CULTURAL UNIFICATION OF INDIA – THE PRACTICE OF TIRTHA SNAN ( BATHING IN HOLY RIVERS )
Water plays an important role in a variety of Cultures and religious practices prevalent in this world.The role of water constitutes one of the most remarkable aspects of Indian religious life. Hindu religion is often described as Sanatana Dharma. The practice of bathing in a river is an unusual example of the continuance of an ancient tradition and hence I can refer to the practice of Tirtha Snan (The ritual of River Bathing) as “SANATANA” in its origin. Simply touching water is a purifying gesture in the Vedas. Pilgrimages (TIRTHA YATRAS) to holy rivers (TIRTHA) was already known in Vedic and Epic times and it remains extremely popular up to the present day. In fact,my impression is that the practice has become more popular and a far greater number of people are participating due to the availability of modern time conveniences for travel and lodging.The news media consistently report that our river festivals such as “KUMBH MELA” and “PUSHKARAMS” have established world records as the largest gathering of human beings upon this earth in one single day and for one single purpose.
The sacredness of a place is often due to the sanctity it derives from its location on the bank of a holy river (TIRTHA STHAN or TIRTHA KSHETRA).The following verse is an example of such belief.The simple act of remembering the various places that River Ganges traverses through,would be equivalent to the worship of all Gods and would bestow great blessings (PUNYA).
Tatra tatra sthita Ganga, Sarva Punya phala prada
Bhaveth smarana maatrena, Sarva Deva namaskruta.
Apart from bathing (SNAAN), holy waters are used in the ritualistic worship of deities,and the water used in the worship is used to sprinkle upon the heads of the devotees and also consumed by the devotee in acceptance of the blessings from the Deity.The devotee hopes for deliverance from sin or pollution (“PAAP”), seeks preservation or enrichment of his religious merit (“PUNYA”), hopes for a reward such as rebirth in a heaven (“SWARG LOK”)and even total emancipation (“MOKSHA or MUKTI”). There are instances when people had actually traveled to the holy city of VARANASI to die near the Ganges. More often, the cremated remains, the ashes are carried by the loved ones and are physically sprinkled and immersed in the holy rivers such as Ganges to help the onward journey of the departed soul.
The worship of rivers and the practice of bathing is a belief that is connected with the traditional Indian views of earthly life.Indians believe in the theory of “KARMA”.They believe that the acts of their present lives and their past lives would be a factor that determines the condition into which a being is reborn.The “KARMA” binds the soul and compels it to go through an endless series of births and deaths.The cycle of birth, death and rebirth is called “SAMSARA.” In my previous entry,I had written about the fear of “SAMSARA”.The practice of bathing in a holy river is an example of “INDIVIDUALISM.” Even when millions of people travel and gather together to bathe in a river on one day, each is acting strictly to earn his own merit and to reap his own benefit and the community does not expect any share of the rewards that the bather may be granted.I could bathe and wash my own sins and I can not be of any help to others if they carry the burden of their own sins.Each person has to accept responsibility for their own actions and if necessary they can seek help from others to get to the river and ask for assistance to bathe in the river.River worship appears to be a communal event but its usefulness is strictly individualistic in nature.Bathing is not viewed as a simple act of personal hygiene,it constantly reminds us of the need to seek purification and makes us aware of our responsibility for own actions and challenges us to face the consequences in our future lives.People are encouraged to seek the blessings that bathing in holy rivers would contribute even while they may be showering at home.The following verse is an example of our connection to the rivers that flow across our Land.
गङ्गे च यमुने चैव गोदावरि सरस्वति ।
नर्मदे सिन्धु कावेरि जलेऽस्मिन् संनिधिं कुरु ॥
Gange Cha Yamune Chaiva Godavari Saraswathi
Narmade Sindhu Kaveri Jalesmin Sannidhim Kuru
1: O Holy Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, and also Godavari and Saraswati,
2: O Holy Rivers Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri; Please be Present in this Water (and make it Holy).
My introduction to River Worship
Culture represents ideas and thoughts transmitted by one generation to the next.It indeed gives me a great pleasure to recall my learning of this unique Cultural Tradition while I lived at my Grandfather’s mansion in Innispeta of Rajahmundry town in East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh.During 1950s,I lived with my parents,two brothers,grand mother,her sister and my great grand mother.The house had bath rooms and we had regular water supply from the municipality.We would generally shower at home and on important festival days,we would bathe in River Godavari.My great grand mother was an exception to this bathing practice.She firmly believed in the practice of river worship and adhered to it every single day and almost till her final days of earthly existence.She was of short stature and she was already in her ninety’s and due to her age,her spine curved and made her even smaller.Her vision had deteriorated and she was able to see only a few feet ahead of her.Our house was located at the corner of “KALABARGI VARI” street and the “RAMALAYAM” street.The Lord Sri Rama Temple of Innispeta is a well known land mark and it stands next to the protective river embankment.The river bank is fairly wide,it included railway tracks and a motor-able road.Much later,the second rail cum road bridge was built across Godavari river using these railway tracks.My great grand mother would walk to the river all by herself and used a walking stick to support herself.The journey to the river is short but she faced a lot of dangers on the street.Those days,vehicular traffic was not a problem and crossing the railway tracks was not a problem.The biggest threat was posed by the stray animals such as goats and cows that roam freely on the streets.She was practically defenseless.As young boys at home,myself and my elder brother were often given the chore of escorting my great grand mother during her walk to the river.When we followed her as her escort,the animals always behaved better and would not come to attack her.The reward myself and my brother Pratap reaped was that of getting into the emerald green,crystal clear,cool waters of GODAVARI and frolic in the shallow waters as my great grand mother did her worship.But for my great grand mother’s tenacity and perseverance,myself and my brother would never have ventured to make a trip to the river in the morning.
It was a joyful experience and the Tradition of River Worship gave us some very fond memories of our life in Rajahmundry.The following verse speaks of the importance that we attach to rivers of India and they are treated with great respect as they are deemed to be the same as Ganges:
Kaveri,Tungabhadra cha, Krishnaveni cha, Gautamee
Bhagirathi cha vikhyata, Pancha Ganga prakirtita.