Rivers in Ancient India (study)

by Archana Sarma | 2019 | 49,356 words

This page relates ‘Naturural elements worshipped as god’ of the study on the rivers in ancient India as reflected in the Vedic and Puranic texts. These pages dicsusses the elements of nature and the importance of rivers (Nadi) in Vedic and Puranic society. Distinctive traits of rivers are investigated from descriptions found in the Vedas (Samhitas), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads and Puranas. The research is concluded by showing changing trends of rivers from ancient to modern times.

3. Naturural elements worshipped as god

In the study of the history of religions, the Vedas occupy a very important position. Its oldest source presents us an earlier stage in the progression of beliefs based on the personification and worship of natural phenomena than any other literary monument of the world. In the days of a prosaic antiquity, the Aryan mind apprehended the true significance of the phenomena of nature intensely.

The early man must have led a dynamic life and would have enjoyed the wealth of nature and leisure. When civilization grew, nature provided a never ending puzzle to his power of understanding. There were days of plenty and peace as well as days of violence and destruction. There were two forces of nature-friendly and hostile. The friendly forces of nature were-sunshine, rain, fire, dawn, river etc., and the hostile forces of nature were draught, darkness and causes of disease and death. Sometimes, the phenomena of nature appeared hostile to men. They often caused injury to men. The sun was painful like the heat of the summer and the lightning could injure. The river could cause damage in the form of flood. Traditionally, the early man believed that if they did not pay regard to these phenomena of nature, they would be angry with them. When rain did not fall they thought that it was the anger of the sky-god. For timely rain, they worshipped the sky-god. The early people worshipped the various terrible phenomena of nature for the sense of awe and terror.[1] The power and sublimity were seen in the realm of nature. This has made man conscious of his weakness and developed a sense of dependence on those phenomena. It compelled them to worship the phenomena of nature. Gradually, the supernatural powers were also conceived existent in all natural things. This belief gave rise to the conception of a universal impersonal power pervading all nature. The different types of appearance were presented through the different phenomena of nature, e.g. the river flowed, the clouds wondered in the sky, the trees waved under the wind, the sun and the moon journeyed across the heaven every day. There are some objects which impressed them by their size are—a huge tree, a broad river and a high Mountain. Similarly, some other objects such as lightning and the storm confused man by their strange and sudden occurrences. The primitive mind must have been very intrusive and naturally from the very inception of civilization they tried to explain things which they saw around them. The ancient Indian did not possess tools of explanations. Man tried to know the origin of things and was led to suggest explanation of them. Creation, sustenance and destruction were assigned to the forces and phenomena of nature. The magical formulae and rituals were regarded as having the power of controlling the phenomena, of men or of preventing various diseases. People tried to affect the supernatural for their own ends through magic. People were compelled to believe in the omnipotence of the supernatural power for their helplessness. It inspired them to send forth their prayer to the various phenomena of nature. This belief almost amounts to blind faith and this is the root of the various phenomena of nature were elevated to the rank of gods.[2] Natural phenomena were given the distinct personalities of gods by the method of personification.

In the philosophical hymns of the Vedas, the origin of the gods is mostly connected with the elements of water.[3] In the Ṛgvedasaṃhitā,[4] it is found that a triple origin, apparently corresponding to the triple division of the universe, is attributed to the gods when they are said to have been born from Aditi, from the waters, from the Earth.

The identifications of the Vedic gods are seen in the Ṛgvedasaṃhitā. The gods are conceived as many in one. In the Veda, one god is identified with another as well as with all the other gods. In this regard, mention may be made of Agni. The Vedic seers mentioned the identification of fire in heaven and earth.[5] Yāskācārya has referred this identity of Agni with lightning in air and Sun in heaven on the authority of Śākapuṇi.[6] In another hymn of the Ṛgvedasaṃhitā, Agni is identified with other gods and goddess like Indra,[7] Viṣṇu, Brahmaṇaspati, Varuṇa,[8] Mitra, Aryamān, Rudra,[9] Savitṛ,[10] Aditi,[11] Bhāratī, Iḍā, and Sarasvatī. Varuṇa is indentified with Indra.[12]

The Vedic seers acclaimed a number of groups of gods which form a troop and mentioned only in plural, viz. the Maruts, the Ādittyas, Rudras, Vasus etc. They were jointly worshipped in a group with the name of Viśvedevā, i.e. all gods. The reason for this is that all the Vedic gods are personified phenomena of nature. These phenomena are interrelated which encouraged the people to worship the nature gods in a group. Aitareya Brāhmaṇa Keith also supports this view.[13] The function of extending the earth and sustaining of air and the sky were attributed to many deities, e.g. sometimes Indra, sometimes Varuṇa, sometimes Viṣṇu, sometimes Agni. According to Keith, ‘the result was that the tendency was certainly steadily growing throughout the period of the Ṛgvedasaṃhitā to regard the gods as closely related’[14]

The natural elements were given the status of celestial mothers during the Ṛgvedic period. In this period, they were considered in the form of rivers and pools. In such cases, the personification is well developed and ascribed with significant attributes. There are fertility goddesses in the Ṛgvedasaṃhitā. They are—Āpaḥ (personified waters), Sarasvatī (the river goddess and speech), Sinīvālī (personification of a lunar phase). There are some female deities which are called the supreme one of the class as their mother. In this way, Sarasvatī becomes the mother of all waters.[15] Araṇyāni, the presiding deity of forest, is the mother of all wild beasts,[16] Dawn is the mother of rays of light.[17] It is clear from the above discussion that natural elements can be considered as gods and goddesses.

Footnotes and references:


cf., Chaubey, B.B., Treatment of Nature in the Ṛgveda, p.134


cf., Srivastava, M.C.P., Mother Goddess in Indian Art Archaeology & Literature, p.87


Ṛgveda Saṃhitā, 10.121; 10.129


viśvā hi vo namasyāni vandyā nāmāni devā uta yajñiyāni vaḥ | ye stha jātā aditeradbhyadyaspari ye pṛthivyāste ma iha śrutā havam || Ibid., 10.63.2


divaspari prathamaṃ jajñe agnirasmad dvitīyaṃ pari jātavedāḥ | tṛtīyamapsu nṛmaṇā ajasramindhāna enaṃ jarate svādhīḥ || Ibid., 10.45.1


ayamevāgnirvaiśvānara iti śākapūṇiḥ| viśvānarāvityapyete uttare jyotiṣī | vaiśvānaro’yaṃ yat tābhyāṃ jāyate || Nirukta, 7.23


Ṛgveda Saṃhitā, 2.1.3


Ibid., 2.1.4


Ibid., 2.1.6


Ibid., 2.1.7


Ibid., 2.1.11


Ibid., 4.42.3


Keith, Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, The Religion and Philosophy of the Vedas and Upaniṣads, p.88


Vide, Ibid.


Ṛgveda Saṃhitā, 7.36.6


mṛgānāṃ mātaraṃ janayitṛ araṇyānim | Sāyaṇācārya’s com. on Ibid., 10.146.6


Vide, Griffith, R.T.H., The Hymns of the Ṛgveda on 7.77.2, p.372

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