The Yamuna River: India’s Dying Goddess
By Richard Conniff
Early this year, at the point in northern India where the Yamuna River empties into the Ganges, several hundred people set out on a six-week protest march. They were aiming to gather strength in numbers en route to New Delhi, the national capital, halfway up the Yamuna River. The river itself was the subject of their protest, and the popular chant was “Yamuna Bachao, Pollution Bhagao!”—meaning “Save the Yamuna, Stop the Pollution!”
© Sanjay Kumar
A glass of water drawn from
the river at Mathura.
They had ample cause for complaint. The Yamuna River starts out clear as rainwater from a lake and hot spring at the foot of a glacier, 19,200 feet up in the Himalayas. But for much of its 853-mile length, it is now one of the world’s most defiled rivers. Agricultural demand repeatedly depletes the river’s flow. Rapid modernization of the Indian economy since the 1980s has added thousands of manufacturing plants to the Yamuna’s watershed, with little thought given to how much water they take out or how much pollution they add back. And urbanization has roughly quintupled the population of New Delhi, from about 3.5 million people 30 years ago to more than 18 million today.
In some places, the Yamuna is now so heavily exploited that broad swaths of riverbed lie naked and exposed to the sun for much of the year. In other places, the river is a sudsy, listless morass of human, industrial and agricultural wastes, literally an open sewer. Given that 60 million people depend on the river for bathing and drinking water, a protest might seem inevitable.
The surprising thing, at least to untutored Western eyes, was that the leaders of the Yamuna march were not primarily political activists. They were sadhus, or holy men, devotees of the central Hindu hero and deity Krishna. They briefly shut down their temples along the river as part of the protest, and they added a colorful strand of religious belief to the familiar environmental language of oxygen content, turbidity and toxicity. When Mathura, one of the towns along the route, moved to end the blight of plastic shopping bags along the river banks, The Times of India headlined the news: “Lord Krishna’s birthplace now polythene-free.”
For Hindus, the Yamuna is not just a natural resource, but also one of the holiest rivers in India. She is a goddess, a giver of life and the chief lover of Krishna. So the protesters were motivated as much by faith as by environmental outrage. In the past they would have relied exclusively on prayers, incense and offerings of fresh flowers to practice seva, the Hindu ritual of loving service to the deity. But of necessity seva has lately also come to mean environmental action, working to restore life to a river now widely regarded as dead.
That same disorienting blend of science and religion also showed up at a January conference on the banks of the Yamuna. A collaborative effort between TERI University in New Delhi and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, the conference brought ecologists, microbiologists, chemists and hydrologists together with spiritual leaders and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The stated purpose, according to organizers Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, co-directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, was to foster understanding across disciplines and to bridge the gap between studies focused exclusively on scientific issues and the broader world of societal, ethical and religious concerns. But for the Americans who attended, the surprise was how comparatively narrow that gap is, at least on the Indian side.
“Coming from America, we were all amazed at the comfort and readiness with which these scientists were willing to engage in discussions that included religion,” says one participant, David Haberman, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington. They were also intrigued with the potential to bring about change for the Yamuna River through careful scientific research disseminated and acted on by millions of people with a powerful spiritual motivation. An inadvertent side effect was to leave some of the Americans wondering about missed opportunities back home. That is, would environmental remedies come easier if science and religion could look beyond their differences and begin to seek common ground?
For many scientists who have lived through 30 years of American culture wars, the words religion and ecology can seem to go together about as well as a blind date between Mother Teresa and Richard Dawkins. Religious conservatives have become notorious among scientists, particularly in environmental fields, for working relentlessly to block the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools, for adamantly resisting efforts to promote birth control (even as the human population has doubled to 7 billion people over the past half-century) and for serving as a leading source of skepticism and obstructionism on climate change and almost every other environmental issue of the day.
