By Sadhvi Bhagvati
On the occasion of Ganga Day, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati makes a fervent plea to restore sanctity to the sacred river’s waters
The crystal-clear, blue, gushing waters of Mother Ganga cut through the foothills of the Himalayas, carving out the most sacred riverbed in the world. Out of the Mother Glacier more than 13,000 feet above sea level, the Goddess Ganga – daughter of King Himavat, the king of the Himalayas, and Queen Meru, sister of Uma, Bhagawan Shiva’s divine consort – is said to have descended upon earth, as an act of grace and compassion, to bring liberation to the fallen sons of King Sagara and all those who came afterwards.
It is believed that Lord Brahma, pleased by King Bhagirath’s tapasya, directed him to undertake prayers to Lord Shiva, who would catch the powerful, intractable force of Ganga’s waters in his infinite locks, releasing her flow from heaven gently so that she would bring healing, and liberation to earth rather than decimation. Thus, Goddess Ganga gracefully departed from her heavenly abode and took the form of a flowing river.
|“Of flowing rivers, I am the Ganga.” Lord Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 10:31|
Lord Shiva released her from his tresses into seven streams or tributaries, the main one being the river Bhagirathi from the glacier known as Gaumukh, for it appeared to some to be shaped as a cow’s mouth. Joining at Dev Prayag with her sister rivers Alakananda, coming from Badrinath, and Mandakini from Kedarnath, Bhagirathi becomes known as Ganga – the confluence of these three sacred rivers from three of the holiest sites. Rushing rapidly through curves and bends in the mountains, flowing across the holy flora of the Himalayas, accumulating mineral-rich soil in her waters, Ganga finally arrives in Rishikesh where her breadth increases, her speed decreases, and she seems to pause, permitting all to have darshan of her majestic form.
Her riverbanks are lined with rocks, softened, and smoothed by her waters, large ones upon which one can sit for hours, medium-sized ones that fit perfectly in the palm of one’s hand, for holding and meditating upon, and small pebbles, collected by the pious, so that Mother Ganga may flow through their home as well.
Where the river ends and people’s lives begin is impossible to discern. Ganga is as inextricable from the lives of Indians as the very blood flowing through their veins.
|The Ganga Basin supports the greatest population density on earth – it is home to more than one twelfth of the world’s population|
Whether she is a source of tangible water for daily drinking, bathing, and cooking, or whether she is a source of intangible inspiration and liberation prayed to with each morning’s bath in innumerable cities across the world, she is fundamental to the lives of more than one-seventh of the world’s population.
When I first arrived in Rishikesh, at the tail end of the monsoon season of 1996, her waters were still high but the mesmerising fury of her flow at its peak had subsided. She was full but gentle, rushing, flowing, tumbling off rocks and high riverbanks, but clear again in the autumn after months of carrying high mountain silt.
“I’m going to put my feet in the river,” I had said after we dropped our bags in the hotel. No one told us there were coolies to carry our luggage across the bridge, nor had we been directed to the motor boat, which carries one easily from the main road of Rishikesh to the quieter Swargashram area. Therefore, believing it was the only option, we had carried our bags personally across Rama Jhula from the taxi stand to the hotel, located just behind the ashrams lining the banks of Ganga. Hot, sweaty, and tired, I decided that some cool water upon my feet would be the perfect salve.
I do not remember whether I had even removed my shoes, and put my feet into her waters when she swept up my soul. Instantaneously, my life was hers. Tears of having come home, tears of being in the presence of truth, tears of witnessing the divinity in all, poured from my eyes the moment I beheld her. “Just let me stay here on your banks forever,” I whispered, and I knew the prayer had been granted even before I asked. She carried my life in her waters, and bestowed it upon me the moment I arrived. She has gifted me with waters in which to bathe my body, waters in which to rinse stale thoughts and patterns from my mind, and waters in which my soul has had tastes of re-uniting with the Source. As my eyes glaze and blur in open-eyed meditation upon her rushing waters, I have heard – from she who is within me – answers to questions I have asked and to questions, I have not yet asked.
As a mother, she provides for all – life and livelihood for those who depend upon her as their source of existence, inspiration and liberation for those who meditate upon her, and spiritual connection to those who invoke her name in their daily bath across the world.
