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Cultural Harmony in Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra

Cultural Harmony in Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra

I: Introduction

Mythical and Spiritual Nature of Cultural Harmony

This research work is to critically analyze the novel A River Sutra by Gita Mehta that presents various myths about one of Indian’s holiest rivers, Narmada along with several instances of spiritual beliefs and rituals associated with it which are the binding force to create harmony among the people of various cultures and religions. Indeed rituals, myths and spiritual beliefs have always attracted so many people from not only India but all over the world, irrespective of their social, cultural and religious backgrounds.

In this particular novel, the writer touches the life of various people of different faiths and beliefs, who are from various ethnic groups and have their own way of religious lives. To accomplish this, she presents seemingly unconnected stories in the novel, stories about Hindu and Jain ascetics, courtesans and minstrels, diamond merchants and tea executives, Muslim clerics and music teacher, tribal folk beliefs and the anthropologists who study them. In A River Sutra, Mehta gives references to historical figures and incidents to show the harmony between the two great religions of India. Hinduism and Islam are the integral part of the Indian culture. She gives a brief insight on the works of Mogul emperors that built the sanctuary where the bureaucrat now works. The Moguls, though Muslim by religion had built these shelters near the river Narmada so that Hindu pilgrims and ascetics could stay during their pilgrimage. She also throws light in the effort of a great Indian poet, Kabir who made a bridge between the Hindus and the Muslims. She has focused on the depth of spirituality that the people of India, irrespective of their religion, or faith have always felt. It depicts the life and culture on the banks of India’s holiest river Narmada. Indians have a belief in the myth that a single sight of this holy river would free mankind from the burden of the recycle of life and death. There is a strong belief that every sin is purified if one’s life ends in the water of the Narmada. It is this beliefs and the sense of spiritually associated with this holy river that has made the people of different faiths come to the same spot for worship and thus the holy Narmada River has been a spot which has brought these diverse people in one place, and this particular point― the Narmada being the reason and spot for the harmony among the people of various cultural and religious background― is the point which I am to explore.

A River Sutra established Mehta as a serious and a prolific writer. The subject of both her fiction and non-fiction is exclusively focused on India, its culture and history. In A River Sutra Mehta has taken a new direction in her writing. She has focused and explored the diversity of cultures within India. This work has made her an important figure among the contemporary postcolonial writers. Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra has been reviewed and observed in a number of ways by several critics.

Asit Chandmal in A Renaissance Woman has praised Mehta pointing out that after she finished A River Sutra, she “has lost her amateur status and has become a writer lionized by the world” and that “she has created a new language of literature and has recreated India for Indians” (30). He focused on her reputation, name and fame in the world as a writer that she achieved after she finished A River Sutra. It established her as a versatile writer. She has endeavored to present a modern view of the culture and people of India. Salman Rushdie, in the introduction of book The Vintage Book of Indian Writings, writes “Mehta’s A River Sutra is an important attempt by a thoroughly modern Indian to make her reckoning with the Hindu culture from which she emerged” (2). The crux of what he says is the influence of Hindu culture in her writings. She is said to be a witty opinionated person who is always open to new ideas and experiences. She writes non-fiction books and novels because she has to say something about her varied experiences to the world. As such her books are smart investigations into the ideas people, history and personalities that have determined and shaped modern India and ultimately into herself as a woman of Indian descent. Mehta intends to have an accretive effect upon the readers. As such by the time the book is finished, she wants to familiarize the readers with the better side and beauty of India. About the setting of the novel, Kirukus Associates in Editorial Reviews says that the book is filled with “subtle profundity in a beautifully evoked setting”, and at the same time is “powerfully understated”(1-2). The crux of this illustration is that it is a deceptively simple novel and with gentle good humor addresses the workings of the human heart. Mehta’s main concern is to unravel the deep feelings of the inner cognizance of man. She writes what she knows and what she wants others to know about India through her. Heart speaks the language of love, harmony and request.

When there is harmony there prevails co-operation and unity, which in turn can give birth to many positive thinking leading a family, a society, a nation and consequently the whole universe to become a place where one can live his/her life in peace and freedom without any kind of fear. Unity is the need of the whole universe today where so often calamities occur. The variations of thoughts and beliefs have equally contributed to the mishaps around. The differences should be bridged so as to ensure peace and harmony in the world where people are lured to spend their lives in their own terms. The preference of one may mismatch with the other, there by, causing lack of harmony, which takes the form of crisis that sometimes becomes an incurable disease contaminating everything around. It is very difficult for one to cast aside one’s belief and go on to believe the things that others do. The same is true about the religious belief which the people have; it becomes their way of living, habit and what not; and to change their religious belief to next is impossible. These sometimes have an adverse effect on the family, society and consequently the whole nation. Society has come across various conflicts in the past and there is no exception in the present day as well as people are likely to think in the same line. Each individual has a different vision, a different feeling, a different thought and a different perspective which differentiate one from the other.

The solution to such problems is not easy though not impossible as well. The search for such a thing that could solve this problem is the only way out to cope with this matter. Dr. Matilal Das writes that “a higher harmony of life is necessary, a spiritual synthesis alone can avoid the conflict, and can ensure people in the world” (166). The crux of what he says is about the glorious achievement of a spiritual synthesis. He has emphasized on the force of spirituality that binds the people in one knot. No history has a proof that any philosophy, belief or any thought could bring such diverse people together and it is alone the spiritual synthesis that could do such miracle. Spirituality has a direct connection with religion. All the world cultures have faith in Almighty who is one but given different names. The purpose of religious path is to reach the one Almighty who is the centre of belief of every human being.

Matilal opines that spirituality can go as far as ensuring internationalism– a concept that could bring not only different castes, different nations but the whole world together. He adds that “life must be a never ceasing flow of spirit. If we live the life of love and harmony, internationalism does not remain a thing to be attained but is in our grasp” (169). He further explains the relation of spiritualism to the human salvation and universal liberation in these words: “To unfold the true nature of man, man should live a dedicated life using his activities for human good. Thus alone can there be individual salvation and universal liberation” (168). These lines are about human salvation which is the core of the religious practices, like pilgrimage, and for this salvation of one’s soul, people are ready to take any kind of strenuous path. We have various examples of Saints who have undergone various threatening fasts and physical activity. For example Lord Gautam Buddha attained his salvation only after several hard penances― he sat under a tree for such a long time that his whole body was covered with termites fasting for uncountable days.

Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, asserts ‘the mythology shows itself to be as amenable as life itself to the obsessions and requirements of the individual, the race and the age” (382). The crux of what he says is the importance of mythology as it is the requirement of not only the individual but of the whole race and age. India is a land where there prevails myths of several kinds associated with almost everything, and it is this myths and folklores that attract visitors. Indians have never been prepared to settle for a single mythology if they could squeeze another hundred in.

Mehta has been going on the same beaten tracks following her Indian counterpart writers whose works abound in myths and spiritualism. Like writes such as Salman Rushdie, she too dabbles a little in magical realism. A River Sutra flows smoothly with enchanting stories spilling out of the river, but unlike other writers, the language Mehta uses is beautifully poetic and lyrical, but never obscure. To favor her language Campbell writes “She has created a new language of literature”.

Smith reviews A River Sutra as an elegant piece of work in Indian mythology. She opines that Mehta “blended Indian mythology with piercing depictions of love in its many aspects” (53). According to her, Mehta highlights and presents the myths of India in a series of short individual stories to show how a disenchanted bureaucrat learns about love and life. Mehta shows that people in India worship rivers, revere holy men, participate in extravagant rituals and ceremonies and take great pains in the name of faith and religion. The swiftness and simplicity of Mehta’s writing of the stories in the novel is very much applauded by Rahul Jacob of The Los Angels Times, he writes how “every yarn begins the lazy circle gain, another variation on the novel’s central theme. Each story ends with a beguiling turn into the next one” (6). The simplicity of Mehta’s writing nicely complements the novel’s profound concerns. The craft of Mehta’s story telling and her explicit description of the cast system as practiced in India has also been praised here and the fact that Narmada is the daughter of Lord Shiva is brought into account as a reviewer in Publishers Weekly describes how “this novel of India beautifully embodies the art and craft of story telling as Mehta portrays diverse lives touched by river Narmada, a holy pilgrimage site for not avoiding the controversies of life in her homeland, including the caste worshipped as the daughter of the god Shiva (33). The same reviewer praises Mehta system and political/ religious rivalry as “nothing that” she willingly exposes its complexities” (33).