The prominent evangelical and political activist Rev. Jerry Falwell, for instance, once called climate change “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus” from evangelism to environmentalism. His son, Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., said environmentalism itself was an attempt to “use pseudo-science to promote political agendas,” with the aim of destroying the freedom and “economies of the Western world.” In their most deranged moments, some fundamentalists have actually seemed to welcome drought, famine, flood and other forms of environmental havoc as harbingers of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.
This is the sort of thing that once led the late historian Lynn White Jr. to describe Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” In an influential 1967 paper, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” he wrotethat “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”
© Sanjay Kumar
A father initiates his son into
the ritual of drinking water
from the holy river.
But White also acknowledged that any religious faith is complex, with multiple traditions and interpretations. He regarded St. Francis of Assisi, in particular, as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history” and as the patron saint of ecologists for his attempt “to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation.”
Though White did not say so, Christianity also inadvertently produced the West’s greatest scientific revolutionary. The natural theology movement of the early 19th century popularized the idea that nature revealed the divine hand of the Creator and that naturalists came closer to God by providing detailed scientific descriptions of how species were perfectly adapted to their habitats. One young reader would later rank Natural Theology by Rev. William Paley together with the works of Euclid above all others “in the education of my mind.” The student who thus learned the critical importance of studying minute variations in nature was Charles Darwin.
But these instances of religiously instigated environmentalism in the past were clearly exceptional. Is there any reason to rethink scientific attitudes toward religion now? That is, does religion have anything to add to the search for environmental solutions, whether in India or the United States? “Religions have been late to this,” says Tucker. “We often say religions have problems and promise. Everybody realizes there’s a problematic side, the fundamentalist side, the narrow-minded side.” But religions have also been a powerful force behind some of the great reform movements of the past—for instance, the drive by Quakers and other religious groups to abolish slavery, Mahatma Gandhi’s long struggle to win India’s freedom from British colonial rule and the campaign by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From a purely practical view, Tucker adds, religions “are the largest NGOs in the world, and people have to understand that you can’t just ignore them.”
Moreover, neither scientists nor religious believers are as simple, or as mutually antagonistic, as sometimes supposed. Commonplace notions about fundamentalist and other religious attitudes can border on caricature (or perhaps a hijacking of the religious identity by one end of the political spectrum). So it can be tempting, for instance, to just ignore the Evangelical Environmental Network’s Creation Care Blog, which is rooted firmly in the Bible. And yet writers there can sound as alarmed as any Greenpeace activist about climate change and other issues. One recent entry: “I’m not so prescient as to suggest that there will be environmental martyrdom, mass civil disobedience or game-changing arrests. But laying down our lives has got to mean something. Doesn’t it?” Among white evangelicals in the United States overall, 73 percent actually favor tougher environmental laws and regulations, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Among scientists, meanwhile, Pew reported in 2009 that just over half say they believe in God or some form of higher power.
Even so, it takes a certain daring to bridge the chasm that has opened up between religion and science in America—and even more so for institutions on “opposite” sides to collaborate, as Yale’s Divinity School and F&ES have done for the past five years. The two schools now jointly host the Forum on Religion and Ecology and also offer a combined master’s degree program.
“I live in the state of Indiana,” says Haberman, “and I can assure you that Purdue University’s Department of Forestry & Natural Resources would never, ever do that: ‘How could religion have anything useful to say in environmental studies?’” (The Purdue department confirms that no such collaboration exists: “We’re very traditional.”) And yet, Haberman continues, “Yale has said, ‘Hmm, not only is the pairing of religion and environmental studies interesting, but let’s turn it into a joint-degree program.’ I can’t think of another school that has taken it that seriously.”
For Yale, the collaboration has roots in a long-standing search to address “one of the great failings of environmentalism in our country,” says Gus Speth, the former F&ES dean who brought the Forum on Religion and Ecology to the university in 2006. The green movement “never really developed the ethical and spiritual dimension of environmental concern,” he says. “We had run on the political capital that catalyzed action in the late 1960s, but that had been largely exhausted by the 1980s. Unless there were huge moral and ethical sentiments that could be mobilized, we were unlikely to achieve the long-term transformation that was needed.” So when the opportunity arose to bring Tucker and Grim to Yale, Speth grabbed it, “motivated by the fact that they have been leaders in explaining the links between environment and ecology and the world’s great religions.” Funding came from the V. Kann Rasmussen and Germeshausen foundations and the Kendeda Sustainability Fund. The V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation has also supported annual student exchanges between TERI University and Yale.
