Swami Nigamananda Saraswati died on 13 June 2011, having fasted for 115 days to save Mother Ganga from illegal mining. That was his third fast. Earlier, he had fasted twice for more than two months each for the same cause. How many remember him? Who knows if we ever understood the significance of this sacrifice for such a noble cause ~ saving Mother Ganga. While hundreds of glorious stars are being rained annually with awards, citations, prizes, cash, and huge media coverage, among other things, the poor monk who died in his attempt to save the Ganga is forgotten. Having begun his fast on 13 February 2011, he passed away in a hospital in June.
Now, a year after, we have the floods in northern India. At the time of writing, the death toll is still unclear. The extent of the tragedy is horrifying. The tearful tales of survivors are shocking. Soon, this news too will be drowned under truck loads of projects, tenders, millions of crores sanctioned for constructions and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The world will be busy reconstructing secular structures. Shiva and Mother Ganga will remain mute witnesses, perhaps.
Until a time, not long ago, these sacred spots were places of sadhana. Since ages, thousands of people have led exemplary lives in those virtually inaccessible places, contemplating on God. Swami Vivekananda had this experience: “I saw many great men in Hrishikesh. One case that I remember was that of a man who seemed to be mad. He was walking nude down the street, with boys pursuing and throwing stones at him. The man was bubbling over with laughter while blood was streaming down his face and neck. I took him and bathed the wound, putting ashes on it to stop the bleeding. And all the time, with peals of laughter he told me of the fun the boys and he had been having, throwing the stones. ‘So the Father plays’, he said.”
Even now there are many holy people. Every inch of those parts, every drop of water, every small temple is alive with spiritual vibrations. What respect people have for Mother Ganga still is evident from Swami Vivekananda&’s words: “Last time I went to the West, I also took a little of it [Ganga] with me, fearing it might be needed, and whenever opportunities occurred, I used to drink a few drops of it. And every time I drank, in the midst of the stream of humanity, amid that bustle of civilisation, that hurry of frenzied footsteps of millions of men and women in the West, the mind at once became calm and still, as it were.”
Now, many holy places are generally tourist centres. Don’t say India lacks aspirants. For many ‘civilised’ Indians, deep into power, secularism, cricket, and so on, temples and spirituality may perhaps be superfluous. But there are countless other Indians who even now strive and struggle to practice sadhana, go on pilgrimages suffering much, taking the difficult routes. Not just Indians, thanks to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda, the whole world is getting drawn now towards India for spiritual inspiration and hundreds visit such places seeking spirituality. And many are amazed to see ‘civilised’ Indians neglecting their priceless treasures. Thousands of non-Indians are realising the value of the spiritual wealth of India. They are ready to undergo any hardship to obtain them and come from all these places.
Though this aspiration and spiritual seeking will continue to resonate, the environment can change. Where there were sacred temples, there can be modern structures with the resultant squalor. Where there was silence, there can be loud music; where prayer, illegal supermarkets and five-star hotels; where meditation, bars and bureaucratic rest houses; where cleanliness, abject pollution; and where pilgrimages, comfortable tourism so far as the pocket can handle.
If this is just tourism, why tour such places? May be to see the Himalayas, but they say even glaciers are getting reduced. Is it to see the forests? Felling trees in even protected “forests” for construction is no crime and so there are virtually no forests. Is it to experience the silence of the sacred places? Truck and bus drivers answer pleas to “please sound horn” dedicatedly and you are to bear the brunt. Then, there are the smaller vehicles filling the roads, and the ever-growing population to enthrall you. At least until recently, people saw one other scene daily: long lines of trucks carrying away loads of stones elsewhere from the riverbed, or to machines that pulverise them. How many years does it take for nature to manufacture a stone the size of a football? How many seconds does it take for the machine to powder it and make slabs?
Some blame God for natural calamities. Indeed. Never-ending greed, illegal mining, deforestation, illegal (and, rarely, legal) constructions, use of non-quality materials to construct roads and bridges, criminal pollution, throwing all norms to the winds ~ and then, blame God. Who is to blame for the constant removal of riverbed stones, or for loosening the soil by felling trees? Maybe, Mother Nature has her methods of protecting herself and living beings, but human greed steals it all ~ and then, blames God.
Further, blame God because the powerful do not wake up and prepare for annual rains, with all the forecasts available now. Are rains new to those places? Again, blame God, because in today&’s world of mobiles and communication, many tourists could not be in safer zones. If not God, at least blame rains and cloud-bursts for the lack of preparedness.
Amidst all this, the bright lights are the brave rescue workers. No words can fully thank the Indian rescue squad ~ the brave and selfless soldiers as well as others ~ who give their lives for others. They are the true heroes. Swami Nigamanandaji, who died for a noble cause was one other soul of this nature. There are countless others, silently working to save the Ganga and also help those stuck helplessly. This world will not remember them after some days. But the prayers of every sincere Indian are there for them, and for those who unfortunately lost their lives. Swami Vivekananda&’s words are significant: “They alone live who live for others and the rest are more dead than alive.”
Tragedies happen. Natural calamities are unavoidable. But destruction can perhaps be minimised by action and not reaction, and by learning from past experiences. We don’t lack in past experiences, do we? We can be clean, safe, strong and healthy if we decide to be so. But until we realise that the mode of national development should not be politics-based, we shall continue to suffer, perhaps. Who knows?
The writer is a monk of the Ramakrishna Mission&’s Centre Vedantique in Geneva.