This river is no ordinary image in which the divine has come to dwell. She is celestial – unmediated and immediate. Whatever is holy, whatever is merciful, whatever is utterly auspicious is already there. (Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography by Diana L. Eck)

The Ganges, from being a riverine divinity to an indispensable source of water for drinking, household chores and livelihood, from being a cornerstone of Hinduism to a mainstay of agriculture, transport, trade and commerce, from being a mythical enigma to a modern means of entertainment like river cruise, Ganga is much more than one of the largest rivers of the Indian subcontinent. It is in the same league as the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Yangtze, the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Danube – the greatest rivers of our planet.

Symbolically speaking, it engraves itself in the pious spirit of endless masses of humanity as a purifier of sins, a cleanser of depravity and a means of salvation. Physically speaking, the Ganga provides water to about 40 per cent of India’s population (which is about 500 million people) across 11 states, and nurtures one of the most fertile agricultural basins. Unfortunately, however, today, it is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

All ancient Indian texts, including the Vedas, the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are replete with invocations and exaltations of the divine Ganga. According to Ramayana, King Bhagiratha believed that the goddess Ganga could salvage his ancestors who had been cursed. As a result of his austerities, Ganga descended from Heaven to Earth, surging as the Milky Way across the night sky, with Lord Shiva channeling her flow through his matted, tangled locks. There are though different versions of the origin of Ganga in other sources.

Ganga has been mentioned in the Rigveda which is considered to be the earliest literary specimen. In Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsam, when Lakshamana was deserting Sita at Valmiki Muni’s ashram on the banks of the Ganga, it seemed as if Ganga’s waves were repeatedly swirling to dissuade Lakshmana from doing so. Again, Mahabharata says in unequivocal terms that if one’s ashes are deposited in Ganga, the departed will attain heaven. In fact, even if one has sinned throughout his life he would attain Visnupada (heaven) if he worships Ganga. Moreover, as long as the remains are in Ganga, the departed soul will be on a seat of honour in Heaven.

These myths have certainly breathed life into Ganga transforming it from a natural force to the numinous. Ganga really therefore epitomises a journey from the mystic to the mundane – it is a sense of timelessness that is surreal, a transcendence that is ethereal, an eternity that is at once grave and ecstatic – it is like a throbbing living being flowing eternally through gurgling waters, an unhindered, unsuppressed life form finding expressions through gushing waters and unfettered exuberance.

Ganga is intrinsically related to not only all Hindu rites and rituals from birth to death – marriage, annaprasan or food giving ceremony, funerals, etc., all require Gangajal (water of Ganga) – it is also believed to bring purity and sanctity to other aspects of life. “At the morning or evening worship, a passage may be read from the Bhagavad Gita and a glass of Ganges water offered to the god. At sunset, in a wish for wellbeing through the night, Ganga water may be sprinkled over the threshold or in the corner of every room, beginning with the Thakurghor or place of worship.” (The Ganges in Bengal by Steven G. Darian).

Devotees should ideally bathe in the Ganges before entering the temple. Ganga clay (Ganga mati) is also considered extremely purifying. Moreover, in its purifying role, Ganga is a great equaliser – Hindus of all caste and creed, from Brahmins to Sudras, believe in the purifying power of the water of the Ganga, and throng to its banks for the magical elixir. Come mahalaya, thousands perform tarpan (an offering of water to the dead) in the Ganges.

Darian writes, “Bathing in the river while chanting mantras is an ancient and widespread custom.” According to Sanskrit texts, “On the most mundane level, the chanting of her name alone is said to relieve poverty, banish bad dreams… On a more exalted plane, moksa itself is said to result from bathing in the waters of the Ganga or being cremated on her banks” (Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography by Diana L. Eck).

Most Hindus wish to die near the river. The poet Ramprasad exclaims: ‘Let my tongue utter Kali in the Ganges at the end’. The maharaja of Nator, a nineteenth-century contemporary, writes of his attachment to the river: … O Shiva, grant me a rosary, when I am floating in the Ganges” (E. J. Thompson and A. M. Spencer, Bengali Religious Lyrics: Sakta, Calcutta, 1923, Pg. 75).

