Sacred Rivers as Divine Ecology

I. Why Rivers Are Sacred

“When Indra slew the demon He removed the cloud covering the sun—the source of water. The liberated rivers ran upon the earth like mother cows, eager to suckle their young.” Ṛg Veda 1.61.10 

I’d left Jabalpur on a public bus at dawn, heading toward the source of the Narmada River at Amarkanthak. Squished against the metal side of the crowded vehicle, I watched the beauty of Madhya Pradesh’s central hinterland go by in the morning light. 

We crossed many valleys and rivers before arriving at a bridge crossing the Narmada River for the first time. The bus stopped. People started to pray loudly. One lady leaned over me, whispered some grievances over a coconut and tossed it into the swirling waters below. Another gentleman with a pair of chickens sitting behind me kept shouting joyfully, “Jai Mā! Jai Mā!” 

I wondered of all the rivers we’d crossed in our journey why this one was so special. No other river elicited this much emotion, this much reverence. I questioned what makes one river more sacred than another. And I contemplated the relationship between mythology, landscape, and theology that come together in equating an ordinary river with a divine status. 

My research assistant, Babita, sitting next to me, interrupted my thoughts. She asked, “In America do you believe rivers are goddesses?” I thought about the Mississippi River—our largest—and shook my head. “No, I’ve only ever heard it referred to as ‘Old Man River.’” 

Babita twisted her face. She wondered incredulously, “How could anyone think of a river as an old man? Everything about them is feminine. Everything about them brings life.” 

In Vedic thought, water (āpaḥ) is the womb of all things. It’s the primal element from which all forms emerge and to which they all return. In the Mantra Pushpam (a collection of verses offered at the end of all fire sacrifices), it is said that, “One who knows the source of water becomes established in herself.” 

Rivers are sacred because they carry you toward the source, yet contain the source— water—themselves. They are a metaphor for life. They describe the journey from birth to death. They wash away everything that has been, making new ground for growth. 

The elements of nature—especially the water of sacred rivers—form a kind of “divine ecology” that’s at the basis of the Vedic worldview. Through nature we reach the gods and the gods reach us through nature. 

There are three reasons why India’s seven holy rivers are more sacred than others in a country teeming with flowing waters. First, they originate in the creation of the universe. They’re part of the limitless ocean of Being from which the world evolves and dissolves back into. They define the sacred landscape of India as a mirror of heaven. The natural world is a perfect reflection of the spiritual world. 

Second, the seven celestial rivers were “brought down” for the salvation of beings and the elimination of “sin.” They are equivalent to soma, the elixir of immortality and the nectar of the gods. They are potent sites of redemption. 

Third, the rivers are tīrthas (“crossings”) whereby one can cross the ocean of saṁsāra (“transmigration”) and attain freedom from rebirth. They are portals to heaven. 

Together these three aspects of the seven sacred rivers form the basis for the Vedic notion of “divine ecology.” Mircea Eliade describes sacred rivers as “hierophanies” in his Sacred and Profane because they manifest heaven on earth. Devotees see them as living goddesses. They are the source of sanctity, fertility and sustenance. Civilians rely upon them for food production and water supply. The seven sacred rivers of India have defined her civilization for centuries. And yogis discover them within their own body-minds as the energetic rivers of consciousness that make up the subtle nervous system. 

II. Sacred Rivers Connect Heaven & Earth 

There are many myths that narrate how the seven sacred rivers of India were released to earth, creating a bridge to heaven and establishing a divine ecology here. 

The Vedas envision heaven as overflowing with seven celestial rivers that were once swallowed by a demon, Vritra, causing drought and chaos everywhere in the universe. The leader of gods, Indra, engaged the demon in a great struggle and finally pierced him with his vajra (thunderbolt). The waters then rushed forth from his belly and spilled out toward earth, where they became the sapta sindhu (“seven rivers”) that define the geography of the Vedic civilization. 

The Nadi Stuti Sukta (“Hymn in Praise of Rivers”) found in the 10th Maṇḍala of Ṛg Veda enumerates actually ten such celestial rivers, of which the Ganga is supreme. Later in the Epic and Puranic literature, the term sapta sindhu refers to the seven sacred rivers that are popularly revered today: Sindhu, Sarasvati, Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari and Kaveri. 

