RISHIKESH—As the sun sets over this town on banks of the Ganges River, hundreds of worshipers gather for the evening aarti ceremony to pay homage to the divine river through fire and song. Women sway in rhythm to the continuous prayers that fill the air, while others pile wood onto a small fire by the riverbank. Each log sends a torrent of sparks into the air, pinpricks against the darkening sky.
Many of the devotees throw small baskets into the river as a sign of devotion. The baskets contains flowers and a burning candle, resembling an armada of tiny ships floating down the river.
While the ceremony is a sign of devotion, it is also a major contributing factor towards the contamination of the Ganges, one of the most polluted rivers in India. According to environmental experts, religion has become a significant part of the issue.
“In my opinion the pollution level in India is not only the sources problem, it is a lifestyle problem and educational problem,” said Dr. Chirashree Ghosh, a specialist in environmental pollution at the University of Delhi’s Department of Environmental Studies.
“What is the major reason? That is religion, religious activities.” She says that religious ceremonies such as cremation, an increasing numbers of religious pilgrims, and the sheer volume of people bathing themselves and religious idols in the waters of the Ganges make it impossible to effectively clean the river.
“In our Hindu religion, all the time nature is at the forefront. We take care of all the elements from the soil to the plants.” says Ghosh. “So our religion is teaching us to conserve, but we are not going the job properly.”
Increasingly, religious leaders are responding to the problem and taking responsibility for the cleanup of the rivers and discussing the issue with their followers.
This was particularly evident at the Rishikesh aarti ceremony. The leader of the ceremony, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, dispatched one of his saffron-clad devotees to fish the baskets out of the water. The young man stood with a long pole with a net at the end, dipping it into the river to sweep up baskets, bottles, and rubbish that had been placed or discarded into the river. Though his efforts were rewarded in some cases, an inevitable few escaped his reach.
The Ganges is considered India’s most sacred river, providing Hindus with a direct connection to the mother goddess, Ganga. But it is even more than that. For the 400 million people supported by this holy river, it supports agriculture, industry and wildlife.
Despite the integral role the Ganges plays in Hinduism, the river’s pollution is reaching increasingly severe levels, regardless of pledges from the Indian government to clean the river by 2020.
The number of rivers defined as “polluted” in India has doubled over the last five years, rising from 121 to 275, according to a report released this month by the Central Pollution Control Board. The primary cause has been attributed to rising sewage levels, with 2.7 million litres channeled into the waters of the Ganga on a daily basis. In light of these alarming figures, Uma Bharti, Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, has declared 2015 as water conservation year.
While addressing India’s environmental ministers in April earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi argued that the severity of India’s pollution was due to the changing lifestyles that came as an unfortunate byproduct of India’s vast economic growth. The issue is not restricted to rivers. The World Health Organization announced earlier this year that New Delhi has the worst air pollution in the world, with levels of carcinogenic or dangerous particles reaching 21 times the recommended limit.
Ghosh cites the use of religious idols, or murtis, being bathed in the river as an example of how religion may be inadvertently damaging the river’s fragile environmental balance. Although religious communities are encouraged to use natural paints or coloring, many statues use lead or chromium-based paints. Both chemicals can severely affect the human central nervous system.
When the murtis are bathed in the river, the chemicals seep into the water, thereby infected the fish and wildlife within, and increasing the likelihood of humans ingesting the harmful chemicals through drinking the water or eating tainted fish. Although environmental activists convinced many to use biodegradable materials such as bamboo, clay and safer dyes, this is difficult to regulate.
“We cannot say, ‘don’t do it’. They’ll think that we’re attacking the religious rules or interpretation. We’re encouraging them to come forward with creative ways of using biodegradable material so if they dump it in, ultimately it will degrade,” says Ghosh.
However, the same caution is not being applied by people who are bathing in the river themselves. Baba Ramdev, is a spiritual leader and political figure in Haridwar, with his own television network just under half a million Twitter follower. He has been a significant voice in the campaign to clean the Ganges, and points out that daily bathing has led to other chemicals entering the Ganges.
“Pollution is everywhere in India, but it is a big problem in the Ganges,” says Ramdev. “Mostly religious people are coming here and when they take the bath, they use soap and shampoo. This is not good. You don’t take a bath in the Ganga, and when you are going to the bathroom, don’t use the banks of the Ganges. Every person can avoid doing these things.”
One of the most concerning religious contributions towards environmental degradation has also been rituals such as cremation. In Rishikesh, the river is a deep bright turquoise color with fresh water that has melted from the Himalayas.
Downstream, 860 miles away in holy cities such as Varanasi, the picture is very different. The water transforms into a muddy brown, with half-burnt bodies and layers of trash becoming the defining features. Scientists at the Centre for Environmental Science at Banaras Hindu University have estimated that 32,000 bodies are cremated and placed into the river every year. Some corpses are only partially burnt, as poorer families are unable to afford enough wood for full cremation.
The Hindu ritual of cremation is believed to allow the individual to escape the cycle of birth and death, and attain spiritual purity through nirvana. Varanasi is considered the holiest city along the Ganges to perform this ritual, with many coming to die in this sacred place.
Though this practice has been followed for centuries, India’s rising population – increasing from 1.04 billion in 2000 to 1.25 billion in 2013 – has created an unstable influx of religious pilgrims to sites such as these.
This has become particularly problematic as Indian authorities have found more corpses disposed of in the river, completely unburnt and kept whole. Indeed, in January earlier this year, over 100 bodies were found, either dumped or buried near the river, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Investigators believe that many of these bodies were left whole as families were unable to afford cremation.
Although the matter is biodegradable, the amount of corpses and remains makes it impossible to break. As a result, it builds up in the river, clogging and infecting the waters.
Tarun Vijay, a senior figure in Indian Parliament, said that although the government respects the religious significance of the river, if ceremonies such as these continue to undermine clean up attempts, action will have to be taken.
“One of our greatest wishes (as Hindus) is to have our last rites [performed] on the Ganges,” explains Vijay. “However, there will be no special negotiations or considerations for religious groups” when it comes to enforcing the Ganges clean up.
One suggestion made by parliamentary figures, such as Vijay, and religious communities alike is the expansion of electric crematoriums. These “green” crematoriums place wood on a raised metal grate, thereby allowing increased air circulation, quicker burning and less wood required. However, many worshipers are less willing to change their traditions or religious beliefs regarding cremation.
Key religious figures, such as Acharya Shrivatsa Goswami, have spearheaded the drive for religious communities to embrace greener alternatives. Goswami is the spiritual leader at Sri Radha Ramana Mandir in Vrindavan and was invited to be the Hindu representative at the 2012 United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week.
“Hinduism is all for doing cremation through electric crematoriums. Why? Because electricity is the purest form of fire. And the rule is that the body should be cremated to ashes, and nothing can cremate the body the human body to ashes better than electricity.”
Though he recognizes some Hindus are reluctant to change old traditions, worshipers are becoming more accepting of alternatives. However, he emphasizes that the government must not vilify religious communities.
“Religion has adapted. These traditions should be utilized for the human good. They should not be sidelined they should not be treated as untouchable or dark forces .”
Dr. Ghosh asserts that the only way India will see real environmental change is by getting religious leaders to lead the fight for cleaner and safer waters. Rather than blaming religious communities, figures of authority or influence must educate their followers as to better protect the environment, and responsibly practice their faith.
“It’s important to bring the religious leaders. Being a teacher, if I tell my student to do something they will listen. They want to know their teachers are telling the truth. Religious leaders preach something, and they follow.”