21. River in the Sky

Updated: Nov 15

Milky Way, photo by Kristian Pikner, Wikimedia Commons

When we think of our galaxy, the Milky Way, we usually picture something like the spectacular astral stream you see in photos such as this one. For many of us living where there is street lighting, it's not something that is easy to see for ourselves in the night sky. Perhaps there is some consolation in the fact that every single star you can see without a telescope, in all parts of the sky, lies within the confines of our Milky Way. Here on Earth, we’re on an outer arm of the spiral that is our galaxy, and the "river" of stars we see in the sky is our view towards the centre of the Milky Way. In fact the centre of the Milky Way is at the foot of the constellation Ophiuchus, in Sagittarius.

Image of the night sky above Paranal, Chile on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky. A wide band of stars and dust clouds, spanning more than 100 degrees on the sky, is seen. This is the Milky Way, the galaxy to which we belong. At the centre of the image, two bright objects are visible. The brightest is the planet Jupiter, while the other is the star Antares. Three of the four 8.2-m telescopes forming ESO's VLT are seen, with a laser beaming out from Yepun, Unit Telescope number 4. The laser points directly at the Galactic Centre. Also visible are three of the 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescopes used for interferometry. They show small light beams which are diodes located on the domes. The exposure time is 5 minutes and because the tracking was made on the stars, the telescopes are slightly blurred. ESO/Y. Beletsky - https://web.archive.org/web/20081121184421/http://www.eso.org/gallery/v/ESOPIA/Paranal/phot-33a-07.tif.html Wikimedia Commons

The Milky Way as a river

Though the name we give our galaxy derives from a story about Hera breast feeding Herakles, in many parts of the world the Milky Way has however often been associated with water, with a river. In Irish mythology, it may be a reflection of the sacred River Boyne, which is described as “the Great Silver Yoke” and the “White Marrow of Fedlimid,” names which could equally apply to the Milky Way. In the tragic story of Deirdre and Naoise, the bodies of the two lovers are deliberately separated in their burial places, either either side of a tomb or of a lake, and to bridge the gap and be reunited, the branches of two trees grow towards each other and connect, or the Milky Way itself unites them. One Irish name for the Milky Way is Sgríob Chlann Uisnich, the 'Track of the Children of Uisneach', from an old Irish myth about Deirdre and the sons of Uisneach, titled Longas Macc N-Uisnig (The Exile of the Sons of Uisneach). Boyne or Boann is an Irish mother goddess. She fell in love with the Dadga while married to Nechtain. She became pregnant, and so the Dagda, to protect their child, stopped the motino of the sun for thre months, to stop time, and so the baby was born after just one 'day' of pregnancy. The child was Aengus, or Oengus, the god of youth and love and poetry.

In another story, Boann challenged the power of a magical well by walking around it tuathal, meaning anti-sun-wise; this caused the water deep down to surge up violently, flooding everything, and drowning both her and her little dog. This ancinet peom, "Boand I" from The Metrical Dindshenchas tells the story:

Sid Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here, the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid, from which flows the stainless river whose name is Boand ever-full.
5] Fifteen names, certainty of disputes, given to this stream we enumerate, from Sid Nechtain away till it reaches the paradise of Adam.
Segais was her name in the Sid 10] to be sung by thee in every land: River of Segais is her name from that point to the pool of Mochua the cleric.
From the well of righteous Mochua to the bounds of Meath's wide plain, 15] the Arm of Nuadu's Wife and her Leg are the two noble and exalted names.
From the bounds of goodly Meath till she reaches the sea's green floor she is called the Great Silver Yoke 20] and the White Marrow of Fedlimid.
Stormy Wave from thence onward unto branchy Cualnge; River of the White Hazel from stern Cualnge to the lough of Eochu Red-Brows.
25] Banna is her name from faultless Lough Neagh: Roof of the Ocean as far as Scotland: Lunnand she is in blameless Scotland — or its name is Torrand according to its meaning.
Severn is she called through the land of the sound Saxons, 30] Tiber in the Romans' keep: River Jordan thereafter in the east and vast River Euphrates.
River Tigris in enduring paradise, long is she in the east, a time of wandering 35] from paradise back again hither to the streams of this Sid.
Boand is her general pleasant name from the Sid to the sea-wall; I remember the cause whence is named 40] the water of the wife of Labraid's son.
Nechtain son of bold Labraid whose wife was Boand, I aver; a secret well there was in his stead, from which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.
45] There was none that would look to its bottom but his two bright eyes would burst: if he should move to left or right, he would not come from it without blemish.
Therefore none of them dared approach it 50] save Nechtain and his cup-bearers: — these are their names, famed for brilliant deed, Flesc and Lam and Luam.
Hither came on a day white Boand (her noble pride uplifted her), 55] to the well, without being thirsty to make trial of its power.
As thrice she walked round about the well heedlessly, three waves burst from it, 60] whence came the death of Boand.
They came each wave of them against a limb, they disfigured the soft-blooming woman; a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye, the third wave shatters one hand.
65] She rushed to the sea (it was better for her) to escape her blemish, so that none might see her mutilation; on herself fell her reproach.
Every way the woman went 70] the cold white water followed from the Sid to the sea (not weak it was), so that thence it is called Boand.
Boand from the bosom of our mighty river-bank, was mother of great and goodly Oengus, 75] the son she bore to the Dagda — bright honour! in spite of the man of this Sid.

