River of Love in an Age of Pollution: Part I: Yamunashtakam

On Jan. 5, we met with a group of scholars and Brijvasis who are concerned about the state of the Yamuna. I was very happy to meet up with David Haberman of Indiana University, whose scholarship on Vaishnavism has resulted in several landmark texts that are accessible both to scholars and devotees, including Acting as a Way of Salvation about the Gaudiya raganuga tradition, Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna, an account of the 84-kos parikrama in Braj, and more recently River of Love in the Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. His translation of Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, published by the Indira Gandhi National Council for the Arts, is also a landmark in scholarship. With his permission, I will here post the short version of the abovementioned book on the Yamuna, which was published as an article in Hinduism and Ecology, (ed.) Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Harvard University Press, 2000. (Jagat)

But is it possible to reach all the way to heaven simply by going along the river? The same heaven where the gods live? Yes. Rivers are all created in the land of King Himshail (Himalaya), the land that unites this world and the heaven. 1

In the beginning was Purusha with a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and a thousand feet. He pervaded the earth on all sides and stretched beyond it by ten fingers. Purusha is this entire universe, all that has been and all that is to be. Three quarters of Purusha rose upward to become the transcendent immortal that is in heaven, but one quarter remained behind, and from this came the sum total of all that we experience with our senses. So says the well-known Rigveda hymn 10.90.

Creation myths tell us much about a religious tradition; indeed, here is one of the earliest theological expressions of what was to become rather common in Hindu scriptures: a conception of divinity that is simultaneously transcendent and imminent. Although the transcendent dimension of divinity is clearly important, I want to focus on the radically immanent conception of divinity found in this and other Hindu texts. For the world itself is often considered to be a direct manifestation of divinity.

The Upanishads continue this them, describing how the world came into being as the result of a division of the one atman or Brahman into a male and female. 2 The sexual interaction of these two produced the entire universe of concrete forms. Later theistic traditions within Hinduism carry on this trend. The Devi Mahatmya, for example, identifies the Goddess with the world, and the poems of the twelfth-century saint Akka Mahadevi recognize the world of nature as Shiva:

You are the forest
You are all the great trees in the forest
You are bird and beast playing in and out of all the trees
O lord, white as jasmine, filling and filled by all. 3

The identification of the world of nature with divinity is pervasive in much Hindu theology, but perhaps no scripture states this more directly than the Bhagavata Purana. Therein we read that the entire visible world is the body of God, here known as Krishna. The trees, for example, are the hair on his body, the mountains are his bones, and the rivers his veins and arteries. 4

As a playful youth, God also appears in this text as an enjoyer of his own body, delighting in the beauty of nature. 5 Specifically, the Bhagavata tells us that Krishna was particularly delighted by the sight of the forest, Vrindavan, the mountain, Govardhan, and the river Yamuna. 6 These three represent special forms of divinity in the sacred realm of Braj, which is depicted as a vibrant world of nature.

But what are the implications of these textual ideals for lived religious culture? Moving from scripture to ethnographic texts in Braj—a distinctive area in northern India greatly influenced by the Bhagavata–we find similar ideas being expressed. It is widely believed that the land of Braj is itself divine. Here, natural forms, such as ponds, rocks, trees and rivers, are worshiped as concrete manifestations of divinity. One of the mahavakyas or great sayings of Braj is that “Krishna is Braj; Braj is Krishna.” 7

These ideas are borne out in much of the local religious activity. The forest of Vrindavan, for example, is worshiped in this region as the goddess Vrinda Devi, often represented by a potted tulasi plant. Even more prominently, the mountain Govardhan is worshiped as a natural form of Krishna. Rocks from this mountain are bathed, decorated, fed, and worshiped as natural forms of the body of Krishna.

But it is the third feature of the divine landscape that delighted Krishna that I would like to focus on in this essay, the Yamuna River. Worshiped for centuries in this region as a natural form of divinity, the river is considered to be a tangible form of the goddess Yamuna Devi. I will proceed by constructing a portrait of the Yamuna as a goddess, drawing primarily from an important poem written in this region, and then I will go on to examine how the religious perspective reflected in this poem is in increasing conflict with a utilitarian perspective that views the Yamuna as a sewer to carry away human and industrial waste. I will conclude with a brief consideration of the implications of the collision of these differing perspectives.

The Yamuna River has been recognized as a goddess for centuries, as is evident in much temple sculpture8 and religious literature. Yamuna first appears in Hindu scriptures as Yami in Rigveda 10.10.9 There, the story is told of Yamis excessive love for her twin brother Yama, who later becomes the god of death. We learn little about Yami, or Yamuna, as a goddess from this passage; Yama rejects his sister’s advances, expressing his wish that she find another man to embrace her.