Tucker and Grim, who hold faculty appointments at both F&ES and the Divinity School, walk a fine line in describing their work. They are not “eco-theologians,” and words like “activist” can raise eyebrows in an academic context, says Grim. “At the same time, Mary Evelyn and I are not keen to just stand on the edge and watch these problems carry us away.” What they do, he says, is “engaged scholarship,” based largely in the traditional academic field of religious studies. (Tucker specializes in Asian cultures, Grim in American Indians.) They work with all shades of religious belief, looking to find room for agreement among skeptical scientists, politically minded environmentalists, New Age spiritualists and traditional religious groups pushing back against any hint of pantheism or nature worship.
Though the study of religion and ecology is now popular enough to sustain two scholarly journals, it began to emerge as a separate academic discipline only about 20 years ago. Steven Rockefeller, then a professor of religion at Middlebury College, sponsored an influential conference, leading to a book, Spirit and Nature: Why the Environment Is a Religious Issue—An Interfaith Dialogue, and a PBS documentary with Bill Moyers, Spirit and Nature. From there, the discipline took shape around a series of conferences Tucker and Grim organized through Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, from which they edited the 10-volume Religions of the World and Ecology series.
Tucker and Grim were strongly influenced by Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and scholar of world religions, who was then reaching new audiences with books like The Dream of the Earth and The Universe Story, co-authored with Brian Swimme, which made a cosmological case for the value of the natural world, both for its own sake and as the essential fabric of human well-being. “What humans do to the outer world they do to their own interior world,” they wrote, and with the loss of diversity and abundance, our species “finds itself impoverished in its economic resources, in its imaginative powers, in its human sensibilities and in significant aspects of its intellectual intuitions.”
Berry’s vision was not as pessimistic as it sounds, according to Tucker and Grim, who met and married while studying with him at Fordham University. He believed in the power of religions and cultures to help people place themselves in the world. “With a story, people can endure catastrophe,” Berry used to tell them. “And with a story, they can change their lot.” What was needed, he thought, was for the story provided by religion and culture to adapt to the changing world. Rather than leave his audiences in despair over the dire state of “the Anthropocene,” as our present epoch of human domination over nature has become known, he foresaw the rise of “the Ecozoic,” what Tucker and Grim describe as “that emerging period in which humans would recover their crea-tive orientation to the Earth community.”
Religion as a Pragmatic Tool
And yet there are few places on Earth with as rich a cultural and religious story about the natural world as India. It’s also a story that might seem particularly suited to getting the environmental answers right: In place of Judeo-Christian ideas about man’s “dominion over nature,” Hinduism and Buddhism both regard humans as more integrated into nature through karma. And while some tradi-tional religious groups in the West tremble at any hint of pantheism, Hindus see God in the world around them and freely worship trees, animals and especially rivers. (Hinduism actually ranks a monkey, Hanuman, in its pantheon of deities and has no problem with Darwinian evolution being taught in schools.) So why didn’t this religious tradition prevent environmental catastrophe in the first place on the Yamuna? And why should anyone expect the combination of science and religious faith to work there now?
What happened to the Yamuna “was essentially the result of isolated actions, which were not connected,” says Rajendra Pachauri, who is director-general and chancellor of TERI University and director of Yale’s Climate and Energy Institute. The river seemed relatively healthy when he first moved to New Delhi almost 30 years ago. “People were swimming in the river. You could drink the water.” But the condition of the Yamuna deteriorated rapidly from that point as India began to modernize. “There was clearly a lack of coordination, a lack of information and perhaps an ignorance of the aggregate impacts. But now there is no such excuse. Now we see the collective impact of what happened.”