Indira Bhatta views that Mehta attempts to present a view of life in her chosen aspects of Indian society: “Gita Mehta selects aspects of traditional spiritual heritage of Indian society. These are aspects which the western critics and readers consider to be an essential image of India” (67). The novel has become a general inquiry on Mysticism and Spiritualism. The book brings for the central image which defines India as a land of mysticism and spiritualism. These were and are the images which are still the factors that invite thousands of visitors to India. Similarly, other reviewer such as Eric Wilson observes that A River Sutra is a seamless story. He views that Mehta weaves a number of accounts around the narrator’s experience to form tapestry of life, spiritualism and relationship. C.J.S. Willia, in an India Star Review of Books, points out that A River Sutra is a novel of quest stories woven into an exquisite tapestry of secular humanistic philosophy. Mehta has been able to disclose the hidden secrets of India, the unity in the diversity of traditions, the faith, beliefs and hopes of the people finally calumniating in their total commitment in what they believe. She takes into the beauty in things, the power of silence, and the better and different understanding of a different culture where millions believe in. Wendy Smith observes the book that Mehta thought would not be easily digested by the western readers received the warmest reaction. Ironically it became “the one people have responded to most” (54).

Pilgrimage is considered to be one of the key medium to reach the Almighty for one’s salvation and to free oneself from the supposed sins ever committed in the materialistic world as the fundamental purpose of religion is to bring man near god. Various rivers, temples and the like places that are conferred with religious importance are the places for the pilgrimage. There one can come across various people who come from different countries regardless of their social, cultural and economic backgrounds. They are present in such religious places with all devotion and reverence to the Almighty. These places, having a religious and spiritual importance, have always attracted different people and have given them a new outlook of life; makes them forget their materialistic status and endowers them with spiritual thought, thus writing the diverse cultures as they become only one pilgrims with one intention of being united with the Almighty. In this pilgrimage spot they are away from the indulgence of the materialistic possession.

Considering these critical views a study of cultural harmony in A River Sutra will be worthwhile. In simple terms this study aims to prove that various myths about one of the India’s holiest river Narmada along with several instances of spiritual beliefs and rituals associated with it are the binding force to create harmony among the people of various culture and religions. And indeed rituals, myths and spiritual beliefs have always attracted so many people from not only India but all over the world, irrespective of their social, cultural and religious backgrounds.

Cultural Harmony comprises the point of view, from where we seek to prove the hypothesis. I have applied the Indic river myths, rituals and spiritual beliefs— the integral element of the entire research as the theoretical tool of this thesis to test the hypothesis. Generally speaking it means that the myths, rituals, beliefs and the sense of spirituality with which water is associated, along with the several symbols that the water stands for are the key elements to create harmonious relationship among the people of diverse cultural and religious groups. And the myths on some of the holiest rivers of India including the Narmada River, their origin and the powers they are supposed to have within themselves. Wilford L. Guerin and others write in A Handbook of Critical Approach to Literature that:

. . .the study of myths reveals about the mind and character of people and that ‘myths  are the symbolic projection of a people’s hopes, values, fears and aspirations’ (59). They further state that ‘myths are by nature collective and communal: they bind a tribe or a nation together in common psychological and spiritual activities.

The importance of myth is very well highlighted here. It does the work of uniting not only the different ethnic groups together but the whole nation. Myths are the sumbol of human sentiments and emotions. They are deeply rooted in all people. Thus, task of unification is earlier done with construction of myths.

Thus, the myths have highlighted the power that the river is capable of and the sense of spirituality that they are bestowed with. Consequently the people who have strong faith on the myth about river, come to its banks to worship for one’s salvation and free oneself from the supposed sins ever committed in the materialistic world as the fundamental purpose of religion is to bring man near God. Various rivers, temples and the like places that are conferred with religious importance are the places for the pilgrimage. The several myths and spiritual beliefs associated with the holiness of the river, Narmada, have made all the characters of this novel come across each other.

II: Mythology

Myth and River as the Signifiers of the Cultural Harmony

each other in Indic myth as the signifiers of Cultural Harmony. A number of myths and rituals are associated with the different rivers in India for their holiness and spiritual significance. The term ‘myth’ derives from the Greek work ‘muthos’ which means words of mouth. It is a term of complex history and meaning. It is a traditional tale common to the members of a tribe, race or nation usually involving the supernatural and serving to explain some natural phenomenon. Myths are narrative expression of the deepest human concern. They are traditional stories or legends, usually concerning some super-human beings or gods or some alleged persons and events. The myths of primitive people are closely related with their religious beliefs. The materials of the myths lie in the collective unconscious of the race. The myths were once believed to be true by a particular cultural group. Most myths involve rituals. Now a days a myth tends to signify a fiction, but a fiction which conveys psychological truth. In general, a myth is a story which is not true and involves supernatural beings or at any rate super human beings which is always concerned with creation. Myth explains how something comes to exist. Northrop Frye writes,  “The myth is the central informing power that gives archetypal significance to the ritual and archetypal narrative to the oracle. Hence the myth is the archetype, though it might be convenient to say myth only when referring to narrative, and archetype when speaking of significance” (429). In this context Frye means to say that myth is a kind if language for communicating ideas either in the form of ritual or narrative. In an attempt to present various definitions of ‘myth’ Wilfred L. Guerin and other write in A Handbook of Critical Approach to Literature that ” the study of myths reveals about the mind and character of people” and that “myths are the symbolic projection of a people’s hope, values, fears and aspirations” (259). They state that “myths are by nature collective and communal; they bind a tribe or a nation together in common psychological and spiritual activities” (160). The importance of ‘myth’ is very well highlighted here: it does the work of uniting not only the different ethnic groups together but the whole nation. This task of unification is easier done with construction of myths.  And thus, creating a state of agreement in feelings, interests, opinions and beliefs.

Myth and culture are inevitable in Indian society. Myths are very popular in India and are connected with almost everything that is holy or considered holy. All the religious, in one way or the other, have their roots in them. The various rituals performed, have a long story from which they have come down and those stories are termed “myths”. Though myths are considered to be false stories, they are not so in the real sense. Max Muller, as quoted in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with Thousand Faces, is of the opinion that myths are misunderstood by succeeding ages: “myths are merely primitive fictions, illusions, or opinions based upon false reasoning. It may be true that myths do not meet our current standards of factual reality” (382). In The Language of Poetry, edited by Allen Tate, Philip Wheelwright explains, “myth is the expression of a profound sense of togetherness of feeling and of action and of wholeness of living” (11). Myth is ubiquitous in time as well as place, a dynamic factor everywhere in human society; it transcends time uniting traditional modes of beliefs with the current values and reaching toward the future spiritual and cultural aspirations.

The way of life and means of communication that different cultural and religious group people use are different and thus they are away from each other. There can’t be good relation and mutual cooperation between and among them. There lies diversity. The only way to establish harmonious relationship between them is the way of communication and myths do this work to get them together and know each other. Myths are playing important role to bridge them. Myths are the medium which link the present to the traditional knowledge. Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces writes that myths have certain functions and an “understood function is to serve as a powerful picture language for communication of traditional wisdom” (256). It describes the figurative function of myth as a vehicle for communicating the traditional knowledge to the present and up coming generations. Similarly, Mark Schorer says in William Blake: The Politics of Vision that “Myth is fundamental, the dramatic representation of our deepest instinctual life, of a primary awareness of man in the universe, capable of many configurations, upon which all particular opinions and attitudes depend” (29). To relate the mythological figures with spiritual principles, Campbell writes that “the mythological figures that have comedown to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of unconscious but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant through out the course of human history” (257). The sense of spirituality has remained constant the entire episode of human history which has been in existence from time immemorial and myths are the integral part of this whole. Carl Gustav Jung in his book Man and His Symbols opines that myth is the means to know about the ancient history of man. In his words, “the ancient history of man is being meaningfully rediscovered in the symbolic images and myths that have survived ancient man” (106).

It is obvious that society is directly connected to myth and Joseph Campbell has expressed the same kind of view in his book Myths to Live By. He says, ‘For since it has always been on myths that the moral orders of societies have been founded’ (11-12). He strongly believes that the foundation is morality, above all is myth. Again, in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell asserts the importance of mythology as it is a requirement to not only the individual but also to the race and age, “mythology shows itself to be as amenable as life itself to the obsessions and requirements of the individual, the race, the age” (382). Further he elaborates that, myth is the manifestation of something that is beyond our eye, he writes:

Myth remains, necessarily, within the cycle but represents this cycle as surrounded and permeated by the silence. Myth is the revelation of a plenum of silence within and around every atom of existence. Myth is a directing of a mind and heart by means of profoundly informed figurations, to that ultimate mystery which fills and surrounds all existences. Even in the most comical and apparently frivolous of its moments, mythology is directing the mind to this unmanifest which is just beyond the eye. (276)

The crux of these lines is to focus the invisible quality of myth since it is ‘beyond our eye’. Myth, here, is presented as the smallest but important unit of human existence. It is the guiding factor of our mind and heart. Myth deserves the mysterious quality that surrounds us all.