Or, Boand is Bo and Find from the meeting of the two royal streams, the water from bright Sliab Guaire 80] and the river of the Sids here.
Dabilla, the name of the faithful dog who belonged to the wife of Nechtain, great and noble, the lap-dog of Boand the famous, which went after her when she perished.
85] The sea-current swept it away, as far as the stony crags; and they made two portions of it, so that they were named therefrom.
They stand to the east of broad Breg, 90] the two stones in the blue waters of the lough: Cnoc Dabilla is so called from that day to this from the little dog of the Sid. (12)

The poem equates her with famous rivers in other countries, including the River Severn, Tiber, Jordan River, Tigris and Euphrates

River Boyne passing under the Boyne Cable Bridge in Drogheda. Photo by JP. Wikimedia Commons

Devotees taking holy bath during festival of Ganga Dashahara at Har Ki Pauri, Haridwar, Wikimedia Commons

In the Puranas, the Milky Way and the Ganges are considered to be a pair of each other and both are considered sacred. In Sanskrit and several other Indo-Aryan languages, the Milky Way is called Akash Ganga (आकाशगंगा, Ganges of the heavens); it is held to be sacred in the Hindu Puranas (scriptures), and the Ganges and the Milky Way are considered to be terrestrial and celestial counterparts. In the Bay of Bengal there is a giant rock relief that tells the story of the descent of the sacred river from the sky down on to Earth. The river goddess Ganga was led by a king named Bhagiratha, with the help of Shiva to break her fall. Bhagiratha's ancestors had suffered a curse, which he hoped to break, and it was in order to achieve this that he looked to Ganga for help. When the sacred waters arrived on Earth they caused havoc and filling up the sea. A sage called Rishi Jahnu was angered by the destruction so he drank up all the water, but then let it out again through his ear so that the souls of the ancestors of Bhagiratha could be released.

The rock relief once had water flowing down the central panel, and you can see two carvings of divine nagas or serpent deities where the river came down.

Perhaps the Boyne was once associated with divine nagas too, and perhaps it is to that that the story of Saint Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland refers.

Panoramic view of the Descent of the Ganges relief, photo Ssriram mt Wikimedia Commons

Kaurna Park, Adelaide. Wikimedia Commons

In Australia, Tappa Wodliparri, is the river of the sky world. In Adelaide, there's a counterpart to this celestial river, the Wodliparri, which that flows through wetlands across the warna (plains), which are the counterparts to the great night plain. For Kaurna people, the sky world explains and reflects their lives and the lands and waters around them. The dark patches in the Milky Way mark the dwelling place of a dangerous creature known as a yura; the Kaurna call these patches Yurakauwe, which literally means “monster water“. The Aranda who come from central Australia sees the band of the Milky Way as a river or creek in the skyworld. In the northern territory there is a belief that when you die, you are taken by a mystical canoe, Larrpan, to the spirit-island Baralku in the sky, where their camp-fires can be seen burning along the edge of the great river of the Milky Way.

To the Maori it's a canoe: when Tama-rereti took his canoe out onto a lake, he found himself far from home as night was falling. There were no stars at this time and in the darkness, the Taniwha would attack and eat people. So Tama-rereti sailed his canoe along the river that emptied into the heavens (to cause rain) and scattered shiny pebbles from the lakeshore into the sky. The sky god, Ranginui, was pleased by this action and placed the canoe into the sky as well as a reminder of how the stars were made.

