Sacred Waters: the mother goddess and the waters of life

Kalighat paintings from 19th century Calcutta. US public Domain via wikimedia.
Ganga 19th century Calcutta. US public Domain via wikimedia.

Water is sacred in many traditions of the world. In India, the river Ganges is sacred; bathing in the river is said to lead to moksha (enlightenment). In the Bhagavata Purana, there is a story of the creation of the Ganges. It is said that Vishnu (in the form of Vâmana) wanted to measure the universe, step by step. As he took his second step, “the nail of the big toe of His left foot pierced the upper covering of the universe.”  With this piercing, water “from the outside entered the hole” and flowed in the form of a great river. This sacred water is said to vanquish “the sins of all the world getting in touch with it.” (Canto 5, Chapter 17)

Carl Jung tells us that “waters… can be mother-symbols.” (Carl Jung, 9i, para. 156) In the above image we see the Hindu Goddess Ganga. She is the personification and image of the Ganges River in India. The Rig Veda (10.9) offers a Hymn to the waters. The waters are synonymous with the mother:

1. YE, Waters, are beneficent: so help ye us to energy
That we may look on great delight.
2 Give us a portion of the sap, the most auspicious that ye have,
Like mothers in their longing love.
3 To you we gladly come for him to whose abode ye send us on;
And, Waters, give us procreant strength.
4 The Waters be to us for drink, Goddesses for our aid and bliss:
Let them stream to us health and strength.
5 1 beg the Floods to give us balm, these Queens who rule o’er precious things, And have supreme control of men.
6 Within the Waters- Soma thus hath told me-dwell all balms that heal, And Agni, he who blesseth all.
7 O Waters, teem with medicine to keep my body safe from harm,
So that I long may see the Sun.
8 Whatever sin is found in me, whatever evil I have wrought,
If I have lied or falsely sworn, Waters, remove it far from me.
9 The Waters I this day have sought, and to their moisture have we come: O Agni, rich in milk, come thou, and with thy splendour cover me.

In this passage of the Rg Veda, we see that the great God Agni (fire, prana) is related to the waters. Agni is often called the ‘son of the waters.’ The waters offer the undifferentiated and unmodified ground which gives birth to the life force (Agni), as well as the Gods. This unmodified ground offers itself as the great womb of being from which the cosmic Self arises. The Rig Veda tells the story of creation from the primal mother as waters.

1. IN the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, born Only Lord of all created beings. He fixed and holdeth up this earth and heaven. What God shall we adore with our oblation?

7 What time the mighty waters came, containing the universal germ, producing Agni,
Thence sprang the Gods’ one spirit into being. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
8 He in his might surveyed the floods containing productive force and generating Worship.
He is the God of gods, and none beside him. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
9 Neer may he harm us who is earth’s Begetter, nor he whose laws are sure, the heavens’ Creator,
He who brought forth the great and lucid waters. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
10 Prajāpati! thou only comprehendest all these created things, and none beside thee.
Grant us our hearts’ desire when we invoke thee: may we have store of riches in possession.

In Rig Veda 7.49 we see a close connection between the waters and the mother Goddess:

1. FORTH from the middle of the flood the Waters-their chief the Sea-flow cleansing, never sleeping. Indra, the Bull, the Thunderer, dug their channels: here let those Waters, Goddesses, protect me.
2 Waters which come from heaven, or those that wander dug from the earth, or flowing free by nature, Bright, purifying, speeding to the Ocean, here let those Waters. Goddesses, protect me.
3 Those amid whom goes Varuṇa the Sovran, he who discriminates men’s truth and falsehood- Distilling meath, the bright, the purifying, here let those Waters, Goddesses, protect me.
4 They from whom Varuṇa the King, and Soma, and all the Deities drink strength and vigour,
They into whom Vaiśvānara Agni entered, here let those Waters, Goddesses, protect Me.

The waters as undifferentiated primal ground is found in Biblical tradition as well. In Genesis, God hovers over the deep: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Everything emerges from the deep. There is, even here, a implicit connection between waters and the mother.


Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious by Carl Jung

Rig Veda, tr. by Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1896], at