Sacred Rivers

By W. T. S. Thackara
Explore the River of the Soul, whence or in what order you have come: so that although you have become a servant to the body, you may again rise to the Order from which you descended, joining works to sacred reason (logos). -- The Chaldean Oracles, 172

Rivers appear frequently in the world's sacred traditions as symbols of divine influence and of life's interdependence. They evoke an image of spiritual-intellectual energies cascading through the manifold planes of cosmic and individual life -- linking us intimately with our spiritual source, nourishing and sustaining us, and flowing forth to connect us with all things. We may recall, for example, the Hindus' description of the Ganges descending from heaven, encircling Brahma's city of gold on the summit of Meru, the earth's central mountain, then dividing into four rivers which flow to the four points of the compass. Embodied in this imagery -- geometrically describing a pyramid -- is a set of ideas suggesting a continuous flow of life, wisdom, and guidance from our original homeland to every corner of the world (See "Our Spiritual Home," Sunrise, April/May 1990, p. l10).

Like the ancient Egyptians who understood the gift of the Celestial Nile as well as of its earthly counterpart, we can be enriched by exploring these ancient waterways; so that next time we see a Christian baptism, or millions of Hindus assembling on the banks of the Ganges, the inner significance of these rites and celebrations will be apparent, serving as a refreshing draft from the Well of Memory deep within us. For sacred rivers are not only mythic reminders of forgotten truth, they represent the ever-present stream of who and what we essentially are: not a static being, but a dynamic ever-becoming flow of godlike radiance.

Turning to the source of rivers at the beginning of time, ancient philosophers often described a seed or egg containing the potency of our universe gestating in the womb of infinite space and duration. Following the analogy of nature, which is cyclical and self-reproducing throughout, this seed may be seen as the fruit of its ancestors, previous universes infilled with life, intelligence, and consciousness. It is natural then to visualize this infinitesimal seed bursting forth at its appointed time in a torrential river of consciousness-energy-substance, flooding space with radiant "waters" -- the primal chaos -- from which arise galaxies, star systems, and garden planets like our own Mother Earth. On the microcosmic scale, even our physical bodies whose atoms were spun in the heart of a sun -- are an ever-flowing fabric of dazzling, coruscating energies, coursing on streambeds patterned in the collective mind of our creators.

These thoughts may be discerned in our oldest written myth for what did the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian poets have in mind in recounting the adventures of Gilgamesh: whose search for immortality and the meaning of life led him to humanity's Forefather, who dwelt "across the sea" with the gods in the "Garden of the Sun," at the "Mouth of Rivers"? Perhaps they, too, had a natural intuition of the periodically surging life-force flowing from the sun and beyond into our world. It is a theme mirrored in the story of another well-known garden, this one here on earth: "There was a river flowing from Eden to water the garden, and when it left the garden it branched into four streams . . ." (Gen 2:10).

As rivers descend from their pristine sources, from rain and snow, they pick up the silts and other qualities of the regions they pass through, as well as the grosser pollutions we humans contribute to muddy these life-giving streams, whether they be physical or mental. Homer and Plato almost certainly had this latter aspect in mind when describing the descent of rivers into the nether worlds. In the Greek cosmogony, the Titan Oceanus, first-born of Heaven and Earth, is described as the father of all rivers and is himself a celestial river whose waters surround the Earth. Among his daughters, sometimes numbered in the thousands, are the four principal rivers of the underworld, and also Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness and Oblivion. These eventually combine to flow south, winding around the Acherusian lake, until they finally discharge their remaining contents into Tartarus. Here in the underworld they function as a purgative, cleansing human souls of selfish mental and emotional qualities which are "lethal" or otherwise harmful to their evolutionary progress (cf. Phaedo 114).