The Amanogawa (Japanese: 天の川), a river in Japan, which passes through Hirakata, near Osaka. Wikimedia Commons

The Sendai Tanabata Festival in 2005, Wikimedia Commons

In Shinto tradition, the Milky Way is the heavenly river that separates the two lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are the stars Vega and Altair. Orihime (織姫, Weaving Princess), the daughter of the sky king (天帝, Sky King, or the universe itself), spent all her time weaving beautiful clothes by the bank of the Amanogawa (天の川, Milky Way, literally "heavenly river"). This is a river in Japan.

Orihime met and fell in love with Hikoboshi (彦星, Boy Star or cowherd). Though they were married, things didn't work out. The weaving stopped, the sky cows began to wander around aimlessley. The Sky god had to take action to restore order. Tentei in anger separated the two lovers either side of the Amanogawa river. From then on they were allowed to meet only once a year, allowed the two to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month if she worked hard and finished her weaving. Even then there was a difficulty. The first time they tried to meet, however, they found that they could not cross the river because there was no bridge. Luckily some magpies came to the rescue and formed a bridge. The day is still marked by the Festival of Tanabata if it rains on that day and the magpies cannot help out, the rain is called "The tears of Orihime and Hikoboshi". While in Irish myth, the Milky Way brings two lovers together, here it causes them much suffering by separating them every day of the year except one. Perhaps at least they can benefit from the light pollution that magics away the Milky Way from the night sky and meet up a bit more often!

The Ancient Egyptians and Greeks believed that the souls of the dead travelled up the sky, through the Golden Gate or the Silver Gate, which are the two parts of the Milky Way which coincide with the path of the sun or the ecliptic circle. When souls were ready to go back down to earth again, they passed through one of these gates. What's interesting is that the constellation immediately above one of these gates is connected to various divine figures whose role it is to guide and protect the souls of the dead. This constellation, Ophiuchus, is sometimes depicted as Saint Michael and Archangel, which is evident in part from the relative positions of Libra and Scorpio which are the scales and the dragon or devil. Sometimes Ophiuchus is equated to the solar boat, as in the Denderah zodiac originally from Egypt but now in the Louver in Paris. There is an aquatic dimension to the journey of the souls in the afterlife in many myths, as we have seen, and it can often be traced to a idea of the Milky Way as a river.

Denderah Zodiac, adapted from an image from Wikimedia Commons

Ra's sun boat, Wikimedia Commons

Environmental Crisis

Water is life, but everywhere on Earth it is polluted. Down here, the rivers are grim. The Milky Way itself is polluted only by artificial lighting, not by harmful chemicals, bits of plastic, and radioactive substances. Can these myths, which interpret the Milky Way as a sacred river, help us to understand how we might learn to respect water down here on earth and put the sacred back into rivers and the sea?

The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Reactor 1 to 4 from right to left. Wikimedia Commons

The 2011 Fukishima Daiichi disaster is one example of how water has been poisoned.

In 2011, 3,550 plaintiffs were forced to flee their homes after a magnitude-9 earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated the country’s north-east and crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant, known as the triple disaster.
Radiation that spewed from the plant’s melted reactors contaminated the surrounding areas, forcing about 160,000 residents to evacuate at one point. More than 50,000 are still displaced because of lingering safety concerns. The plant is being decommissioned, a process expected to take decades.
“For more than nine years, I have planted seeds on the contaminated soil and grown vegetables, always worrying about the effects of radiation,” plaintiff Kazuya Tarukawa, a farmer from Sukagawa in Fukushima, said at a meeting after the ruling. “Our contaminated land will never be the same.” (1)

In the days after the accident, radiation released to the atmosphere forced 154,000 residents to evacuate the area. A 2012 report in The Economist said:

"The operating company was poorly regulated and did not know what was going on. The operators made mistakes. The representatives of the safety inspectorate fled. Some of the equipment failed. The establishment repeatedly played down the risks and suppressed information about the movement of the radioactive plume, so some people were evacuated from more lightly to more heavily contaminated places." (10)

Large amounts of water contaminated with radioactive isotopes were released into the Pacific Ocean during and after the disaster. Michio Aoyama, a professor of radioisotope geoscience at the Institute of Environmental Radioactivity, has estimated that 18,000 TBq of radioactive caesium 137 were released into the Pacific during the accident, and in 2013, 30 gigabecquerel (GBq) of caesium 137 were still flowing into the ocean every day. Large amounts of water contaminated with radioactive isotopes were released into the Pacific Ocean during and after the disaster. Since then, the contaminated water has been stored in tanks, which are almost full. The Japanese government wants to discharge radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea in 2022.