In fact, in Ramacharita, as far back as 12th century AD, two characters wish to perform suicide by drowning in the Ganga. “In Bengal… Ganga worship assumes an importance second only to the great religious festivals like the Durga Puja”, says Darian. He goes on to describe the many Melas that take place along the river like in West Dinajpur district (where at least five prominent bathing festivals are held throughout the year), Murshidabad, Nadia, 24-Parganas and even in areas further removed from the river like Cooch Bihar.

In fact, the river also brings Hindus and Muslims together. The big Ganga festival at Berhampur-Murshidabad, the Bera celebration, though essentially a Muslim event traditionally dedicated to Khaja Khizr, ‘patron saint of the waters’, draws people from both the communities. Dharaf Khan’s Ganga-Stotra, a Sanskrit hymn to the goddess is still sung today. The best-known festival of Ganga in Bengal is the Mela at Sagar Island. During festival seasons, over 70 million people bathe in the Ganges.

Other festivals along the river are also ample. Kumbh mela, for example, is one of the largest religious gatherings of people and brings around 80 million people on the banks of the river. Many pilgrimage spots have come up along her course: Gangotri, her source in the Himalayas, Hardwar, where she enters the plains from the mountains, Prayag, where the Yamuna (and the mythical Saraswati) join her, Banaras (Kasi) the city of Lord Shiva, and finally Ganga Sagar where the river meets the Bay of Bengal.

“Along her entire length the Ganga is sacred, and just as a temple or a holy city might be circumambulated, so is this entire river circumambulated by a few hardy pilgrims who walk her length from the source to the sea and back again on the other shore” (Ganga: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography by Diana L. Eck).

Few rivers can equal Ganga in seamlessly weaving poetry into the hearts and minds of people from such ancient times. It effortlessly and flawlessly transcends the physical boundaries of banks and boulders into the metaphysical realms of beauty and myths – there she is a living deity, a mother goddess and a sacred abode of compassion and life. She is a living tribute to the bonhomie of mankind and nature which has captured the imagination of generations and found its way to heart-stirring narrations and compositions of various authors and artistes over time.

Rabindranath Tagore pays obeisance to her gushing and turbulent waters in our national anthem: “… Vindhya, Himachala, Yamuna, Ganga; Uchchhala Jaladhi Taranga…”. One is reminded of Bhupen Hazarika’s “Ganga amar ma, Padma amar ma…” and more heart-rending renditions like “Bisteerno dupare, Oshonkhyo manusher, Hahakaar shuneo, Nishobde nirobe, O Ganga tumi, O Ganga boichho kyano…” Sometimes the river is an elemental force of nature, nurturing one of the most fertile agricultural basins, fecund and beautiful, and at others, ferocious, unpredictable and destructive. It brings livelihood to millions along its course.

In spite of its monumental pervasiveness in the psyche of Hindus and Indians, it is undeniable that the river is now precariously physically unclean. The leading causes of contamination of the river are various human activities such as bathing, washing clothes, the bathing of animals, and dumping of various harmful industrial waste into the river. Intensive domestic use of millions of people residing along the banks of the river, deposits large amounts of organic waste in the Ganges.

About 70 per cent of urban sewage does not go to treatment plants and is simply dumped in water bodies including rivers. Sometimes dead bodies are not cremated but simply lowered in the river (those dying from snake bites or unmarried women, for example). Hence often Ganga, among other things, is plagued by floating corpses. Practices of immersion of idols after pujas is definitely contributory to polluting Ganga.

The paints used for colouring the idols and also the sindoor applied to female idols, add to the lead load in the river, which might be a source of heavy metal poisoning. In no way can we, and our practices, be absolved of the guilt and responsibility of jeopardising its cleanliness. Moreover, there are many industrial cities on the bank of the Ganges like Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna, where numerous tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughterhouses, and hospitals release untreated waste into the river.

Much of the industrial effluents are often toxic and non-biodegradable. For example, the leather industry in Kanpur has more than 400 tanneries that use toxic chemical compounds and release wastes into the river. These amounts have not decreased even after a common treatment plant was established in 1995. It is now more than 70 times the recommended maximum level.

