Egypt’s Nile v India’s Ganga: Practicality and Reverence

Egypt is the gift of the Nile. The world’s longest river is the source of life in an otherwise hostile (to man) terrain. Egypt’s civilizations have hugged the river. The ancient Egyptians worshiped it as their god Hapy. It enabled their civilization to rise to the zenith by providing water and transport. More importantly it served as the dividing line in their mythology. East of the Nile was this life. West of the Nile was the afterlife.

The later civilizations based on Islam and Christianity did not worship the Nile. Their monotheistic approach does not include reverence to Nature.

However, the Nile has still been preserved. Today the Nile is among the cleanest of the rivers in Africa and Asia. Very little sewage from the millions that live within a kilometer of the Nile flows into the river. Pollution is minimal and looks more accidental than deliberate. The cruise ships that plow the Nile do not discharge any waste into it. Save the fear of a parasite, the Nile is almost swimmable even at the end of its 5584-kilometer (3470 miles) journey. Not that there is nothing to worry about, the pace of development is putting pressures on the quality and quantity of the waters. Our guide on the Nile started his historical introduction with the observation that they were very worried that the source of the Nile – Lake Victoria – was receding at an alarming rate.

Two observations about today’s Egyptian society need to be mentioned: the presence of potable water across all towns in Egypt and the absence of destitution.

In India, the Ganga is revered – the holiest of holy rivers – even today. Its role in physical nurturing a several thousand-year-old culture is mirrored by its spiritual role in the mythology.

Great civilizations have come up along the its banks, used it for their growth, and even realized the impact they had on the river. The Gangetic plain was the site of the first national park in the world – Ashoka’s edict two and half millennia ago made the Ganges River dolphin (Platanista gangetica) a protected species.

However, today the Ganga is a closer to a sewage stream than a holy river. It is not swimmable even in the high reaches at the foot of the Himalayas. In Indian consciousness, the holy Ganga has been separated from the physical. They revere the spiritual image of Ganga emanating out of Lord Shiva’s hair, tamed. And they urge for the chance of taking a ‘purifying’ bath in it. However, today, the physical Ganga is seen mainly as a resource, a source of water, sand, and fish, and an outlet for all wastes: industrial and biological. The physical Ganga has lost its place in the mythology, its defilement causes no outrage to the vast majority of Indian society. This is true of all the ‘holy’ rivers: the Yamuna, the Brahmaputra, and the Narmada.

To parallel the observations about Egyptian society: a large fraction of the people living on the banks of the Ganga do not have access to safe drinking water, a majority lack access to sanitation facilities, and millions live below poverty: in destitution.

Ecology, deep ecology, and reverential ecology are supposedly progressive in terms our defining our thinking about nature, our feeling for nature, and our actions involving nature. It is thought that if we understand something we are unlikely to destroy it, if we connect with something we are likely to preserve it, if we revere something we are likely to nurture it. The case of the Ganga shows that thinking and feeling and acting can be a divorced threesome. We can revere something but at the same time rape it.

Manushi and Jal Biradari organized a three-day conference to discuss the Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans. Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh led a discussion involving a small but diverse representation of activists, environmentalists, government officials, religious leaders, and academics. Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh participated on the last day. It was clear that many people understood the many acts that defile the river and also impact the communities along the river. Many in the room also understood preventing pollution was more important than cleaning it and that we had to return to revering the physical river.

However, India hurtles towards neoliberal capitalism eying everything as a resource to be exploited. A rise in the number and value of mutual funds betting on the exploitation of natural resources portend a speedier exploitation of the river. It is hard to find a silver lining in this dark stream. Clearly, until our both spiritual and practical thinking changes at a societal level to create action, no power can prevent the Ganga from becoming poisoned and thus poisoning us.

We still have time, we can clean up the Ganga and we can unite its holy spirit to a clean body. We can avoid the Cree prophecy of the wise Native Americans:

Only after the last tree has been cut down,
Only after the last river has been poisoned,
Only after the last fish has been caught,
Only then will we realize that money cannot be eaten.

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13 February 2010 at 11:05 am Comments (2)