The brilliant 2019 film Dark Waters (directed by Todd Haines) is about poisoned water in West Virginia, in the United States. It is based on a true account of a lawyer named Robert Bilott seeking to stop a chemical plant from dumping toxic waste in the local rivers, and seeking compensation for survivors of the diseases caused by the poisoned water. The lawyer, played by Mark Ruffalo, slowly pieces together the cause of the many unexplained deaths in the area, and the magnitude of the problem. He tries to confront the company causing the pollution, and discovers a callous disregard at the highest level for the victims of their chemical dumping. What's more, he discovers that the products being made at the plant are also toxic, and are being sold world-wide, endangering health unbeknownst to anyone, but the company itself. The product is the Teflon coating on frying pans and saucepans. The company, named DuPont, is well aware of the link between Teflon and birth defects and cancer but has failed to make its findings public. The film ends with a legal victory, but with a terrifying truth: pretty much everyone on the planet carries within them the toxic residue of Teflon, as well as other “forever” chemicals called PFAS that never break down but instead build up in humans and animals. In 2019 eight out of nine UK supermarkets and all takeaway chains tested were found to contain high levels of PFAS in packaging.

Robert Bilott is quoted as saying:

Each new discovery shocked me more. Not only was this chemical in the local drinking water, but it was also known to be getting into the blood of people in the local community, and DuPont had known this for quite some time, without the public or government regulators being aware of it.
Meanwhile more and more people were being exposed and contaminated. I was looking at these documents thinking, I must be the only person outside the company who knows what’s going on. I felt an obligation to warn of this public health threat that was going on. (5)

He has now launched a civil lawsuit on behalf of every person living in the US, claiming everyone in the country has been exposed to C8 and other PFAS chemicals.

The toxic jungle, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984 anime film by Hayao Miyazaki

The toxic jungle, in the 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, is a vast poisonous place, inhabited by gigantic insects like the ohm, and deadly fungi which release toxic spores. Every so often, an ohm, unwittingly carrying some of the poisonous spores from the jungle, goes over to the clean lands, were small groups of humans live, and as it moves, spreads the spores. The desperate inhabitants must incinerate them before they take root, fighting as best they can the inevitable expansion of the jungle which will swallow the last of the lands where humans can live. Nausicaa, the protagonist, discovers a non-toxic area below the jungle, and comes to realise that though the plants release deadly spores, they also purify the topsoil, producing clean water and soil deep underground. This water can be used to grow plants that are no longer deadly to humans. With this clean water, Nausicaa can save the valley. The story is set a thousand years after a terrible war that destroyed civilisation and produced the toxic jungle. Is this our future?

Nausicaä is one of director Hayao Miyazaki's best films, and is an early example of a film asking us to think about the implications of our polluting habits. Through his films, it's possible to learn about the ancient Japanese traditions associated with Shinto, and the reverence of trees and rivers. In another film of his called Spirited Away, one of the main characters is the spirit of the river than was blocked up by humans, who cannot remember his real name, nor what he once was. Sometimes he appears in human form, others as a dragon. Another character in the film is the spirit of a polluted river. The main character helps them both, and is saved, or remembers being saved, by them.

Sen and Haku as a dragon, Spirited Away

We are in the middle of a terrible environmental crisis. Despite this, in most western belief systems, both religious and secular, nature is there to be used, exploited, carved up for our benefit.

The American ecologist Barry Commoner wrote in 1971:

“There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms." (2)

Over twenty years ago, a UN Environment Program report on the crisis concluded:

"The present course is unsustainable and postponing action is no longer an option." (3)

  In recent decades there has been a power struggle in the fight to protect human health, as well as the well-being of every life-form on the planet. Nature, including humans as natural beings, and the human world of destruction and exploitation appear to be pitted against each other.

Allowing the poisoning of our waters can't simply be blamed on our governments, though we can begin to look there to find a way to stop it. This poisoning has happened, and continues to happen, because animals, humans, nature aren't valued or respected. The pollution reflects the beliefs of the most powerful members of the most powerful species on the planet. A respect for nature, beyond seeing it as a resource, is compatible with some human lifestyles, but mostly not. Not yet.