Myths suggest that the sacred river is an integral feature of the spiritual-mental-physical ecosystem of the universe, and its descent through the three worlds of heaven, earth, and the underworld is perhaps given fullest expression in the mythology of the Ganges, or Ganga, the holiest of India's rivers. Personified as a goddess, Mother Ganges is the life-giving maternal waters, the intelligent feminine energy of the universe, and wife/consort of the great ascetic god Siva, the destroyer of form, regenerator of life, and patron of mystic students. In her celestial origin she is Akasaganga -- akasa meaning brilliant or shining, and signifying cosmic spirit-substance, the reservoir of Being and of beings. Likewise, she is the "gently-" or "slowly-flowing" Milky Way, issuing from the toe of Vishnu when he pierced the vault of heaven with his upraised left foot. From Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, Ganga flows continuously onto the head of Dhruva, the pole star, who sustains her day and night.

The central myth of her triple descent (avatara) from heaven is recounted in several texts, notably the Puranas and the epics. Moved by the penance of the royal sage Bhagiratha, a descendant of King Sagara ("Ocean"), Ganga agreed to descend to earth to purify the ashes of Sagara's 60,000 sons. Ganga then swept down in three great torrents which would have flooded the earth had not Siva caught the waters upon his brow and broken their fall. Being again propitiated by Blagiratha, Ganga followed him to the sea and thence to the nether regions to fulfill her mission, purifying Sagara's sons and thus enabling them to attain paradise.

Ganga's descent to earth in three torrents and her division at Meru's summit into four rivers correlates with the myth of the seven Ganges, which Hindus today identify with seven rivers in India. These may also be interpreted as representing the seven planes of the universe: seven grades or qualities of consciousness-substance originating from a single supercelestial source, flowing through and thus comprising the totality of our cosmos (cf. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 2:605). Or again, on the human level, they suggest the three aspects of consciousness -- spirit, intuition, and intellect -- and the four energy-substance principles composing our physical vehicles.

According to Hindu belief the Ganges purifies all she touches, and her entire route in India represents a pilgrimage for the faithful. All along the way are the tirthas, the "fords" or "crossings," where Hindus come to bathe, symbolically renewing themselves in her saving waters; some spending their last days on her banks, there to die and "cross over" the river of birth and death to the ocean of life immortal.

Behind these rites and symbols is a universal wisdom both inspiring and practical. Its central ideas are expressed with unusual clarity in the theosophy of the Mandaeans, originally heterodox Jews, once called John-Christians because they recognize John the Baptist as one of their own. For centuries they have lived in the marshlands of the Euphrates in southern Iraq (We have no information as to what has become of their communities since the recent evacuation of the marshlands by the Iraqi government "for agricultural purposes."), carrying on their tradition of a saving, secret wisdom. They are also called Nasoraeans, i.e., possessing "true gnosis or enlightenment," and by Arab Muslims Sabaeans, "submergers" or "immersionists," because of their practice of baptism and ritual cleansing.

Mandaean cosmology refers to the supreme principle as the Great Life, the originating source as well as the creative and sustaining force of everything in the universe. The Great Life is described as "alien," in the sense of remote, incomprehensible, and ineffable. Because of its mystery and abstraction the Mandaeans speak of it always in the impersonal plural -- not as He or even It, but as "They."

The symbol of the Great Life is "living water" which the Mandaeans call yardna (in English, Jordan), and one of their central rites is immersion in flowing water, i.e., natural rivers or man-made canals. Using enclosed or still water for this purpose is not permitted, for such water is considered to be stagnant or dead. However, the Mandaeans insist that the word yardna means only a river or flowing water -- both in a celestial and a physical sense -- and that it has no direct reference to the Jordan in Palestine. The Mandaeans derive all rivers and waters from a celestial prototype: a white, pure river called the "Euphrates of Radiant Light."

