The River

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


All is flux, nothing stays still.
Nothing endures but change.
It is not possible to step twice
 into the same river.


 Waters of heaven which swell upon the earth's surface and in the floating consciousness of man become rivers in time, echoing the beneficent work of luminous cosmic channels. It may be that Oceanos was the father of all rivers and source of their divinity or they may have come from the 'milky rivers' of Siberian paradise. Perhaps it was as the Egyptians said who described the celestial River Noon arising from the cosmic abyss to give birth to all streams or it may have been that they descended down from the Celtic heaven as gods and goddesses in a divine genealogical flow.

 Like sweet milk, the Ganges rises in Gomuckh Cave – 'The Cow's Mouth' – within the Garhwal Himalayas at the foot of Gangotri Glacier which locks within itself more moisture than its rocky cradle can contain. The water pours forth from a continuous surplus of lofty snows, intercepted so little by vegetation in its craggy course that it gathers speed, surging over great boulders which lie strewn at the base of the rim of the world.

 Unlike the desert whose insatiable atmosphere yields up naught, the vegetation and infiltration capacity of high mountain slopes, conditioned by winds and temperature, ensures a continuous surplus of water. The rock-ground beds of glacial snows do not offer the porosity necessary to contain the incipient current that, only partially withheld, will flow with increasing power into radiating plains in the world below. Beneath such snows the beginnings of rivers are hidden, as Plato indicated when he suggested that their sources were springs secreted within the earth. We see the waters as they emerge but we are often ignorant of the unseen developments that engaged them when they first percolated into the earth's rocky structure. We are rewarded by their expanding flood as they carry the fragmenting sands of continents to the sea but we know not where and how they end. Four hundred miles out into the Indian Ocean the sea is coloured by the sands brought down by the Ganges. It is said that "there is no end to her just as no one on earth knows the exact place where she has her true beginning." Some believe that the Ganges enters Patala, the nether world which is no end but only the other side of the cycle of life and death.

 To many, the river is a symbol signifying fertility and the irreversible passage of time. Perhaps this is because one is filled with a sense of abundance while gazing at a river but also carried off in consciousness along its currents which never end but always disappear. As with the flow of life, everything seems to pass before one's eyes, through one's grasp, out of the confines of memory, to be gone forever. A great, poignant sense of loss persists even while the inexorable repetitiveness of the water's movement imbues one with an impression of timelessness. It is said that "men die because they cannot join their beginning to their end," and perhaps a dim awareness of this is the basis for man's abiding sadness as he looks back and attempts to understand his disappearing youth. But even through the course of his sadness runs the echoing certainty of the return of life and the river. As Li Po expressed it, "The water that flows into the distant sea returns anon in the shallows of the transparent pool. Who can tell the end of the endless change of things?"

 The river, like man, goes through youth and maturity, completing its cycle in old age. A young river gushes forth carrying enormous rocks, crashing down its deep cut valley, but though its work is dramatic the amount of soil it moves is small. The energy of the mature river diminishes to equal exactly the amount needed to transport its load. After filling its valley it begins to meander, eroding the soil in ever-widening convolutions. In its old age the river moves through a wide flood plain, capable of carrying only a small amount of refined debris which silts out at the delta's edge into the vast reaches of the waiting sea.

 To the biologist, rivers are the avenues along which forms of life, emerging from the ocean, first invaded fresh water and then land. To the meteorologist, they are the pulsing arteries of the great circulatory system of global moisture which sustains earthly life. Seventy-one percent of the globe is ocean, and of the area remaining, only those portions which receive an excess of moisture will produce rivers which in turn erode their own valleys, wearing down whole mountain ranges in their lifetimes. Truly it is said that "the history of the land has been written very largely in water."

 The name 'river' comes from rivus or rive, indicating 'a splitting asunder,' a process not only recorded in geological history but in mythology as well. For if the river literally divides the earth and creates the canyon depths, symbolically it divides the world of the living from that of the dead. At the end of Cape Taivaron in Lakonia lies a cave at the cliff's edge wherein disappears the fateful River Styx. The dead pass across its dark waters to the underworld, paying a coin to Charon who ferries the boat. African tales tell of those who flee death across rivers whose waters divide or become shallow, allowing their passage, very much as did the Red Sea before the impelling need of Moses and his people. Jung spoke of the river as a symbol related to great changes in life. He pointed out that in dreams people often escape across rivers to emerge into new circumstances on the other side. In a more ultimate sense, Buddhist mythology depicts the transmigrating soul standing at the river whose course will lead to final judgment.

