Rivers and its Religious Associations

Continuing the celebration of Godavari Dussehra, let us today explore one of the dominant themes of ‘Rivers and its Religious Associations‘.

Through this article, I attempt to highlight a path-breaking research work of Anne Feldhaus called Water and Womanhood: Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra (1995). It is a key text that unravels the cosmos of religious associations that revolve around the rivers in the state of Maharashtra. By conducting an engaged ethnographic study in Maharashtra, the author brings together a critical analysis of religious texts as well as the oral and folk traditions. With the support of these tangible and intangible sources of information, the author suggests that positionalities of women or goddesses in Indian societies have influenced the evolution of practices and traditions associated with the rivers.

The following excerpt summarizes the overall theme and significance of this book:

“In India, rivers are a focus of religious attention. This book examines some of the religious attention people give to rivers in Maharashtra, the major region of western India where the Marathi language is spoken. In preparing this book, I have used both written religious texts and oral, iconographic, and ritual materials that I gathered in the course of fieldwork in Maharashtra and neighboring regions. My intention is not so much to set the texts and the other kinds of source materials against each other as it is to show ways in which the two types of materials complement and reinforce each other. I intend to demonstrate a fundamental congruence between Sanskrit and Marathi sources, oral and written texts, and Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical rituals, festivals, and deities.

Despite striking and important differences in style between “folk” and “classical” traditions in India, there is an equally striking, equally important, deep-seated agreement with respect to at least one cluster of religious values: wealth, beauty, long life, good health, food, love, and the birth of children. The agreement extends not only to holding these things to be valuable, but also to associating them with rivers. These values are values of this world. They treasure the good things of this world, and affirm that human life is inherently worthwhile.

Until recently, such values have been relatively neglected in the academic study of Indian culture, and popular conceptions of India in America and Europe are still by and large blind to them. India is seen as a land of extreme poverty and misery, and Hinduism is portrayed either as a religion that emphasizes mysticism and world renunciation or as one that gives prime importance to the accumulation of merit, the cultivation of purity, and the removal of pollution. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to bring to the fore another set of values: that of the domestic realm (Khare 1976), of “non-renunciation” (Madan 1987), of the “auspicious” (V. Das 1982; Marglin 1985b). The present study is intended to further the understanding of this realm of values in India.”

Apart from covering several rivers of Maharashtra like Krishna, Tapi, etc., the book has elaborately discussed the allegories and popular culture associated with Godavari, throughout its course in this region. Several themes under which the author has discussed the how the rivers are imagined, worshipped, and even feared are – (i) Mountains, Rivers, and Siva: Relation between the origin of a river and Lord Shiva, (ii) The Femininity of Rivers: This narrates how the femininity of rivers in deeply embedded in social conscience of the societies in the form several folk traditions, (iii) Abundance: This illustrates how the presence of a river is associated with abundance, (iv) Untamed Natural Wealth, (v) Sons and Sorrow: This describes traditions associated with birth of children, (vi) Modern River Goddess Festivals, and (vii) Combating Evil: This draws attention towards the notion of fighting with the evils through several rituals.

Finally, I would say, this book explains multiple layers and complexities of our associations with our rivers, which is essential of all river lovers to understand. Also, the Marathi translation of this book, done by Vijaya Deo titled नदी आणि स्त्रीत्व, is also available.

I hope you enjoy this book. Let us meet again tomorrow with a different outlook.

-Shilpa Dahake | Facebook

* The facts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author.

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I am an architect turned anthropologist. After finishing my Masters in Anthropology from University of Pune, I was working with Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune under a project funded by UNICEF and Integrated Child Development Scheme, Government of Maharashtra. During which I was stationed in Nandurbar District of Maharashtra (which is predominantly a tribal region) as a Field Research officer. Currently, I am a doctoral candidate in Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, India. My current research explores the interaction of the cultural-religious, the political-economic and the ecological dimensions of the river in Nashik city in Maharashtra. Broadly, investigating how the multiple perspectives of a natural resource overlap, contradict, challenge and support each other, thus shaping the urban landscape and producing socio-spatial inequalities.

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