Water and Womanhood: Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra

By Anne Feldhaus | Go to book overview

describes the preferred emotional stance of the devotee toward God. If rivers are powerful at doing away with evil, perhaps this is not so much because their water cleanses as because it wets: it does away with aridity, and therefore with sterility. It makes things right again, when they had been dreadfully wrong. It does not merely remove evil, rinse it off, or tidy it away. It transforms the sinner, as the monsoon does the parched brown hills of the Deccan Plateau.

If a model of transforming wetness is indeed the one assumed in the Māhātmya stories about human evil, the power of rivers to remove sin is essentially similar to their ability to make the earth produce plants. The fact that rivers do away with sin is then related in much more than an accidental way to the forest identity of the lands through which the rivers flow, to the feminine identity of the rivers themselves, and to the rivers' role in promoting agricultural and human fertility. If this is the case, then the theme of fecundity that has been traced in this book may be not just one among several aspects of the religious significance of rivers in Maharashtra, but the central meaning of rivers in India in general.

Even if my suggestion cannot be substantiated, and Maharashtrians do not understand rivers' power to remove sin in terms of their power to make things wet, the continuity I have sought to show between the river Māhātmyas and other kinds of religious responses to rivers in Maharashtra remains valid. For the themes of the femininity of rivers, the abundance they foster, the natural wildness they represent, and their role in making possible, but also threatening, the lives of children--all these themes of Maharashtrian oral traditions and religious practice have been shown to have their counterparts in Māhātmya stories. Only Kṛṣṇābāī, along with the other modern river goddesses, does not yet appear in a Māhātmya. Given the strength of her cult, though, among the kinds of people who in the past have written Māhātmyas, it seems quite likely that Kṛṣṇābāī, too, will soon find her way into textual form.


NOTES
1.
The Sun's making people hot, Viṣṇu's beating demons, and Yama's tormenting people in hell are general tendencies rather than specific acts told of in some one story.
2.
See Kane 1968-1975: 4:24.
3.
The other three are killing a Brahman, drinking alcohol, and stealing (a Brahman's) gold ( Kane 1968-1975: 4:17-23; Rocher 1980: 68, 70-71). Sinners of these four types are mentioned together in the Bhīmā Māhātmya ( BM 20.40-41) and the Tāpī Māhātmya ( TM 66.112), while the Kṛṣṇā Māhātmya ( KM.Skt 5.74) gives a partially overlapping list, leaving out the gold thief and either adding the son who commits incest with his mother (mātṛga) or naming him as a type of violator of his guru's bed (mātṛgo gurutalpago). KM.Mar 5.88 also adds a simple adulteror (parastrīgamanī), apparently to fill out a line. All of these mahāpātakas are represented in Māhātmya stories, but drinking liquor and stealing gold occur much less often than the other two.
4.
The idea that the raped woman must be purified (whether because she too is somehow at fault, or because, though blameless, she has been defiled) is also found in a story in the Narmadā Māhātmya: under the rule of Rāvaṇa, demons ran wild and, among other crimes, raped the gods' wives. At their husbands' wish, the gods' wives performed asceticism at the confluence of the Aparā and the Narmadā ( NM 35).

-186-

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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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