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BATHING IN THE GANGES
In cities along the river, daily dips are an important ritual among the faithful. Many cities are considered sacred and have become pilgrimage sites for people from all over the world: Gangotri, at the river’s source; Sagar Island, where it flows into the sea; Varanasi (formerly Benares), the holiest city of all, one of the world’s major pilgrimage centers and the most auspicious place to die; and Allahabad, where the Ganga and Jamuna meet, the site of the most important festival in the Hindu religious calendar, Kumbh Mela, where millions of pilgrims from all over the globe gather for the bathing ritual.
Many Hindus believe that water from the Ganga can heal sickness of body and soul and cleanse the soul of all past karma. Ganga jal is often used to anoint the forehead of someone who’s ill, and is drunk with one’s last breath to take the soul to heaven. Even a single drop of Ganges water, carried by the wind over a great distance, is believed to cleanse a lifetime’s sins. “By seeing, touching, and drinking the waters of Ganga, or even by applauding Ganga, hundreds and thousands of sinful men became cleansed of all their sins” (from the Mahabharata).
Bathing, immersion in the river itself, is even more purifying. Hindus may travel great distances to scatter the ashes of their relations in the waters of the Ganga, with the aim of helping them attain a better rebirth, and ultimately freedom altogether from samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth).
Even more desirable is to be cremated in Varanasi, the most sacred city on the Ganges: It’s been said that “Death, which elsewhere is polluting, is here holy and auspicious.” People travel from all over India and even internationally to spend their last days in Varanasi. The river is lined with ghats (stone platforms with steps leading to the water), where the funerals are held, and the pyres burn nonstop.
POLUTION AND PURITY
There’s a paradox at the heart of Hinduism, which reveres nature but isn’t a “nature-loving” culture in the Western sense. Gardens and parks are often left untended, even in wealthy suburbs, and animals may be neglected or mistreated. Yet while mangy curs wander the streets looking for scraps, cows still have right of way and hold up the traffic with impunity. Plants may wither, unwatered under the burning sun, while flower garlands adorn honored guests and idols. The implications of this contrast between belief and practice have ironic and tragic consequences in the ritual use and abuse of India’s sacred rivers.
As a mother, Ganga is tangible, accessible, and all-accepting: No one is denied her blessing. However, though her devotees revere her, they don’t always treat her with the love and respect she deserves in return for her many blessings.
While the spiritual purity of the Ganges has remained unchallenged for millennia, her physical purity has deteriorated to the point where she has become one of the most polluted rivers on Earth. Many of the world’s rivers are contaminated through human exploitation, but the Ganges has suffered particularly partly as a consequence of what could be called “spiritual exploitation.” Thousands of sick people with open wounds and festering ulcers bathe in the river daily to get healed, and these numbers swell into the millions during festivals, which also puts tremendous strain on the antiquated sewage system.
Dying in Varanasi takes the impurity out of death, but at the cost of putting pollution into the river. Some 40,000 cremations are performed there each year, and many more take place on other sites along the river. Most funerals are carried out on wood pyres that don’t reduce the body to ashes; but the remains are thrown into the water regardless, to be fought over by dogs and vultures. The thousands more who can’t afford cremation have their bodies simply thrown into the Ganges. It’s an all-too-common sight to see partially burnt corpses floating down the river, along with the carcasses of thousands of dead sacred cows and assorted household rubbish.
Sacred ritual is only one source of pollution. The Sacred Land Film Project has produced a report on the Ganges, based on extensive scientific research, which identifies the main source of contamination as organic waste sewage, trash, food, and human and animal remains. Around a billion liters of untreated raw sewage are dumped in the Ganges each day, along with massive amounts of agricultural chemicals (including DDT), industrial pollutants, and toxic chemical waste from the booming industries along the river. The level of pollution is now 10,000 percent higher than the government standard for safe river bathing (let alone drinking). One result of this situation is an increase in waterborne diseases, including cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, and amebic dysentery. An estimated 80 percent of all health problems and one-third of deaths in India are attributable to waterborne illnesses.
Wildlife is also under threat, particularly the river dolphins. They were one of the world’s first protected species, given special status under the reign of Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century b.c. They’re now a critically endangered species, although protected once again by the Indian government (and internationally under the CITES convention). Their numbers have shrunk by 75 percent over the last 15 years, and they have become extinct in the main tributaries, mainly because of pollution and habitat degradation. However, at least in one stretch of the river, numbers are rising, owing to the efforts of the “Dolphin Man,” Dr. Sandeep Behera from World Wildlife Fund India.
There have been various projects to clean up the Ganges and other rivers, led by the Indian government’s Ganga Action Plan, launched in 1985 by Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru. Its relative failure has been blamed on mismanagement, corruption, and technological mistakes, but also on lack of support from religious authorities. This may well be partly because the Brahmin priests are so invested in the idea of the Ganga’s purity and afraid that admission of its pollution will undermine the central role of water in ritual, as well as their own authority. There are many temples along the river, conducting a brisk trade in ceremonies, including funerals, and sometimes also the sale of bottled Ganga jal. The more traditional Hindu priests still believe that blessing Ganga jal purifies it, although they’re now a very small minority in view of the scale of the problem
One famous environmental campaigner is Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra, a Hindu priest who’s also a civil engineer. He approaches pollution from both a scientific and a spiritual perspective, and has proposed an alternative sewage-treatment plan for Varanasi that’s compatible with the climate and conditions of India. His “Clean Ganga” campaign is currently trying to persuade India’s central government to adopt the plan, so far without success.
Dr. Mishra describes the importance of protecting this sacred river: “There is a saying that the Ganges grants us salvation. This culture will end if the people stop going to the river, and if the culture dies the tradition dies, and the faith dies.” Mishra feels it important to find new language for the river that respects the Hindu worldview and veneration of the Ganges. To tell a Hindu that Gangagoddess and mother is “polluted” or “dirty” is an insult, suggesting that she’s no longer sacred. Instead, it needs to be made clear that human action, not the holy river herself, is responsible: “We are allowing our mother to be defiled.” This approach has stimulated grassroots involvement in the clean-up effort and is transforming the work for environmental preservation into a model for cultural and religious preservation as well.
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