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The Real Threat to Hinduism: The Slow Death of India’s Rivers

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The Pulse

The Real Threat to Hinduism: The Slow Death of India’s Rivers

Outrage over the ban on firecrackers should be directed at the destruction of South Asia’s natural heritage.

The Real Threat to Hinduism: The Slow Death of India’s Rivers
Credit: Flickr/ Ajay Goel

Scarcely a month has passed since the Supreme Court banned firecracker sales in New Delhi during Diwali, citing increased pollution, and the Indian capital is again making headlines over a blanket of toxic smog that has engulfed the entire city. Amidst reports that crop burning is the leading cause of New Delhi’s air pollution, a faction of the Hindu population, which was seething with discontent over the firecracker ban is having an “I told you so!” moment. The current smog adds further fuel to the idea that the ban was a veiled attack on Hindu culture and religion. Similar offense has been taken at the nationwide criticism of wasted water during the festival of Holi. This faction has recently found space to voice their thoughts after years of tolerating pseudo-secularism; it has become extraordinarily sensitive and quick to take umbrage at any environmentally motivated restrictions on festival behavior, citing them as attacks on Hinduism. The Indian left and the liberals, as expected, have either been silent or contemptuous of this outcry, deeming it as xenophobic and disillusioned.

Both are correct to a certain degree, and yet both have missed the point. It is true that the very nature of Hinduism is threatened, but it is not due to banning firecrackers or criticizing water wastage; the religion is a lot more than these practices. As much as these passionate Hindus would like to bring the left and pseudo-secularists to justice, they are either blind, oblivious, or dismissive toward one fact: the threat to Hinduism comes from society’s collective actions.

“Hindutvawadis” are placed on the right side of the Indian political spectrum, primarily because they stand for the religion of the majority of Indians. This new faction of enthusiastic Hinduism supporters, tilts to the extreme right. However, in principle as well as in practice, Hinduism has evolved over time to embrace many ideas associated with the left, the most significant being those related to the environment.

This is because Hinduism shares an intricate, intimate relationship with the climate, geography, and biodiversity of South Asia; its festivals, deities, mythology, scriptures, calendar, rituals, and even superstitions are rooted in nature. There is a strong bond between Hinduism and South Asia’s forests, wildlife, rivers, seasons, mountains, soils, climate, and richly varied geography, which is manifest in the traditional layout of a typical Hindu household’s annual schedule. Hinduism’s existence is tied to all of these natural entities, and more prominently, to South Asia’s rivers.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Hinduism a river valley religion. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, born in the hostile deserts of Arabia, Hinduism has originated, grown, and flourished in the fertile, verdant river valleys of the Indian subcontinent. Rivers such as the Sindhu, Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada, Godavari, and Kaveri are an integral part of Hindu history, mythology, folklore, rituals, and indeed, of Hindu life. It was on their banks that the wise Hindu scriptures were written, that great Hindu kingdoms rose and fell, that pilgrimages were (and are) taken, and majestic monuments celebrating Hinduism have been raised. Hinduism as a religion celebrates nature’s bounty, and what could be more representative of nature’s bounty than a river valley? South Asian rivers have sustained and nourished Hindu civilizations for centuries. They are responsible for our prosperous agriculture, timely monsoons, diverse aquatic ecosystems, riverine trade and commerce, and cultural richness. The Sindhu in the west and the Brahmaputra in the east have also provided natural fortifications to the subcontinent. Hindu religion and culture, without South Asian rivers, would never be the same.

Not only has this freshly vocal group of extremists lost cognizance of this overarching fact, but also, it has neither the passion nor the will to preserve this fundamental aspect of a religion it supposedly roots for. The results are obvious. The Ganga and Yamuna, nurturers of Hinduism, are in a state of filth and disarray. Yamuna’s ecosystem is by and large dead, and the Ganga is so crippled by the time it reaches Bangladesh that the Hindus there are permanently deprived of the river’s cultural and religious value. The Godavari barely makes it to the Bay of Bengal; other peninsular rivers such as the Krishna and Kaveri many times don’t. Out of sight and out of mind since the Partition, the great Sindhu is plainly forgotten and if ever remembered, dismissed as “Pakistani”; never mind the fact that five Indian states are still a part of its basin, two of which (Punjab and Haryana) are pretty much the granary of India. Heavily dammed, drying in patches, infested by sand mafia and land grabbers, poisoned by untreated sewage and industrial waste, and hit by climate change — our rivers, the cradle of Hinduism, are in a sorry state.

If there is ever a threat to Hinduism, this is it. Destroy South Asia’s rivers and with it, Hinduism’s history and mythology will be destroyed. Rituals will turn into mockery, festivals, a farce, and Hinduism itself, a glaring example of man’s hypocritical relationship with nature. The fact that we worship our rivers as mothers and then choke them to death with all sorts of filth is already eminent; do we wish to add further laurels to our kitty?

Preserving Hinduism’s strong bond with nature includes, to name a few, principles of environmental conservation (instead of exploitation) and protection, equitable resource allocation, collective ownership and decentralization of control over resources, and a holistic and sustainable economy, all of which are deeply entrenched in various pockets of Hinduism. Incidentally, these are the very principles attributed to the left-leaning section of contemporary society. These same principles are responsible for the life and health of our rivers, and by extension, South Asian civilizations, over the past five millennia.

And just what are we doing about them? Those who cry foul over the ban on firecrackers during Diwali put forth the argument that concerns about air pollution and consequent damage lack teeth as other, graver pollutants are not being tackled. However, the pot cannot call the kettle black. Are we addressing the other, graver factors harming Hinduism? Are we taking equal offense against the untreated sewage and chemical effluents that flow unabated into our sacred rivers? Is not the destruction of traditional ghats for swanky Western-style riverfront plans an attack on Hindu culture? Is not the closing of many river basins affecting our seasons and season-specific festivals? Does the slow disappearance of wintry mornings during Diwali not bother us as much as a ban on firecrackers does? Do we accept that in times of scarcity, actions driven by abundance are impractical, outdated, and plain ridiculous? By clamoring for narrow, superficial, and inherently harmful practices, which are neither relevant nor practical, all in the name of religion, one proves to be exactly what the opposite party is accused of — an enemy of Hinduism — and the argument is lost.

The irony is that many of the non-glamour grassroot organisations actually doing their part in preserving our riverine ecosystems happen to be left-leaning, while this passionate faction “supporting” Hinduism considers environmental protection as an obstacle to “development.” It is either confusion, blindness, or the very hypocrisy they accuse everyone else of, but the fact is that this section of contemporary Hindus, which time and again raises its hackles over each and every thing that can be perceived as an attack on Hinduism, is otherwise silent, dispassionate, and even dismissive about these grave threats to Hinduism’s genesis and its conservation-based philosophy.

It is classic human nature to throw excessive weight on issues that evoke emotion. It is equally classic to grab on to opportunities that present a clear offender to point fingers at. The deterioration of South Asia’s rivers falls into neither of the categories and hence, holds neither the attention nor the passion of India’s Hindu supremacists. They are content in their vociferous and hypocritical protests of equally hypocritical and anti-Hindu actions – a perfect system of radical right and radical left, both feeding on each other’s intolerance and inflammatory (and ultimately useless) discourse. Hinduism and its natural heritage, meanwhile, continue to bear the brunt of the consequences.

Gauri Noolkar is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has researched river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is currently researching water conflicts in the Teesta basin as a JWHI Fellow with Both ENDS, The Netherlands