 While mythological rivers divide realms of varying conditions, they also divide the surface of the world. Ancient Egyptian tradition speaks of four cardinal rivers which flowed out to the ends of the earth after arising from four jars stationed at its center. In a more complete development of this theme, the Kalmucks tell of four great rivers that flow toward the different points of the compass carrying with them the eight elements. On its journey, each river receives the water of five hundred tributaries and, after making seven turnings, returns to its source of origin, which is the mountain at the centre of the earth. Divided in fours or in sevens by the Sacred Sapta Sindhava, the living globe is moulded and shaped by running waters which leave their mark upon human consciousness as surely as upon the earth's crust.

 Rivers are arteries of force, and their valleys have carried whole invading armies as well as waters into the rich tablelands of the world. Their force gives life but can take it away, just as their flow is sometimes believed to carry evil instead of good. The waters of the ill-omened Vaitarani in Orissa, or the Karamnasa, are believed to have the power to destroy the merit of good deeds. But most rivers are thought beneficent and men worship them through sacrifice and by bathing in their flow. Finno-Ugric myths concerning the union of human maidens and river gods inspire rituals wherein newly wedded brides are bathed in a nearby river to ensure their fertility. Bathing in the Ganges is believed to purify all sins. To say "0, Ganga! 0, Ganga!" from her banks is to atone for the misdeeds of three previous lives. To die on her banks, to have one's ashes scattered on her bosom, is the ardent desire of devout Hindus. To drink her water or to have it supplied, even at a distance, is to purify oneself. Indeed, the Ganges' waters seem to have a genuine capacity for absorbing germs and rendering them innocuous. According to one scholar: "A peculiar fact which has never been satisfactorily explained is the quick death of the cholera vibrio in the waters of the Ganges. . . . it seems remarkable that the belief of the Hindus, that the water of this river is pure and cannot be defiled, should be confirmed by means of modern bacteriological research." Perhaps some beneficent chemistry commenced to combine as the water rose from the sacred 'Cow's Mouth.' It is believed so holy that some pietists fulfill their life's ambition by prostrating themselves from its source to the Bay of Bengal.

 The chemical composition of rivers varies with their size and affects their solvent powers of erosion. The waters of small rivers differ considerably in their composition while those of great rivers tend to be similar, combining a more inclusive number of elements in comparable proportions. The ultimate solvent may be a river combining the elemental essence of the entire sequence of evolutionary life that has taken place on this globe. Such a river might dissolve all forms as we know them and plunge us back into a primordial sea. But a youthful river, by sheer force, has the ability to cut its way into seemingly invincible masses of earth and stone. The present outlet of the Congo extends in a submerged canyon four thousand feet deep for a hundred miles out to the coast. "Several side streams have advanced like blind-alleys toward the sea as though feeling for weak spots in the coastal cliffs, seeking to provide additional exits for the pent-up floods of the interior plateau." Because of the inner turbulence and friction involved in such processes, most of a young river's energy is converted into heat while only a fraction is used to transport its sedimentary load. Perhaps all great forces of life must exhibit turbulence and heat in their early manifestation, bursting, as they do, from one realm to another. It seems that there must be a rush strong enough to propel the unmanifest forward into existence, to sustain it as it sinks within the earthly form.

 The youthful Ganges at Hardwar spreads out upon the gentler incline of the plain and enters into maturity. Here the sense of timelessness is echoed in activities along the shores which agelessly repeat themselves. "In the heat of the day the flats along the bank are places of mirage with villages and lines of trees liquifying like jelly and floating upside-down in the water." Countless lives are mirrored in the river and echoed down its never-ending currents. The mingling flow reflects their images and blends their many voices. The thoughtful pilgrim is reminded of the ancient sacred query: "Hast thou attuned thy heart and mind to the great mind and heart of all mankind? For as the sacred River's roaring voice whereby all Nature-sounds are echoed back, so must the heart of him 'who in the stream would enter,' thrill in response to every sigh and thought of all that lives and breathes."