There also exists a relation between literature and myth, which is obvious in many works. Northrop Frye writes in Theory of Criticism from Plato to the Present ed. By Raman Sauden that “the structural principles of literature are as closely related to mythology and comparative religion as those of panting are to geometry. Myth is one extreme of literary design”. (355) Jung elaborates this point as

. . .  the analogies between ancient myths and the stories that appear… are neither trivial nor accidental. They exist because the unconscious mind of modern man preserves the symbol-making capacity that once found expression in the beliefs and rituals of the primitive. And that capacity still plays a role of vital psychic importance. In more ways than we realize, we are dependent on the messages that are carried by such symbols, and both our attitudes and our behaviors are profoundly influenced by them. (107)

In these lines, the influence of the beliefs and rituals of the ancient society on both our attitudes and our behaviors has been shown. These lines give much focus on the symbol making capacity that once found expression in the beliefs and rituals of the primitive society still has great psychological importance in the formation of modern mind. The root of the unconscious mind of modern man lies in the myths of the primitive society. It shows the dependency of modern mind and literature in the earlier society. India is a land of cultural and religious diversities. The splendor and diversity of India’s ritual arts distinguish it from the rest of the world. Such ritual arts are a way to a new dimension of existence. People find their ancestral root of origin in such rituals. A number of icons and symbols of the great Indic gods and goddesses show that the ritual art of India has deep historical roots. They have been a living tradition of people functioning as a symbol of unity. The blurb of the book Ritual Art of India writes:

. . . The splendor and diversity of India’s ritual arts are incomparable. As Ajit Mookerjee explains, they are also a way- a door to a new dimension of existence. The great gods and goddesses of India Siva and Krishna, Durga and Lakshmi, and countless local deities, all have their own icons and symbols, their ceremonies and rites. From village wall-paintings and wayside shrines to complex classical icons. Ajit Mookerjee shows that the ritual art of India has deep historical roots, but is also a living tradition, representing an awareness of the oneness of the universe.

The crux of these lines is to show the importance of ritual in Indian society. A ritual seems to be something of a voluntary effort in human life to recapture a lost support with natural cycle and that it is related to very existence of people in Indian society. It is about the omnipresent of god and goddess in Indian land.  Yet another writer, Alan W. Watts is in the process of defining myth, He says “myth is to be defined as a complex of stories-some no doubt fact and some fantasy-which for various reasons, human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life” (7).

Rivers, on the other hand, are revered to be holy, and are taken to be the incarnation of deities. There are several archetypes images, social, religious, and day to day affairs related to it. People all over the world and of different religious faiths have the same regard for it. People from far and diverse walks of life have come to its refuse in search of the peace of mind away from the pretense and the tyranny of town. River is a religious symbol and thus, as Jung says that

it is the role of religious symbols to give a meaning to the life of man. The pueblo Indians beliefs that they are the sons of father sun, and these beliefs endows their life with a perspective (and a goal) that goes far beyond their limited existence. It gives them ample space for the unfolding of personality and permits them a full life as complete persons. (89)

The river is associated with the mysteries like rebirth, and as it has been flowing till date since time immemorial, it is even termed as time’s flow into eternity. Since it is considered to be the incarnations of gods and goddesses, it is revered as holy. People from a far come to it for pilgrimage and purification. There are several ‘archetypes and the symbolic meanings’ with which the rivers ‘tend to be widely associated’ and at the same time, it is considered to be the image of ‘death and rebirth (baptism)’ as Guerin writes (161). The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary explains ‘Baptism’ as “a Christian ceremony in which a few drops of water are poured or scattered on somebody or they are covered with water, to welcome them into the Christian church and often to name them”. Joseph Campbell views, “The popular interpretation of baptism is that it ‘washes away original sin”. He further writes that “Symbolically, the infant makes the journey when the water is poured on its head; its guide and helpers are the priest and godparents. Its goal is a visit with parents of its external self, the spirit of God and the worb of Grace. Then it is returned to the parents of the physical body” (251). About the rite of baptism he opines “the sense of the rite of baptism” is “initiation into our church” (251).

Guerin also writes that the river is further associated with ‘The flowing of time into eternity’, ‘transitional phase of the life cycle; incarnations of deities’ (161). He  also points out that it can be associated with the ‘mystery of creation: purification and redemption; fertility and growth’ and also that according to Jung, “water is also the commonest symbol for the unconscious” (161).

Again, with different images of river, the colors are associated. The common colors associated with the river are ‘Blue’ and ‘Green’. The colors ‘Blue’ and ‘Green’ stand for “highly positive, truth, religious feeling, security, spiritual purity”; and “growth, sensation, hope, fertility” simultaneously (185). So we can as well assume that the rivers could also be associated with those images.

There are several instances of spirituality associated with water; spirituality connotes the equality of being related with the religion. Jung even calls it ‘God’ but is aware of the fact that it is not easy to explain what spirit really means. In The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious he writes:

The word “spirit” possesses such a wide range of application that it requires considerable effort to make clear to oneself all the things it can mean. Spirit, we say, is the principle that stands in opposition to matter. By this we understand an immaterial substance or form of existence which on the highest and most universal level is called ‘God’. We imagine this immaterial substance also as the vehicle of psychic phenomena or even of life itself. (208)

He further writes about the ‘objective spirit’ which he describes as ‘the whole stock of man’s cultural possessions with particular regard to his intellectual and religious achievements’ (209).

Each of the rivers carries its own value and is revered equally by its pilgrims. Some of the famous rivers in India are Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati, Karey, Godabari and the Like. Wendy O ‘Flaherty’ in his book The Hindu Myths has described the river Gangas as “’The Ganess, best of rivers, born of all sacred waters. . .” (120). A site named Wikipedia titled pilgrimage stats about Sarswati river that:

Although the river does not have a physical existence today, there are numerous references to it in the ancient Indian literature of the Vedic period. A part of the river exists now as Ghaggar in Haryana. The present dried bed of the Ghaggar was thus part of a major river, known as Sarsawati. The history calls Saraswati as the seventh river of the Sindhu Saraswati river system. Hence, it has the name ‘Saptsindhu’ in the region bounded by river Saraswati in the east and Sindhu (or) Indus in the west. The river Saraswati originated from the Har-ki-Dun glacier near Yamunotri in West Garhwal. It was considered as a mighty river in the ancient times. (1)

These lines say that the Sarswati river is not physically there in India now though it is mentioned in the ancient Indian literature of the Vedic period.but one of the smallest part of this river is still in existence in Haryana known as Ghaggar.it says about the origin  and the power  of Sarswti river in ancient times. Similarly, the river Godabari is also one of the famous rivers where people have gone for pilgrimage from a long time. The same site states about the Godabari river that:

The Godabari that starts at the Western Ghats and flows towards the Eastern Ghats, flows in the southern India and is considered to be one of the seven sacred rivers. This river originates from the hills situated at the back of the village. Tryanibak, located at Nasik district in Maharasthra. A large revered is situated at the hill from which the river originates at ‘Daulekhram’ it merges into the ‘Bay of Bengal’, making a delta. According to the Hindu religion, the river Godavari is considered to be one of the very sacred rivers. The people believe that taking a holy dip in the river relieves them from all the sins. (3)

Through these lines, it is known that the Godabari River is still in existence in the southern India and it is one of the holiest rivers in India. The river is believed to purify people from all the sins in a single holy deep. It is this belief that people irrespective of their culture and religion come to worship and take bath in its water. So the spiritual belief related to the river made people to share the same sentiments and tie them though they are having their own different ideologies. Yet another river is the Cauvery/ Kaveri River which is also revered as holy and pilgrimage in common in this river. Again the same site points out that:

It is considered to be a very sacred river of southern India. It originates from the Brahmagiri Hill in the Western Ghats in Coory district of Karnalaka state. The river flows through the states Karnataka and Tamilnadu in the southeastern direction. The holiness and the fame of the river have been written in Tamil literature. Along its lower course where it sweeps round into Tamil Nadu from Karnataka occur a magnificent series of temple towns. (4)

Likewise, the Narmada River is also considered to be one of the holiest rivers of not only India, but also on earth. The river is also one of the pilgrimage sites, worshiped as the daughter of the god Shiva. The river is believed to ‘link’ mankind to the energy of Shiva. The Narmada River which is India’s holiest river is believed to possess mysterious healing and cleansing powers. It is also believed that a mere sight of this river is enough to cleanse a human being from his sins and is thus rid of the recycle of birth and death. The Narmada River stands for a type of sutra that thread together the diverse people who live on its shores or who come to worship at its waters. The river reminds readers of the common thread of human emotions that links them all. The holy Narmada River creates a mythical and mysterious atmosphere in which the reader is spellbound. The promise of the river attracts a variety of characters with different motivations. Thus, the river is omnipresent in the background and the shared destination amongst the trekkers. A site named Wikipedia titled Narmada River states that

The Narmada is considered extremely holy by Hindus. It is a river in central India in Indian subcontinent flourishing mainly in Madhya Pradesh. It forms the traditional boundary between North India and South India, and is a total of 1,289 km long” called Namade by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century A.D., it has always been an important route between the Arabian sea and the Ganges River Valley. (1)

The Narmada River is the most popular pilgrimage route for Hindus who regard it their most sacred river after the Gangas. It is one of the three major rivers in India that run from east to west, along with the Tapti and the Mahi River. It is the only river in India that flows in a rift valley. It rises on the summit of Amarkantak Hill in Madhya Pradesh state, and for the first 320 kilometers of its course winds among the Mandla Hills, which from the head of the Satpura Range then at Jabalpul, passing though the ‘Marble Rocks’, it enters the Narmada valley between the Vindhya and Satpura ranges, and pursues a direct westerly course to the Gulf of Cambay. It flows through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. The river has beautiful ghats built on its banks in Hoshangabad. Its longest tributary is the Tawa, which joins the Narmada at Bandra Bahn in Housangabad District, Madhya Pradesh. After leaving Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra, the river widens out in the fertile district of Bharuch. Below Bharuch city it forms a 20km wide estuary where it enters the Gulf of combay.

