India’s Divine and Defiled Rivers

India’s Divine and Defiled Rivers

A ghat along the River Ganga in Varanasi

On the banks of the river Ganga in the holy city of Varanasi, you might find a sign that says “Ganga is the Life Line of Indian Culture.” Though worshipped as the daughter of Brahma, Ganga is a river that has simultaneously been revered and defiled. The New York Times reports:

“One-third of India’s 1.2 billion people live along the banks of the 1,560-mile-long river, many of them relying on it for drinking, cooking and washing. Millions more visit for ritual baths to cleanse themselves of sin. But untreated sewage, agricultural runoff and industrial waste have fouled its waters for decades, and hydroelectric projects and dams threaten to choke off its waters in spots.”

Earlier this year, 36 year old Hindu leader Swami Nigamanand initiated a hunger strike, protesting pollution and riverbed mining along the Ganges. Sadly, he passed away in early June.

The next day, it was announced that the Indian government will receive a U.S. $i billion loan from the World Bank to finance the cleanup of this holy river.

The task of restoring a river is no small feat and requires resources and action on a number of fronts:

“What we’re trying to do is take a step back and not look at just one sector ‘ waste water ‘ but take a larger sectoral approach,” said Genevieve Connors, a water resources specialist for the World Bank who is involved in the project…[I]t “takes decades and costs hundreds of billions of dollars.”

The Ganges is not the only Indian river in such critical condition. The Yamuna River, a tributary of Ganga, known in Hindu epics as the lover of Krishna, is also in a dire state. As Richard Conniff writes in this fascinating piece in the Journal of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies:

In some places, the Yamuna is now so heavily exploited that broad swaths of riverbed lie naked and exposed to the sun for much of the year. In other places, the river is a sudsy, listless morass of human, industrial and agricultural wastes, literally an open sewer.

Conniff examines the intersection of science, religion and activism around efforts to restore these sacred and functional waters. He describes the protests of Hindu devotees:

“They briefly shut down their temples along the river as part of the protest, and they added a colorful strand of religious belief to the familiar environmental language of oxygen content, turbidity and toxicity. When Mathura, one of the towns along the route, moved to end the blight of plastic shopping bags along the river banks, The Times of India headlined the news: ‘Lord Krishna’s birthplace now polythene-free.'”

Conniff cites the work of David Haberman, and his book River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India, which has now been added to my summer reading list. Haberman describes both the problems and the potential of mixing religion and the environment:

“Some think that because the river is a goddess, she can never be polluted, no matter how physically defiled. Others believe that the pollution can harm creatures that depend on the river for survival, but not the goddess herself. And a third group believes the goddess herself is dying and in need of their help.”

Whether we examine these rivers in a sacred or secular context, as heavenly waters or as strained earthy resources, a collaboration of sadhus and scientists might just be what is required to revitalize these life lines of Indian culture.