The Yamuna River: India’s Dying Goddess

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.”

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