Rivers And Life

A river is but a larger brook. And yet by virtue of its volume, it

manifests features which are peculiarly its own, and exerts

influences which have not alone affected individual moods and

imaginings, but often profoundly modified and moulded the

destinies of peoples and civilisations. The two outstanding

instances are the Nile and the Ganges.

The Nile has attracted to itself, from the dawn of history to

present day, a peculiar share of wonder and renown. It is the

longest river of its continent--possibly of the world; and the

exploration of its sources is only just completed. It flows

through a limestone country over which, save for its beneficent

action, would drive the parched sands of the Libyan desert. Its

periodic inundations, with their rich deposits of alluvial soil,

repel the encroaching wastes, and solve the problem of the food

supply. Egypt has with good reason been called "the gift of the


This river therefore possesses in a marked degree all the mystic

influences of moving water, and emphasises them by physical

and historical features of exceptional import. What wonder that

it has had so direct a bearing on the spiritual development of the

people on its banks, and that it entered into the very texture of

their lives! It was, for the Egyptian, pre-eminently the sacred

river--deemed to be one of the primitive essences--ranked with

those highest deities who were not visible objects of adoration.

As a form of God "he cannot (says an ancient hymnist) be

figured in stone; he is not to be seen in the sculptured images

upon which men place the united crowns of the North and the

South, furnished with uraei." The honour thus conferred was but

commensurate with the blessings he brought. For in what would

have been a valley of death he was the sole source and sustainer

of life. A further quotation from the beautiful hymn just

mentioned will indicate the affection and mystic emotion he

inspired. "Homage to thee, O Hapi! (i.e. the Nile). Thou comest

forth in this land, and dost come in peace to make Egypt to live,

O thou hidden one, thou guide of the darkness whensoever it is

thy pleasure to be its guide. Thou waterest the fields which Ra

hath created, thou makest all animals to live, thou makest the

land to drink without ceasing; thou descendest the path of

heaven, thou art the friend of meat and drink, thou art the giver

of the grain, and thou makest every place of work to flourish, O

Ptah! . . . If thou wert to be overcome in heaven the gods would

fall down headlong, and mankind would perish."

In this passage the mystic observes how the natural power of

running water to suggest spontaneous movement, and therefore

life, is accentuated and denned by the actual results of the river's

beneficent overflow. And a further step is taken when Hapi is

addressed by the names of Ptah (as above) and Khnemu; for he

is not thus confused with the gods so named, but being the great

life-supplier for the land, he is, like them, regarded as a creative

power. The development of the ideas suggested is thus

essentially parallel to that described in the chapter on the

Teutonic myths of the three subterranean wells and the


But can any distinctive features of the Egyptian religion be

traced to the influences exerted by the phenomena of the Nile?

Most decidedly so--in two directions more especially. That

religion is one of contrasts; it represents the world as a scene of

titanic conflict. The realm of Osiris is opposed to that of

Typhon--creation to destruction. And the master influence in

shaping the form in which these contrasts were conceived was

undoubtedly the Nile. On one side barren rocks and parched

sands, and on the other the fertilising powers of the sacred

stream. All around, vast solitudes, and along the river the hum

of teeming communities and the rich fullness of prosperous

civilisations. The world was visibly, for the Egyptian, a fierce

recurring battle between life and death.

And springing out of this appears the second great influence to

be attributed to the famous river. The Egyptian grasped firmly

and developed fully the doctrine of immortality. Doubtless

many factors contributed to the peculiar form which his belief

assumed, but none would be of more importance than the ever

renewed gift of life which the Nile brought from an unknown

and an unseen world. Hence also the connection between the

Nile-god and Osiris, the god of the resurrection. So deeply were

the world-views and spiritual experiences of the Egyptians

influenced by the mystic's powers of the Nile--by the immanent

ideas therein made concrete. The Egyptians, in their turn,

influenced the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans; and these,

again, have influenced the race. Who shall estimate the effect

on the human mind of the physical phenomena of this single


When we turn to the story of the Ganges, a further mystical

concept comes into view--that of purification. It is manifestly

suggested by the cleansing qualities of water, and has exercised

an important function in the development of certain moral ideas

and ideals. Bathing in running water to cleanse the stains of the

body led on to, and combined with, the concept of cleansing the

stains of the soul. But even thus the dominant suggestion of life

declares itself, as is specially obvious in the case of Christian

baptism, where the washing with water symbolises not only the

cleansing of the soul, but the new birth, the higher life of the

spirit. It is by keeping in mind these blended concepts that we

shall best understand the story of the Ganges.

All the larger rivers of India are looked upon as abodes and

vehicles of the divine essence, and therefore as possessed of

power to cleanse from moral guilt. Their banks, from source to

sea, are holy ground, and pilgrims plod their way along them to

win merit--a merit that is measured by the years of travel and

the sanctity of the stream. Of all the great rivers in this ancient

land, the Ganges is the noblest. Mother Ganga, stands supreme.

No water such as hers for washing away the stains of the most

heinous crimes. She has bands of priests who call themselves

her "Sons," and who conduct pilgrims down the flights of steps

that line her banks, aid them in their ablutions, and declare them

clean. To die and to be buried near the stream is in itself

sufficient to win an entrance to the realms of bliss. "Those who,

even at a distance of a hundred leagues, cry Ganga, Ganga,

atone for the sins committed during three previous lives." In

short, the hold the river has obtained upon the affections and

imaginations of the Hindus is marvellously firm and lasting.

Of course a river so renowned has its wreath of myths and

legends, characterised, in this instance, by the prodigality of the

Eastern mind. It is not necessary to linger over these, save in so

far as to note that they ascribe a divine origin to the sacred

stream; the sense of power and movement issuing from the

world of the unseen is no less strong than that aroused by the

Nile; though it finds strangely different modes of expression, its

essential character is the same. Interesting and typical is the

Hindu belief that the spot where flow together the waters of the

Ganges, the Jumna and the Sarasvati is one of the most

hallowed in a land of holy places. "These three sacred rivers

form a kind of Tri-murti, or triad, often personified as

goddesses, and called 'Mothers.'" With such facts in view, it

would be hard to exaggerate the influence of rivers on the

development of the Hindu's speculation and practice, and more

especially of his mysticism.

Such intuitions and beliefs find their full flower in the

conception of the river of life--the stream, pure as crystal, that,

with exulting movement onward, brings to men the thrill of

hope and the inspiration of progress to a world beyond. It pulses

and swings in the glorious sunshine--it reflects the blue of

heaven--it sweeps superbly with unsullied current past every

obstacle, and bursts through every barrier:

at ille

Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.

Yes, the Nile, the Ganges, the Rhine, the Thames, and a

thousand other rivers of renown have had, and still have, their

part to play in the cosmic drama and in the development of

man's spiritual nature. Generation after generation has found

them to be capable of stirring peculiar emotions, and of

stimulating profound thoughts on the mystery of life. And all

these powers are concentrated and sublimated in this glorious

vision of "the river of water of life that flows from the throne

of God."