Field Notes: Religion and the Ganges River

Hindus believe that cremation in Varanasi frees them from the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Image by George Black. India, 2016.

Hindus believe that cremation in Varanasi frees them from the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Image by George Black. India, 2016.

While the first challenge I had in reporting this story had to do with politics, the second was about religion, which is woven deeply into the fabric of almost every important political story in India. Narendra Modi obviously sees the clean-up of the Ganges as an urgent national priority, something on which he has staked his reputation as a modernizer. But how can he convince Indians of the importance of eradicating pollution, given that their view of the river is so steeped in religious belief, regardless of its physical condition?

Every time it passes through a major city—Haridwar, Allahabad, Kanpur, Varanasi, Patna, Calcutta—the Ganges is little more than an open sewer. Yet in Hindu mythology, it is a goddess, Ganga, the great purifier, the cleanser of sins. Bathing in her waters confers special blessings. Being cremated on her banks is the greatest aspiration of the pious Hindu. Dying in Varanasi, the holiest city in India, and having your ashes consigned to the river there, is the guarantee of moksha—liberation from the unending cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation.

Thousands of pilgrims come to the Ganges in Varanasi every day for their “holy dip,” praying, soaping themselves down, cleaning their teeth with a twig from the neem tree and rinsing it off with river water. Some brave souls even take a drink, though only one-third of Varanasi’s sewage is treated and the rest flows straight into the river. Fecal coliform bacteria levels here are literally hundreds of times higher than the maximum safe level set by the World Health Organization.

Strangely, however, medical authorities say that while people come down with diarrhea and minor stomach ailments all the time—as they do everywhere else in India—the historical record shows no evidence of any significant epidemic of cholera or typhoid here. This surprising fact continues to feed an old legend that the Ganges has some mysterious self-purifying quality. The British were fascinated by this phenomenon. In 1896 the chief medical officer for Agra, Dr. E. Hanbury Hankin, collected samples from cholera-infected dead bodies thrown into the river at Varanasi and found that the microbes died within hours of contact with the water.

Even contemporary scientists give some credence to these stories. In Kanpur, a squalid industrial city of more than three million that is the center of India’s tanning industry, I spoke to A.C. Shukla, a biologist who was in charge of research into the most polluted stretch of the Ganges during an earlier clean-up campaign. He told me that various theories had been put forward: that there were naturally upwelling sulfur springs in the river; that there were high levels of natural radioactivity in the headwaters; that organic pollution in the river was suppressed by bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. There were hundreds of different kinds of algae, which would contribute to the river’s capacity for rapid oxygenation, and many species of fungi that would speed up the decomposition of organic matter. But we had overwhelmed these natural remedies with our human pollution, Shukla said; whatever self-regenerating qualities the river might once have had were long gone.

In her classic book on Varanasi, Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard, writes that dirt is a “cultural construct,” and that two definitions of purity are in conflict with each other in the city—the bacterial and the ritual. In Hindu cosmology, India is considered to be the “navel of the universe”; Varanasi—or Kashi, to give its ancient name—is the navel of India; and the great cremation ground of Manikarnika is the navel of Kashi, the precise spot where the universe was created. Kashi is not in fact attached to the earth at all, but floats suspended in the sky, says the British scholar Jonathan Parry, and as such is supposedly immune to the ravages of time.

In Uttarkashi, a small riverside town in the Himalayas, I met a man named Ajay Puri, who holds two positions of distinction, one religious and the other secular. He is a hereditary priest of Uttarkashi’s famous Shiva temple, as well as being the owner of the Shivlinga Tourist Complex, a way-station for pilgrims on their way to the source of the Ganges, and president of the Uttarkashi Hotel Association. Puri told me that Lord Shiva himself resides in Uttarkashi these days, having told the sages that he would move there from Kashi “during the time when foreign influence is very strong in India.” That clearly referred to the time in which we were living now, he said—the age of the demon Kali, the Kali Yuga, the last of the four cycles in the evolution of mankind. “People never used to think that the river could be for anything but getting your water and worshiping,” he said. “But as we started all this so-called developing, we left our old traditions behind. Fifty years ago we never saw this kind of thing, because people still had faith.”

Humanity has been on a long, slow slide from virtue into vice, Puri explained. The first age, the Satya Yuga, was a time when all was made of gold, and mankind existed in a state of pure goodness. The Treta Yuga brought silver and the beginnings of sin. The Dvapara Yuga was an era of brass, deceit, and disease. “And today in the Kali Yuga, only ten percent of people are good, and ninety percent are bad,” he exclaimed, switching back and forth between animated Hindi and English. “This is the age of iron, terracotta, mud, and plastic!”

I asked Puri when the Age of Kali had begun. He answered by pulling out a fat three-ring binder filled with dense columns of figures and detailed notations. “I have extracted all this from the texts of the vedas and the puranas,” he said. He scanned several pages and punched some numbers into a calculator. “Kali Yuga began 5,115 years ago,” he said.

And when would it end? He went to his ledger again, fingers flying from line to line. “It will last a total of four lakh and 32,000 years,” he said at last. (Indians count in lakhs, multiples of 100,000, so 432,000 years.) He laughed. “So as you see, we still have a long way to go.”

Whenever you report a story like this one, you think automatically in a conventional time frame. What have previous Indian governments accomplished in the past 30 years? What can Modi accomplish in his five-year term, of which only three years now remain? But here was an entirely different conception of time, and another example of how writing about India presents conceptual challenges unlike any other country.