasant Panchoumi



Ritual pollution

Ritual purity


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Jaelee Kryzanowski (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.



The Sacred Cow

The sacrality of the cow is an ancient, but common custom to most Hindus. The concept of zebu cattle (go) as an important part of society in India has been dated back to the times of the Harappan civilization. During post-Harappan times, the Aryans, who were pastoral cattle herders would also have known of the importance of the cow in a functioning agricultural society. This may be part of the reason why there are frequent references to cows associated with various deities in the Vedas (O’Toole 61). Despite the natural predator-prey relationship that would be expected to form between them, the Hindu people and cattle share a different type of bond. Archaeological evidence suggests that cattle, especially the bull, were elevated to a more prominent status than that of a mere food source. Through numerous representations of seals and figurines depicting domestic zebu cattle, collected over time, one can come to understand the level of significance the cow has played in the history and development of the Hindu religion.

Cow sitting amid the debris of temple flower offerings (Varanasi)

The principle of noninjury to living beings (ahisma), which began to develop near the end of the Vedic period, is heavily applied to cows and bulls in the Hindu religion. Sometimes, this attitude can be taken exceedingly seriously (Korom 188). For instance, an anti-cow-slaughter legislation has been proposed and protected by the constitution of India. The sentiment for cow protection was at a climax during the “Anti-Cow Killing” riot of 1893, where riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out over the public demonization of those who consumed beef (Yang 580). Many Hindus practice vegetarianism, which is encouraged in verses from The Laws of Manu (Buhler 100). Although consumption of beef is considered taboo in orthodox Hinduism, numerous other cow by-products are found useful in everyday life (Rodrigues 117). It is obvious that the issue of cattle treatment is very sensitive to the Hindu people, and if agitated it has the potential to become reason for violence.

Devotion to the cow is displayed in a great deal of the religious, domestic, and social customs of the Hindu people; the use of cow ghee is popular in religious and household practices and for Hindus, it is not unheard of to have a cow inside one’s house (Crooke 277). Vedic literature suggests that the economic aspects of the cow were portrayed as having vital roles in sacrifices (yajna), which were held to maintain the cosmic order (rta). Along with being victims of the sacrifice, the goods produced from cattle were used for oblation (havis) (Korom 187). Cow products, including ghee, milk, urine, and dung are commonly used in many Hindu practices and household rites (grhya). Often, a Hindu may apply a mark to their forehead (tilak) made from a mixture composed of several natural ingredients, including cow dung. Usually, this mark is indicative of sectarian affiliation, but can have different symbolisms as well (Hawley 252). It is clear that for many Hindus, cows can easily be an inherent part of everyday life.

Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India

Hindu scriptures have been interpreted to describe cow worship and reinforce the concept that cows are a sacred part of the Hindu tradition. Collectively, cattle are depicted more often than any other animals in Vedic literature (Korom 187). The Vedas have equated the cow with the mother of gods, Aditi, the earth (prthivi), cosmic waters, maternity, poetry, and speech (vac) (Jha 38). Vedic myths may also portray cows as the cosmic waters from which the cosmic order (rta) is established. A Rg Veda myth also equates the calf with the sun, as a pregnant cow may be responsible for such aspects of creation as water, heat, and light (Korom 190).  In the Atharva Veda X:10 the cow is praised and its body parts are depicted as giving rise to all aspects of life itself (Embree 40-41). The Rg Veda describes numerous hymns dedicated to the worship of cows, where they often appear as symbols of wealth and rivers (Srinivasan 161). Although expressive of the important role of the cow in Hindu society, Vedic literature possesses little evidence to suggest the concept of non-violence (ahisma) towards cattle was applicable at that time (Korom 187). In more recent literature, ahisma appears to have become more prominent. The term is mentioned several times in the Bhagavad Gita, and presents itself in the closely related religions of Jainism and Buddhism (Korom 188). Also, being a highly influential text, although not divinely perceived (smrti), The Laws of Manu have influenced the customs of many Hindu people by discouraging eating meat, drinking liquor, and carnal intercourse (Buhler 100). The cow has also appeared as a goddess (devi) in Hindu mythology. For example, Kamadhenu, a wish-granting bovine-goddess was believed to have emerged from the churning of the Milk Ocean (Rodrigues 308). Thought to have originated from a similar fashion as Kamadhenu, the Vedic goddess of glory, Sri, was thought to be linked with the fertility of the land and to have had an abode composed of cow dung (Rodrigues 317). The Hindu epics (itihasa), particularly the Mahabharata, and the puranas also serve to provide justification of the orthodoxy of cattle (Korom 189).

