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By Why is the Ganga both worshipped and polluted in Varanasi? SURENDRA MUNSHI
  • Published 14.06.12

I visited Varanasi recently, thirty years after my last visit. Varanasi has an attractive airport, the population has increased, the city area has grown, and the traffic is maddening. Auto rickshaws seem to be replacing cycle rickshaws. Never short on traditional shopping opportunities, Varanasi now affords the possibility of shopping in malls as well.

Industrially, I recall the Diesel Locomotive Works of the Indian Railways being in operation during my earlier visit. The heavy equipment repair plant of BHEL seems to have been installed later. Although the shops are full of Banarasi silk, I understand that the weaving industry is in decline. Banaras Hindu University is doing very well, ranked first among Indian universities by India Today in 2010. Visiting Varanasi after the passing away of Bismillah Khan was to be aware of a major loss not only to the city but to the world of Indian music. But I heard Aditya, the young grandson of Channulal Mishra, play the tabla. Vikash Maharaj played the sarod accompanied by his two talented sons at the same gathering.

Varanasi continues to attract pilgrims to its temples and ghats. The old city of narrow winding lanes, in spite of a heavy presence of security personnel, still offers sweets and salvation, taking care of this life and of the one hereafter. But to find a place for a dead body at the Manikarnika or Harishchandra ghat is not so easy, considering the number of bodies brought for cremation every day.

Devout Hindus still believe that to be cremated in this city is to find release from the cycle of rebirth. Chosen by Shiva himself, this is believed to be the oldest city in the world with a record of continuous habitation. It is here that his fiery pillar of light is believed to have split the earth, according to the Hindu scriptures. It is here that the righteous king, Harishchandra, reduced to the position of a guard at a cremation ground after giving away his entire kingdom, is believed to have done his duty in asking his wife to pay for the cremation of their dead son, a demand that she found difficult to meet.

Then there is the presence of the Ganga. When this heavenly river agreed to descend to earth, it was caught by Shiva in his matted hair so that the blow to the earth by the rush of its waters could be softened. This is why Shiva is depicted with the Ganga flowing through his hair. The Ganga is supposed to purify human sins. I was told by everyone that I should see the aarti that was conducted at Dashashwamedha Ghat every evening. I am glad I did so. This prayer to the river with lamps, which is a recent practice in Varanasi, is popular with locals as well as pilgrims and tourists.

The river that cleanses is in a desperate need to be cleaned itself. Untreated sewage and toxic wastes enter the river as it travels from its Himalayan source to the Bay of Bengal, covering more than 2,500 kilometers and moving through some of the most densely populated areas in the world. The river gets especially polluted in Varanasi because of the presence of pilgrims and the dead, with several cremation grounds on the riverbank.

A school teacher told me of someone who was fasting at that time for the sake of the river. I learnt from Dainik Jagran that this was Swami Gyan Swarup Sanand who was forcibly moved to an ICU. He is reported to have said in anguish “Vaahre Hindu samaaj!” [Bravo Hindu society!] to his few supporters when he was being removed to the hospital.

The same paper carried an article by Rajendra Singh about “zero concern for the Ganga”. While explaining his reason for resigning from the National Ganga River Basin Authority, he writes that he agreed to become a member because he felt he could be a bridge between the government and civil society and help to establish a way of saving the river. This was not to be, for the suggestion that policy decisions need to be taken first was ignored. Efforts were directed instead towards spending money on granting contracts and buying machines.

I understand that the meeting of the NGRBA that took place at the prime minister’s residence on April 17 was disrupted by a group of sadhus who insisted that all their demands be met before the meeting took place. It is reported that Swami Sanand, who had broken his fast after receiving an assurance from the government, has resumed his fast again. Civil society activists, even sadhus, need to act responsibly. But Swami Sanand’s opinion deserves serious attention, for he is not just a swami but a competent scientist with expert knowledge of the matter. It is reported that MPs of all political parties have now expressed anguish at the manner in which the river is being treated, comparing this treatment with female infanticide.

While the government needs to respond, society should also take a serious interest in what is happening to the Ganga. While I was in Varanasi, I asked myself why the Hindus who consider the Ganga as their holy mother show such apathy towards it. Varanasi has been a place of refuge to Hindu widows from different parts of India. While it is believed that they go there to die in the hope of salvation, the more earthly factors behind their being in Varanasi need to be recognized. The lack of care shown by their children plays an important role. It seemed to me that the Hindus who boast of spirituality and strong family bonds tend to behave differently when it comes to their heavenly as well as earthly mothers. The pattern seems to be the same in both cases: neglect the very source of sustenance. This is a disturbing thought.

Yet, Varanasi is privileged to have people like Swami Sanand and Veer Bahadur Mishra, and an organization like the Sankat Mochan Foundation. Will the people of Varanasi — Hindus, Muslims and others — come forward and make a concerted move to save the river that has religious significance for the Hindus? For those to whom this significance is of no importance, it is still a river that acts as a lifeline for millions of their countrymen, irrespective of their faith or walk of life.