Like all ancient cultures, the Indian culture and way of living has been one deeply entwined with nature. The soil and rivers have been considered mothers, mountains and hills find place in worship and plants and animals have been respected and also associated with deities and spiritual processes. ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’, a Sanskrit phrase repeated in many ancient Indian texts, translates as “the Earth is one family”. This recognises not only the unity of mankind, but of all living systems on the Earth.
A Conscious and Integrated View of Man’s Relationship with Nature
Rivers in particular hold an important place in the Indian culture and tradition, not only for their importance in sustaining physical life, but also the spiritual dimension of human life. The most important river for Indians has been the Ganga, commonly called ‘Mother Ganga’ by the people, which has been worshipped for thousands of years. The river is particularly important to the people as a “purifier” that helps cleanse their bodies and minds and paves the way for liberation.
This aspect of according spiritual significance to nature forms like rivers, reflects a deep understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life on Earth. Considering only rivers as an example in this article, this approach of viewing nature not as something to serve our needs but as intrinsic to our highest well-being, may look rather strange in the eyes of outsiders but is really the kind of approach needed in the world today if we are to deal with the environmental crisis at our global doorstep.
Recognising Nature as a Living Entity
In recent years, there have been many calls in India as well as globally, to accord a “living entity” status by law to large and important rivers which would mean that the river would be accorded all the legal rights of a human being such as the ability to file lawsuits against those who bring harm to it. This is obviously an action arising out of the need to protect and rejuvenate the highly polluted and diminishing rivers. While such calls are worthy of support, what is also important is to revive our ancient connection to rivers and other water bodies in a way that not only calls us to protect them from degradation as many programmes have been set up to do (such as the government’s Namami Gange project), but to also genuinely honour and celebrate them.
The main rivers in India all have stories and legends associated with them that entwine their history with that of mankind’s. The river Ganga for instance, is believed to be the Goddess Ganga who descended from heavenly realms through the locks of Lord Shiva, to liberate humanity from its sins. The legend of the Ganga goes that it was only after sage Bhagirath performed intense penance for the sake of the liberation of his ancestors, that Goddess Ganga acquiesced to appear on Earth for the spiritual welfare of humanity.
To this day, the ashes of the dead are generally immersed in the Ganga by Hindus. The river is worshipped with lamps and devotional songs (in ‘aarti’ ceremonies) at sunrise and sunset in most of the towns and cities on its banks. While much of the modern ritual and worship may look like blind faith, yogis and others with a deeper understanding are able to explain the subtle aspects of the human connection with water. For example, one fact that Western scientists are also coming to acknowledge is that water holds memory. This has been known by Indian yogis for hundreds if not thousands of years and many aspects of how water can therefore be used to aid human spiritual well-being is tied into this knowing.
Similarly, other large Indian rivers like the Yamuna, Godavari, Narmada, Krishna and Kaveri have stories and legends associated with them. Most famously, the Yamuna is associated with Lord Krishna and his pastimes along its banks during his youth.
A Holistic Approach to Sustainability
India’s rivers have shown a dramatic decline in recent decades with many perennial rivers turning seasonal and many smaller rivers vanishing. The Ganga is one of the most endangered rivers in the world. Floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and it’s also estimated that in 15 years, we may have only half the water we need for our survival.(1)
In my view, if we are to make headway on a sure footing in tackling environmental and climate related challenges, humanity needs to take an all-inclusive approach to all living systems and rather than approaching issues with the underlying belief that we, human beings, are the most important living entities on the planet, to rather understand our place in the rich and ancient eco-system that is planet Earth. Specifically speaking of rivers, I have recently been involved in a project to help collect ‘water stories’ – the myths and legends associated with rivers, lakes and springs – of which there are many in several countries around the world. Such ways of bringing the rivers closer to our minds and hearts are important for them to not be the casualties in our march of progress.
Reviving our connection on many levels, with the bodies of water that are so indispensable to us is crucial if we are going to make any serious efforts to save and rejuvenate them. Becoming conscious of our ancient connections through efforts such as making our children aware of the legends and stories is important in order to spark a genuine feeling of connectedness and care for all of nature in the hearts and minds of the younger generation. Otherwise we risk our commitments being merely superficial and skin-deep and our efforts never really living up to our best intentions.
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