Evidently, the sacred cow practice is a vital element of Hindu culture. Since they give seemingly limitless useful products, but take nothing but grass and water, cattle as symbols of benevolence and generosity are frequently recognized and supported by many Hindu texts. The ideal of preserving life has resulted in a widely environmentally friendly approach by much of the Hindu population. The belief in reincarnation after death, and following of the Dharmic ideal has undoubtedly influenced the vegetarian diet practiced by many Hindus. Of course, not all Hindus take part in vegetarianism or cow-worship, but it is safe to assume that the higher status of the cow is accepted as a norm for much of the Hindu culture.


O’Toole, Therese (2003) Secularizing the sacred cow: the relationship between religious reform and Hindu nationalism. New Delhi : Oxford University Press

Korom, Frank J. (2000) Holy Cow! The apotheosis of Zebu, or why the cow is sacred in Hinduism. Asian Folklore Studies 59 (2): 181-203.

W. Crooke (1912) The Veneration of the Cow in India. Folklore 23 (3): 275-306.

Embree, Ainslie T. (1996) The Hindu Tradition: Reading in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc.

Rodrigues (2006) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Yang, Anand (1980) Sacred Symbol and Sacred Space in Rural India: Community Mobilization in the “Anti-Cow Killing” Riot of 1893. Comparative Studies in Society and History 22 (4): 576-596.

Hawley, John (2006) The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Srinivasan, Doris (1979) Concept of the Cow in the Rigveda. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

Jha, D.N. (2002) The Myth of the Holy Cow. New Dehli: CB Publishers.

Buhler, George (2008) The Laws of Manu. Charleston, South Carolina: Forgotten Books.

Related Research Topics






Laws of Manu



Rig Veda

Related Websites

Holy Cow: The Holiness of Hindu Herds (reprise)

Article written by Janine Andreas (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Environmental Ethics

Since the beginning, humanity has been nourished by the various elements that constitute nature. However, use of the diverse renewable and non-renewable resources at our disposal, such as water, soil, fossil fuels, and metals, have not until quite recently translated into the abuse of our environment (Freedman 192,194-195,267-270). Due to the reality that our earth is, for the most part, a closed system, we must come to terms with the fact that sustainability is the means to a continued survival (Freedman 192). The current issues concerning our one and only planet are attributed mainly to those of the biosphere, global warming, waste, pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear proliferation (Crawford 168). Developing countries today are center stage for big industry, and when combined with high population density, immediate and distant habitats frequently take on an increased amount of debasement (Freedman 14-15). For this reason, countries such as India and China are some of the global leaders in reference to environmental degradation (Freedman 15). Granted the prevalence of Hinduism in current day India, it could perhaps be beneficial to instigate an analysis of these religious views in order to adopt a suitable approach for assisting in sustainable development. This paper will not only attempt to cultivate awareness of how common Hindu ideologies have contributed to greater environmental stress, but will also offer insight into how various Hindu views and practices could potentially assist the developed world in its struggle to preserve this planet.