Alistair Welchman has argued that ‘deep' ecology (as exemplified by the work of Arnie Naess) "involves three inter-related commitments:"

1. to an ethics of nature or axiological anti-humanism in which natural entities, processes or systems can possess intrinsic value independently of human beings;
2. a metaphysical naturalism or anti-humanism in which human beings are themselves conceptualized as natural products;
3. a transformative aspect. (9)

Perhaps a new consciousness of what humans have done, of what we can still do to transform our role, can be achieved.

“Man and nature are not like two opposite terms confronting each other—not even in the sense of bipolar opposites within a relationship of causation, ideation, or expression (cause and effect, subject and object, etc.); rather, they are one and the same essential reality, the producer-product.” (6)

There are many definitions of nature. One of the many entries in the Collins Dictionary is “the whole system of the existence, arrangement, forces, and events of all physical life that are not controlled by humankind”. Though nature and humans are part of a common process, several researchers have pointed out that nature does not need humans to thrive.

A change of belief systems

Just how the natural world is understood, whether as a commodity or as a sacred space which is not humanity’s to conquer, is at the heart of many belief systems. The possibility of living in harmony with nature is often associated with pre-Christian or non-monotheistic beliefs, such as Buddhism or Shinto, or the beliefs of native Americans and Australians. How do most people today, living in towns and cities, connected to the internet, relate to nature? How do they think about the forces that damage the natural world, and beliefs and hopes for the future? If pollution is a human, existential problem, perhaps humans are doomed to always approach nature as a machine, mechanically, methodically and dispassionately.

There is an alternative scenario in which both can co-exist in harmony with the other.

The way in which individuals are seen to react to problems of pollution, emotionally as much as strategically, has a direct bearing on how humans are perceived as cause, as subject, as players within the economic system, and how the economic system itself is seen in relation to the natural world. The forces which pit humans against the well-being of the greater world are perhaps not so different from those which compel certain individuals and groups to try to protect it. Capitalism and the state are often blamed for this, but perhaps we should look elsewhere, to religious and world-view formation.

We know about the terrible experiences of many animals, we know about global warming, about nuclear disasters, about chemical pollution, yet we continue to use plastic, support harmful industries, and fly on aeroplanes. We feel for the animals for a moment when we are confronted with a news image, but then we move on. This may be explained by cognitive dissonance, as exemplified by Leon Festinger. And when do we ever get to read about the lives of those affected by catastrophic pollution? Not very often.

Our highly organised and controlled lives are of course far removed from the turmoil and uncertainties of life in the wild, which begs the question of just how exactly humans understand nature, on what assumptions humans respect nature. It is perhaps naive to imagine that humans could ever truly value nature for itself, independently of human beings, not as a resource. Perhaps people are nihilists when it comes to the environment, incapable of accepting the contingency of humans on this planet. What effect does awareness of pollution and the hardships of our own making endured by the natural world on our conceptions of life, of what it means to be human? Perhaps, for one thing, we can begin to think more highly of alternatives to modern life, and perhaps even so-called primitive societies.

Animism or existentialism as strategies to build respect for nature?

Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005

When Alistair Welchamn speaks of a "metaphysical or anti-human naturalism in which human beings are themselves conceptualised as natural products", he is perhaps quite close to a Sartrean existentialism. The discomfort caused not only by pollution, but also by the immense difficulty that humans have to change, recalls the existential blues that haunted Sartre. Sartre said, of course, that existentialism is humanism, not anti-humanism.

For Lévi-Strauss, we are wrong to dismiss so called "primitive" culture, and he provides many examples of the sophistication and scientific method to be found in aspects of native traditions from around the world. Interestingly, in the context of what it means to be human, he positions the greatest exponent of existentialism within a native, primitive tradition. Though it is not obviously similar to the ways of thinking of non first world societies, Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism can perhaps be understood as a way to engage with what it is to be human in such a way as to re-imagine our place in the world.

“Sartre's view of the world and man has the narrowness which has been traditionally credited to closed societies. His insistence on tracing a distinction between the primitive and the civilized with the aid of gratuitous contrasts reflects, in a scarcely more subtle form, the fundamental opposition he postulates between myself and others. Yet there is little difference between the way in which this opposition is formulated in Sartre's work and the way it would have been formulated by a Melanesian savage, while the analysis of the practico-inert quite simply revives the language of animism.” (11)

There is a lot to be gained from learning about primitive cultures, and re-inventing the human relation to the natural world, intertwined as nature and humans are.

