Water and Womanhood: Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra

By Anne Feldhaus | Go to book overview
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The Femininity of Rivers

That rivers are feminine is a fact of life in Maharashtra. Here, as elsewhere in India, the names of rivers are almost all grammatically feminine, and they are used freely as the names of girls and women. 1 The American "Old Man River" is hardly to be found. The major masculine rivers of India, the Brahmaputra and the Indus, lie far outside of Maharashtra, and are not particularly important to Maharashtrian culture. 2 A few minor, masculine rivers are named in the Maharashtrian river Māhātmyas, but nothing more seems to be made of their gender beyond the sheer grammatical fact of it. 3 The feminine rivers, on the other hand, often appear as females in stories about them, and are honored ritually in ways more appropriate to women than to men. In this chapter, I present some of the narrative, ritual, and iconographic evidence of the femininity of rivers. In addition, I introduce the cults of three kinds of female divinities associated with rivers in Maharashtra. And, finally, I begin to analyze what the idea of rivers' femininity means. In this chapter, the analysis involves a discussion of the marital status of rivers and river goddesses.

Rivers as Feminine

Visual representations all over India depict Gaṅgā as a woman, or goddess, who rests in Śiva's matted hair. The story of Pārvatī's jealousy of Gaṅgā occurs in folk versions from many different places, 4 as well as in textual versions like the one from the Gautamī Māhātmya summarized in Chapter 1. In addition, there are many other iconic and narrative indications of the femininity of various rivers. We have already seen one of these indications, in the oral story of the origin of the Kṛṣṇā. This story implies unmistakably that the woman (named Kṛṣṇā) who jumps off the cliff becomes the water of the river.


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Water and Womanhood: Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra


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