 The river irrigates the endless fields in a peaceful flow, but when the monsoon breaks, the mature Ganges expands into an ocean. "Its current hums with a whirring noise like live electric wires, and sweeps away fields, huts, cattle – anything that obstructs its turbulent course. Then the Ganga is as wild as when she first burst into Siva's locks, intending to sweep the whole world away." The destructive force in nature is symbolically unleashed through that god in whom ends are merely fodder for beginnings. But, for most of the year the midland Ganges, like other mature rivers, tends to meander. As a river ceases its youthful rush downhill, drawn on by gravity, the combination of forward and sideward flow produces a spiral movement. As the water moves in this winding pattern, it develops a strong centrifugal force which causes a super-elevation of the water level on the outside bank. Thus the helical flow is intensified, causing erosion, while movement laterally across the bottom of the channel causes deposition of material at the inner part of the bend. Like Sakti spiralling out to the circumference and back towards her union with Siva, the river's current assumes the same serpentine pattern that describes the movement of all manifested energy. Cutting into widening banks and curving back away from deposits, the river rejuvenates itself, always maintaining a balance between its bedload and its available discharge. At this stage the river seems to symbolize an integration of spirit and matter, the establishment of equilibrium between the soul and the body that encases it. It is at this point that one seeks to understand the reason for embodiment. Why does the river become confined by banks that it itself brought into being?

 It has been said that if rivers were, for any cause, to dry up, the world would quickly be depopulated through famine, and any remaining men would revert to a barbaric state. Man would regress to a form of social homogeneity born out of necessity, which could not provide enough diversity to stimulate the painfully elongated process of individualization that must be experienced in this age. The complexity of river systems in the world provides a code map for understanding the myriad blendings and differentiations of human spiritual and physical evolution. Like the varying combinations of chemical elements carried in river waters, human populations combine different powers and limitations that will eventually feed into larger streams and finally into great rivers.

 From their sources, streams etch out the side of a watershed and join other streams, finally converging together in the waters of a river that will drain an entire area. The numbers of streams, their lengths, gradients, basin areas and basin relief are all related mathematically to one another. Lithology and rock structure also have an effect on the morphometry and geometry of river basins. Man, living on the banks of streams, is spiritually, psychologically and physically caught up in this geometry and perhaps it is only along the banks of the world's great rivers that he begins to experience something of the totality of the equation of life. Various ecological balances blending in an overall equilibrium of elements begin to confront him with an intuitive holistic glimpse of the beginnings and endings of all things in nature. He comes to the threshold of perceiving his immortal self within a dying body and he begins to suspect that the whole of manifested life involves the development of this dawning perception. "It takes earth and water to create a human soul" and the rain of spirit upon the earth produces the great rivers in which man catches the first reflection of his true divine nature. Once he has drunk deep of these waters and purified his vision, the refreshed soul prepares to transmit pure waters to those who may have vessels ready to receive them. It has long been written: "Know that the stream of superhuman knowledge and the Deva-Wisdom thou hast won, must, from thyself, the channel of Alaya, be poured forth into another bed. Know, O Narjol, thou of the Secret Path, its pure fresh waters must be used to sweeter make the Ocean's bitter waves – that mighty sea of sorrow formed of the tears of men."

 The 'rain of spirit upon the earth' is Cosmic Ideation manifesting through "the more finely differentiated fabric of Buddhi" which rests upon the experience of Manas as its basis, like "a stream of spiritual Intuition." For the river, as for the human soul, an odyssey begins, involving the irrigation and ultimate refinement of all areas of the body through which it courses and which are susceptible to the reception and transmission of its qualities. The human body, like the earth itself, waits to be cultivated, made productive and ultimately to be dissolved in the total spiritualization which is the end that proceeds to the beginning. The old river, carrying only the most refined essence of its earthly sojourn, enters into the sea only to begin the cycle anew. The wise man anticipates the cycle and attempts to alchemize the soil within which he lives and works. He attempts to become one of the streams of conscious being that flow through and illuminate the dark subconscious secrets of Vritra the Serpent, the grand Adversary. Like Great Beings in their work, such rivers start in a small, silent trickle in some hidden mountain crag, gaining momentum as they spread out upon the earth's surface. Such rivers are the mighty ones of Indra, the streams of truth brought down to earth, the rain from the light of heaven.