The Indian system of beliefs is based
on an intimate relationship with nature. An offshoot of this is the reverence accorded to
rivers as a gesture of acknowledgement of their life sustaining abilities in primarily
In an ancient society that depended on the seasonal
monsoons for its agricultural needs, the perennial nature of the Ganga was a Godsend. The
clear water originating in the lofty Himalayan heights flows over a vast course, dumping
rich alluvial soil - a veritable boon for agriculture along its course in the plains.
Given the naturalistic system of beliefs, it is no
wonder that a perennial source of water has been held in high regard, and has over time
been accorded a supernatural status. The ancient scriptures revere the Ganga. Epics
poetically regard Ganga as a consort of Shiva.
The Mahabharata gives a human form to Ganga in the form of Santanu's wife
and the mother of Bhishma.
Rivers such as the Kaveri, Godavari, Narmada
and the Indus are also held in reverence locally, and are accorded the
status of Goddesses in the Indian system of beliefs, given their life sustaining nature.
For instance, the origin of the river Kaveri in the state of Karnataka is a place of
worship, and Kaveri Amman is worshipped at several shrines along the course of the river.
Regardless of such local deification, the Ganges has
been held in utmost regard, all through India. For instance, the river Godavari is even
referred to as the Ganga at Tryambakeshwar
in Maharashtra. The ancient tamil hymns of the Alwar and the Nayanmar saints of Tamilnadu
of the 1st millennium CE refer to the greatness of the river Ganga in several verses.
The undercurrent of Indian thought which is
fundamentally based on the acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all life on earth
thus holds all sources of life in high reverence. The Ganges occupies a special place in
this scheme of reverence, and even now, a dip in the Ganges is considered to
be considered to be highly meritorius.
The Indian subcontinent has undergone wave after wave
of change in terms of influences from elsewhere in the world. Whilst the first two thirds
of the second millennium CE saw troubled times in terms of conquests and plunders, the
first half of the third third put the region through colonial rule, bringing with it, its
own series of rapid changes. Regardless of these waves of change, some of the fundamental
beliefs such as the reverence with which a pilgrimage to Benares is held, have
remained unchanged even untill the end of the 20th century CE.
The tide of change that has engulfed humanity in the
last two centuries - through the industrial revolution and beyond has inevitably
left its mark on the Ganges. Industries upstream discharge their effluents into this
river, once known for its purity, rendering the waters unsafe for consumption. While it
used to be considered meritorious to die and be cremated in Benares, the very belief
causes further pollution of the river - given the un-sustainable rate at which partially
cremated cadavers are dumped into the river.
The dawn of the information revolution and the
internet has brought thoughts from around the world in close contact as never before. As a
newly generated affluence generated by the boom in the information industry spreads across
the world, life styles across the Indian subcontinent are undergoing a sea change. It is
only a matter of time, before a semi-urban style of life will establish itself in hitherto
In spite of these waves of change, the core of the
Indian belief in the interconnectedness of life remains unchanged. The simple act of
thanksgiving - through the offering of a clay lamp, on a leaf with a few petals of fresh
flowers to the life sustaining waters of the Ganges, at the culmination of the Ganga Aarti
- carried out even today - night after night at Haridwar where the Ganga enters the plains
is a standing testimony to this immutable undercurrent of Indian thought.