River Goddesses in Hindu Mythology

Rivers have played a pivotal role in the evolution of Indian civilization. During ancient times when technology was not as advanced as it is today, people used to dwell along river banks for easy access to water that would be used for drinking, bathing, irrigation, transportation, and also as a food source. In India, all the rivers except the Brahmaputra, are revered as goddesses for their feminine nature of sustaining life.

river-goddess-hindu-mythology
Image via Wikimedia Commons

India not only derives its name from the river Indus (Sindhu), but it is also the foundation of Hinduism, a faith practised by the majority of the country's population. According to the Vedas, Saptanadi or the seven sacred rivers of the subcontinent are Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Indus or Sindhu, Narmada, Godavari, and Kaveri. Out of these, Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati also play a significant role as goddesses in Hindu mythology.

Ganga

Goddess Ganga is frequently shown as having fair skin, seated on a crocodile, holding a water lily in one hand and the musical instrument lute in the other. As it is r egarded as the purest river, t here are several stories of her origin in Hindu mythology, but the most popular is the one in which Lord Shiva uses his matted locks to control her fierce water currents as she descends to Earth.

Goddess Ganga by Joseph David Beglar via Wikimedia Commons

The tale of Ganga's descent to earth begins with Lord Rama's forefather, King Sagar's desire to perform a horse sacrifice to please Gods and gain more power. Fearing that he would be overthrown, Lord Indra, the King of Gods, stole the horse that was supposed to be sacrificed and tied it outside Sage Kapil's monastery. Realizing that his horse was missing, the king sent his sons to seek for it.


After searching for sometime, the princes found it at the sage's residence. They assumed that the sage had stolen it and began to abuse him verbally while trying to free the horse. Disturbed by their unruly behaviour, the sage used his yogic powers and burned them into ashes.


Worried, King Sagar requested his grandson, Prince Anshuman to search for the princes. As he reached Sage Kapil’s ashram, he found a pile of ash and the horse and understood what had happened. Anshuman met the sage, begged for his forgiveness, and asked for the deceased princes’ salvation.


The sage claimed that only Goddess Ganga, who lived in the heavens, could wash away their sins and free them. Prince Anshuman and his son Dilip tried multiple times to please Lord Brahma, but all in vain. However, Prince Bhagirathan, Anshuman’s grandson, performed rigorous penance and convinced the Lord to send Goddess Ganga to Earth. Brahma agreed, but Ganga thought it was an insult to descend Earth. She resolved to increase her water currents so much that it could destroy anything that came her way.

lord shiva-ganga-flow
Lord Shiva contains Ganga in his matted hair, via Wikimedia Commons

Prince Bhagirathan realized her power and prayed to Lord Shiva to let the River flow through his matted hair. Pleased, Lord Shiva contained Goddess Ganga in his hair and was titled Ganagadharan. When Ganga finally descended from the heavens, the water touched the ashes, and all the forefathers of King Bhagirathan attained salvation. Even today, thousands of people visit the river to purify themselves and pray for their sins to be forgiven. She also appears in the famous epic Mahabharata as the wife of King Shantanu and mother of Bhishma.


Yamuna

The Yamuna is the second most revered river in Hinduism and the principal tributary of Ganga. She is depicted as having a dark skin complexion, holding a pot in her arms, and standing on a tortoise.

goddess-yamuna-holding-pot
Goddess Yamuna by G41rn8 via Wikimedia Commons

In Hindu Mythology, she is the daughter of Surya, the Sun God and Sanjana, the Goddess of Dawn and clouds, and the twin sister of Yama, the God of death. The tale of Yamuna's birth is quite an interesting one.


Surya's wife, Sanjana, could not tolerate the bright light emitting out of her husband. Despite being told not to resist, she could not help but blink, as Surya's rays were extremely powerful. He felt insulted and announced that their son would be called Yama, which means restraint, and their daughter would be called Yamuna, who would be worshipped till the end of time.


Due to his bright rays, Sanjana could not bear to live with Surya anymore and left her Chhaya, i.e. shadow, in her place. After Chhaya gave birth to her own children, she started mistreating Yama and Yamuna. Fed up of being treated badly, Yama stomped on Chhaya's foot. She felt offended and cursed him that his legs would decay, be infested with maggots and that nobody could save him from the curse.


The Yamuna could not bear to see her brother suffer to death, so she descended to Earth and started praying for him with all her heart and soul. After realizing that she could not save him, she became so distressed that her tears formed into a river and started destroying life on the planet. This river came to be known and worshipped as 'Yamuna'.

As Yamuna cried uncontrollably, the Gods and Goddesses realized that she was stuck in time. The night did not exist, and there was only one day that lasted forever, i.e. 'today'. So, they decided to create darkness, and for the first time, the sunset. With time, Yamuna gradually overcame her grief and recovered. The river, which was created by her flow of tears, calmed down and instead became a source of life and livelihood.

Saraswasti

Goddess Saraswati is frequently depicted in Hinduism wearing a white saree, with four arms holding a Veena, a book, a rosary, and a pot, and seated on a lotus by the side of a river. These symbols reflect several attributes of the Goddess, including knowledge, truth, wisdom, and speech. She is a member of the Trinity of Goddesses, along with Lakshmi and Parvati, parallel to the Trinity of Gods, consisting of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh (Shiva).