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The Yamuna’s present fury, as cannot be said enough, is a consequence of modern India’s disrespectful cultural attitude towards water. In attempting to move ahead, we have forsaken even our good cultural practices, the ones that taught and perpetuated eco-awareness, overwhelmed by caste and gender issues and blind superstition. In awful irony, caste, gender oppression and harmful superstition still flourish, whereas the cultural perspective that would actually have helped make India better has suffered. And in denying people proper citizenly education with which to sustain their lives, to which respecting the environment is crucial, we lost the vital self-esteem that enables people and policymakers to think long term in creating and sustaining the quality of life, to which water is integral.
It was reportedly too late in 1958, when modern India was barely 11, for Pandit Nehru to stop the reckless building, the construction without conservation, that would adversely affect the environment. But it need not be too late in 2013 when modern India is not yet 66, older and wiser in pain and destruction, to take note before another general election.
It is time, as it always was, to regain awareness of the useful and beautiful concepts in religion and culture, to not let them be swept away in that other destructive flood of political misuse, ideological ineptitude and corruption. The river has spoken, as epic drama might say. A writer can but attempt to restate this: that traditional concepts of eco-awareness from religion and culture can help a confused country like India rediscover the required sense of individual and collective worth. This sense of worth usually expresses itself through best practices in cleanliness, conservation and a calmer, wiser long-term view of profit and loss. Indeed, the very weekend the Yamuna broke her banks, Ladakh celebrated the jayanti of Guru Padmasambhava who is believed to have cleaned up a smallpox epidemic in ancient Bhutan through the health and sanitation practices upheld by the Dhamma. But “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”, said one of India’s favourite American authors, Mark Twain, which sums up much of modern India’s approach to its rivers, including the queenly Yamuna that supports “cities and thrones and powers”.
However, if we accord the respect our religion and culture has taught us to our environment, our rivers will return to their roles. Rediscovering that respect would reactivate our collective cultural perspective on natural resources and enable us to review our clinical ‘modern’ tendency to think of river water only as something to draw from the ground until it is depleted.
But rivers are neither metal nor mineral. They are an ecosystem that enables life within the reality of the earth’s surface being 71 per cent water, of the human body being 50-75 per cent water. This is satya or “that which is”. Religion and culture do not deny the empowering truth of water, either in myth or in history. The Hindu trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh as Creator-Preserver-Dissolver is identified by water: Brahma on the lotus that springs from the navel of Vishnu who reclines on the ocean and Shiva whose intervention brought the Ganga to earth. Enemies cooperated in myth to churn an ocean to bring forth the useful and the beautiful. It was by the Nairanjana that Gautama found enlightenment. It was the Kali Bein that Guru Nanak emerged from with the ‘moolmantra’ or foundational power-verse of ‘Ik Onkar’. The Jordan is the Ganga of Christianity and it was the spring of Zamzam that sustained Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. Bapu went to the sea for salt to publicly defy the British Empire and one of his epithets is ‘the Saint of Sabarmati’. It cannot be denied that water is integral to both earthly history and to epochal events in the interface between the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’ that we call religion and myth. More so than fire, water is the universal ‘sakshi’, sacred witness in human rituals of birth, marriage and death, consecration, blessing and healing across cultures.
The traditional Indian bath prayer used to be: “Gangecha Yamunechaiva Godavari Saraswati, Narmade Sindhu Kaveri, jalesmin sannidhim kuru—oh waters of our sacred rivers, give us sanctuary.” It was a daily reminder to the mainstream—an apt word—that each one of us is a water warden with personal and collective responsibility towards conserving and sustaining this life-source. Yet reportedly, only 17 per cent of modern Indians have access to potable drinking water, while the big water wars today range from constitutionally validating water as a fundamental human right by including it in the right to life, to debates between the state versus NGOs and academics on who should control water. The debate would be different if the state sincerely upheld its commitment to water as a non-negotiable duty and if we as citizens reactivated the respect towards our environment. If asuras and devas could work together for the greater good, can’t the state and the people?
(Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.)