Sacred Lessons From the Mother River

Nagas, Snakes in Hinduism

The Rivers symbolize life, duty, detachment, renunciation, divinity, purity, time, and sacrifice.

by Jayaram V

In Hinduism rivers are considered sacred and worshipped as divinities. As Hindus, we worship them as aspects of the Mother Goddess. She has both pleasant and unpleasant forms. She is the creator as well as destroyer. It is difficult to imagine our existence upon earth without rivers. Rivers symbolize many things and aspects of life and creation. They represent the very movement of life and the forward motion of time. Human civilization and life upon earth have become possible because of rivers only. Rivers also symbolize the impermanence and change that are inherent in our existence. They also exemplify detachment, renunciation, duty, purity, sacrifice, and relationships. They make possible diversity of forms upon earth and play an important role in the renewal and recycling of resources. The following are ten important facts about rivers and their correlation to human life.

1. Rivers give up everything

Rivers exemplify selfless service. They facilitate the flow of water from one source to another but do not keep anything for themselves, giving to the earth, the sky and the ocean what belongs to them. After nourishing life upon earth in various ways and helping many, they become empty, giving up the remaining water to the oceans. By that, they teach us an important lesson about renunciation, suggesting that instead of assuming ownership of things and becoming selfish, one should help others to the extent possible. One may pursue wealth (artha) and pleasure (kama), but in the end one has to become empty and merge into the infinite Self.

Flowing river

2. Rivers move on.

Rivers flow along the paths carved by the earth. They are Nature's awesome creations. When they are in a flow, they move continuously as if nothing can stop them. In whatever direction they may flow they are always in a forward motion, just as our lives which we cannot rewind except in our imagination. Here is an important lesson for all of us. We should not wallow in our past suffering or unpleasant memories. Instead of becoming stuck in the past or worrying about what could or could not have been done, we should move on with our lives focusing on what can and should be done to improve our lives. No one can change the past, but one can work on the present and improve one's life and destiny.


3.Rivers adapt to change and circumstances.

Through twists and turns and numerous obstacles, rivers negotiate their way until they reach their destination. They flow fast where the terrain is favorable and use the weight of water to overcome minor obstacles. When they encounter difficult obstacles, they negotiate their way around them to keep flowing. In life, we are expected to do the same. We have to take advantage of favorable circumstances and negotiate our way through problems and difficulties to achieve our goals, knowing when to practice humility and surrender to fate and when to assert our strength.

River and mountains

4. Rivers represent impermanence.

Rivers represent the transience of our existence. As Heraclitus said, you will never cross the same river twice. The continuity of a river is an illusion, because its waters are always in motion. It is the same with us. We are subject to constant change, although we may not notice it.  Any continuity which we perceive is but an illusion. No one can live the same moment twice. No one can be the same forever. Each moment you become different, as many things in you keep changing. The essence of this is that we should not seek permanence and stability through worldly possessions but learn to become indifferent to them.

River thourhg a gorge

5. Rivers are equal to all. They exemplify sameness.

Rivers do not discriminate between rich and poor or good and evil. They let everyone use their water or the life that thrives in them. It is humans who build barriers across them and put restrictions upon how to use them. While we cannot stop people and governments from regulating and controlling their use or misuse, we can learn to practice equanimity and treat everyone fairly and equally, overcoming our biases, attachments, likes and dislikes. Suppressing unwholesome thoughts such as anger, pride, envy, greed, etc., we can cleanse our minds and bodies and practice compassion and universal friendliness.


River and pebbles

6. Rivers show us the way 

Rivers show us the right way to swim in the currents of life. If you want to progress in life, you must move in the direction of the flow rather than against it. It means you must have discretion and know how to align with your destiny or purpose. One of the best ways to do it is by knowing your natural and inborn strengths, talents and inclinations, and building your life around them with a matching purpose. If you are struggling too much and unable to make desired progress, it may be because you are swimming against the currents of life. It may be a sign that you have to reevaluate your thinking, plans and actions.

River with a structure

7. Rivers exemplify duty and sacrifice.

The Upanishads teach us that all this here belongs to God and is inhabited by God. We own nothing, and neither can we assume the doership of any action. Those who do so face the risk of entering the darkest hells. Hence, one should live here to perform God’s duties as his true servants and offer all actions to him as a sacrifice, without any desires or expectations. Rivers exemplify this highest ideal of God’s eternal Dharma. They selflessly carry their part in nourishing life upon earth and ensuring the order and regularity of the world. Without them, it is difficult to imagine life upon earth or the continuity of life.

turbulent river

8. Rivers are divine manifestations.

Rivers offer us an opportunity to worship God in his benevolent aspect. In Hinduism we worship rivers as divinities and make offerings. They originate in the sky from rains and flow upon earth. By helping us cultivate crops and rear cattle, they serve as an important source of sacrificial materials, and thereby help us perform sacrifices and nourish gods, humans and others upon earth. As aspects of Mother Goddess, they perform the triple functions of creation, preservation and destruction, and represent Nature’s force as well as fury. In their pleasant aspect they nourish and sustain life and in their unpleasant aspect, they inundate the earth and destroy life and property.

The river does not discriminate The snake river

9. Rivers contribute to our material and spiritual welfare

Rivers are an important source of God’s abundance upon earth. They enrich our lives in various ways. Human civilization grew on the banks of rivers only. Many temples and sacred places are associated with them. By their very presence they sanctify the earth and provide us with an opportunity to worship God and remember our ultimate purpose, which is to attain liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Hence, Hindus revere the rivers for material abundance as well as spiritual wellbeing. By praying to them and performing sacrifices on auspicious occasions, they wish to fulfill their desires and attain peace and happiness.

River nourishes life

10. Rivers facilitate the journey of souls

Life upon earth is characterized by birth and death, movement, activity and the flow and transformation of energy. Rivers embody all these characteristics, besides showing us the proper way to live upon earth through ups and downs with perseverance by surrendering our will to God and letting him show us the best possible way to move forward. Just as the gods in heaven, they participate in the sacrifice of life upon earth, granting our wishes, nurturing our lives and helping us achieve the four aims of human life. By washing away our sins, carrying the dead or their ashes and purifying our bodies, they help us in our transmigration to next life or liberation from bondage and suffering.

The river keeps nothing

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