Each one weaves her way through the fabric of mythology and geology to establish a uniquely Vedic notion of “divine ecology”—linking theological principles with the flow of water. 

The Sindhu (from where we get the word “Hindu”) defined the center of Vedic civilization. The underground Sarasvati merged with the goddess of speech, music and knowledge as the “undercurrent” of an enlightened society. The Ganga became the portal for the safe passage of ancestors to heaven upon death. The Yamuna became the witness to the life of Krishna and his joyful exploits. The Godavari served as a shelter for Rama, Lakshman and Sita during the years away from Ayodhya. The Kaveri is said to be the garland around Lord Vishnu’s neck. And the Narmada—the daughter of Shiva—became “the Giver of Delight.” 

Of the seven, the Ganga is revered as supreme—flowing through the very heart of India —and yet contains the essence of the other six. In the subtle body, the Ganga is the suṣumna nadi, the central “river” of kuṇḍalinī (liberating energy) that leads to the ocean of Pure Being from which it arises. In this way, there’s no separation between the heavenly and earthly landscapes and the landscape of the human nervous system. In the Vedas, “ecology” is not separate from body and mind. 

III: Sacred Rivers Offer Redemption 

I come to you as a child to her mother. I come as an orphan, to you, moist with love. I come without refuge, to you, giver of sacred rest. I come to you, a fallen person, uplifter of all. I come undone by disease, to you, the perfect physician. I come my heart, dry with thirst, to you, ocean of sweet wine. Do with me whatever you will.

~ Ganga Lahiri (Jagannatha); trans., Diana Eck 

It was going to hurt like hell. But I was going in anyway. I’d been here twice before in my life so I knew the drill. 

The first time was when I was 18 and I needed to get over the grief of having lost a carload of friends in a drunk driving accident while I decided to stay home that night—and lived.

The second was after a skiing accident took my father’s life during my dissertation “research year” and I’d offered a pinda dan (“soul release”) ceremony on his behalf. 

And now on the third occasion, I’d come back to Haridwar on the Ganges River to get over yet another painful ending. I’d just sent off my divorce papers from a roadside shop that displayed an obscure “Fed Ex” sign hanging beneath a menu offering samosas and chai. I enjoyed both while the chai-wallah—doubling as a notary clerk—stamped and sealed my fate. 

I felt dead. 

I felt dead, which is why I’d come to Haridwar to begin with. This was Hari’s dwar, the door that you walk through when you want to leave your old life behind. 

Hindus leave behind the ashes of their dead here. They submerge them in the Ganga that flows through the town. She’s the door. She’s the door you have to walk through when things end in your life. Her other name is “Surrender.” 

This was the same Ganga that was going to poke me with a million sharp needles as soon as I had the courage to go in. It was freezing. It was December. It was going to hurt like hell to let go. But I knew I had to. I was going in. 

You have to grab hold of a chain as you enter the river Ganga, otherwise her current is so strong she’ll sweep you clear away to the Bay of Bengal. Yet the chain presents you with a conundrum: How am I supposed to surrender and hold on at the same time? 

But you have to. This is the ultimate challenge of living a human life. 

So I held on while I slipped on a mossy rock which pulled me toward her like a mother to her breast. “Here. Come here. Be comforted,” she seemed to say. 

And I was. I let go and held on. I let her wash all over me. I laid back and let her flow through my hair and along my spine. It was going to be okay. I was going to be okay. 

I felt myself part of a flow that knows where to take me. Of all the things I have to figure out in my life, this part I didn’t. The river took care of that. 

The redemptive water of rivers is one of the most significant features of Vedic divine ecology. Water is cleansing not only physically, but also washes away the remnants of karma—the results of our thoughtless and binding actions. A dip in the sacred river that comes from heaven removes the taint of our past deeds. It gives us a new birth. 

The river as redeemer arises in many myths, the most important involving the “foot” of Vishnu and the “head” of Shiva. 

During the Vamana (“dwarf”) incarnation of Vishnu, he took possession of the three worlds with his three strides offered as a boon from the demon Bali. With his third stride, he punctured a hole in the vault of heaven and released the celestial Ganga. As she poured out to earth, her waters passed over his lotus foot acquiring the redemptive power of its “red pollen-like dust.” 

