Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001
Of myths and legends
While a few rivers of the hoary past have disappeared, most of them have survived the vicissitudes of time, the rise and fall of civilisations on their banks, their continuous flow suggesting the passage of ages. Even when their gross origins are traceable, their real sources remain hidden, suggesting their role as the link between the mysterious and the mundane. No wonder that some of the most sublime and poetic experiences of the ancients should remain crystallised in the myths and legends around them.
The major civilisations saw the presence of divinities in the rivers. Among the oldest Egyptian records are to be found references to Hapi, the presiding spirit of the Nile, "who defies all description and sculptural depiction and whose true dwelling can never be found." The Babylonians worshipped the Euphrates and the Tigris as gods and the Greek and Roman practices were not very different, though Homer projected the ocean itself as serpentine river encircling the earth.
In civilisations other than India, the major rivers were father figures while the rivulets were nymphs. In India, however, we find major rivers projected as two distinct groups: Indus (Sindhu), Brahmaputra, Son (Sonabhadra), Gogra and a few others, broad but not too deep, are male; Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada, Cauvery and Godavari, long and deep, are female.
Once upon a time, Hapi, the god of the Nile was worshipped. But the only river in the world which has continued to receive daily ritual obeisance, in the open and generally in the presence of thousands of devotees since times immemorial, is the Ganga at Hardwar, while some other river goddesses (such as the Narmada) are worshipped inside their shrines.
The Puranas present the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Narmada, Sindhu and Cauvery as the most sacred of rivers. Indisputably foremost among them is the Ganga. The myth concerning the genesis of the Ganga in heaven and the legend of its descent on earth, prominently highlight both the roles the sacred water is expected to play in the life of man - as the giver of life and remover of sin or curse.
While the legend of the descent of the Ganga in response to prayers of Prince Bhagiratha, whose ancestors had been reduced to ashes by Sage Kapila, and the sublime flow resurrecting the dead is popular, the mystery of the Ganga possessing that power may not be that widely known. Once while returning to the heavens after one of his trips to earth, the sage Narada saw a group of beautiful beings in a hidden Himalayan valley. His closer observation showed that every member of that group had lost a limb or bore some other mark of torment. At the sage's repeated request the supernatural beings narrated their woes. They were ragas and raginis, the spirits behind the musical modes. Every time a musician sang with vanity or twisted the modes, the concerned being received a blow. Thus had they been maimed by generations of musicians. Narada - embarrassed because he was a musician himself - asked them what could undo the wrong they had suffered. if only they could have an opportunity to listen to the perfect musician, they said. Who was the perfect musician? None but Lord Shiva, the source of music.
At Narada's appeal, the God agreed to perform, but on condition that he must have at least one perfect listener in his audience. Who were the perfect listeners? There were only two of them - Brahma and Vishnu and both were only too happy to report at Kailash along with the ragas and raginis.
As Shiva began to sing - no words can ever describe the vibrations his song created - something unexpected happened. Vishnu became so thoroughly identified with that flow of that music that if not his body, his aura began to melt down. Brahma captured it in his Kamandalu and preserved it. That is the divine stuff that became the celestial river and later flowed down to earth, once again Shiva playing a unique role in the process as the first absorber of the shock of that mighty descent.
This is the myth that justifies the dead returning to life, figuratively establishing that nothing was impossible for the Grace flowing from the Divine, that death could be vanquished only by that supreme power.
Ganga, stone sculpture, c. 12th Century.
Rarely can poetry match the concept behind the genesis of the Narmada. On the peak of Amarkantak, Shiva sat in trance for a long time. The very beauty of His calm poise, the magnificence of that total immobility, suddenly took a form, that of a sweet damsel. She bowed to her father who blessed her saying. "You've inspired tenderness (narma) in my heart, you're Narmada."
Shiva also blessed Narmada so that she ever remained free. But that was not easy. Soon the gods were irresistibly attracted towards the frolicsome beauty and when one of them tried to take hold of her, she turned into a river and slipped through his fingers.
If the first part of the myth hints at the mystic link between the formless (Shiva's poise) and the form, the second part highlights the majesty of freedom, its defiance of the offer of even a godly status.
It is not always easy to decipher the river-myths. If Vipasha is so named according to the story because it opened the pasha (bondage) of Sage Vashistha, restraining him from drowning, the name surely hints at an occult faith, that the river can help one to snap one's bondage to ignorance, just as a resolve to end one's life was an act of ignorance.
Even when we descend from myths to legends, the legend of the Cauvery proves to be of unmistakable significance. At a time when there was a drought in the land of king Thondaman, the just-born river's course was diverted to his kingdom by King Kavera of Coorg, at the behest of Sage Agastya, the river thus symbolising sympathy between two lands.
Foremost among the rivers that had disappeared is Saraswati. While the latest research establishes the authenticity of its existence, the Rig Veda reference to it would continue to intrigue the scholars unless they realise that the Rig Veda was hardly a record of facts on the surface. The Saraswati, the Driadvati and Saraswati following its Vedic description was inevitable. But the reference to the river in the epic Mahabharata and in Bana's Harshacharita appear to be closer to the new discoveries about its course.
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