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The Ganga - then and now

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 agrarian societies.

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 remote areas.

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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.

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