The first emanation of the Great Life is the vivifying dual power of Radiance (lit. "Radiance burst forth") and First Mind. One Mandaean scroll puts it this way: "Radiance is the Father and Light is the Mother." Their combined creative force is entrusted to their "son," Yawar (etymologically related to Yahweh/Jehovah), chief of the celestial worlds and the personification of active, manifesting, "awaking" Light -- reminiscent of the opening acts of Genesis: "the Spirit of God [ruah elohim] moved upon the face of the waters. And Elohim [a masculine-feminine plural, i.e., an androgynous "They"] said, 'Let there be light!'. . ." The Mandaean books go on to explain that the river of life and light flows forth from a single point hidden in the abstract mystery of the Great Life. Certain hymns speak of Radiance heating this "matrix" or "formative center," causing it to dissolve, and the consequent coming forth into existence of a dwelling or sanctuary. Thus "was established the House of Life" -- the universe (cf. E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1962, pp. xxi, xxiv-v, 99ff; and The Secret Adam: A Study of Nasoraean Gnosis, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1960, ch. 1).

With this background, we may better understand the significance of the Mandaean's ritual baptisms. For them, the daily baptism is the physical and outermost expression of what occurs in their mental and spiritual lives. By immersing themselves in the perpetually-flowing stream of the celestial Jordan, they participate in the creative activities of the Great Life. Ritual immersions are called masbuta, derived from the root sba meaning "to plunge into a dye bath." A person goes into the river metaphorically black and emerges white; he enters the yardna polluted and comes out purified.

Similarly, as one of his twelve spiritual "labors," the Greek hero Herakles cleaned the Augean Stables by diverting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through the cattleyard. The metaphors stand clearly for the divine thoughtstream which purifies, spiritualizes, and protects.

Expanding on this thought, the Buddhist word for the neophyte who has determined to awaken his buddha nature -- to become enlightened -- is srotapatti: "one who has entered the stream" which leads to the nirvanic ocean. The Voice of the Silence (p. 46) adds that this is a nirvanic stream -- suggesting that nirvana is both "here" and "there." The crossing points -- reminiscent of the fording places on the Ganges -- are the transcendental virtues or paramitas, a term meaning "crossing over" (to the "other shore"). These empowering virtues begin with charity and compassion, whose steadfast practice awakens wisdom -- sacred wisdom which comprehends the meaning of life and exists but to serve the divine purpose.

The ancients realized that the rivers of life were not simply an outflowing or downhill affair alone. All rivers and the individualized beings that comprise them must eventually return to their source. In earth's ecosystem most rivers empty into oceans and lakes, whose waters are drawn up by solar heating into the atmosphere, where clouds form to shed moisture again upon the earth, completing the life-sustaining cycle. In the universal ecosystem, the process which returns spiritual waters to their source is called sacrifice* -- the "making sacred" of our thoughts and deeds so that that which flows through and from us will help to uplift all life. (*Commenting on the Bhagavad-Gita 3:14 -- "rain derives from sacrifice" -- both Sankara and Ramanuja cite the Laws of Manu (3-76): "The oblation duly thrown into the fire reaches the sun. From the sun rain is born, from rain food, from [food living] creatures.")

Considering the rivers of lesser lives that course through our physical body daily -- in the food, drink, and air we exchange -- it is not difficult to visualize the emotional, mental, spiritual, and divine lives that flow likewise in and through us, all contributing to the unique, manifold individuals that we are. Yet, that uniqueness as self-conscious humans is largely determined by our free choice as to what enters into the garden of our being and how we tend it. Therefore are we taught to be mindful of our thoughts, to seek truth, to love and serve others, and allow life's higher currents to bring their precious boon: the gift which nurtures the godplant in man -- the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge.

By exploring the sacred river, as the oracle suggests, we may come to know ourselves. Inscribed on the gold plates discovered at Petelia, Italy (c. 4th century BC), were instructions to the Orphic neophyte, guiding him through the gates of death and rebirth:

Thou shalt find on the left of the House of Hades a Well-spring, and by the side thereof standing a white cypress. To this Well-spring approach not near. But thou shalt find another by the Lake of Memory, cold water flowing forth, and there are Guardians before it. Say: "I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven; but my race is of Heaven (alone). This ye know yourselves. And lo, I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly the cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory." And of themselves they will give thee to drink from the holy Well-spring, and thereafter among the other Heroes thou shalt have lordship. . . .( Cf. Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Cambridge University Press, 1922, pp. 573, 659-60.)

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press)

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