One can come across scores of pilgrims on the bank of the Narmada River worshipping it from the morning to the evening.

The water being a means of washing away the sin is well brought out in one of the ritual performed in New Zealand where the sin is floated in the water. Sir James George Frazer in his book The Golden Bough writes:

In one part of New Zealand an expiation for sin was felt to be necessary; a service was performed over an individual, by which all the sins of tribe were supposed to the transferred to him, a fern stalk was previously tied to this person, with which he jumped into the river, and there unbinding, allowed it to float away to the sea, bearing their sins with it. (629)

Myth About Narmada River

There are several myths related to the origin of the River Narmada. The site named Wikipedia titled The Narmada in Hinduism states this myth about the Narmada River:

The Narmada River is one of the most important sacred rivers, believed to have descended from the sky by the order of Lord Shiva. It is said that the mere sight of the river will make pilgrim pure because of its sanctity. As a result, the river represents an important pilgrimage site and one of the highest acts a pilgrim can perform is to walk from the sea to the source of the river, in the Maikal Mountains and back along the opposite bank, a process that can take one to two years to complete. The town of Maheswar is a particularly important pilgrimage site along the route of the river. The Narmada is closely associated with Lord Shiva. Naturally formed smooth stones called banas, made of cryptocrystalline quartz, are found in Narmada which is known as Shivalingas; the rare and unique markings on them are regarded by Shivaites as very auspicious. (1)

The site named Maps of India titled Facts and figures states yet another myth, under another heading mythology, which goes this way:

This Narmada River is considered the mother and giver of peace. Legend has it that the mere sight of this river is enough to cleanse one’s soul; as against a dip in the Ganga or seven in the Yamuna. The Ganga is believed to visit this river once a year, in the guise of a black cow to cleanse herself of all her collected sins. The journey along the river Narmada is in some sense similar to famous parikrama (taking round) of the river, except that the parikarma is of life in the valley of the Narmada. Narmada kund in Amarkantak has an ambience that makes pilgrim spot out of this small place. (1)

The Narmada River itself is described as a lover, flowing to meet her bridegroom, the Lord of the Oceans. Young Narmada falls in love with male river son and asks Juhilla (a tributary of the son) to convey the message of love. Juhilla entices son herself. The disgust and anguish of the lovely Narmada compels her to jump off the western cliffs of Amarkantak. A mere six kilometers from her genesis, the Narmada hurtles down 150 feet at Kapildhara, a gorgeous waterfall. Named after the saint Kapil, this fall is soon followed by Dudhadhara.

‘Myth’ is a story that originated in ancient times, esp. one dealing with ideas or beliefs about the early history of a race, ‘ritual’ means series of actions used in a religious or some other ceremony and the word ‘spiritual’ means of the human spirit or soul, not of  physical things, or of or from god, divine or religion. ‘River’ is the flow of water. Indic myth, ritual and spiritual beliefs associated with the rivers have made them holy. According to the myth river is believed to be the incarnation of deities, the manifestation of gods and goddesses. It is considered to be the holiest creation of deities having mysterious power of healing and purifying men. And it is this promise of the river that attracts a variety of characters with different motivations. People from any cast or creed or country or religion are coming to worship the river for its holiness and the sense of spirituality it is associated with.

The myths have, thus, highlighted the power that the rivers are capable of and sense of spirituality that they are bestowed with. Consequently, the people who have a strong faith on the myth about the river come to its banks to worship in order to get rid of their sorrows. And the river as a common thread ties together the diverse people who live on its shores or who come to worship at its waters.

III: Textual Analysis

Cultural Harmony in A River Sutra

The novel A River Sutra is set on the bank of the river Narmada, one of the holiest rivers of India. It is believed that a mere sight of this holy river would relieve a man from the burden of life and death, whereas other holy rivers, like Ganga, cleanse the sin of people only after a dip into its waters. The Narmada River is worshiped as the daughter of the god Shiva and it is believed to ‘link’ mankind to the energy of Shiva. The River is believed to possess mysterious healing and cleaning powers. This promise of the river attracts a variety of characters with different motivations. The Narmada River stands for a type of common thread of human emotions that links together the diverse people who live on its shores or who come to worship at its waters. Such myths about the rivers have ever since made the people to revere them. The rivers are said to be the incarnation of deities– the deities that, from time immemorial, are worshipped. The custom of worshipping rivers is common not only in one community, class or religion, but in almost all the world’s religions worship the rivers in one way or the other. From cradle to grave, people are, directly or indirectly, associated with the worshipping of river. Be the people of any caste or creed, or any country, the river is worshipped for its holiness and the sense of spirituality it is associated with.

People in their old age go for pilgrimage to cleanse themselves from the sinful life; they suppose they have led during their stay in the materialistic world. Some who are fed up of the busy and corrupt city life and want to escape its tyranny are also on the way to pilgrimage and their pilgrimage sites are the holy places, temples or rivers. The characters in A River Sutra who are thus either fed up of the materialistic indulgence or frustrated in life or who have no one besides them, who think they have committed some crime, have come to the holy river Narmada to get rid of all such burdens. They have all come to the same sport Narmada, though, they don’t all belong to the same caste or community, and the only Narmada has become the only solace to their aching heart. Here they have found their peace of mind and a reason to live.

Myth of the River Sutra

The River Sutra involves several myths that play a vital role in creating harmony. The exchange of myth leads towards unification: it unites the diverse cultural beliefs and brings harmony between and among different people of having diverse cultural beliefs. In this novel, we encounter various types of myths and beliefs related to the society, caste, places, and the river Narmada itself– the river is supposed to be created by lord Shiva. It is taken as a ritual that people in their old age go to pilgrimage to get rid of their sins and thus book a place in heaven; so on the bank of Narmada river, as elsewhere in religious places, we find people, mostly in their old age, come to worship, and in fact, make a pilgrimage to the holy river which is supposed to be “one of the holiest pilgrimage sites, worshipped as the daughter of the god Shiva” (Mehta 2).

The river’s astrology of the Narmada tells that her holiness has the ability to drive out the malevolent effects of Saturn. As such, people suffering from unfortunate diseases such as epilepsies and depressions rush to her banks (153). Referring to the holiness of the Narmada, the courtesan tells that she could still recall the voice of the Nawab of Shahbag, echoing through the microphones in her school days, speaking about the healing powers of Narmada:

The Nawab was a Muslim but the honored the river’s holiness. I can still hear his voice echoing through the microphones: ‘Bathing in the waters of the Jamuna purifies a man in seven days, in the waters of the Saraswati in three in the waters of the Ganges in one, but the Narmada purifies with a single sight of her waters, salutations to thee, O Narmada.’ (163)

There are several occasions when people are seen bathing in the holiest rivers. Certain cultural beliefs and several rituals associated with the rivers convey a belief that bathing in the waters of these rivers would cleanse us of all our sins or even the sprinkling of the water is enough to purify us; but when it comes to Narmada, it has a different myth which states that a single sight is enough.

There exist several myths regarding the origin of Narmada River, one of the myths is that Lord Shiva in his ascetic trance created the river and named it Narmada as he was amused by its various form and blessed it to be a holy one:

It is said that Shiva, creator and Destroyer of Worlds, was in an ascetic trance so strenuous that rivulets of perspiration began flowing from his body down the hills. The stream took the form of a woman the most dangerous of her kind: a beautiful virgin innocently tempting even ascetic to pursue her, inflaming their last by appealing at one moment as lightly dancing girl, at another as a romantic dreamer, at yet another as a seductress loose-limbed with the lassitude of desire. Her inventive variations so amused Shiva that he named her Narmada, the delightful one, blessing her with the words ‘you shall be forever holy, forever inexhaustible.’ Then he gave her in marriage to the ocean, Lord of Rivers most lustrous of all her suitors. (Mehta 8-9)

These lines are about the origin of Narmada River– that it  is formed from the perspiration of Lord Shiva’s body while undergoing, strenuous meditation and took the form of a woman. Being amused by her effort Shiva named her Narmada and blessed her that she shall be forever holy, forever inexhaustible. Since that blessing, the Narmada is considered as one of the holiest rivers in India, possessed with the divine powers of healing and purifying men. Another myth reveals that the Narmada River has a capacity to annual poison of the snakebite. The following invocation of the river states the belief in the myth, “Salutation in the morning and at night to thee, O Narmada ! Defend me from the serpent’s poison” (6). According to another belief, the river is believed to have a capacity to cure the madness of the person who is possessed. Nitin Bose has supposed himself to be possessed by a tribal woman named Rima and his activities are beyond comprehension- talking nonsense and singing the songs that tribal women sang- then it was because of the holiness of the Narmada, a priest advices him to worship “that goddess at any shrine that overlooks the Narmada River. Only that river has been given the power to cure him” (137). In another myth of nature, it is considered that Indian rivers have a remarkable sense of purifying a man. All rivers, lakes, and mountains are the repository of some tale of divine mythology (Mehta, Snakes 23). The river Narmada is “believed to link mankind to the energy of Shiva” (Mehta, River 8).