The condition of the river is so dire that it has become impossible for anyone to ignore. The problems fall into five broad categories:
- Lack of flow due to dams and heavy withdrawals for agricultural irrigation and other purposes (at Delhi, where pollution authorities say the flow should be at least 285 cubic meters per second, it drops down in summer months to as little as 5 cubic meters per second)
- Contamination of the river with agricultural pesticides and herbicides
- Toxic industrial wastes
- Human wastes, with more than half the sewage in Delhi entering the river untreated and fecal coliform counts in places reaching over 100,000 per 100 milliliters (200 times the standard for water to be swimmable)
- And in the face of global warming the uncertain future of the dwindling Himalayan glaciers that are the source of the river
Pachauri, who advised the organizers of the January Yale-TERI conference, is primarily a scientist, trained in industrial engineering. In his view religion is less important than the combination of science and popular protest that he feels it will take to fix the Yamuna. He notes that many rivers in the United States were also dead 40 years ago. But lobbying by early environmentalists led to massive federal and state clean-water initiatives and a rapid recovery of many waterways.
In India, two costly attempts to clean up the river, the Yamuna Action Plan (or YAP) in 1993 and YAP II in 2004, have failed to produce improvements. Both suffered, according to Pachauri, from a lack of enforcement of existing regulations and overall “inept management.” But as politicians begin to recognize “the seething anger and level of disgust on the part of the people,” he believes they will have no choice but to respond more seriously—if only to avoid the turmoil of recent political uprisings in the Middle East.
Religion could serve as a pragmatic tool for bringing that anger to bear on policymakers, according to Nandini Kumar, a chemist at TERI, who also attended the January conference. Too many people have become politicians, she says, “because they want the status, the money, rather than because they have a vision of India. If we want to change the politicians, we have to tie what we do to a ‘vote bank’,” a term coined in India for a bloc of voters from a unified community. “If we use the religious angle to tell people they should be angry about the river, and these people rally and go out and say, ‘Look, if you don’t fix this we’re not going to vote for you,’ then politicians will respond.”
But some skeptics argue that this pragmatic approach is one reason Hinduism failed to protect the Yamuna in the first place. Environmentalists often romanticize Eastern religions as more environmentally friendly, assuming some past “eco-golden age,” writes Emma Tomalin, a religious studies lecturer at the University of Leeds. But unlike the largely Western phenomenon of religious environmentalism, the “nature religion” of Hinduism is merely the worship of elements of the natural world, she argues, “most often with no basis in the ideas and values of contemporary environmentalist thinking.” The idea that a river goddess “can carry away impurities—both spiritual and physical—may actually act as an impediment,” encouraging people to continue treating the river as a dumping ground. In the “empty belly” politics of India’s poor, questions of survival and the tantalizing promise of prosperity can also easily trump environmental or religious considerations. Thus India’s first prime minister after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was able to deftly co-opt river worship by describing the big dam projects he espoused as “the temples of a modern India.”
Tomalin is right about the tendency to romanticize the religions of both Asians and Native Americans, says David Haberman, whose 2006 book, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India, explores the intersection of religion, science and environmentalism with the Yamuna. She’s also right in saying that “nature worship doesn’t necessarily translate into environmentalism.” But she goes too far in ignoring its potential to do so. Like Christianity, Hinduism has multiple traditions and interpretations. The tendency of British colonialists in India, he says, was to reduce Hinduism to “an ascetic, world-renouncing tradition.” But that meant carefully ignoring the equally rich world-affirming attitudes embodied in such influential texts as the Bhagavad-Gita: “The Victorians misinterpreted us,” says a character in the 1935 novel, Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand. “It was as if, in order to give a philosophical background to their exploitation of India, they ingeniously concocted a nice little fairy story: ‘You don’t believe in this world; to you all this is maya (illusion). Let us look after your country for you and you can dedicate yourself to achieving Nirvana.’”
