Cow donation ritual: Crossing the mythical river, Vaitarni

In Greek mythology, River Styx had to be crossed to reach life after death. The only way to cross the Styx was in a ferryboat rowed by a an old boatman named Charon. The boatman would only take a soul if their bodies had received funereal rites on earth. Charon the ferryman also demanded to be paid, therefore a small coin was placed under the tongue of a dead person for this purpose.

Similarly in Hindu mythology, The 47th chapter of the Preta Khanda in the Garuda Purana talks about Vaitarni River, which must be crossed by the souls of the dead. It is incumbent on all mortals to witness the mighty river. Persons who had made gifts in their lifetime can cross it easily, otherwise they sink into it. Those who donate a cow to a Brahmin, they never fall into the Vaitarni River. Clinging to the tail of the cow, the helpless soul will be able to cross the river.

One of our informant told us during our research, “See ‘tharana’ is crossing. Vai means ‘no’, like Vaikunta refers to a place where there is no kunta or obstacles. Vaitharini, the river of the material world, is a symbolism for one that is too loathsome to cross.. So what is it? It is our own accumulated filth in the mind”

In the photographs below: When Smt. Tiwari became very weak, she declared, “Take me to Kashi, I want to die in the Tirtha”. Word got out the she would be making the final pilgrimage, the kith and kin gathered at the house. The family then arranged to do gau daan – the gift of a cow to a Brahmin. They believed it would help her cross the terrible Vaitarni River on her post death journey to Yama-Lok.

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