The two shrines below are in the Fukushima area, where the 2011 nuclear disaster took place. If you were to think of gods as powerful protectors with a penchant for punishing those who do not conform with what is considered its commands, and whom you pledge allegiance to in return for benefits, then you might think that the deities associated with these shrines had failed the people of the area. If you were to think of these deities not as all-mighty but as delicate, not as demagogues but elusive, not as protectors but as needing protection, then you might begin to think that humans have failed the deities.

The diverse Japanese kami of water and rainfall, such as Suijin 水神 "water god" and Okami, are worshipped at Shinto shrines, especially during times of drought. For instance, Niukawakami Jinja 丹生川上神社 in Kawakami, Nara is a center of prayers for Kuraokami, Takaokami, and Mizuhanome 罔象女.

O-Kami Shrine [Okkami Shrine] Minamiaizu-cho No.0 Kibushiji Kaminoyama 157, from https://kyonsight.com/okami/jinjajp/fukushima2.html

Suijin (水神, water god) is the Shinto god of water, a benevolent deity, with both heavenly and earthly manifestations. These can be magical creatures such as snakes and dragons, eels, fish or turtles. Suijin is still worshipped in Japanese temples. I found these photos on a fantastic website but I am unable to understand how to contact the site manager to request permission to use these. I hope it is ok for me to post them here.

Detail from O-Kami Shrine [Okkami Shrine] Minamiaizu-cho No.0 Kibushiji Kaminoyama 157, from https://kyonsight.com/okami/jinjajp/fukushima2.html

O-Kami Shrine [Okkami Shrine] Katagai-shaped Funakubo ko 55, Minamiaizu Town, from https://kyonsight.com/okami/jinjajp/fukushima2.html

Unless respect for water, be it rain water, rivers, or the sea, is built into our world view from an early age, perhaps we cannot change. It is pointless to continue with the current belief systems and then ask people to recycle their used plastic or stop using bleach. We need to think of ways to change our core beliefs about human activity, and about nature. Trying to see the life-force in water, in a tree might help us understand something that can restore a balance that has been lost. We need to explore the nature of existence as this existence here, right now, on our planet.

The Vaitaranicirc River

Hell, according to Hindu seers, is a particular locality walled off from the surrounding regions of space by the messengers of Yama, the ruler of Hell. Within this particular space so specially guarded, no joy can enter. It is a region of pain. Sinners clothed in their painful bodies (jâtana deha), replicas of their physical bodies, though made of subtler matter, suffer the punishments deserved by their sins. But there is one distinguishing mark between the Hindu idea of Hell and that of votaries of Semitic creeds. The punishment in Hell is not eternal. It is reformatory and educative. The hell punishment is not remembered by the soul when it is re-born, no more than it remembers the joys of heaven. The soul must pass through the bitterness of the valley of Yama, the merciful ruler of Hell. Where is then this Hell situated? According to Hindu belief, its locality is in the astral region of the physical South Pole, as the Heaven is situate in the astral region of the physical North Pole. All souls must pass there but not all are punished, just as a prison is a prison only to the criminal, but not to the visitor. The way of Yama, is very difficult, happiness-giving, to the virtuously inclined, but misery-giving to the sinful. Here are some excerpts from the sacred text The Garuda Purana, in which a different celestial river is mentioned, one that is vile and horrible, and part of hell:

