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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Dipping a toe into the River Jordan

I came across an intriguing short paper recently which got me thinking again about a topic that I wrote about a year ago. I was intrigued, at the time, by how ecosystem services dovetailed with the ideas of ecosystem health that preoccupy my working day and suggested, provocatively, that there may be some instances where stakeholders might not thank ecologists for the high quality ecosystems that we want to achieve (see “More about ecosystem services” and “Ecosystem services … again”).    There is a class of ecosystem services called “cultural services”, which includes uses such as education, amenity and, intriguingly, spirituality.   I have been searching, subsequently, for good examples of rivers and lakes providing “spiritual” ecosystem services and here, at last, is one hiding right under my nose.

The paper describes use of the Jordan River for baptism, and the problems caused by the ongoing regional conflicts along with environmental degradation.   The river is the de facto border between Israel and Jordan and has been heavily militarised since 1967, with access to the river limited to just three locations, one each in Israel, the Occupied Territories (West Bank) and Jordan. Problems are compounded by the extensive use of the Jordan and tributaries as a source of water for this semi-arid region, and by discharges of semi-treated sewage into the river from Israel.   This has reduced the flow to a muddy trickle, about one tenth of its natural quantity. This, combined with the pollution, hardly makes the river a desirable place in which to be totally immersed.   Whether the river was ever crystal clear is open to debate: in 2 Kings chapter 5 we read of Naaman, a general from the eighth century BC, objecting to being told to bathe in the Jordan to cure himself of leprosy.

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The River Jordan at Bethany, Jordan (the church of John the Baptist on the left hand side) with, on the right, the baptism site at Qasr al Yehud in the Occupied Territories (West Bank), seen from the Al Maghtas baptism site in Jordan (photos: Heather Kelly)

Reading this article reminded me of one of the stranger instances in my professional life when a local clergyman asked for my advice on a location for an outdoor baptism in the Durham area.   I suggested a couple of locations where the river was accessible from the bank and not too deep, whilst being deep enough for a kneeling person to be dunked.   I also suggested, from my knowledge of the river, a careful search of the river bed in advance in case there was broken glass, and recommended that the initiate kept his or her mouth closed to ensure that they did not swallow too many bacteria.   I was not being consulted on the theology of baptism, else I might have queried whether a purely symbolic act needed all this fuss and bother. And, indeed, we might ask what a baptism candidate gains from being dunked in the Jordan that would not have been achieved using a font full of chlorinated water.   Such issues are for another blogger on another day.

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Performing puja in the River Ganges from the ghats at Varanasi, October 1984.

Indeed making catty comments about other people’s attitudes to sacraments whilst writing about the Israel-Jordan border has a deep irony of its own.   Would that people historically had shown a little more tolerance to other people’s spirituality, the world would be a far more peaceful place.   My intention, when I started writing this piece, was to highlight how rivers can play a role in people’s spiritual life. We don’t need to understand or accept the beliefs of those people, just to recognise that some places – rivers, sometimes – can hold great spiritual significance and that we, as guardians of those rivers, need to respect this.

I was also reminded of my own visit to the holy city of Varanasi in India, thirty years ago, when I watched Hindus using a different (but equally polluted) river as part of their observances.   It was difficult for me, as a westerner, to understand the significance of the river to Hindus yet all around me there were people who clearly saw this river as integral to their worship. The problem, as with so much in this modern world, lies in not understanding what others regard as important.   Some questions, it seems, cannot be answered by scientific rationalism alone.

Reference

de Châtel, F. (2014). Baptism in the Jordan River: immersing in a contested transboundary watercourse.   WIREs Water 1: 219-227.