The grace of Mother Ganga
Mother Ganga irrigates not only the hearts, minds and souls of her one billion devotees around the world. She also irrigates the farms that feed more than one-third of India’s population. More than 450 million people receive the means for their very existence from her waters. The Ganga Basin supports the greatest population density on earth – it is home to more than one-twelfth of the world’s population. Ganga is the water they drink, and with which they bathe, cook, and irrigate their crops. She is both the apple of their eye and the apple on their tree. Her irrigation canals span approximately 18,000 kilometers, a network of channels running as the arteries of life for one-third of India. Yet, today, tragically, the waters of Mother Ganga are in peril, and the peril is borne not by her alone, but rather by all whose lives are inextricably linked with hers as she journeys 2,500 km from Gaumukh to Ganga Sagar.
Ganga, pure as ever
To devotees, of course, the Ganga will be eternally pure, the timeless, un-taintable essence of fullness, purity, and divinity. In essence, they are right. Ganga is actually a goddess, who simply descended upon the earth due to the ardent and assiduous tapasya of King Bhagirath, a descendant of King Sagara whose 60,000 sons had been burnt to ash by sage Kapil. She flowed over the ashes of King Sagara’s sons, bringing them liberation or moksha. That she stayed, that she continued to flow long after her specific task was complete, that she has cleansed, purified and liberated countless billions since then is a sign of her grace.
So, in essence, Ganga is un-defilable. Lord Krishna described the soul in the Bhagavad Gita, saying, “It cannot be dried by wind, nor burnt by fire, nor cut with a knife.” Similarly, nothing that can be done to Ganga, will change her essence. So, many argue, what is the problem with a few bags of garbage or a sewage line or two? The question is the point at which her roles as a spiritual lifeline and as a physical lifeline diverge. For, while her essence – in any physical state – is enough to bring liberation to the devoted, it is the very physical, tangible and currently sullied molecules of H2O, which bring life to hundreds of millions. A few bags of garbage or errant sewage pipes may have no impact on moksha for the faithful bathing in her waters, but it can be the difference between life and death for the inhabitants of her basin.
The volume of waste dumped into her waters is staggering. 1.3 billion litres of wastewater from domestic and industrial sources are dumped directly into Ganga each day. The raw sewage of more than one hundred cities flows directly into her running waters. Untreated waste has filled Ganga’s purifying waters with viruses and bacteria. This is only the liquid waste – the untreated sewage, agricultural run-off, and chemical effluents from factories. The solid waste, the actual trash which individuals and municipalities toss into her stream each day is immeasurable.
Grace of the water
The grace of water is that it keeps flowing. Stagnant water dies quickly. The nature of live, fresh, life-giving water is its movement. In that movement there is forgiveness. The trash I toss nonchalantly into Ganga here, at this moment, is replaced in the next moment by fresh, clean, unpolluted water. My trash has been carried downstream, and I – here in this spot in this moment – am given another chance. No constant reminders of my trespass, no immediate dire consequences, each moment is new. Of course, my brothers and sisters downstream reaping the bitter fruit of my trespass,are drinking, and bathing in my wanton disregard; however, that moment is fleeting, even downstream. The river forgives. She keeps moving, keeps flowing, keeps providing us with a fresh, clean slate as she pours out of the glacier.
There is still time. The molecules of water locked into the Gaumukh glacier and the Himalayan snow cover are still clean and pure. The water saturated with our pollution of yesterday will empty into the Bay of Bengal tomorrow and merge into the mighty ocean by the day after. Fields and crops irrigated by toxins will take longer to recover, but a heavy monsoon can easily carry away a huge amount of polluted topsoil. Those who have died and those on their deathbed from illnesses carried in Ganga’s waters cannot be restored, but next year’s deaths can be prevented.
Like a mother upon whom her sick child has vomited, our waters have been defiled by our illnesses of near-sightedness, of greed, of myopia, of sloth, of idleness. Like that mother, our waters will forgive us. However, we must stand up, brush ourselves off, wipe our Mother’s sullied brow, and heal ourselves of the diseases that are devastating our water bodies, our planet, and ultimately our own lives.
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