Among believers on the banks of the Yamuna now, the reality is that most fit into three broad categories, Haberman says: Some think that because the river is a goddess, she can never be polluted, no matter how physically defiled. Others believe that the pollution can harm creatures that depend on the river for survival, but not the goddess herself. And a third group believes the goddess herself is dying and in need of their help.
The creatures that depend on the river are clearly in trouble. The big river turtles that carry the goddess Yamuna in religious imagery have now largely vanished, and no one really knows the status of bird species that depend on the river. Aquatic life has also suffered and, according to India Today, 500 river villages that were largely based on fishing in the 1970s must now earn their livelihood by other means. The effects of the river’s pollution on human health, though also inadequately studied, include a sharp spike in cases of hepatitis A and typhoid fever, according to recent work in New Delhi. Reliance on polluted river water is also a major factor in India’s high infant mortality rate—more than 50 deaths per 1,000 births, compared to 6.8 in the United States. Pollution of the Yamuna could also have public health consequences worldwide. In April an article in the British medical journal The Lancet warned that bacteria in New Delhi drinking water carry a gene, NDM-1 (New Delhi metallobetalactamase), for an enzyme that conveys resistance to almost all known antibiotics. Resistant bacteria turned up “in public water used for drinking, washing and food preparation and also in pools and rivulets in heavily populated areas where children play,” according to lead author Tim Walsh of Cardiff University. An estimated 500,000 people in New Delhi now carry resistant bacteria, which have also appeared in Europe, North America and other parts of Asia. Medical authorities worry that the rapid spread of this form of resistance could imperil all kinds of routine medical procedures that depend on the ability to treat infections. “If resistance destroys that ability,” British health official David Livermore told The Wall Street Journal, “then the whole edifice of modern medicine crumbles.”
But along the banks of the Yamuna, what seems to rankle most, at least for now, is the desecration of the goddess herself. In his book, Haberman tells the story of Gopeshwar Nath Chaturvedi, from a priestly family in Mathura. His transformation took place in 1985, when he brought a group of pilgrims to the main site in Mathura for worshipping the Yamuna and found the river discolored with red and green dyes, dead fish clotting the surface and dogs gathering to scrabble over the carcasses. “All the water coming to Mathura was sewage,” Chaturvedi realized. “And this is what we are worshipping. It makes me feel bad!” His religion taught him that he was a son of the river, he told Haberman, and “when Mother is sick, one cannot throw her out of the house. We must help her. Therefore, I do Yamuna seva.” Since 1985, his seva has consisted of repeatedly filing lawsuits aimed at restoring the river to health.
That embattled approach is increasingly common among believers, particularly in Braj Mandal, the area below New Delhi that is both the holiest—and most polluted—section of the Yamuna. (On government maps, it’s often referred to as “the eutrophicated segment.”) The river is so visibly filthy there that most temples now use bottled water for the daily bathing of statues. In some areas they have no choice: at Gokul, construction of a dam means there’s no longer any river water in front of the temples for ritual bathing by pilgrims. At Vrindavan, religious leaders have had to fight, so far successfully, against efforts to build a highway directly over the surface of the Yamuna.
Science can help provide these religious leaders with the evidence they need to save the river, says John Grim. The ambition is to build a dialogue, with students taking the time, as they monitor water quality, to explain their work to priests in the temples, and vice versa: “‘What does the river mean to you? And what does it mean if you take statues into the river to wash them?’ Students bring those issues to the fore: ‘Can we assume the river is purifying if it’s polluted?’” Science is also the best tool for clarifying the unseen ways the river affects pilgrims who come to the river—for instance, with diseases like dengue fever, from mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water.
For Haberman, the struggle for the soul of religion—all religions, really—has to do with whether they continue to stand by as the world collapses around them or shift course to focus on stewardship, the idea that “the world was given as a gift of God” and that we are not its owners, but its caretakers. It has to do with whether science and religion can set aside their mutual suspicion and learn to collaborate.
“How that’s going to play out remains to be seen,” he says. “But the whole world has something at stake now in that conflict.”