In fact, a study conducted by the National Cancer Registry Program (NCRP) under the Indian Council of Medical Research in 2012, concluded that “those living along its banks in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the country”. Dredging operations, de-silting operations and various efforts are undertaken by the Government to check the pollution of the Ganga like Rajiv Gandhi’s Ganga Action Plan in 1985 and Narendra Modi’s Namami Gange in 2014, but not much has come about as far as results go.

Environmentalists note a kind of apathy for problems of such material pollution, especially among religious leaders and pilgrim priests whose livelihoods depend on promoting pilgrimage to the banks of the Ganga. For example, pilgrim priests or pandas, make a distinction between purity (shuddhata) and cleanliness (swachhata), arguing that Ganga could be unclean (aswachha or ganda) but never impure (ashuddha or apavitra).

“For these pandas, the river Ganga is a goddess who possesses the power to absorb and absolve human and worldly impurities.” (Separate Domains: Hinduism, Politics, and Environmental Pollution by Kelly D. Alley). Alley, during the feld work and research, also noticed that among the pious-minded, governmental cleaning operations were equated to inefficiency and corruption in government ranks and with unwanted interference in religious affairs.

“Whenever government officials made public claims about pollution in the river, the priests would look askance, muttering that government officials actually create the ‘pollution’ they claim to control.” This does point to a feeling of occupational insecurity among the pandas – “while depending upon a vital divine Ganga, they cannot actively engage in ‘saving’ her material form.” And in fact, no religious or political leader has taken up the cause seriously enough to make a difference.

Ganga is a belief, it is a breathing illustration of life and times. It is an epitome of Hindu consciousness with all its surreal sublimity and explicit manifestations. Ganga is uplifted as a Goddess and maligned as a gutter, therein lies the inherent contradiction of a civilisation steeped in superstition and blind beliefs and at the same time surging ahead with science and technology.

In some sense, she epitomises the inherent tension and dilemma that our generation faces, the inherent discord between practices and preaching, what should be done and what is done. She symbolises the intrinsic hypocrisy of human nature in some sense – of purposeful wrongs, of blind evils, of conscious mistakes. A river weighed down by centuries of collective Indian consciousness and expectations. A sumptuous cocktail of divinity and the dirt, of wishes and wastes, of thoughts and trash. A river actually lost between the politics of pilgrimage and the perils of pollution, a river forgotten between the realms of divinity and the clutches of reality, a river stunned by the rhetoric of faith and the arguments of reasons.

In some sense, Ganga is quintessential India – and discussing the dilemmas and contradictions that surround it, helps us understand the debates and controversies plaguing India – the inherent juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, the difficult adaptations of people in modern times, the question of bridging the epic and the everyday, the disconnect between the decision-makers and the masses, the yawning gap between preachings and their implementation in practice, and of course the means of overcoming the invisible barriers that our beliefs build around us.

Ganga is about how to forge ahead without trampling on our traditions, how to coalesce elements of our faith with the demands of reality, and how to juxtapose the myriad hues of myth with the nuances of modernity.

As Jawaharlal Nehru astutely summaries in his Will and Testament: “I have been to the Ganga and the Jamuna rivers in Allahabad ever since my childhood and, as I have grown older, this attachment has also grown. … The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories, and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilisation, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga. She reminds me of the snowcovered peaks and the deep valleys of the Himalaya, which I have loved so much, and of the rich and vast plains below, where my life and work have been cast. Smiling and dancing in the morning sunlight, and dark and gloomy and full of mystery as the evening shadows fall, a narrow, slow, and graceful stream in winter, and a vast roaring thing during the monsoon, broad-bosomed almost as the sea, and with something of the sea’s power to destroy, the Ganga has been to me a symbol and a memory of the past of India, running into the present and flowing on to the great ocean of the future. … I am making this request that a handful of my ashes be thrown into the Ganga at Allahabad to be carried to the great ocean that washes India’s shore.”

The writers are, respectively, Retired professor, Department of Sanskrit, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and UGC Emeritus fellow, and Assistant professor, Economic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.