The cycle of life is intricately linked to water; it is even, perhaps, embedded in water. From our first nine months swimming in a womb to our ashes being immersed in a sacred river or scattered across the ocean, from the essential nectar we drink to that which turns apple seeds into apple trees, water is an integral part of our very existence. However, unlike oxygen which silently, invisibly, maintains the breath in our lungs and the beating of our heart, water is a visible, tangible presence and one with which we interact – directly and indirectly – throughout the minutes of our day and the days of our lives.
The nature of humans’ relation to water is multifaceted and deep. The exchange of oxygen between the air around us and the cells in our capillaries is unconscious and involuntary. Our exchange with water, however, is the subject of poetic literature. Countless novels, poems, sonnets and songs have been written about our love affair with water. Whether that affair is one of awe, nurturance, poignancy, solace, inspiration or fear – it nonetheless captures both our hearts and our minds. From Hemingway to Huck Finn, our lives are inseparable from the water around us.
The crystal-clear, blue, rushing waters of Mother Ganga cut through the foothills of the Himalayas, carving out the most sacred riverbed in the world. Her riverbanks are lined with rocks, softened and smoothed by Her waters, large ones upon which one can sit for hours, medium-sized ones that fit perfectly in the palm of one’s hand, for holding and meditating upon, and small pebbles, one or two collected by the pious so that Mother Ganga may flow through their home as well.
Where the river ends and people’s lives begin is impossible to discern. Ganga is as inextricable from the lives of Indians as the very blood flowing through their veins. Whether She is a source of tangible water for daily drinking, bathing and cooking, or whether She is a source of intangible inspiration and liberation prayed to with each morning’s bath in innumerable cities across the world, She is fundamental to the lives of more than one-seventh of the world’s population.
People bathing in and blessing Mother Ganga
Provider For All
Mother Ganga irrigates not only the hearts, minds and souls of Her one billion devotees around the world. She also irrigates the farms that feed more than one-third of India’s population. More than 450 million people receive the means for their very existence from Her waters. The Ganga Basin supports the greatest population density on Earth – it is home to more than one-twelfth of the world’s population. Ganga is the water they drink, and with which they bathe, cook and irrigate their crops. She is both the apple of their eye and the apple on their tree. Her irrigation canals span approximately 18,000 kilometres, a network of channels running as the arteries of life for one-third of India.
Yet, today, tragically, the waters of Mother Ganga are in peril, and the peril is borne not by Her alone but rather by all whose lives are inextricably linked with Hers as She journeys 2,500km from Gaumukh to Ganga Sagar.
The volume of waste dumped into Her waters is staggering. 1.3 billion litres of wastewater from domestic and industrial sources are dumped directly into Ganga each day. The raw sewage of more than one hundred cities flows directly into Her running waters. This is only the liquid waste – the untreated sewage, agricultural run-off and chemical effluents from factories. The solid waste, the actual trash which individuals and municipalities toss into Her stream each day is immeasurable.
Grace of the Water – She Forgives
The grace of water is that it keeps flowing. Stagnant water dies quickly. The nature of live, fresh, life-giving water is its movement. In that movement there is forgiveness. The trash I toss nonchalantly into Ganga here, in this moment, is replaced in the next moment by fresh, clean, unpolluted water. My trash has been carried downstream, and I –here in this spot in this moment – am given another chance. No constant reminders of my trespass, no immediate dire consequences, each moment is new. Of course, my brothers and sisters downstream are reaping the bitter fruit of my trespass, are drinking and bathing in my wanton disregard; however, that moment is fleeting, even downstream. The river forgives. She keeps moving, keeps flowing, keeps providing us with a fresh, clean slate as She pours out of the glacier. There is still time. The molecules of water locked into the Gaumukh glacier and the Himalayan snow cover are still clean and pure. The water saturated with our pollution of yesterday will empty into the Bay of Bengal tomorrow and merge into the mighty ocean by the day after. Fields and crops irrigated by toxins will take longer to recover, but a heavy monsoon can easily carry away a huge amount of polluted topsoil. Those who have died and those on their deathbed from illnesses carried upon Ganga’s waters can, of course, not be restored, but next year’s deaths can be prevented.
When a loved one dies, they return to the Ganges to consign the ashes to her custody
The answers are actually more simple than we realize, or more simple than we want to realize. Complexity absolves us of responsibility. Complexity requires new infrastructure, new systems, the passing of legislation and the enforcement of legislation passed. For those of us without a personal sphere of influence affecting municipalities, cities and states, we shrug our shoulders resignedly and say, “Someone really should do something.”
Simplicity, on the other hand is both empowering and also frightening. If I could make a difference, why am I not? Simplicity holds the mirror of responsibility uncomfortably close to our own faces. Today, however, we cannot afford to turn away. The world today requires us to look into that mirror, not with guilt, not with disdain, not with judgment, but simply with awareness of what we could and should be doing.
