The Ganges River, or Gangaji, is the second most polluted river in the world, according to science. However, if you ask one of the bathers in Varanasi, they will argue that nothing can pollute the river because it is holy. Science and religion have different definitions of pollution, which has had catastrophic effects on the Ganges.
Last week, I visited Varanasi, one of India’s holy cities. I was able to experience two boat rides on the Ganges River. People from all over the world climbed down the steep stairs to the river’s surface. I witnessed people bathing, washing their clothes, and drinking drops of its water. These people look past the grey smog hovering over the black water. They ignore the trash build up and the smell. The river is pure to them, even though it is physically polluted.
Hindus consider the river holy; the river is a goddess and a mother. Gangaji is a sacred icon in the vedas (the epics of Hinduism), and it is thought to have healing properties. Any rituals performed in or near the water are supposed to multiply blessings of the individuals who perform them. People from all over India and the world come on pilgrimages to these waters to bath and drink from them. The river is supposed to cleanse people of their impurities. In addition, people bring the deceased bodies of loved ones to burn next to the river and throw their ashes into the gentle current. By doing so, it is thought to secure salvation for the departed souls.
All these beliefs prevent Hindus from recognizing the threats against the wellbeing of the river. There are many factors that cause pollution to the Ganges, but almost all of them are human inflicted. Development and urbanization have caused higher levels of chemicals and unsustainable materials to flow into the river at higher rates. Practices that used to be sustainable are no longer. There are about 4,800 liters of sewage that flow into the river every day, and less than a quarter of it is treated. Along with this sewage, there are mounds of trash in and around the banks of the river that pollute the water. People have begun washing fabrics with chemical detergent instead of natural products, like clay as they once did before. These non-religious activities pollute the water.
Religious rituals have also unpurified these waters. With modern transportation, more and more people can visit the river and bring their dead relatives to cremate. This has caused more air pollution to the city in addition to the motor vehicles because more pyres are being burned every day. Our guide told us that people burn body after body from noon to midnight every single day. I saw about thirteen pyres burning at once. People have also started cremating in factories, which pollute at higher levels.
In Varanasi, I walked on the platforms next to the water where Brahmin priests were performing rituals honoring the god, Shiva. Shiva’s spirit is believed to be in the city. Priests cover themselves with the ashes from the pyres and perform rituals in adoration of the god. People light candles and leave them in the water to pay respect to Shiva.
All of these traditions and daily practices, like doing laundry, have become harmful for the Ganges because of the industrialization and development of the products used to perform such tasks. Some boats now run on gasoline. Soap has chemicals that pollute the water. Sewage is drained into the river at larger quantities without being treated for other chemicals that mix into it.
The government has tried to form initiatives to preserve the Ganges, but you cannot change people’s actions until you change their thoughts. Programs, such as Ganga Action Parivar, have tried to treat more of the sewage and preserve more of the water. However, people are not individually going to take steps to purify the water if they do not see it as polluted. People need to find a happy medium between science and religion in order to save the Ganges. Rituals can still be performed but in sustainable ways. People need to realize that even though the river is holy, it is physically in decay. Without this recognition, no law can preserve these waters. Individuals must realize that the water has physical functions just as it has spiritual benefits. The Ganges is used to grow crops and sustain physical lives, and if people do not begin to change their actions, the river will no longer support their physical needs.