The seemingly new concerns with, and increasing proximity to the environment that tend to be arising these days are not necessarily fresh in the minds of most Hindus. Notions of interdependence and connectivity with nature are said to stem nearly 3000 years back to pre-Aryan religion in the Indus Valley Civilization. [For more information of the Indus Valley Civilization, see (Rodrigues 8-12)]. Though there is no explicit literature to evidence these claims, archaeologists have unearthed a variety of artifacts that are substantially indicative of our assumptions. These relics include animal figurines of terracotta, “proto-Siva” models bearing horned headdresses and surrounded by plants and animals, and depictions of women surrounded and interwoven with trees (Rodrigues 11). As the Vedic age came to be, beginning at around 1500 BCE and lasting until around 600 BCE, religion in India, although undergoing some drastic changes, continued to value the relationship between humanity and nature. Animals were regarded so highly with the Dravidians that wild creatures symbolized many of their gods (Crawford 169). Deities such as Usas (god of the dawn) and Aranyi (goddess of the forest) emerged and, due to yajna, were perceived in terms of having a mutualistic existence with humans (Crawford 170). [For more on yajna, see (Rodrigues 28-33)]. In addition to this, various hymns to the goddess Prthivi(goddess of the earth) in the Rg Veda develop on the sophisticated ideas of environmental sustainability (Crawford 171).[For more on Rg Veda, see (Rodrigues 25,37,48-49,55,57,180)]. The notion of rta was another significant concept born of the Vedic age. This view entailed the belief that ethical order be combined with the elements of an existing physical and natural order (Crawford 170). By extension, rta was characterized not only by the laws of gravity and the rhythmic beat of a heart, but also by personal development, and therefore proper human agency. Although originating in a very distant past, these roots of modern Hinduism are essential to understanding the views presented and lived by nearly a billion people residing in India today.

When it comes to the problem of biodiversity, one usually does not immediately conjure thoughts of negative connotation. However, the truth is that human beings everywhere are carelessly decimating other forms of life at an unprecedented rate. According to Crawford, our race will push 100 species of plants and animals into extinction every day for the next 30 years (184). Unlike western civilization, Hinduism does not discriminate against life on the basis of its size or attractiveness. According to Hindu philosophy, the tiniest insects have as much of an inherent right to exist as an elephant or a whale. When any type of organism disappears, so does our ability to learn from that creature, as its genome is lost forever (Crawford 184). Hinduism criticizes the lack of ahimsa(the avoidance of violence) due to economic greed. The common excuse that protecting the environment will result in the loss of employment is fictitious, in that artha(wealth/skill) and dharma(righteousness) can thrive interdependently (Crawford 186). With the case of overpopulated third world countries, in which poverty is rampant, many believe that the resources to worry about non-human life are not available. However, in Hindu perspective, even these countries need to be aware and acquainted with the long-term results of their current economic activity (Crawford 185). Consider the following quote from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad:

“…In so far as beasts and birds, even to the ants find a living in his

houses he becomes their world. Verily, as one wishes non-injury for

his own world, so all beings wish non-injury for him who has this

knowledge. This, indeed, is known and well investigated.” (Nelson 52).

This philosophical view points clearly to the interdependence that humanity has always shared with nature.

People everywhere are talking about global warming. The whisper of climate change that began several years ago is quickly becoming a desperate cry for a reversal in trends. Leaders from around the world are meeting to try and figure out what can be done about the 37% increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution (Freedman 316-318). Even before this epidemic, Hinduism went to great lengths to ensure sanctity of trees, which are one of the best means by which carbon can be reabsorbed from the atmosphere (Freedman 324). Manu(i.e. Laws of Manu[see (Rodrigues 57-58)]) spoke elaborately about how plants and trees can feel comfort and despair, and believed that they were beings of sentience (Crawford 189). Through this, planting trees became a dharmic act, and certain laws were even set in place to punish those for harming trees of various importance to nature and society (Crawford 190). Forests were seen as being appropriate places for ascetics and renouncers to practice their ways, mainly because the forest could fulfill both spiritual and bodily requirements (Crawford 189). However, although Hindus are theoretically meant to ask permission to the tree before taking its life, whether or not they do is trivial when looking at the bigger picture. Big industry across the globe is the number one producer of these destructive emissions. Many people perceive countries such as India and China to be the first in the ranks for pollution. Be that as it may, despite the fact that India consumed nearly double the energy of Canada in 2001, Canada’s per capita rate was nearly 18 times that of India (Freedman 15). Has the issue become one of overpopulation, or unacceptable standards of living?