Similarly, a myth in the novel goes to the extent of the rebirth of the people. A courtesan’s daughter was kidnapped by a bandit who supposed that she had been his wife in every birth and later when the girl also happens to realize that it was their rebirth, she marries the bandit. Later, after the death of the bandit- the most wanted man-she kills herself by drowning in the waters of the Narmada in order to escape the police. Though suicide is considered as a great sin by the “dharmasastras”, exceptions condemnation of suicides are found in the epics, where religious suicides are eulogized and given patronage. Accordingly persons were allowed to kill themselves at holy places such as Prayaga, Kasi and Amarkantaka in order to secure release from this world (Dubey 360). As an echo of such epical suicides, the courtesan was happy for her daughter who killed herself in the water of Narmada. She believed that “Narmada would purify her daughter from all her sins” (Mehta, River 190).  There is a strong belief that every sin is purified if one’s life ends in the water of the Narmada. The religious suicides at Amarkantak people fasting to death or immolating themselves on the Narmada’s banks, or drowning in her waters is all based on the myth that ‘the river releases us from the cycle of birth and rebirth’ (152). Not only the lay men but even the ascetics who have undergone hard penances to wash away sins are also found to have a wish to end their lives in the waters of Narmada because “even the corpses of the Ascetics are floated in the waters of Narmada” with a burning coal in its mouth so that they can be free from the burden of the cycle of rebirth and death (43).

The Narmada is also said to be the mother of all girls. As such Uma, the river minstrel, who appears at the end of the novel, has been ‘baptized’ by the Naga Baba in the waters of the Narmada. She is given a new name and an identity dipping her in the river; thus purifying her from the previous life where she has to live in a brothel, and provides an eternal motherhood, “The Narmada” (254).  The story of Uma also brings out the myth of fortune and misfortune; she is named misfortune by her family because her mother has died giving birth to her. Such beliefs are still in existence in some parts of India and in some other parts of the countries of the world where girls are still taken to be a burden because of the ritual of giving them away in marriage with a huge amount of dowry; they are brought up in the household as the property of others and are thus treated in a very miserable way. They are never sent to school nor given proper attention in comparison to the boys who are considered to be a property in themselves— the ones to look after the family and to get a huge amount of dowry in marriage. This discrimination is well brought out in Uma’s story that she never got enough food and was even sold to a brothel. Uma says ‘I was never allowed to eat until everyone else had eaten, so I was always hungry and I was beaten by my father.’ She adds, “I believed my father when he told me God had given me a new mother. I was happy when he sold me to her. Bu the women never treated me like a daughter. She just kept me in that house for those men” (249-50). But this discrimination is fading away in the families that are well educated and have a well- to do status where both their son and daughter are treated equally and given the same opportunity. The story of Naga Baba is one of the most amusing and astonishing that conceives the myth which states that “the soul must travel through eighty- four thousand births in order to become a man” (281). Professor Shankar, is non-other than the Naga Baba himself. This comes as a great surprise to the narrator who had earlier heard from Tariq Mia about the ascetic’s life-threatening hardships to attain the title of Naga Baba- he had lives in extreme whether conditions which was really a task that needed guts and patience, had spent nine long days and nights before the funeral pyre and had broken his fast begging in the house of unclean persons. And now he had become a sophisticated Professor who believed only in the river’s immortality. To the query of the perplexed narrator, he answers “he has reentered the world” (281). It means that the Naga Baba has reentered the materialistic world after all those hardships.

According to Hindu scriptures, there are several stages that a person has to travel through his lifetime— the infant, the student, the householder and the Vanaprasthi. A Child is born and is totally dependent on his parents until he is a student which is the second phase of his life, then comes to another phase where he is having responsibility with a wife, parents and children to look after; he is the bread winner and to fulfill all the requirements of his family members. Only then after fulfilling all his worldly obligations, he retires from this materialistic world in quest of the spiritual world to get spiritual enlightenment where he becomes a Vanaprasthi. ‘Vana’ is translated as forest in English, where a person is away from the material world and its obligations towards a very spiritual quest in which he fully detaches himself form his home and family, and survives on fruits and roots of plants. He has nothing to do with wealth, has no greed in mind, and is supposed to cleanse himself of all the negative forces of life, and lead a pious controlled and peaceful life, remaining away from every sin that is a common phenomenon of the materialistic world. The unnamed narrator of this novel has already lived the previous three stages and as well fulfilled all his worldly obligations. In this context the narrator says: “I am now a Vanaprasthi, someone who has retired to the forest.  To the great surprise of my colleagues, I applied for the humble position of manager of the Narmada rest house” (1-2). The narrator of this story is a retired bureaucrat who has with drawn himself to the forest to reflect upon the world. So, he is in the Narmada in course of following the forth stage. He has ‘renounced the material world and has come to live near by the Narmada River paying his service to the pilgrims to the Narmada River as the care taker of the Narmada rest house which is situated on its bank’ (2-3). The novel also states another myth about people taken to be lucky or unlucky. There is a music teacher Master Mohan, whom his own wife takes to be unlucky because he is not able to provide her with a well-to-do living standard. She blames that her being devoid of her own father’s property was because of master Mohan’s unlucky fate. He is denied happiness from the very childhood he is a talented singer as a child, and one day when finally he gets the chance to record his song, “his voice had broken down” (55). And then to ease his life and give a second chance to his fate, his father arranges Master Mohan’s marriage to a girl of a wealthy family just to make his life more miserable forever. He is fed up of life to such an extent that “he commits suicide on his way back home from his short stay on the banks of the Narmada with Tariq Mia” (91).So Master Mohan ends his life in the water of Narmada to purify himself.

The heart-rending story of the girl-musician, her trust on the handsome young man who denies marriage with her at the last moment, is also not devoid of myth. After the boy’s denial for marriage, she had stopped playing the music, the sound of the music was ‘hateful’ to her ears (225). Her father believed meditating in the waters of Narmada would relieve her, so he suggested her that she “must meditate on the waters of the Narmada, the symbol of Shiva’s penance” until she had cured herself of her attachment to what had passed” (225). Her father believed in the powers of the Narmada to cure her of her aching heart and so wanted her to meditate on its waters so as to free herself from the unpleasant memory of the past which was about to drive the young girl towards the hurricane of depression. On the other hand, the myth designed for the patriarchal society was inherent in her mother’s psyche; she was well aware of the weakness of her daughter and believed in the myth that “a women without genius could be protected only by a husband in a harsh world designed for men” (212). This very concept that a woman is vulnerable without a man is a common thought inherent even in the societies of today where the women have already proved themselves to be equally talented and well-equipped as men. They have shown their excellence in the sectors which was initially thought to be meant only for males.

There are many customs and rituals practiced in India, which would frighten even women activist. Mehta says in her book Snakes and Ladders that:

An anthropologist once described to me a mass engagement ceremony he had attended in a desert area of western India. Fifty girls from one nomadic tribe were being engaged to fifty boys from another tribe, the idea being that when the children reach maturity they would not have to race around the desert looking for suitable mates since they would now be assured of a future domestic life. (28)

Such practices as there can only lead to conclude that human beings are not treated as individuals, but as commodities, meant to be treated in equal terms. Nevertheless, customs such as these have also been able to harmonize the very divergent people of India. With customs like this in India, everything becomes holy as time passes by, and the value of holiness decreases due to the extravagance of it. In this context, the bureaucrat narrates his discussion with Dr. Mitra on the holiness of the Narmada:

He shook a bony forefinger at me. ‘I hope you are not contracting the fatal Indian disease of making everything holy, my friend, Narmada is already two holy by half. Do you know how many sacred spots there are supposed to be on her banks? four hundred billion, according to the puranic scriptures”. (Mehta, River151)

According to the puranic scriptures, there are supposed to be four hundred billion sacred spots on the banks of Narmada. All the pebbles in the Narmada River have gained the form of a Shiva Linga because of its erosion which has given the Narmada River a sacred form where devotees from all over the world are attracted. In another myth connected with the Narmada, Dr. Mitra tells the bureaucrat that a prehistoric immortal head of an Aryan warrior is still said to be sleeping on the northern bank of the river. The bureaucrat unbelievingly asks him only to get an adamant reply:

‘Are you telling me that a four-thousand-year old. Aryan warrior is asleep on the north bank of the Narmada?’

