Vaitarna or Vaitarani (Vaitaraṇî) river, as mentioned in the Garuda Purana and various other Hindu religious texts, lies between the earth and the infernal Naraka, the realm of Yama, Hindu god of death and is believed to purify one's sins. Furthermore, while the righteous see it filled with nectar-like water, the sinful see it filled with blood. Sinful souls are supposed to cross this river after death. According to the Garuda Purana, this river falls on the path leading to the Southern Gate of the city of Yama. It is also mentioned that only the sinful souls come via the southern gate.
However, other texts like the Harihareshwara Mahatmya in the Skanda Purana mention a physical river as well, that joins in the eastern ocean; he who bathes in it is supposed to forever be free from the torment of Yama. It first appears in the TirthaYatra Parva (Pilgrimage Episode) of the Mahabharat, where it is mentioned to be rising from the Vindhyas and falling into the Bay of Bengal after passing through Orissa as present Baitarani River. Apart from that it appears in Matsya Purana, and Vamana Purana, lastly it is the Padma Purana which reveals the etymology of Vaitarani in Vaitarani Mahatmya, where it is defined as Vai (truly) tarini (saving) and that related the legend wherein it was brought on to the earth from Patala, due to the penance of Parashurama resulting in a boon from Shiva.
It is equivalent to the Styx river in Greek mythology and is associated with the Vaitarani Vrata, observed on the eleventh day of the dark phase of the moon i.e., Krishna Paksha of Margashirsha in the Hindu calendar, wherein a cow is worshiped and donated, which is believed to take one across the dreaded river as mentioned in the Garuda Purana, verses 77-82.
Description of the river
This river is very frightening and when seen inspires misery. Even hearing an account of this river arouses fear. It is a hundred yojanas in width and it does not contain water. It is a river full of blood and pus with heaps of bones on its banks and mud of blood and flesh. It is impossible for a sinful soul to cross this river as he is obstructed by hairy moss and the river is filled with huge crocodiles and crowded with hundreds of flesh-eating birds. When a sinner comes near the river in an attempt to cross, it seethes and becomes overspread with smoke and flames like butter in a frying pan. It is also covered with dreadful throngs of insects with piercing stings and vultures and crows with metallic beaks. In addition to crocodiles it also contains leeches, fishes, turtles and other flesh-eating water animals. It is said that the hungry and thirsty sinful souls drink the blood flowing in the river. The sinners who fall into it wail with pain and fright. There is no rescuer for them. The hundreds of whirlpools in the river takes the ones fallen in to the lower region. They stay for a moment in the lower region and then they rise again.
The river was created only for the sinful. It is extremely difficult to cross and the other bank cannot be seen.
Ways to cross the river
There are a few ways to cross this river. It is important to note that as mentioned in the description of the river, only those souls who have sinned have to cross this river. The souls with good deeds or good karma do not travel on the path through which the Vaitarna River flows.
- The person who commits good deeds in his life and does not have to cross this river.
- A sinner who has done certain meritorious deeds can get a boat to cross the river after travelling on the terrible way of Yama for some time. These deeds include donating a cow, food, wealth or any sacrifice etc.
- It is said that even though a person is a sinner, if he is following a real spiritual guru, the sinner can cross the river holding his Guru's hand.
- If the sinner cannot cross using the above two methods, he has to wait many years till it is decided that he will cross or the servants of Yama drag him through the river.
- The descendents of the sinful soul can help him cross the river by chanting the name "Shree Gurudev Datta". This is the chant for the Hindu god Dattatreya.
Consequences of successfully crossing the river
After successfully crossing this river, the sinners reach the terrifying Southern Gate of the City of Yama. In this City the sinners along with the souls with good deeds are judged by the Lord of Justice (Yama or Yamaraja). The sinners are taken to hell and the better souls are taken to heaven.
If a soul cannot cross the Vaitarna River then he cannot be taken to hell. He is stuck at its shore. Thus this prevents him from getting reborn on earth as human or animal. These souls are considered as the ghosts who have not passed on and are stuck.
This is in fact a subtle sheath of the Absolute Cosmic Water element around the Earth region. This sheath itself is the river Vaitarna. After death, the subtle bodies (souls) take a dip in the Vaitarna and enter the Nether region. The remaining excretory gases and sub-vital energies related to the physical body accompanying the subtle body are discharged into the Vaitarna.
It can also be taken to mean that if one lives a sinful material life on earth, then one is subjected to the constant cycles of rebirth after death. Therefore when a man dies, the soul has to cross a river filled with blood, bones and tissues( symbolic of a mother's womb)in order to be born again. But if the man lived the righteous path then he does not have to cross the river meaning he can escape the cycle of rebirth, escaping also the pain and suffering.
Mentions in scriptures
- "One should next proceed to the Vaitarani capable of destroying every sin."
— Mahabharat, Book 3: Vana Parva: Tirta Yatra Parva: Section LXXXV.
- "O king, by creatures of sinful acts, and the miseries endured by those that fall into the river Vaitarani in the realms of Yama, and the inauspicious wanderings of creatures through diverse wombs, and the character of their residence in the unholy uterus in the midst of blood and water and phlegm and urine and faeces, all of foul smell, and then in bodies that result from the union of blood and the vital seed, of marrow and sinews, ..."
— Bhishma. Mahabharat, Shanti Parva: Part III. Section CCCII.
- "..The torrent of blood excited fear amongst those who came to see it, as the river Vaitarani on the way to hell (the Lord of Death) is very fearful to the sinners.
— Devi Bhagawatam, The Third Book, Chapter XV, On the battle between Yudhajit and Virasena.
- Dange, Sadashiv Ambadas (1989). Encyclopaedia of Puranic Beliefs and Practices (Volume 4). Navrang. p. 1210. ISBN 81-7013-056-5.
- Hopkins, E Washburn (2008). Epic Mythology. READ BOOKS. p. 110. ISBN 1-4437-7716-1.
- Cunha, Joseph Gerson (1993). Notes on the history and antiquities of Chaul and Bassein. Asian Educational Services. p. 123. ISBN 81-206-0845-3.
- Singh, N.K. (1997). Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, Volume 22. Anmol Publications. p. 2651. ISBN 81-7488-168-9.
- Verma, Manish (2000). Fasts and festivals of India. Diamond Pocket Books. p. 68. ISBN 81-7182-076-X.
- Wood, p. 64
- "Siddhabodh" by Gagangiri Maharaj. Published on 13 December 1998 by Gagangad publications
- http://www.spiritualresearchfoundation.org | Martyalok
- Mahabharat, Book 3: Vana Parva: Tirta Yatra Parva: Section LXXXV p. 191.
- Mahabharat, Shanti Parva: Part III. Section CCCII p. 2.
- The Third Book, Chapter XV, On the battle between Yudhâjit and Vîrasena p. 178.
- The Garuda Purana, tr. by Ernest Wood, S. V. Subrahmanyam. BiblioBazaar, LLC. 2008. ISBN 1-4375-3213-6.
- "Siddhabodh" by Gagangiri Maharaj. Gagangad publications. 1998.(Marathi)
- Kalayaan (Year 43) Parlok Aur Punarjanma (World of the Dead and Reincarnation), Gita Press, Gorakhpur. (Hindi)
- Spiritual Science Research Foundation :- Articles on Martyalok