The Apotheosis of Water and its Inevitability
in Indian Culture, Part Two


Triveni: Goddesses Ganga Ma, Yamuna and Saraswati

Mar 13, 2015 — CANADA (SUN) — A paper by Dr. Gauri Mahulikar, presented for a study on the ancient, traditional water and agricultural management systems of India, in three parts.


Due to its continuous flow, a river is always regarded as clean, pure and holy. It is a purifier as it washes the physical dirt and dust and metaphorically cleanses the impurities of the mind. The river is called nadi as it makes sound while flowing. It has a watery attire.

These details helped the personification of the watery mass in the river. It's the anthropomorphic form of a lady, a mother who nourishes her children (people on her banks) on the milky white pure water. Interestingly, payas, a Sanskrit word, denotes both water and milk. It can be derived from the root pa, to drink, as well as from the root pyai, to nourish.

Ganga is depicted as dancing on Siva's locks, her body below the waist undefined and almost formless, like a tapering wavy mass. The river is tender at heart and sympathetic to all. At times she is viewed as a young mother, bending a bit while breast-feeding her child and at some places she is considered to be a shy maiden bending to be embraced by her lover (Rigveda III.33.1). Thus all types of female relationships are superimposed upon her, yet the image of a sustaining mother has been preserved in our tradition, both in literature as well as art and architecture.

The Rigveda glorifies the River Sarasvati as the best mother, best river and best goddess (Rigveda II.41.16). On her lap, the children of the soil could sit and muse without thought of the future, depositing all their worries and sorrows in her ever-flowing streams and totally relying on her for their wellbeing. This is nadimatrka way of life.

There are idols of rivers having jets of water from their jar-like full breasts and some are carrying food and water for men in a tray and water-jar respectively. The ancient text says, "water, verily is food" (Kausitaki Br. 12.3).

Taking bath or a dip in a river is regarded as holy and purifying. It washes the dirt and the immaculate waters of knowledge wash away the impurities of ignorance. During consecration, the king is given a ceremonious bath. This ritual is known as hiranyagarbhadanavidhi. It signifies the new birth of the king. [ ]

For a common man, however, bath is a physical feature. Even in Ayurveda, bath with herbs gets a special treatment. Bath in the ocean is regarded as more holy, naturally because many rivers flow in their purity and thus add to the sanctity of the ocean.

Once divinity and purity are associated with the river, some restrictions and taboos creep in. The Grhya Sutras ordain that one should not take bath without clothes. (Asv. Grhya Sutras III, 9.6.8). Nude bath is as good as insulting and humiliating the deities residing in waters. The famous episode of Ciraharana in the Bhagavata Purana illustrates this. There Krsna tells the Gopis that they have disregarded the divinities by taking nude bath and that they will have to appease and pacify their wrath by worshipping Shakambhari deity. This is a mother goddess and vegetation personified, as the name suggests.

The iconic representation of the river is many times presented as Apsaras. There are instances of many apsaras turning into rivers. The pattern is set. Indra is worried about the austerities of some seer, sends one of his heavenly nymphs to seduce the ascetic. The ascetic curses the nymph to turn into a river and then mitigates the curse by saying that she would regain her proper form upon flowing into some major river. Mula, Mutha and Nira, all tributaries of the River Bhima in Maharashtra, are said to be named for such nymphs, who were liquefied in this way.

In relation to the ocean, which is seen as masculine, the rivers that flow into it are seen as wives. Sometimes, some kings marry these rivers and beget sons, whereupon they get freed from their curse. The famous stories of Santanu marrying Ganga or King Samvarana marrying river Tapi are too well-known to be quoted here.

The name apsaras is associated with water. In fact, the apsares are the divine dancers, moving in waters. They can be helpful and benign; but at times they are harmful. That is why one has to be very cautious while entering any unknown water place. The yaksaprasna in the Mahabharata hints at this harmful aspect, though in a male form. In Maharashtra these are called sati asara or parya. The phonetic similarity of this word pari with the English word of the same meaning, 'fairy', is noteworthy. These are female goblins. Many times they are accompanied by a male, not their husband, but a guardian protector, like a foster brother. He is called mhasoba, joting or vetal. These are ghosts.

Thus it is clear that the folk river goddesses can be harmful at times. They take human form, especially of young maiden, dressed in white saris. These folk goddesses of rivers normally have a shrine or a temple at the riverside. Dr. Dhere and Dr. Morwanchikar have dealt with this concept in detail, and I won't repeat that here. They are treated as married ladies, called suvasini. They are offered green glass bangles. There is a rite called oti bharane, filling the lap of the river like that of a suvasini with coconut, a blouse piece, grains of rice or wheat, a betel nut, turmeric powder and kumkum. This is a good wish for fertility. This rite is also performed when a new irrigation plant is inaugurated, a canal is thrown open or a dam is built. This is not just greeting the river goddess, but is a desire to appease her, to urge her not to cause any harm. Even during floods, rivers are placated by throwing a coconut in the stream. This can be compared with the customary throwing of coconut in the ocean by the fishermen on the full moon day of Sravana.

The names of rivers like Godavari or Gomati are apparently linked with cow. A folk-tale in Andhra Pradesh tells that once Garuda snatched away the calf of a cow and flew. The cow followed its shadow on the earth. While the cow was chasing, milk was oozing from her udder. That turned into the River Godavari.

According to the Brahma Purana, Parvati was jealous of Ganga on Siva's head. She, in consultation with Ganesa, sent her friend Jaya in the form of a cow to the hermitage of the sage Gautama. The sage tried to drive away the grazing cow with a blade of grass. The cow died. The sage then propitiated Siva and asked for Ganga. Ganga descended at the hermitage. In her flow, the cow got revived. That stream is called Godavari, giver of the best cows.

In the case of others too, they are seen emerging from Gomukha. Indra is said to release the water-cows from the clutches of the demon Vrtra or Pani (Rigveda I.32.11 and many more references). Other animals associated with rivers are fish, tortoise, serpents and elephants.

Ganga Ma


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