Reflections from the River Ganges

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From Shimla we made our way across the Himalayan foothills to Deera Dun and, from there, to the Hindu holy town of Rishiketh, where our hotel room which overlooked the River Ganges, swollen and turbid following the monsoon rains. Rishiketh is, along with Varanasi, Allalahabad and Hardiwar, a place where Hindus believe that the veil between the earthly and celestial realms is at its thinnest, making prayers and puja performed here particularly auspicious. This may seem, at first sight, to be a long way from the science that I usually write about in this blog but a lot of my posts relate to how humans use rivers, and this includes spirituality (see also “Dipping a toe in the River Jordan

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Hindus performing puja in the River Ganges at Rishiketh. The upper picture shows sunrise over the Ganges, August 2016.

Travelling along the upper stretches of the Ganges emphasises that such uses should not be dismissed lightly: the river and its tributaries run through steep-sided unglaciated valleys, with little flat land for agriculture or development. The flux of Hindu pilgrims upstream from Rishiketh to shrines at Kedarnath and Badrinath provides a major source of income for the local economy. I’m writing this post in a village called Ghangharia which has one of the highest Sikh Gurudwara in the world (3048 m) and we shared the 11 km journey from the closest road with a constant stream of friendly Sikh pilgrims. This village is largely dependent upon these pilgrims, who use this as a base to trek to a high altitude lake associated with Guru Govind Singh.

But it is not enough simply to consider the benefits of spiritually purely in economic terms. Hindus venerate the river as a god. I have a private theory that one of the origins of religion is trying to explain “low frequency, high impact” events and the Ganges has plenty of these. When the monsoons fail, the crop lands that the Ganges irrigates cannot feed the people. When the monsoons are especially intense, there is widespread flooding and loss of life. In 2013 there were severe floods in the Bhyunder Valley, in which Ghangharia is situated, with a huge loss of life locally. One small village that we saw was half buried by river sediments – including huge boulders – moved by the flood waters. The inhabitants will have seen many monsoons pass over without any harm falling on their village. Yet, in 2013, catastrophe struck. The natural inclination at times like these is to wonder “why here? why now? why me?”

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Part of the village of Pulna, in Uttarakhand Province, India, submerged by river sediments following catastrophic floods in 2013.

It is easy for a westerner, watching the outward manifestation of faith, to be condescending about the veneration of a river as a god. Should not science and reason, we wonder, not now replace these old superstitions? Up to a point, yes. However, the floods in the UK last winter are evidence of the limitations of our empirical approach, particularly when dealing with low probabilities but there is a deeper reason too. A consequence of the western scientific approach has been an inclination to dominate the natural world, to use our knowledge to overrule natural forces. Man dictates how a river should behave using cement and concrete: we have lost the awe and reverence for nature that arises from a sense of its enormous potential power.

A binary split in attitudes to nature is too simplistic. My experience is that ecologists generally do have a reverence for the natural world, and some understanding of the complex interactions that interfere with straightforward cause-effect relationships. But we often work within organisations and structures created by engineers and bureaucrats, who have more simplistic notions about how the natural world should be governed. And, whatever I write about Hindus revering the Ganges as a god, in principle, the river is horribly polluted and, in the upper portions, impounded for hydroelectricity. There is a disconnect between theory and practice, particularly ironic as the central Hindu notion of karma is all about linking actions to consequences in the future. Or, as one Hindu philosopher put it, “… the cause holds the effect … in its womb”. There is, it would seem, scope for a healthy symbiosis between modern ecological thinking and a belief system that reveres, rather than tries to dominate, nature.

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