Water and Womanhood: Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra

By Anne Feldhaus | Go to book overview

portant, rivers are the means of producing the things that an ascetic renounces. Even in Māhātmya stories about asceticism performed at rivers, the successful ascetics perform their acts of self-restraint for the sake of obtaining good health, long life, beauty, marriage, children, wealth, food, or sovereignty. These are all things that the religious materials related to rivers in the Deccan show the rivers to be rich in, or eminently able to provide. These things are also ones that, in India as in other parts of the world, the dominant cultural imagery more often associates with women than with men.

The next four chapters of this book illustrate rivers' connection with these values. In addition, by examining another feminine role that is often ascribed to rivers and river divinities, the next chapter also explores another essential aspect of their femininity. The role is that of mother, and the aspect of their femininity is the fact that they provide food.


NOTES
1.
This is the case despite an earlier prohibition on naming women after rivers. See D. Kosambi 1962: 61, citing Manusmṛti 3.19. A man from Pune explained the prohibition as follows: rivers don't stay put (and, he implied, women should). Conversely, said the same man, neither men nor women are generally given the names of mountains; this is because mountains never go anywhere.
2.
I have not had the opportunity to do fieldwork at or near these rivers. Thus, I have been unable to discover whether their ritual and iconographic treatment is similar to or different from that of the feminine rivers of Maharashtra. The only Marathi reflection on the masculine rivers of northern India that I have been able to find is a poem called "Sindhu-nada-varṇan" written in 1874; although the poem does not seem to make much one way or another of the river's gender, the introduction to the published version ( Nene 1917-1918) notes that the Sindhu is said to flow from a stone lion's head (not from a cow's head, like the feminine rivers of Maharashtra), and that Sikhs call it "Siṃkā Bāp" ("Lion's Father?", "The One Whose Father Is a Lion?" Or, as S. G. Tulpule has suggested to me, "Sindhkā Bāp," "The Father of Sindh?") Otherwise "Sindhu" occurs in Maharashtra primarily as a name for women.
3.
I have not been able to find any information about the ritual, iconographic, and mythological treatment of such masculine rivers. When I asked R. C. Dhere, the foremost scholar of popular religion in Maharashtra, about this, he told me point blank that there are no masculine rivers in Maharashtra.
4.
For example, Ranganna 1955: 157 and Ramanujan 1986: 66.
5.
There are many variants of the story. Some of the apsarases are turned into rivers for having disturbed a sacrifice instead of an ascetic regime; sometimes it is another kind of woman, not an apsaras, who is turned into a river; and in at least one case, apsarases are turned into female water buffaloes instead of into rivers ( TM 62.75-81). In one story ( GM.Skt 74; GM.dg 24.71-84), a woman whose husband speaks harshly to her responds by becoming a river and inundating him, thus resolving their marital strife and bringing about peace between them.
6.
The Muḷā and Muṭhā Rivers flow together at Pune, and proceed from there to the Bhimā under the joint name Muḷāmuṭhā. The text ( BM 26.33) could also mean "Mulāmuṭhī" as the name of a single apsaras.
7.
Ud᛭s 1891: 52-53. This story is central to the Puṣkar Māhātmya (see Malik 1993).

-60-

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Water and Womanhood: Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Contents ix
  • A Note on Translation and Transliteration xi
  • Abbreviations xiii
  • Introduction 3
  • Notes 17
  • 1 - Mountains, Rivers, and Śiva 20
  • Notes 36
  • 2 - The Femininity of Rivers 40
  • Notes 60
  • 3 - Abundance 65
  • 4 - Untamed Natural Wealth 91
  • Fish 109
  • 5 - Sons and Sorrow 118
  • Notes 142
  • 6 - Modern River Goddess Festivals 146
  • Notes 169
  • 7 - Combating Evil 173
  • Notes 186
  • Appendix A. Water to the Gods 193
  • Appendix B. Images of Modern River Goddesses 198
  • Appendix C. Modern River Goddess Festivals 201
  • Bibliography 203
  • Index 227
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