The Yamuna River: India’s Dying Goddess

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. 

“Religions are the largest NGOs in the world, and people have to understand that you can’t just ignore them.” - Mary Evelyn Tucker

“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?

The Ecozoic

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.

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