Sons and Sorrow
For embodied beings without recourse who are distressed by the sufferings of life in this world, to embrace their sons is the supreme cause of rest.
The dangerousness of rivers in Maharashtrian cultural imagery includes a perception that they threaten the birth and survival of children. But Maharashtrians also see rivers and river divinities as helping people to get children--in fact, children, and especially sons, are perhaps the most highly valued of the "good things of life" that rivers and river divinities provide. The present chapter examines these themes in three different types of materials relating to rivers: in a Māhātmya story, in the cults of folk goddesses of rivers, and in the cult of the Sātī Āsarā. Chapter 6, which describes the modern, urban river goddess cults, includes a discussion of the place of babies and children in those cults.
If food and wealth are fundamental values in Indian culture, children are another. The birth and survival of children, especially sons, provide the concrete motivation of an enormous amount of religious practice in India, and a good deal of religious theory is dedicated to explaining infertility and the death of children. If embracing one's sons brings rest, the converse is also true: the death of a child or the failure to conceive children (especially sons) is a torment. It is a heartrending sorrow that is nowhere easy, and one that in India is by no means rare.
In India, the importance of having children, in particular a son, can be explained in part on economic grounds, as a kind of social security arrangement for one's old age and a provision for the inheritance of one's worldly goods and the carrying on of a man's family line. In addition, in the ritual realm, a son is needed to perform his parents' funeral rites and to make the ongoing Śrāddha offerings for the ancestors. But the significance of children in Indian culture goes far beyond any list of concrete reasons that could be given for needing or wanting to have a child.
In the Māhātmyas of the rivers of the Deccan, the most poignant and complex story about the love of sons and the fragility of their lives is that of King Hariścandra. This story, which is found in our texts in the Godāvarī Māhātmya ( GM.Skt 34; GM.dg