Holy Rivers, Lakes, and Oceans

The Goddess Ganga, riding her crocodile. She plays an important role at the beginning of the Mahabharata.

Water is of special significance in Hinduism, not only for its life-sustaining properties, but also because of its use in rituals and because of the stress given to cleanliness. Bathing also has religious significance, especially in rivers considered sacred. Mother Ganga (the Ganges) is considered to purify the bather of sins (papa – see The Law of Karma).

There are seven principle holy rivers, although others, such as the Krishna in South India, are also important. Of the seven, the Ganges (Ganga), Yamuna, and Sarasvati are most important. According to different opinions, the Sarasvati is now invisible, extinct or running underground, and meets with the Ganga and Yamuna at Prayaga.

Most rivers are considered female and are personified as goddesses. Ganga, who features in the Mahabharata, is usually shown riding on a crocodile (see right). Yamuna is shown in much iconography connected with the Pushti Marg sampradaya, and rides on a turtle. The famous story of the descent of Ganga-devi is connected with Vishnu and with Shiva, who is depicted with the Ganges entering the locks of his hair.

Certain spots on the seashore are also holy. Puri is considered sanctified to Vaishnavas, and Cape Commorin (Kanyakumari) is sacred

Bathers in the Ganges, which is considered to wash away accumulated sins (image courtesy Prof. Robert Jackson)

to followers of Shiva and devotees of Rama.

Some lakes and ponds are also considered especially sacred. Particularly in the South, tanks (man-made ponds) are constructed so that worshippers can bathe before entering the temple.

The Seven Holy Rivers

  1. Ganga – North India
  2. Yamuna – meets Ganga in North
  3. Godavari – South India
  4. Sarasvati – underground river
  5. Narmada – Central India
  6. Sindhu the Indus, now in Pakistan
  7. Near Vrindavan, Radha-Kunda (the pond of Radha) is considered especially sacred

    Kaveri – South India

Related Stories

The Descent of Mother Ganga (STO-501)
How Ganga came to earth.

Krishna Defeats the Kaliya Serpent (STO-502)
Krishna’s dance in the middle of the Yamuna.