Hinduism Yamunā
by
Ron Geaves
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0206

Introduction

Yamunā is both a major river of northern India containing significant pilgrimage sites and an ancient goddess who personifies the river. She is one of the seven rivers of great sanctity described in Sanskrit literature and is affirmed to be a tīrtha (a crossing place between this world and the divine worlds) and therefore a center of pilgrimage, especially for devotees of Krishna. Thus the Yamunā is first and foremost a Vaishnavite goddess whose theology was most fully developed by Braj Vaishnavas, particularly the Pushti Marg sect. Geographically, the river Yamunā descends from the Himalayas near Yamunotri in Uttarakhand, where it provides one of the four most important pilgrimages of the area, collectively known as Char Dham of the Garhwal Himalayas or Uttarakhand. At Hanumanchatti, the Hanuman Gaṅgā joins the Yamunā, where according to mythology, the ancient sage Asit Muni built his hermitage. From its source it flows in a southerly direction through the foothills of the Himalayas, flowing out onto the Indo-Gangetic Plain, passing Delhi and Agra, where the Taj Mahal rears up from its banks. Between these two cities it flows through Mathura and Vrindavan, the former the location of Krishna’s birth and the latter providing the forests where he passed his childhood and youth with the gopīs. The Yamunā finally joins the Gaṅgā after a journey of about 855 miles (1,376 km) at Allahabad, where the confluence of three sacred rivers creates the major pilgrimage site known as Prayaga, often referred to as Triveni Sangam, as it is believed that the mythical underground river Sarasvati also meets the Gaṅgā and the Yamunā at this location. The river is mentioned extensively in Sanskrit literature, where it is also known as Yami, Jamunaji, Yamini, and Kalinda. Its significance in the literature may possibly be because some of the most significant settlements of the Indian Āryas were on the west bank of the Yamunā after they had permanently settled. The number of major pilgrimage sites on the river results in its being one of the most sacred among all rivers in Hindu mythology. In the early 21st century, the Yamunā is at the center of much religious environmentalism in northern India, particularly in Delhi and in the Braj region.

The Sacred River

The sanctity of the river is affirmed in the Purāṇas, where she is identified with the goddess Yamunā, although there are earlier references in the Vedic literature which demonstrate the Yamunā’s significance as a goddess and the river as an important location of settlement (Kennedy 1915). The Puranic literature tends to be sectarian in nature, therefore offering a hierarchical ranking of deities, but even so, the Yamunā is ranked among the four most sacred in the Skanda Purāṇa. The Rig Vedic hymns include her in the seven most sacred rivers, and even though there is variation in the later literature, the Yamunā is always included. In the Braj region, the river’s status is elevated due to the area’s association with Krishna and the special affections with which his devotees regard the river goddess and her association with the early life of the avatar (Entwistle 1987). In addition to Krishna’s father Vasudeva crossing the Yamunā with the infant searching for a safe place, a number of other incidents are mentioned in secondary literature. These include Krishna’s battles with the serpent Kāliya in the river (Hawley 1979). The serpent king possessed five heads and was believed to live in the Yamunā near Vrindavan. Krishna jumped onto one of his heads and threatened to kill him. He was allowed to live as long as he moved downstream (Majumdar 1949, p. 136). Another incident referred to by scholars is the forced control of the Yamunā by Krishna’s drunken brother, Balarama, who used his plough to divert her waters for the purpose of irrigation (Knappert 1999, p. 277). However, it is the rediscovery of the river’s association with the early life of Krishna by medieval Vaisnavite sects that led to its elevation as a geographical locus for bhakti to the popular deity, who enjoyed this region in his early life.

  • Entwistle, A. W. Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage. Groningen, The Netherlands: Egbert Forsten, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    This monograph on the significance of the Braj district as a center of pilgrimage for Krishna devotees is one of the best secondary sources on the myths associated with the Yamunā. The work also provides detailed information on the texts associated with the places of pilgrimage: essential reading for researchers on the religious significance of the Yamunā.

  • Hawley, John Stratton. “Krishna’s Cosmic Victories.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47 (1979): 201–221.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/XLVII.2.201E-mail Citation »

    The article shows that the struggle with Kāliya was among the most popular motifs of Krishna sculpture from 500 to 1500 CE. The author argues that the battles were meant to affirm Krishna’s cosmic victories over the water below and the waters above.

  • Kennedy, J. “The Puranic Histories of the Early Aryas.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 2 (July 1915): 507–516.

    E-mail Citation »

    An early article foundational for researchers who want to understand the significance of the Yamunā to early settlements of Aryan-Dravidian peoples.

  • Knappert. Indian Mythology. London: Aquarian Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    A basic dictionary of mythology that provides some skeletal material on the goddess Yamunā.

  • Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra. “The Confluence of the Gaṅgā and the Yamunā.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Bengal (3d series) 15 (1949).

    E-mail Citation »

    An article written by one of India’s foremost historians offers an early historical analysis of the pilgrimage site at the meeting place of the two sacred rivers.

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