Yamuna appears in much Puranic literature as a powerful river capable of removing sins from anyone who bathes in her waters and enabling such a person to reach heaven. The Padma Purana (chapter 30), for example, narrates the story of a pious man’s decadent son who reached heaven by inadvertently bathing in the Yamuna.

The Varaha Purana (chapters 150-151) describes the powers of Yamuna and claims that one is freed from sins and achieves Vishnu’s heaven simply by bathing in her water. And the Bhagavata Purana (Book 10, chapter 22) tells that the cowherd women of Braj achieved Krishna as their lover by bathing in the Yamuna. The loving characteristics and purifying powers of Yamuna are greatly expanded in later theological developments.

14th century carving of Yamuna and Ganga Devis. Photo from harekrsna.com

Theological thinking about Yamuna, however, seems to have reached its zenith in Braj during the sixteenth century, the place and time of a remarkable cultural efflorescence. I have only just begun work toward the construction of a comprehensive portrait of Yamuna Devi, which I plan to complete in future research. Such a portrait necessarily involves examination of a vast amount of literature, but for the purposes of this essay, I have chosen to limit my comments to an important work composed by the sixteenth-century saint Vallabhacharya, founder of the Vaishnava sampradaya known as the Pushti Marg. This work has had a profound effect on the way the Yamuna has been viewed in the religious culture of Braj.

The work in question is a nine-verse Sanskrit stotram or hymn, entitled the Yamunashtakam.10 This short text is considered to be the first among the Shodasha-grantha or “Sixteen Works” of Vallabhacharya that are given special significance within the Pushti Marg. Numerous commentaries have been written on this short work that amount to advanced theological thinking about Yamuna Devi. Perhaps the most important among them are the two authored by Vallabha’s son Vitthalanath and by the seventeenth century writer Hariraya, grandson of Vitthalanath’s second son Govindaraya.

The Yamunashtakam is considered first amon Vallabha’s works since it reveals the true nature of Yamuna Devi and lays the foundation for loving devotion to Krishna. After translating the poem, I will move through it verse by verse fairly quickly, examining briefly relevant points in both the original and the single commentary of Hariraya, which expands the earlier commentary of Vitthalanath.

Yamuna Devi shares in a generic South Asian goddess theology that is typically associated with creative life forces.11 As manifestations of Shakti, all Hindu goddesses are possessors of power, but it is important to realize that each of the goodesses in the Hindu pantheon has a very distinctive nature. Hariraya’s commentary on Vallabha’s Yamunashtakam gives us clear indication of the specific nature of Yamuna’s powers, as he has interpreted each of the eight main verses of the hymn as signifying one of the eight unique powers of Yamuna Devi. Of interest here is the shift back and forth between transcendent and immanent references to the goddess.

Vallabhacharya’s Yamunashtakam

namāmi yamunām ahaṁ sakala-siddhi-hetuṁ mudā
murāri-pada-paṅkaja-sphurad-amanda-reṇūtkaṭām |
surāsura-supūjita-smara-pituḥ śriyaṁ bibhratīm ||1||

I bow joyfully to Yamuna, the source of all spiritual abilities. You are richly endowed with innumerable sands glistening from contact with the lotus feet of Krishna.12 Your water is delightfully scented with fragrant flowers from the fresh forests that flourish on your banks. You bear the beauty of Krishna, Cupid’s father, who is worshiped by both gods and humans.

kalinda-giri-mastake patad-amanda-pūrojjvalā
vilāsa-gamanollasat-prakaṭa-gaṇḍa-śailonnatā |
sa-ghoṣa-gati-danturā samadhirūḍha-dolottamā
mukunda-rati-vardhinī jayati padma-bandhoḥ sutā ||2||

You rush down from Kalinda mountain, your waters bright with white foam. Anxious for love, you gush onward, rising and falling though the boulders. Your excited, undulating motions create melodious songs, and it appears that you are mounted on a swaying palanquin of love. Glory be to Yamuna, Daughter of the Sun, who increases love for Krishna.

bhuvaṁ bhuvana-pāvanīm adhigatām aneka-svanaiḥ
priyābhir iva sevitāṁ śuka-mayūra-haṁsādibhiḥ |
niṭamba-taṭa-sundarīṁ namata kṛṣṇa-turya-priyām ||3||

You have descended to purify the earth. Parrots, peacocks, swans and other birds serve you with their various songs, as if they were your dear friends. Your waves appear as braceleted arms, and your banks as beautiful hips decorated with sands that look like pearl studded ornaments. I bow to you, fourth beloved of Krishna.

