The Yamuna River: India’s Dying Goddess

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?

“There was clearly a lack of coordination, a lack of information and perhaps an ignorance of the aggregate impacts [of modernization].” - John Grim

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.”

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