‘Absolutely my dear fellow.’ Dr. Mitra gave me a gleeful smile. ‘I can even tell you his name, Avatihuma.’

‘I’ve never heard such nonsense in all my life.’

‘Ask any local tribal. Your guard is from Vano. He’ll corroborate my story’ (153-54).

On the top of this myth, ‘honeybees are said to encircle the immortal head, and local bandits believe that if those honeybees sting them, they would not be killed in a police encounter’ (156). such wide influence of myths and legends has led the people of India to believe in rebirth, reincarnation and even immortality. Even the learned professor, at the end of the novel, tells that in order to become a man, the soul must be born eighty-four thousands times in other forms of life. He says that, “only after passing through all those births, can a soul reenter the world as man” (281).

Spirituality in A River Sutra

Narmada River is all concerned with religion, not one but many, and is taken to be the daughter of God Shiva; so people from all over the world come to its banks for worship. Some kilometers away from the Narmada River, there is a temple of Mahadev (Lord Shiva, Lord of all the Lords), where one can see people from different walks of lives who have come with all the devotion to worship. At sunset hundreds of pilgrims are seen descending the stone steps that lead to Mahadev’s temples to the river’s edge. They float the clay-lamps in the water as devotion “with twilight, the water at Mahadev start’s flickering with tiny flames as if catching fire from the hundreds of clay lams being floated downstream for the evening devotions” (4). There are “crowds” of pilgrims seen on the Amarkantak’s temples who are “swarming” for the morning worship (5). So, one can ever find the bank of the Narmada River full of pilgrims worshipping it all the daylong till late in the evenings. People not only of Hindu faith but of almost all the religious beliefs are found worshipping on its banks. They come to this religious sport full of spiritual significance from all parts of the world. The guards of the Narmada rest house are from the Vano  Tribal race who also reside here enjoying “the reputation for fierceness as descendants of the tribal races that held the Aryan invasion of India at bay for centuries”, and with a strong belief in the Narmada river that it” annuls the effects of snakebite” (6). They believe that even the venom of the poisonous snake is ineffective before the power of this river.

They also confer on the river the gift of curing madness and liberating those who are possessed. This belief has made them stay near and worship this river that is taken to be the incarnation of deity. Even the pilgrims who have no relation with any tribal and who have never ever met one of those are also aware of the fact that the Narmada river annuls the effect of snakebite which highlights the widespread spirituality of the Narmada, and that is clearly stated in the invocation to the river Narmada:

There is a small mosque adjoining the Tomb of Amir Rumi, a sufi saint of the 16th century beyond the valley, on the next range of hills. There is not a single day when the pilgrims are not seen on the river banks. Among them are elderly people who have taken retirement of the worldly affairs and are on their way to personal enlightenment- the stage of Vanaprasthi. The Narmada pilgrimage is a arduous task but despite it, the pilgrims do not give a second thought to travel as long as nearly two years to complete the pilgrimage. They have a deep respect for lord Shiva which gives them the capacity to endure such an arduous affair. The narrator remarks:

I am always astonished at their endurance, since I know the Narmada pilgrimage to be an arduous affair that takes nearly two years to complete. At the mouth of the river, on the Arabian sea, the pilgrims must do white clothing out of respect for Shiva’s asceticism before walking eight hundred kilometers to the river’s source at Amarkantak. There they must cross to the opposite bank of the river and walk all the way back to the ocean. (7-8)

Any pilgrimage activity is performed with a spiritual thirst and is supposed to be the way to God. The way of salvation is the way of devotion. This path satisfied the longing for a more emotional and personal approach to religion. It is self-surrender to one of the many personal Gods and Goddesses. Such devotion is expressed through acts of worship, pilgrimage etc. The whole two years of pilgrimage around the Narmada River can be accomplished only when one is dedicated and has the capacity to endure any obstacle that comes in his/ her way because “the purpose of the pilgrimage is endurance. Through their endurance the pilgrims hope to generate the heat, the tapas, that links men to the energy of the universe, as the Narmada River is thought to link mankind to the energy of Shiva” (8). The Narmada is supposed to be created by the Lord Shiva so it is believed that the Narmada could link the mankind to his energy. Referring to her holiness, Dr. Mitra told the bureaucrat that “even a single glance on the Narmada would clean a human being from his generation of sinful births and in order to be released from the cycle of birth and rebirth, a person must drawn in the waters of the Narmada” (151-52).

Suicide is generally taken to be a crime but if it occurs in the waters of the Narmada, even the law has nothing to do as “the criminal offense of attempted suicide is often ignored if the offender is trying to kill himself in the waters of the Narmada” (2). Due to the sense of spirituality that it is associated with, it is believed that death in the Narmada releases one’s soul from taking another birth. The main reason behind people’s pilgrimage is to get rid of all the sins they have committed in life deliberate or not. Similarly, the hardships undergone by the Naga Baba is a proof that Indians are ready to take any arduous path in the name of culture. The people are ready to fast for the whole month or go through a long pilgrimage. The Naga Baba spends his life in a very harsh manner. He lives in an extreme weather conditions as a part of his way to asceticism; he remains hungry nine days and nights before a funeral pyre and breaks his fast begging in the houses of the unclear people. As the ritual demands it, there is not hesitation in the people to go through any of the strenuous paths assigned by the culture they have been following.

Myth and Spiritual Belief: The Reason for Cultural Harmony in A River sutra

There are several instances in the novel that provide a basis to the fact that myth and spiritual belief play a vital role in leading the people towards cultural harmony: and here the spot for cultural harmony being the bank of the river Narmada where people from all walks and diverse cultural and religious background come to worship Narmada to achieve different destinations.

The unnamed narrator has been living on the banks of the Narmada River for several years now and is happy with his task as the caretakers of the Narmada rest house. He had spent his youth as a bureaucrat- deputy secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, he had always realized that, “desire to withdraw from the world grew more urgent as I aged”- but he also knew that he was not at all “equipped to wander into the jungle and become a forest hermit, surviving on fruit and roots” (1). So, he had finally, after the death of his wife, and since he has no children as well, applied and got the job as the manager of the Narmada rest house “situated half way up the hill of the Vindhya Range” and is living a peaceful life for several years (3). Though, till date, he is paid by the government, he no longer thinks himself to be a bureaucrat because he has forsaken the material world and has retired to the forest, ‘the government still pays my wages but I no longer think of myself as a bureaucrat. Bureaucrats belong too much to the world, and I have fulfilled my worldly obligations. I am now a Vanaprasthi, someone who has retired to the forest to reflect’ (1). The Bhagavad Gita, an upshot treatise of all works concerning Hinduism, also has the idea that there should be the complete suppression of the world of becoming in which all actions occur. While talking about the redemption of man it says, “The wise free themselves from the cycle of birth and death by renouncing the fruits of action in the material world” (Prabhupada 136). It further emphasizes and accepts the existence of the supreme power ruling the world and concludes that, “everywhere are his hands legs, his eyes and faces” (636).

The Narmada River has become his retreat, after there was no one he is to look after: his parents and wife are not alive and he has no children. He was alone and left an urgency to retire from the wordy affairs, and since it has been some years he has spent on this river bank the river has now “become the object of my reflections” (Mehta, River 3). He spends his time worshipping, talking to his friend- the old Muslim cleric-whom he considers to be “the wisest of all my friends”, and taking care of the rest house and the guests who stay there (7).

The belief that the Narmada River cures a person if he is possessed has brought the tea executive Mr. Nitin Bose to the Narmada: “They say there is a shrine to a goddess in these jungles. A tribal goddesses, who cures the madness of those who are possessed” (105). He had answered that his name was Rima Bose, which surprised the police because “he is most certainly a man” and that he is possessed (101-102). This was the reason of Nitin’s arrival to the Narmada River. He is in danger of losing his mind forever if he is not cured of this madness and his life itself has become a nightmare for him. He has no other means than to come to Narmada to save his life.

The tribal Vano people, who were, no doubt, very different in caste from Nitin Bose, were the ones to help him out of the madness. No wonder, when the narrator learns that Nitin Bose had headed to the shrine with the Vano people, he asks with an alarm “How has Bose gone with them? He is not a tribal and Mr. Chagla, who is the overall helper of the narrator answers that “he has been touched by the power of the goddess so he is not an outsider anymore” (141). This instance in the novel clearly states how different people having different cultural background are united or how cultural harmony among the peoples of diverse cultures has been created by the power of myth and that the place of their unification or cultural harmony is non other than the spiritual sacred, holy Narmada River. The tribal are supposed to beg for Mr. Bose, “the tribal will beg the goddess to forgive Mr. Bose” (141). They are no different persons now, neither do they care about their culture or social status, they are one and the same in this very spiritual task and the reason being the myth regarding the spirituality of this holy river Narmada, and the narrator could hear them chanting the invocation to the Narmada along with Nitin Bose.

