For Millennia the river Ganges in India has been the most revered river in the world. Hindus who worship the river as the goddess Ganga consider it to be sacred, and believe that bathing in Ganges will purify the body and the spirit. As death approaches it is believed that drinking water from the Ganges with the last breath will ensure that the soul attains freedom, and upon death, cremations by the tens of thousands are performed every year at its banks on funeral pyres made of wood set fire and sent into the river taking the soul of the deceased straight to god. But today, as India becomes on of the most industrialized nations in the world, the holy river Ganges is suffering. Pollution levels in the river are at an all time high, and rising exponentially is the number of worshipers. Now, in response to what is quickly becoming a dire situation, Gurus and spiritual leaders are rallying together in an attempt to improve the conditions of this ancient and venerated river.
Led by Baba Ram Dev, Ganga Raksha Manch is a coalition of Hindu holy men who are demanding that the government address the problem of pollution in the Ganges before elections in May. Ravi Shankar, a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh yogi, has also joined the movement. The two gurus are demanding sewage treatment plants be constructed to handle the human waste of the over 400 million people who live on its banks, and that authorities find alternatives to measures that they believe would lower the amazingly high levels of oxygen in the water.
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It has been a belief for centuries that the Ganges has healing and purifying powers. Bathing in the Ganges is a common practice among Hindu devotees, and during some festivals millions of people come to its banks to bathe and purify themselves. Ganges water is often used in ceremonies and rituals of worship. Even the British East India Co. used only the water of the Ganges on its voyages because it remained “sweet and fresh” for extended lengths of time. I can even attest to this fact. I was surprised when during a puja here in the states, I tasted Ganges water brought from India. Fully expecting the taste of putrid river water much like what we find in the area where I live, the taste of the Ganges water, which was poured from a plastic soap bottle, was sweet and fresh.
The fact that even in the midst of a great deal of human pollution, the Ganges has been able to avoid an epidemic is pretty incredible. It has been shown that oxygen levels in the Ganges are 15-25 times greater than that of other comparable bodies of water, and that the river has an amazing ability to clean itself of water borne pathogens. These factors have contributed to preventing a widespread outbreak of diseases such as cholera and dysentery for thousands of years. But today, an alarmingly high percentage of all health problems and deaths are attributed to water borne diseases. Proof that in its current state of decline, the miracle power of the Ganges is fading.
In addition to the population explosion that has brought the amount of human waste to an all time high (fecal coli form counts in the river is as much as 10,000% higher than government standards for safe bathing), the amount of industrial chemical waste is the most worrisome. The rise of India in the world market has brought with it factories, tanneries, fertilizer manufacturers, oil refineries and pharmaceutical producers that discharge effluent into the sacred river from its origin to its meeting at the sea. Though regulations are in place, they are rarely enforced, and the government clean up initiated in 1985 has been largely unsuccessful, a fact which many contribute to corruption and politics.
The citizen led group Sankat Mochan Foundation has made the greatest strides up to this point, seeking alignment of science and spirit which incorporates the Hindu culture into the clean-up effort, but the situation is dire, and getting worse by the day. So those holy men who worship and contact the river daily are taking action. And the influence of these revered gurus is vast. With millions of followers that include politicians and businessmen alike, the effect of this movement could be monumental. Ram Dev is calling on the government to give the waterway heritage status, to fine polluters, and is threatening to initiate protests if his demands are not met. Ram Dev says, “The River is choking in filth,” and through the success of this movement, he intends to breathe life back into it.
Have you ever drank from or bathed in the Ganges?