In society’s linear structure model of its relationship with the environment, raw resources are brought in, and waste is pushed out. Certain elements are cyclical, such as water and forestry, however all aspects of what enters must be replaced, in order to sustain our living conditions (Freedman 204-206, 524). In New Delhi, although 3,880 tons of garbage are produced each day, 1,460 tons are left ignored on the city streets (Nelson 200). This is due to a social tendency that constitutes pushing these impurities away from oneself. Garbage follows a trail from home to street, then from the localized streets it is dumped on the periphery of the neighborhood, and it finally accumulates across the urban border (Nelson 202). According to Hindu ethics, not only is it wrong to produce lavish amounts of waste without considering the consequences, but it is also needless to revert back to the days of subsistence living (Crawford 192). In order to maintain our current economic activities, as Crawford explains, the Hindu believes that we must embrace the ways of recycling and restraint (192). On the other hand, Nelson argues that the issue of garbage in India is caused by a religious twist that is distinguished by prevailing tradition (201). Due to the religious framework displayed in particular by the caste system, recycling is done at the cost of social status. Brahminical literature (Brahmins are the top class in Hindu social organization) elaborates on the fact that dirt, and by extension garbage, risks putting the individual in a state of impurity, which affects one’s ability to worship the gods (Nelson 206). Therefore, the low status members of society such as the sudras(servant class) and the “untouchables” must handle this waste. It has been evidenced that loss of status has even been expressed towards those of brahminical descent exploiting this industry. Nelson argues that in order for India to rise above this destructive disposition, we must somehow find away to increase the status of the recycled object (207).

The problem of population in itself is not really an issue, though as population increases, it amplifies the complications of waste, global warming, and resource consumption. Studies show that the population of India will overtake that of China by 2030, simply due to current rates of increase (Crawford 194). The reason for this exponential rate of increase in India is attributed to three factors, the first of which being that it is considered dharmic to produce a large family unit. These perceptions undoubtedly stem from the Vedic years during which there was not only a great deal of agricultural activity, but a higher death rate due to warfare and infant mortality (Crawford 195). The second reason for such high birth rates relates to how women are perceived in Hindu society. Of the five elements of marriage, the wife’s role has grown increasingly in the direction of prajati, or parenthood. Rather than focusing on sakhya (companionship between two individuals), a woman’s foremost purpose in marriage is to bear many children (Crawford 197). Thirdly, such high population in India is a consequence of the principle of sraddha(funeral ceremony), and its requirement of a male to properly worship dead ancestors (Crawford 197-198). Manu also devalues female birth in his writings, not directly, but rather by putting great emphasis on the importance of having sons (Crawford 197). Although these are ancient traditions,it seems contradictive for a religion that considers all life as equal to go to such lengths to exalt one sex over another. As Crawford states: “…yesterday’s dharma is today’s adharma(non-righteousness)” (195).

While the west is encountering problems of waste and pollution due to overconsumption and prosperity, India is facing the same troubles due to overpopulation and severe poverty. We learn from Hinduism that the concepts of karma(Rodrigues 50-51,57), interconnectedness, and interdependence are the basis of respecting the other forms of life that surround us (Crawford 176-183). One may also contemplate the view ofBrahman; how the application of this premise suggests that distancing of oneself from nature is ignorant (Crawford 201). [For more on brahman, see (Rodrigues 36-37)]. Finally, it has been ascertained that certain traditional philosophies in Hinduism may no longer be helpful in establishing a sustainable world for humanity. These include ideals such as those that parallel value with large families (Crawford 195), as well as those that view the community’s recyclers as impure or objectionable (Nelson 1980).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Crawford, S. Cromwell (1995) Dilemmas of life and death: Hindu ethics in a North American Context. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Nelson, Lance E. (1998) Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India. Albany: State University of New York.

Freedman, Bill (2007) Environmental Science: A Canadian Perspective: Fourth Edition. Toronto: Pearson Canada Inc.

Koli, P.A. (2005) Economic Development and Environmental Issues. New Delhi: Serials Publications.

Haberman, David L. (2006) River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York and London: Routledge.

Related Topics For Further Investigation





Global Warming

Laws of Manu





Sustainable Development

Related Websites

Written by Thomas Fox (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.