ananta-guṇa-bhūṣite śiva-viriñci-deva-stute
ghanāghana-nibhe sadā dhruva-parāśarābhiṣṭa-de |
viśuddha-mathurā-taṭe sakala-gopa-gopī-vṛte
kṛpā-jaladhi-saṁśrite mama manaḥ sukhaṁ bhāvaya ||4||

You are adorned with countless qualities, and are praised by Shiva, Brahma and other gods. Your complexion is that of a dark rain cloud ever ready to shower grace upon devotees such as Dhruva and Parashara. The holy city of Mathura resides on your banks, and you are surrounded by gopas and gopis. You are in union with Krishna, the Ocean of Grace. May you bring happiness to my heart!

yayā caraṇa-padmajā muraripoḥ priyaṁ-bhāvukā
samāgamanato bhavet sakala-siddhidā sevatām |
tayā sadṛśatām iyāt kamalajā-sapatnīva yad
dhari-priya-kalindajā manasi me sadā sthīyatām ||5||

By merging with you, Ganga, who was born of the lotus feet of Krishna, became a beloved of Krishna and capable of granting all spiritual powers. If anyone can compare to you it is Lakshmi, since she is a co-wife. May you, Yamuna, Beloved of Krishna, always remain in my mind.

Yamunotri (the source of the Yamuna in the Himalayas)

namo’stu yamune sadā tava caritram atyadbhutaṁ
na jātu yama-yātanā bhavati te payaḥ-pānataḥ |
yamo’pi bhaginÄ«-sutān katham u hanti duṣṭān api
priyo bhavati sevanāt tava harer yathā gopikāḥ ||6||

Forever I bow to you, O Yamuna. Your deeds are most amazing. One is spared from the destruction of Yama, god of death, by drinking your milky water. For how could even Yama strike his own sister’s children, even if they are wicked? By serving you, one becomes a beloved of Krishna, like the gopis.

mamāstu tava sannidhau tanu-navatvam etāvatā
na durlabhatamā ratir muraripau mukunda-priye |
ato’stu tava lālanā suradhunÄ« paraṁ saá¹…gamāt
tavaiva bhuvi kīrtitā na tu kadāpi puṣṭi-sthitaiḥ ||7||

May I achieve your presence and thereby attain a new body that makes loving Krishna easy, O Beloved of Krishna! In this way, may you be lovingly nurturing. By merging with you, Ganga, River of the Gods, became greatly renowned in the world. Therefore devotees established in the path of grace never worship the Ganga without you.

stutiṁ tava karoti kaḥ kamalajā-sapatni priye
harer yad-anusevayā bhavati saukhyam āmokṣataḥ |
iyaṁ tava kathādhikā sakala-gopikā-saṅgama-
smara-śrama-jalāṇubhiḥ sakala-gātrajaiḥ saṅgamaḥ ||8||

Who is capable of praising you, Beloved Co-wife of Lakshmi? By serving Lakshmi along with Krishna, one achieves the happiness of liberation. But your greatness is superior to this, since drops of perspiration that arise from the love play with Krishna on the bodies of all the gopis mingle in your waters.

tavāṣṭakam idaṁ mudā paṭhati sura-sūte sadā
samasta-durita-kṣayo bhavati vai mukunde ratiḥ |
tathā sakala-siddhayo muraripuś ca santuṣyati
svabhāva-vijayo bhaved vadati vallabhaḥ śrī-hareḥ ||9||

O Daughter of the Sun! All sins are destroyed for the one who regularly and joyfully recites this poem, and this person certainly develops love for Krishna. All spiritual abilities are acquired and Krishna himself becomes pleased. One’s nature is thereby entirely transformed. So says Vallabha, beloved of Shri Krishna.

Yamuna River as she flows through Uttarakhand.


1. From Advaita Malla Barman, A River Called Tirash (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992), 179.

2. See, for example, Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.

3. Speaking of Shiva, trans. A. K. Ramanujan, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), 122.

4. Bhagavata Purana 2.1.32-33.

5. See, for example, ibid. 10.15.

6. Ibid. 10.11.36.

7. David L. Haberman, Journey through the Twelve Forests (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 125-126.

8. See, for example, Heinrich von Stientencron, Ganga und Yamuna: Zur symbolischen Bedeutung de Flussgottinnen an indischen Tempeln (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1972).

9. A translation of this text can be found in Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), 247-250.

10. Although an ashtakam is literally an eight-versed poem, a ninth verse is added that identifies the results of chanting the poem. The copy of the text I discuss is Sri Yamunashtakam, ed. Kedarnath Mishra (Varanasi Ananda Prakashan Samsthan, 1980).

11. The goddess theology is often associated with the three Sanskrit terms prakriti (nature), maya (creative process), and shakti (energy or power).

12. Although the word used here is Murari, I have translated Krishna’s various names as “Krishna” throughout the poem.

(…to be continued)