Research Article by London Swaminathan
Date: 26 December 2018
GMT Time uploaded in London – 13-54
Post No. 5837

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River ordeal or Water ordeal and Fire ordeal are found in Vedic literature and later books. We read about Sita’s Fire Ordeal in Ramayana and Fire walking in Jaiminiya Brahmana. It is interesting to see the Babylonian king Hammurabi also listed River ordeal as one of the punishments.

As I have explained in my article posted yesterday, Manu lived before Hammurabi (1792 BCE). Manu is in the oldest book Rik Veda. The following sloka not only showed Manu lived during the days of flowing mighty Sarasvati River but also water ordeal was one of the punishments or atonements.

In chapter 2 Manu says

“The country that the gods made between the two divine rivers, the Sarasvati and Drsadvati, is what they call  the Land of the Veda”- Manu 2-17

In chapter 11 he says,

A priest killer……………

“Throw himself three times, head first, into a blazing fire -11-74

Or he may eat food fit for an oblation and walk the length of the Sarasvati river against the current”-11-78.

Manu lived before 2000 BCE; later the river dried up according to the latest scientific discoveries.

Water Ordeal in Code of Hammurabi


(2)If a man has laid a charge of witchcraft against another man but cannot substantiate his guilt, the person against whom witchcraft is alleged shall go to the river and jump into the river.

And if the mighty river overpowers him, the one who laid the allegations against him shall take possession of his house.

But if the river cleanses him of the guilt, he shall go away restored.

The one who laid a charge of witchcraft against him shall be put to death; the one who jumped into the river shall take possession of the house of the one who made the allegations against him

Tamil Periya Purana

Fire and Water ordeal figured also in the Pariyapurana which gives the life stories of 63 great Saivite saints.

When the politically motivated Jains set fire to the Brahmin boy Sambandar’s residence he came out without any harm. Later the Jains challenged him in various ways. One of the tests they held was Fire ordeal. Both the Jains and Sambandar placed the palm leaf manuscript with their holy Mantras. Sambandar’s palm leaf remained intact whereas the Jains’ one burnt to ashes. Then the water ordeal took place. Both of them placed their palm leaf manuscripts in the Vaigai River. Jains’ palm leaf was washed away; but Sambandar’swent against the river current and reached the banks 12 miles away Madurai. That place is called Thiru Edu Akam (Thiruvedakam). This water ordeal is at least 1400 year old.

River Ordeal in Mahabharata

Bandi was a Vedic scholar in the court of King Janaka . He used to hold learned discussions and debates on Vedic scripture s with visiting scholars who after being defeated, were thrown into river. One such unfortunate loser was Kahoda. Later Kahodas son Ashtavakra mastered all the scriptures by the age of twelve. He defeated Bandi and he was thrown into a river. But being the son of god Varuna , no harm came to him and he ended his earthly existence. Kahoda was restored to life. Later Ashtavakra bathed in the River Samang and his crooks in the body straightened out. This shows the miraculous powers of the river or water. Ashtavakra got eight crooks in his body when he was in the womb of his mother and his father Kahoda spelt the Vedas with mistakes.

What is Water Ordeal?

In Mesopotamia, from the old Babylonian period on, if the sworn testimony by the parties in a legal dispute conflicted or if for some reason the case was not solvable by rational means , it was usual to refer the decision to the river god; in other words to decide by means of a river ordeal . This solemn expedient was in effect a form of divination and the judgment would then be declared in the name of Id, the Divine River, or Shazi, son of the Divine River or Ea, Enki.

It seems likely that one of the litigants, selected by lot, underwent the ordeal. He had to submerge himself in the river at a special location in the presence of the authorities, and possibly swim to a certain distance. If he came out safe he was cleared. If he was overcome by the current and sank, he was guilty and had to return to court for sentencing—- fine or execution. It was not intended that he should drown.

Sometimes a holy river was specified. Daban, Diyala, Hubur , all rivers outside Babylon.


Hammurabi’s Laws, M E J Richardson, Sheffield Academic Press
Who is who in the Mahabharata, Subash Mazumdar, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay
Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, British Museum
Manu Smrti