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And Quiet Flows the Ganga. Or Does She?

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By Dr. Satish C. Aikant

One of the most striking aspects of the Hindu cosmogonic myths is the organic vision that they express. The universe is imagined as a living organism, a vast ecosystem, in which each part is inextricably related to the life of the whole. And the whole is indeed alive: it is in constant process and movement, growing and decaying. In India the veneration of Nature has never been discarded as outdated and primitive. There is no such thing as objectified ‘nature’ or lifeless ‘elements’ for everything belongs to the living pattern of the whole. According to Fritjof Capra ‘ecology and spirituality are fundamentally connected, because deep ecological awareness, ultimately, is spiritual awareness.’
One of the key symbols of Hindu cosmic vision and civilizational continuity is the Ganga. She is both a goddess and a river carrying immense cultural and religious significance for Hindus no matter what part of the subcontinent they call home, no matter what their sectarian leaning might be. Moksha itself is said to result from bathing in the waters of the Ganga or being cremated on her banks. Look at Nehru’s lyrical description: ‘The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever- changing, ever- flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.’
The mythology of the Hindu tradition and the sacred topography of the land of India are inseparable. The river Ganga is not confined to the course she takes across the country but participates in that spatial transposition that is so typical of Hindu sacred topography, pervading the sacred waters of all India’s great rivers. The places which figure prominently along her course are the tirthas, the sacred sites. The word tirtha itself means ‘ford’ or a ‘crossing place’ and has come to mean a ‘spiritual ford,’ a place of pilgrimage, and the prominent tirthas that mark Ganga’s course are: Gangotri, her source in the Himalayas, Haridwar, also known as Gangadwara, where she breaks out of the mountains into the plains of North India, Prayag, where she joins the river Yamuna and the mythical subterranean Saraswati, Banaras, the city of Siva, Ganga Sagara, where the river meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal. The etymology of Ganga derives from the verb gam, ‘to go.’ The hymns to her constantly emphasize the running, flowing, energetic movement of her waters. It is the running water that is the chief agent of purification in the ritual scheme of purity and pollution. Water absorbs pollution, but when it is running, it carries pollution away as well.
In recent years there has been growing concern with the flow of water in the Ganga caused not only by the rubbish dumped into it but also by the checks on its unobstructed flow resulting from the indiscriminate construction of dams. The danger was seen as early as in the colonial period when religious and political leaders joined hands to defend Ganga’s purity and her flow. Indian nationalists opposed the then colonial government’s plans to arrest and redirect the Ganga near the sacred city of Haridwar. Arguing that Ganga’s essence and purifying power would be altered by any kind of canal engineering, they rallied around the demand to ensure her unobstructed flow past the sacred city of Haridwar. Indeed the nationalist leaders and religious leaders worked together to resist the canal projects engineered by what was perceived to be a common enemy, the British government. Led by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya , this conflict attracted lot of popular attention. The movement of course served the objective of a broader political movement while consolidating opinion in defence of Ganga’s uninterrupted flow.
The argument is advanced that purity is associated with Ganga’s transcendent power and cleanliness with her outer form. The outer form figures into Ganga’s purity, making cleanness complementary but not conditional to it. There are also competing definitions of what constitutes waste. The devout do not consider that ritual materials immersed in the Ganga – the statues (murti) of gods and other material offerings – contribute to the waste problem in any significant way. There is a conceptual dissonance between the Hindu religious worldview and the view of contemporary environmentalism. The former believes that Mother Ganga could unfortunately become unclean (asvacch), but that she could never be impure (ashuddha). Although she may be ‘dirty’ her religious purity remains unsullied, and in popular view this religious purity is considered to be more important than physical cleanliness. The river, it is strongly believed, is a goddess who possesses the power to absorb and absolve human and worldly impurities.
For those who opposed colonial rule, the demand for Ganga’s unobstructed flow was a stratagem that revised a key cultural symbol to resist the British rule. This demand was not part of an environmental movement; rather, it invoked religious symbolism to bring religious leaders and nationalists together on a common platform. In the current scenario, by contrast, the orthodox elements associate the notion of pollution with government attempts to interfere in the domain of religious affairs. Environmentalists and policy makers interpret this position as general disinterest in preventing pollution and getting involved with secular or civic cleanliness. So the government initiatives have to make references to the spiritual significance of Ganga while explaining the importance of their cleaning programmes. However, they meet with little success in making the problem of river pollution a significant public issue.
Movements for reclaiming sacred spaces reproduce models of invoking religious symbols, yet the dynamism of these movements has not been transferred into environmental programmes to save or clean Ganga because the tradition of religious mobilization has never exhibited efforts to engage in any form of environmental activism. The problem for environmental activists is that this position of relative remove from active civic clean-up work aggravates the ecological health of the river. The government that holds the legal mandate to enforce a code of conduct has little moral or social authority and its efforts to regulate public behaviour remain largely ineffective. Religious institutions, sectarian organizations, temple committees and trusts are respected more by the public as moral authorities. There is a case for collaboration among religious and environmental activists to mobilize popular sentiment, even though the fixity of the domains of Hinduism articulated by many act as a formidable obstacle to any kind of coordinated action plan.
The Ganga’s flow is generally valorised for its self-cleaning quality, her purity cannot be described using the scientific or materialist notion of pollution put out by government agencies and environmental organizations. The government’s Clean Ganga project relies on setting up sewage treatment plants rather than ensuring that the natural flow of the river is not blocked. The blocks in the river impede its propensity to clean itself. Among the sharpest critics of the government’s approach, led by the National Mission for Clean Ganga, was the late G.D. Agarwal, alias Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, a seer and formerly a scientist, whose key demands were to stop all under-construction dams in the upper reaches of the Ganga, and modify the design of existing ones to ensure optimum flow of the river. But he failed to convince the Indian government and paid for it with his life.
T. S. Eliot in his apocalyptic poem The Waste Land (1922) has the lines:
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The black clouds that gather over the Himalaya have an ominous ring that we must hear to prevent a catastrophe.

The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)