14. In one place there is pitch darkness; in another rocks difficult to climb over; in others lakes filled with pus and blood, and with excrement.
15-17. In the midst of the way flows the terribly horrible Vaitaranicirc River, which when seen inspires misery, of which even an account arouses fear.
21. Very sinful people, fallen into the flood, cry, O Brother, O Son, O Father!'--again and again wailing.
22-23. Hungry and thirsty the sinful drink the blood, it is said. That river, flowing with blood, carrying much foam,
Very dreadful, with powerful roaring, difficult to see into, fear-inspiring,--at the very sight of it the sinful swoon away.
24. Covered with many scorpions, and with black snakes,--of those who have fallen into the midst of this, there is no rescuer whatever.
26. O Bird, this river was created only that the sinful should fall into it. It is difficult to cross and gives great misery, and its opposite cannot be seen.
27. Thus along the Way of Yama, of many kinds of pain, giving extreme misery, go the sinful, crying and weeping and laden with misery.
35. 'I made no gifts; no offerings to the fire; performed no penances; did not worship the deities; did not perform service at a place of pilgrimage as prescribed;--O Dweller in the Body, make reparation for whatever you have done!
36. 'I did not duly honour the assemblies of Brahmins; did not visit the holy river 1; did not wait upon good men; never performed any benevolent acts;--O Dweller in the Body, make reparation for whatever you have done!
37. ' Alas, I did not excavate tanks in waterless places, either for the benefit of men or for the sake of animals and binds; did not even a little for the support of cows and brahmins;--O Dweller in the Body, make reparation for whatever you leave done!
64-65. When he sees his huge form he runs away in fear. Then having come before him some fishermen say:
'We have arrived, bringing a boat for you--who desire to cross the great Vaitaranicirc River--if your merits are sufficient.'
66-67. 'It is said by the sages, who see the truth, that Vitarana is a gift, and this is called Vaitaranicirc because it is crossed over by that.
'If you have made the gift of a cow, then the boat will come to you, otherwise not.' Having heard their words, 'Oh heavens,' he exclaims.
1. Garuda said: For what sins do they go on that great Way? Why do they fall into the Vaitaranicirc? Why do they go to hell? Tell me this, O Keśava.
2. The Blessed Lord said: 'Those who always delight in wrong deeds, who turn away from good deeds, go from hell to hell, from misery to misery, from fear to fear.
3. The righteous go into the city of the King of Justice by three gateways, but the sinful go into it only by the road of the southern gate.
4. The Vaitaranicirc River is only on this very miserable way. I will tell you who the sinners are who go by it.
"I have presented this to you, being desirous of crossing that river, which is a hundred yojanas in extent, and lies on the very dreadful way of Yama. Salutations to Vaitaranicirc;.(8)

Are the rivers and water systems we have here on Earth more like the Milky Way, or the Vaitaranicirc river? Is this dreadful river where we are heading to, or where we are already? Fortunately, we can capitalise on this dread, and use this existential angst to respond to the environmental crisis. It's absolutely necessary to engage with the absurdity of our self-destruction.

It seems that long ago, there was a belief that water was linked to all matter, and governed the moon, the stars, and everything hidden, as attested by this curious quotation by the 5th / 6th century writer John the Lydian. If that's so, perhaps we should stop treating the rivers and the sea as a dump.

103.The fontal nymphs, and all the aquatic spirits,
And the terrestrial, aerial, and glittering recesses,
Are the lunar riders and rulers of all matter,
Of the celestial, the starry, and that which lies in the abysses.
Lyd. p. 32.—Tay. (13)


1. "Fukushima nuclear disaster preventable, court rules, with more damages claims likely", Article in the Guardian, 1 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/01/fukushima-nuclear-disaster-preventable-court-rules-with-more-damages-claims-likely

2. Commoner, 1971:126-127

3. Global Environment Outlook 2000 (GEO 2), UNEP)

4. Deuleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix, 1983, Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesotta, https://libcom.org/files/Anti-Oedipus.pdf, p 229

5. "Dark Waters true story: How a lawyer exposed a chemical giant poisoning thousands", by Matt Roper, and Dave Stubbings, SEO Editor, 29 February 2020, https://www.mirror.co.uk/film/dark-waters-true-story-how-21595353

6. Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix, 1981: 3-4)

7. Murphy, Anthony, 2019,"THE MILKY WAY - THE TWINING BRANCHES OF DEIRDRE AND HER LOVER NAOISE", https://www.mythicalireland.com/MI/blog/astronomy-and-the-sky/the-milky-way-the-twining-branches-of-deirdre-and-her-lover-naoise/

8. The Garuda Purana, https://www.hinduwebsite.com/sacredscripts/puranas/gp/gp.asp

9. Welchman, Alistair, 2008

10. "Blow-ups happen: Nuclear plants can be kept safe only by constantly worrying about their dangers". The Economist. 10 March 2012. Archived from the original on 12 April 2014.

11.Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 1966, 1966. Du miel aux cendres (From Honey to Ashes, 1973) p. 249

12.The Metrical Dindshenchas, anonymous, https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T106500C/text002.html

13. Quoted in the Chaldean Orcacles of Zoroaster, https://web.archive.org/web/20120523044846/http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/af/af08.htm


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