Bathing in the Ganga is like being showered with the blessings of Vishnu’s divine foot. And to submerge your body in her waters is to receive the Lord’s śaranam (“redemption”) from whatever karma clings to your jīva (“transmigrating soul”). 

In another myth, King Bhagiratha of the Ikshvaku dynasty learned that his forefathers had fallen victim to a curse that forbade them from entering heaven. They remained frozen in stone.

To release their souls, Bhagiratha fled for the Himalayas where he engaged in a brutal course of spiritual austerities for one thousand “god” years. 

As he stood on one leg with arms prostrate to the sky, Bhagiratha implored Ganga to descend to earth and liberate his 60,000 grand-uncles with her redemptive waters. But she told him her force would be too much for the earth to bear. She requested he elicit the blessings of Lord Shiva who alone could soften her blow. 

Shiva obliged the request of Bhagiratha and allowed Ganga to flow down through the mats of his dreadlocked hair. They seemed to tame her and she gently flowed to earth. The king then led her to the ashes of his ancestors which she washed away toward heaven. 

To take a “holy dip,” offer the “soul” of one’s departed relative, and place their ashes in the cleansing waters of Ganga is to reenact the myths of Vishnu and Shiva. It cleanses your body-mind-soul from head to toe, with water flowing from the foot and head of the cosmic Being. 

IV. Sacred Rivers Grant Liberation 

“Svarga sopana sārinī… The ladder that flows to heaven, Ganga. 

~Adi Śankarācarya, Gaṅgāṣṭakam (8 Hymns in Praise of Ganga) 

I clutched onto the round ball of dough as if it really were the body of my Dad. 

It had all seemed so unreal up until then…his untimely accident, my sudden return to the USA, and the funeral. That all happened in a blur and I found myself back in India to complete my dissertation research. Seeing I was in no shape for any new interviews, my research assistant suggested instead I perform a pinda dan (“soul release”) ceremony on behalf of my father on the banks of Ganga at Haridwar. 

I thought of my adventurous father and how cool he would have thought it to have his “body” offered to the holy Ganges River. I was game. 

We hired a Kashmiri priest who requested a new dhoti, some cash and a promise to feed 108 other brahmins and their cows in exchange for releasing my father’s soul to the Ganga—for his freedom. It didn’t seem like a large cost to me for that.

After the transaction, I sat opposite the priest next to Ganga as he invoked my father’s soul into a dough ball he’d covered with sandalwood paste and marigold petals. As I listened to his Sanskrit invocations, I felt the presence of my Dad and revisited scenes from his life. I was actually enjoying it. 

And then came the hard part. 

I had to let go of the ball of dough. I had to let go of my father. Suddenly Ganga’s waters seemed really fierce and cruel, raging as they do at Haridwar. Releasing him into that torrent felt like I was erasing him. 

But that’s what freedom is. It’s crossing the ocean of appearances that you think are so real but actually are as fleeting as that ball of dough. Once it dropped from my hands, the water tore it apart. It never existed. 

Sacred rivers are sacred because they are tīrthas, “crossings,” where you can cross over from bondage to freedom. They’re places where heaven and earth meet. A tīrtha is a portal between worlds. When you enter the river, you cross to the other side. 

The myth of the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” describes the link between the sacrality of rivers and the nectar of immortality. 

Once the worlds were covered in a great ocean of milk that enclosed within its depths the nectar of immortality. With the chance of never-ending life, the gods and demons both wanted it and engaged in a “tug of war” to attain it. 

Together they churned the ocean of milk until the god of healing, Dhanvantari, emerged from its depths bearing a pot containing the precious nectar. 

A scuttle ensued. The pot was snatched. And in the commotion, four drops fell to earth and became tīrthas—portals to the infinite. One fell at Haridwar on the Ganga River. The second dropped at Prayag where the Yamuna, Sarasvati and Ganga Rivers conjoin. The third descended at Nashik on the Godavari River, and the fourth at Ujjain on the Shipra River. 

These potent sites are the locus of a re-enactment of the myth during the Kumbha Mela festival. Once every 12 years when the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Saturn are in an astrologically significant alignment, the possibility for liberation is available at any one of these four tīrthas. 

To enter the river at that auspicious moment is to dissolve in freedom. No other time allows such easy transport to the other world—the world that mirrors ours. The attainment of perfect unity between human and divine is the fulfillment of divine ecology. 

The river has carried you across.