The Jains are no exceptions who are in the list of pilgrims that visit Narmada River. The narrator shares his experience of meeting two naked Jain monks who had even given up speaking as a part of their asceticism; The narrator says “Once I met two naked Jain mendicants, members of the Sky Clad sect whose rigorous penance include the denial of human shame. To my great disappointment they indicated by signs that they no longer even spoke” (10). So the Narmada River has no boundaries for its devotees, be it of any caste or creed. One day on his way to Tariq Mia, the narrator was asked by Jain Monk the way to Mahadev, “If I continue on this road will I reach Mahadev?” (10). He is here in Narmada though he admits “I am not of Hindu faith. I am joining my fellow Jain Monks in Mahadev, where they have gone to find a barber. We will beg him to do us the charity of shaving our heads” (11). During his conversation with the monk, who was perhaps “not more than thirty years of age”, the narrator comes to know that”, A Jain monk seeks to free himself of the fetters of world by desire through the view of poverty, celibacy and non violence” (11). The Jains are the followers of Mahavira, the great teacher of Jainism in the present age, who lived at the same time as Buddha and like him was a Kshtrya caste. He differed from Buddha; however in that his parents were already Jains, worshipping Lord Parshava, whose enlightenment resembles that of Buddha, though its message was different, for its core was the resistance to the urge of killing.

He had spent a luxurious life in the west with lots of wealth and girls around him: but in his early age, this life of pleasure had stopped providing him the satisfaction he actually sought for because one desire was pursuing the other without letting him relax for a fraction of second “gradually my life of unremitting pleasure ceased to satisfy me, leaving me exhausted from the last indulgence while anticipation the next. At the age of twenty six I had already become fatigued by the worlds knowing that even at the moment of gratification, the seed of new desire was being sown” (29). Then gradually he comes out of the luxurious life and starts leading the life of an obedient son and a house holder following a set routine which was but only one face of his personality. A monk, from whom he was taking a discourse, happened to remark “Do not trust the tranquility of your present mind… Some upheaval most certainly awaits you” and that “I can see you are suppressing something. And what is suppressed will erupt” (30). This is the end of his materialistic life: this spiritual path he chose, led him to the Narmada River, thus proving Narmada to be a spot for the unification of diverse religious people and this unification turns into cultural and religious harmony among them.

So, as to fulfill Imrat’s desire, who was residing with him and was murdered by a Sahib, to sing at Amir Rumi’s “my father said that one day he and I would sing it at Amir Rumi’s tomb together” (71); and his promise “you will still sing at Amir Rumi’s tomb I promise you. And your father will hear your voice from heaven” (71), Master Mohan, the miserable music teacher, comes to the ‘Amir Rumi’s tomb and hands over Imrat’s record to Tariq Mia. He was supposed to do just that much but he stayed there with Tariq Mia for several months, “oh, he lived here with me for several months”; perhaps he found a sort of spiritual satisfaction on the bank of the Narmada River and so decides to stay there for months. This peace of mind was something which he always lacked at his house where he was never at peace with his family. Later, when Taiq Mia is able to convince that he should not feel any guilt about the death of Imrat, he leaves, “eventually I convinced him he was not responsible for the boy’s death” (91). But perhaps because he thought that he would not survive the life of hatred and chaos after living a peaceful and spiritual life at the bank of the Narmada, he suddenly throws himself before a train and suicides, thus giving an end to a very unsatisfied family life. Had he not made up his mind to return to Calcutta, he would have perhaps survived more years leading a spiritual life on the bank of the holiest river Narmada.

Among all the elements that contribute to the diversity of India nothing has been abele to enrich the ‘land of fabulous contrast’ so much so as religion (Mehta, Snakes 22). In India, Hinduism is the religion practiced by the majority, though she has the third largest Muslim population on earth. The tree on which the Buddha reached enlightenment is in India and the stone colossi of the Jain religion dominate its hillsides (23). To top on it, a tree-trunk can accommodate three faiths in one because the culture of India as its best is like a massive sponge, which absorbs everything (24). In A River Sutra, Mehta gives references to historical figures and incidents to show the harmony between the two great religions of India. She gives a brief insight on the works of Mogul emperors that built the sanctuary where the bureaucrat now works. The Moguls, though Muslim by religion, had built these shelters near the river Narmada so that Hindu pilgrims and ascetics could stay during their pilgrimage. She also throws light in the effort of a great Indian poet to unify the Hindus and Muslims. For example Tariq Mia says that India’s greatest poet Kabir, who made a bridge between the Hindus and the Muslims, also died in this river (46). He also tells that Kabirvad, a huge tree sacred to both Hindus and Muslims emerged because of a twig thrown by Kabir in a mud (47). In chapter ten, the courtesan recalls the Nawab of Shahbag who respected the holiness of the Narmada even though he was a Muslim by religion (163). Every year, the Naga Baba used to shower blossoms on the waters of the Narmada in due respect for the holiness.

Mehta has not overlooked the importance of religion in A River Sutra. She has included translated fragments of a number of hymns and songs of both Hinduism and Islam. There are many gods in Hinduism and they are found in almost every object, more than a religion or a social system. It contains million of chants and mantras, and one or the other is recited by almost every Indian during his lifetime. To the more religious, it becomes a part of everyday activity. For example, the bureaucrat could hear ascetic chanting on the banks of the Narmada. They would recite “Shiva-o-ham, Shiva-o-ham, I that am Shiva, Shiva am I” (Mehta 5). Mehta exemplifies that even the classical music of India cannot be free from Hinduism. The meaning of ‘Om’ as clarified by the pilgrims’ father elucidates this fact. He explains that ‘Om’ is considered as one of the most secret syllable and it engulfs everything that is there in this universe:” ‘Om is the three worlds. Om is the three fires. Om is the three gods. Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva” (197). Mehta has also included a number of hymns and chants whatever she could in A River Sutra. However, in doing so, she tries to make a balance between Hinduism and Islam. Just as Hinduism is revered with hymns, chants and mantras, to god of Islam is likewise précised throughout the text. Imrat, for example honors the Allah in his songs:

Do not reveal the truth in a world where blasphemy prevails.

O wondrous source of mystery

O knower of secrets

I bare my neck to your naked blade

O, the wonder of your guidance.

O, the wonder of my submission. (Mehta, River 49-50)

There are four vehicles of religion in the A River Sutra, Master Mohan and Imrat are the components of Islam while the Naga Baba and Uma are of Hinduism. The former two eulogize the poems of Kabir. Whatever they sing are either the poems of Kabir or the holy verses of the Koran. The latter two on the other hand, sings poems of Shankaracharya or the hymns of the Vedas. A chapter is also dedicated to Jainism and its chief feature of rigorous penance and sacrifice. However, Mehta is not trying to make a comparison rather she is trying to show the harmonization among the various religious sects of India. As the hymns of Kabir praise the Allah, the poems of Shankracharya a eulogize the river Narmada throughout the text. For example, Tariq Mia hears Naga Baba teaching Shankracharya’s poem in praise of Narmada to Uma: “Messenger of passing time, sanctuary and salvation, you dissolve the fear of time. O holy Narmada” (232).

Similarly, the last chapter is fully devoted to the minstrel’s song in praise of the Narmada and her glory, the Narmada like many other Indian rivers has been a medium for salvation. Indian rivers have sustained the ideologies and philosophy of India. They are the immediate solution to a vast number of unexplained phenomena and have always been a part of epics and numerous myths that abound India. Faith rules the people of India: it is the faith in nature that has moved the people of this subcontinent for centuries. All of the major rivers are embodiment of some God or goddess. They are a link between man’s faith and religion. Numerous people are written in their grandeur and the uniqueness of India is sustained with chants and poems of such rivers. The chants of the Narmada, for example, exemplify and explain what India is:

You cleanse the earth

Of its impurities

The devout call you Surasa

The holy soul.

But Shiva called you


And laughing

Named you Narmada. (273)

We can say that Mehta has explicitly used the influence of both Hinduism and Islam to explain India. She tries to show the rivalry, as well as the harmony between these two great world religions. However, more than mutual understanding and harmony, the readers come to understand the deep hatred and enmity lie within these two religions. Just as Huntington says that the most violent fault lines are between Islam and its Orthodox counterpart such as the Hindu neighbors (183). Hinduism and Islam are the main religions of the Indian subcontinent. In India, most of the factors are decided and influenced by religion. It is also the chief cause of the internal as well as external disturbances of the country. In 1947, India and Pakistan were partitioned on grounds of religion. The partition on the eve of independence caused millions of people to be uprooted from their home territories, or suffer division within their own families and relatives. It created such a holocaust that much Indian and Pakistani fiction after 1947 explores the effects of partition on Indian culture in one way or the other. But Mehta, in her books has included different characters, the beliefs, rules of behaviors, language, rituals, art, style of dress, religion, and political and socio-economic systems only to show the harmonious relation among the people of different cultures and religions. She has discussed these aspects with her own interpretation, and therefore, her views disagree greatly with the interpretation of people living within the society. The real life situation is different to the one she has presented. As such, Mehta’s description of India rarely resembles a true picture, and is unlikely to give a true interpretation.

