On 20 March 2017, India officially declared the river Ganga as a living entity with all the legal rights of a living being. This means for instance that cases can be filed on behalf of the river against polluters etc. This looks like a historic move but in reality is only putting into modern-day legal terms, the age-old sentiments of Indians regarding the river. Considered the holiest of Hindu rivers, she has been worshipped and revered for as long as the history of the land dates back – many millennia. She is regarded as holy Mother Ganga because she gives and sustains life on the Indian subcontinent. Having only just returned from a visit to the Himalayas and the Ganga, I thought it fitting to write something about this river that many people may not be aware of (plus it just happens to be World Water Day!).
The Ganga originates in the Himalayas where she is called Bhagirathi as she melts down from the Gangotari glacier at Gomukh in the north-western Indian state of Uttarakhand. As she comes down the mountains, she is a rapidly flowing, narrow river. Below is a picture of the river just outside Rishikesh in the lower Himalayas. It’s hard to imagine that this clear, green, feisty river is the same massive, wide and placid river Ganga of the plains, the settler of the great ancient Indian civilisation.
The Bhagirathi as it is called in the upper Himalayas, meets the stream Alakananda (also arising in the Himalayas) in a town called Devprayag and from this point on, it flows as the river Ganga. There are many points along the river where other mainstreams from the Himalayas join to make it the mighty river that it is – all these points are important confluences with their own special importance in Hindu culture.
At the famous and important town of Haridwar, the Ganga flows down from the mountains of Rishikesh, into the plains of northern India. The Gangetic plain, dominating the north of India, is one of the most fertile parts of the world and has been the sustaining force for Indian civilisation for centuries. Several important cities came up along the banks of the Ganga like Varanasi (the oldest city in the world), Allahabad, Patna and Haridwar. The Ganga finally merges with the Bay of Bengal waters in the north-east of India.
The river Ganga finds mention in the Vedas, one of the oldest Hindu scriptures. The river is believed to have descended from the heavens onto earth through the locks of Lord Shiva. The Gangetic plain was the centre of powerful empires from the Mauryan empire around the 4th to 2nd centuries BCE to the Mughal empire in 16th – 19th centuries CE. The first European traveller to mention the Ganga was the Greek traveller Megasthenes (around 300 BCE), in his book Indica.
Hindu tradition and culture
Nature has always been a big part of Hindu tradition – from a detailed study of the five elements by the yogis, to considering many plants and animals as sacred (an effective way stressed by the ancients to ensure that the planet’s ecological balance is maintained). Hindus not only consider Ganga to be a life-giving mother to the land, but also consider her to be purifying. One of the amazing properties of Ganga water – attested to by most Indians who traditionally store a bit of Ganga water in their homes – is that it can be stored for several years without spoiling. Even the British East India Co. used only Ganga water on its ships during the three-month journey back to England, because it stayed “sweet and fresh.”
A dip in the Ganga, especially at certain places and times, is believed to wash away one’s bad karmas. Interestingly the more literal/physical aspect of this belief that the river can absorb impurities has been scientifically tested and it has been declared by scientists that the river contains an ‘X factor’ that acts as a disinfectant, giving the river self-cleansing properties and giving it oxygen levels 25 times higher than any other river in the world. I can personally attest to this as well. Despite the pollution that the river is subjected to daily, the water looks clear and a handcupful of river water drunk at Haridwar left me feeling perfectly fine! In fact the water felt fresh and silky. Despite the several thousands of people that take a dip in the Ganga everyday, there have never been any reports of anyone getting sick from the water. The government’s National Mission for Clean Ganga (you can donate towards it on their website if you wish) is helping clean the Ganga which unfortunately fell into severely polluted conditions over the last few centuries marked by neglect and poverty, especially during the British occupation.
Once in every 12 years (12 years completes one solar cycle), when a certain constellation is in place, one of the biggest Hindu festivals, the Kumbh mela is held at certain spots in the country. Once in every 144 years, a Maha Kumbh mela (or great Kumbh) is held. Taking a dip in the Ganga during this festival is believed to rid one of all karmas and attachments and ensure liberation.
Every day in certain places along the Ganga’s banks, an aarti or fire-worship with Sanskrit chanting is held for the Ganga, at sunrise and sunset. The biggest and most famous one is the sunset aarti in Varanasi. I attended one in Haridwar (at Har-ki-paudi) and one in Rishikesh (at the Parmarth Niketan ashram) recently which were wonderful, peaceful experiences! The one done by Partmarth Niketan is longer, including bhajans (devotional songs) before the aarti – I would recommend this one if you could only do one of them.
Whether you know or believe any of the legends about Ganga or not, one thing is for sure – the ceremonies help you feel a deep bond with the water and nature in general, reminding you of your vital connection with and significant dependence on it. Once you feel a deep bond with nature, you don’t need environmental laws (or a World Water Day!) to tell you to protect and respect water/rivers. The connection is so deep and real that in fact two-thirds of our bodies, like two-thirds of the planet, is water. Yet, how easy it is to forget how much we owe to our rivers without whom we couldn’t survive even a few days. I can’t help but feel a great gratitude for the graciousness that even allows for our arrogance!
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