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. 

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