A courtesan from Shabbag happens to come to Narmada rest house. She has been there in search of her kidnapped daughter who had been kidnapped some two years ago by a bandit “Oh, sir, my daughter was kidnapped two years ago” (160). The daughter later comes to the same rest house; she even suicides at the waters of Narmada. She was married to the most wanted man in Shabbag; so to get rid of the prison life and so as to purify herself of all the sins, she suicides into the water of Narmada (190). Instead of leading a miserable life in the jail for being charged for assisting the bandit-husband she decides to give her life in the waters of Narmada so that she would be pure. The mother is satisfied that her daughter has done so because she is well aware and has a strong belief that the suicide in the waters of Narmada means to free oneself from the burden of the cycle of birth and death.

The ugly girl-musician, the daughter of the musician of genius, has also come to relieve herself from the memory of the past events so as to get back to her normal life of music. She says, her father wants her to “meditate on the waters of Narmada, the symbol of Shiva’s penance, until I have cured myself of my attachment to what has passed . . .” (225). She had been taken as a student by her father when she was six; that was a very rare thing and came as a strange thing for all as he had “never accepted a student from all the great musicians who had begged to sit at his feet, stretched out his hand, making a bridge for me to cross the gulf of praise that separated us, and offered to teach me music” (203). He did so only because he happened to notice the despair in her, “he did not notice me. But he noticed my despair” because her father was not sensitive “to the presence of other human beings unless they introduced in his music” (202).

Her father made her practice the veena in such a way that she had developed calluses on the cushions of her fingertips, she was full of tears but the father did not mind it and continued complaining on her imperfection:

I was only a child but my father wanted me to understand that music was the mathematics by which the universe could be comprehended. Morning after morning, month and month he made me play…the sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, over and over again one hand moving up and down the frets, the other plucking at the veena’s strings, until my fingers bled. He ignored my tears and forced me to continue practicing until the cush ions of my fingertips developed calluses. But still he was not satisfied with the clarity of my notes. (210)

Her father was so very tough and unfeeling who did not care about the pain and sentiments of other human beings. The girl admits that it is “had to be the child of genius” because “genius stands at a strange angle to the world of humans, careless of its own cruelty (201, 218). To add to this misery of her, was her mother; she was not sympathetic either, did not talk to her much and did not soothe her aching heart when others made fun of her ugliness, instead ashamed of the mother’s eyes full of tears, the girl locked herself in the bathroom and examined herself in the mirror to see if her ugliness was fading with time just to find that it was worsening, which in turn disheartened her more” (210).

She was never at peace regarding her ugliness, he was aware and at the same time ashamed of it. Her father was oblivious about it, he was on with his teachings of music but she wanted him to provide her with something that could make her beautiful, “I wanted him to give me a sacred saying, a goddess who would grand me beauty” (211). Her mother had developed a kind of insecurity for her future because of her ugliness and since the daughter was not a genius she believes that “a woman without genius could be protected only by a husband in a harsh world designed for men” (212). And so the girl was made to endure the indifference of the boys who come to select her for marriage weeks after weeks, but no offers were made for her hand. Later a boy, who promises to marry the girl, was made her father’s student; the girl had started to dream of their married life and was thus busy in the preparation of the marriage ceremony only to find out that he was no longer interested in marriage to her. This came as a great shock to the girl, and on her father’s advice, she was on the bank of the Narmada River to meditate so as to free herself from the unpleasant memories of the past events.

The Naga Baba, believing in the powers of the Narmada to purify any sin of a life time and having a strong faith in baptism, has brought a girl child, whom he had rescued from a brothel, to the Narmada to baptize her; thus relieving the child from all the unpleasant experiences, she might have undergone in the brothel. He performs the ritual of baptism by dipping her into the holy waters of Narmada, giving her a new name- Uma, an identity, and letting her enter into a pious and respected life away from the life of brothel. She has now a physical mother–Narmada–worshipped as one of the holiest and who “claims all girls as hers” (254). The belief that the Narmada is always welcoming more of her children in her lap, has made the Naga Baba come and stay near the bank of this holy river, Narmada.

In this way, the bank of the holiest river Narmada has become the conversing point of all the characters of the novel that belonged to different castes and have ever since carried a different belief. The several myths and spiritual beliefs associated with the holiness of the river, Narmada, have made all the characters of this novel come across each other. The myth in one way or the other has been a means to create harmonious relationship among the people of diverse cultures and religions by bringing them together at one place-Narmada River, thus proving the power of the myth to unite diverse cultures into a single knot.

IV: Conclusion

People from all walks of life and having diverse cultural and beliefs are seen on the bank of the Narmada River from early morning till late in the evening. They have different beliefs and ways of worshipping but the goal is one — the way to the Almighty, which is one but is given different names by the followers of diverse cultures and religions.The research work has critically analyzed the Narmada River in A River Sutra as the symbol of Cultural and Spiritual harmony. The myth regarding the Narmada River, though different, emphasizes its spirituality and the power that people confer onto it. Cultures have a faith that the water of the Narmada contains in itself the power to wash away all the sins during the life time only by a single sight which is the way to liberate oneself from the burdensome cycle of rebirth and death. True liberation means the liberation of the individual soul from the cycle of birth and death. The single goal is to get united with the supreme lord. Though the goal is the same, the way towards achieving it differs from different major religions of the world. The main objective of human life is self-realization and the specifics of the manner and the method in which it is to be attained depend on the wisdom of the scholars, philosophers and individuals themselves. There are several instances of people fasting unto death on the bank of the Narmada River so as to escape another life. The pilgrimage is one of the widespread instances of people’s way towards salvation.

To show this harmony, Gita Mehta in A River Sutra has made the spiritual Normada River a kind of thread for binding the people of diverse cultural and religious background. The Hindu narrator, the Muslim cleric — Tariq Mia, the Jain Monk, the music teacher Master Mohan, Nitin Bose, Uma, the river minstrel, the Naga Baba, now professor Shankar and his team of archeologists, the courtesan mother and daughter, the miserable daughter of the musician of genius have all come to the Narmada River, believing in its power and spirituality, in order to free themselves from various suffering they have been going through in their lives. The bank of this holy river has become a place for them to rest their sorrows. The Vano people are also residing on the banks of the river since a long time believing in its powers to provide them security from all the evils of life; they have conferred several powers to the river and thus are happily living there worshipping it with all their respect.

The narrator who has by now got no one to take care of has come to the Narmada River in order to spend rest of his life in a spiritual manner because he had always felt a need to retire from the materialistic world. He decides to take up the post of the care taker of the Narmada rest house and spend rests of his life there itself. Tariq Mia has been living on the bank of this river as the mullah of small village mosque since his youth. The Hindu narrator and the Muslim Mullah have developed a good friendship between themselves and it has become a daily routine of the narrator to go and have a good talk with him. The Jain Monk who is fed up of the materialistic life at the tender age of thirty is on the way to the temple of Mahadeo situated on the bank of the Narmada River. The Jains who are very different from the Hindu faith are also present in the Narmada making it a spot where every religion comes across each other. Tariq Mia and Professor Shankar are right when they tell the narrator that he had renounced the world so as to come in contact with the diverse people that pull together on the bank of the holiest river. The music teacher also stayed at the bank of the Narmada River for months in order to escape the unpleasantness of his household. The boy, Imrat, had been in opportunity for him to fulfill his long cherished dream to be a singer, but his murder made his life a nightmare because he could not free himself from the guilt that made him responsible for the death of the blind boy who was left in his custody.

Nitin Bose has been on his tour to the Narmada River so as to free himself from the possession of the tribal woman with whom he had a physical relationship for quite a long time. As the Narmada River is conferred with the powers that annul such effects, he is here to worship it and to get rid of this otherwise incurable disease. The Naga Baba long with the girl has come to the bank so as to give the girl a new identity, naming her Uma and conferring her the honor of being daughter of the holy river Narmada. He also has deep respect for the spirituality of the river and as such spends time meditating near its banks, teaches, and encourages Uma to sing the praise of the Narmada River who is by now a known river minstrel. Professor Shankar is the same Naga Baba who has re-entered the materialistic world; he is again after a long span of time back to the same place— the bank of the Narmada River though the mission is very different from the previous one. He is the head of the archeological department and is here with his team members who are on this river bank for archeological dig.

In this way, one can see diverse people from different places, countries, ethnic groups, social, educational and professional backgrounds irrespective of their faith assembled at one spot— the Narmada River— with all their respect. The diverse cultural backgrounds have nothing to do with at this very spot because its spiritual belief is so wide spread that it has no boundaries what so ever. The one thing that has made this diverse world come together is the myth about the holiness and the spiritual power of this river. Gita Mehta has brought out several myths about the river Narmada that different cultures have faith in. They have the same reverence for the spirituality of this river. As already stated above, it is for sure that the only binding force of all the different casts and religions is the myths, rituals and spiritual beliefs associated with the holy river Narmada, which has played such a vital role in bringing the people of diverse culture and religion in one place, and this creating harmony among the people of cultural and religious diversities.

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