Whatever area of environmental, ecological or sociological crisis one studies, the meat industry plays a critical role. One pound of grain can be turned into one pound of bread, or one pound of pasta or one pound of rice or corn. However, in order to produce one pound of meat, sixteen pounds of grain are required. That means, of course, that infinitely more land is required to grow grain for livestock than grain for people. If we must grow sixteen pounds of grain in order to obtain one pound of edible meat, then every time we eat meat rather than grain we are – essentially – eating for sixteen.
The production of a pound of meat takes approximately 2600 gallons (approximately 10,000 liters) of water. This is due to the exorbitant amount of water used to grow the food for the livestock, the water they drink and are bathed in and then the water used to try to wash the blood, urine and feces out of the flesh to be sold in grocery stores or restaurants. Tens of thousands of farmers across the ‘developing’ world are collapsing on their desiccated fields. There is no water for their parched mouths or withered crops. Many commit suicide, unable to face the prospect of a tomorrow with no means to feed themselves and their families. Many others are taken, unwillingly, by sickness and death. Others abandon the fields of their ancestors and flood the already overpopulated cities to eke out a meagre existence in a slum on the muddy outskirts of a third-world metropolis. And a typical small family consumes the equivalent of 2600 gallons of water during one meal of hamburgers.
The world of the twenty-first century cannot live in a vacuum. We don’t have to be quantum physicists to understand the way that our personal choices and actions directly impact the rest of the planet. What I purchase, use and eat today in Rishikesh or Delhi or London or Paris or Los Angeles is having a direct effect on the lives of my brothers and sisters in other countries. Every pound of meat that I don’t eat frees up sixteen pounds of grain and 2600 gallons of water for other purposes.
Pontoon on the River
When I first came to India one of the most remarkable aspects to me of the culture and the country was the peace on people’s faces – the rich, the poor, the old, the young, the homeless, the hungry, the educated and the illiterate. It was as though one’s lot in life was simply part of the ‘package deal’ of human birth. It had very little connection to one’s sense of self or self-worth. However, today there is an epidemic and feverish clamoring for more and more, better and better, newer and newer.
An inevitable and inextricable part of production is waste. There is a direct, linear relationship between the volume of goods produced by a factory and the volume of waste cast by that factory into local rivers, lakes and groundwater or spewed into the air. As we rush exuberantly toward unbridled consumerism, we must be prepared for a rapid devastation of our air and water quality. This tragic prophecy is already a fact. As we clamour for more and more, newer and newer, as we continue to associate our self-worth with the knick-knacks on our counters, as we employ TVs and computers as baby-sitters, we are rendering our natural environment unliveable.
Basic infrastructural issues such as sewage, solid waste, and garbage collection should certainly be taken care of by local and state municipalities. However, we all have a serious role to play as well – both in the problem and the solution. Every new product we purchase, every gram of plastic packaging, our leather car seats, purses and shoes produced in these factories has a direct impact on the levels of toxins in Ganga and therefore upon the health of our brothers and sisters who live downstream. The exorbitant amount of electricity required to run the factories at warp-speed, at all hours of the day and night, necessitates construction of dams on the river. It is a tragic lose-lose situation, a cycle of violence — violence to Ganga and violence to those whose lives depend upon Her waters being clean and free-flowing.
Every religion of the world exhorts us to view the world as our family. Can we? Can we do more than shake our heads in disbelief as we watch the news? Can we realize that the ‘sacrifice’ of living simply, of being vegetarian of consuming less so that our starving brothers and sisters may be fed, so that farmers’ lands may be irrigated, so that trees may continue to grow in the Amazon, so that the rate of global warming and environmental devastation may be checked, so that Mother Earth may continue to have fertile land for growing crops, may we realize that this is a natural choice to be made and not an excruciating sacrifice? Can we truly feel the same Oneness, the same sense of family, for those who are not ‘us’ as we do for those living under our own roofs or within our circle of friends?
This is the great challenge and great gift that we have been presented with today. That which today our world requires us to do is very much what all the religions of the world have been urging us to do for millennia: live simply, live with awareness and consciousness, share with others, love thy neighbor as thyself, practice non-violence and reap not the spoils of violence. By doing that which is right for the Earth, we are actually doing that which is right for ourselves. Every undergraduate psychology student knows that greater happiness is actually attained by giving than receiving, by sacrificing for another than by indulging oneself.
The current tragic state of our Earth is forcing us out of our indifference, out of our cocoons, forcing us to break the boundaries by which we have narrowly defined our ‘self.’ If we can step up to the challenge and redefine our priorities, our values, our goals and even our understanding of where ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins, then this time in history will mark not an era of devastation but an era of rebirth.
Mother Ganga: Interview with Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati