The year 2013 began in India with the culmination of a 144 year wait at the confluence of Hinduism’s holiest rivers, the Ganga and Yamuna, at the city of Allahabad, also known as Prayag. The Maha Kumbh Mela had millions of devotees, tourists and academics flocking to the holy confluence over a span of two months. By the end of this massive fair, Prayag had borne the footprints of about a hundred million people – a number five times the population of Mumbai, itself one of the world’s most populous cities.
The Kumbh Mela, occurring every three years, has long been considered the largest congregation of humans on the planet. The Ardh Kumbh happens every six years, the Purna Kumbh every twelve, and the Maha Kumbh – the ‘Great Kumbh’ – occurs only once every 144 years, or every twelfth Purna Kumbh. There are references to this festival in the Vedas and Puranas, in epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and in various Tantric texts. Although not known as the Kumbh back then, under various other names the festival also finds its way into the historical accounts of Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Mauryan court in the 4th century BCE, and into the Chinese traveller Xuanzang’s narratives on India in the 7th century CE.
Mythology and science may appear diametrically opposed to many, but at the Kumbh these two systems of knowledge intermesh seamlessly in the popular imagination. As Prayag becomes the most crowded place on earth, astrophysics and legend overlap to inspire this epic act of faith. The Mela’s mythological genesis lies in the story of the Samudra Manthan – the churning of the ocean of milk – which was a battle between the gods and demons over a pot of divine nectar; the word ‘kumbh’ is Sanskrit for ‘pot’. To cut a long story short, after a protracted battle, the gods took possession of the nectar and handed it over to Jayant, son of Lord Indra, who escaped with it by transforming himself into a sparrow and flying away, chased by the demons. This chase lasted twelve years, during which Jupiter guided Jayant and protected him from the demons, the moon – helped prevent the nectar from spilling, the sun prevented the kumbh from breaking, and Saturn prevented Jayant from drinking all the nectar himself. Only four drops fell on earth, wherever Jayant rested –at Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. Every twelve years, with Jupiter completing of a full orbit around the sun, this nectar is believed to re-appear in one of these four places at a time, corresponding to the astrological positions that Jupiter, the sun and the moon occupied when each drop was spilt.
The Vedic sciences are central to this story. The science of astrophysics is vital to the timing of the festival, which requires a precise understanding of the positions of the sun, the moon, and Jupiter. When these three bodies are placed in a particular manner vis-à-vis the Earth, its electromagnetic field is said to be enhanced. Devotees believe that the effect is especially pronounced at the four places where the nectar fell. This enhanced electromagnetic field is supposed to be favourable for the entire bio-system, and specifically for the air and water of the places where the field is most pronounced. The impact of this on humans is said to be on physical, intellectual and spiritual levels – on the nervous, respiratory, endocrine and circulatory systems. Various scientific institutions are currently investigating the healing benefits of electromagnetic fields, and several say their findings confirm some postulates of Vedic science which, as in the case of Vastushastra, the Vedic study of architecture, places much emphasis on the Earth’s magnetic and other energy fields. In the Vedic world, and so at the Kumbh, science and religion were under the same umbrella and so religious vocabulary – often metaphorical, spiritual, hyperbolic, and mythological – was employed to articulate scientific concepts as well. So the nectar, and the idea that it reappeared during the festival, could be an emblem of the Vedic knowledge of electromagnetic fields.
To reap the benefits of the planetary positioning, kalpvasis arrive at the Mela in throngs. ‘Kalp’ in Sanskrit means self-transformation through inner resolve, and ‘vas’ means living out this resolve through various means, such as yoga and meditation. In the past, Hindu sages and intellectuals would gather at the Mela to ideate on matters of the world, and used this as a space to communicate with each other as well as with the masses, for whom the Mela was a special opportunity to be a part of intellectual and spiritual discussions. Even today, the Mela is a conclave for Hindu philosophers. For those without a philosophical temperament, the Mela is primarily a pilgrimage to wash away their sins, to appease the gods and, as is popularly believed, to thus escape the cycle of birth and death.
Besides this spiritual dimension, for many the Kumbh Mela is also a holiday and a means of entertainment. The Mela is a grand spectacle. The Shahi Snan, or Royal Bath, of the sages and priests, when the Naga Babas display all their martial antics and acrobatics, draws quite a crowd. The Mela draws people from all walks of life, and babas from many orders and sects, all of whom have something unusual to say or display. It’s an anthropological and ethnographic treat for those disposed to human observation.
This large a gathering of people obviously puts much pressure on the city’s meagre resources. For example, there are no proper provisions for all the extra sewage, which finds its way into the same rivers in which those who created the sewage then take a holy dip. The same stands for the litter that is strewn about – plastics, paper, food, offerings made to the rivers – placing tremendous strain on already ailing rivers. The impact on villages and agriculture downstream is also never properly addressed. Questions of caste also come up, as it is inevitably the Dalits who clean up the visitors’ mess. All these problems can be mitigated through proper planning and management, but unfortunately they have not been. For most of the Mela’s visitors and pilgrims these issues do not seem to be of any concern at all.
Why is Hinduism today so nonchalant about much of the mess its practice ensues? Major Hindu festivals have significant ecological footprints. Diwali brings poisonous gasses and noise from firecrackers; Holi adds noxious chemicals to our waters; immersing idols in rivers and making offerings to them pollutes the very holy waters that the faithful worship. Are Hindu practices then predisposed to being insensitive to the environment?
In Hindu theology all existence is seen as divine, and all of nature is worthy of veneration. The universe is a medium through which the divine presents itself. In the wide spectrum on Hindu beliefs, many Hindus see god in plants, animals and rocks. Hindu texts, including the Vedas and Upanishads, stress the interconnectedness between all elements of the cosmos, connected by a divine thread. The philosophy of Advaita, or non-dualism, encapsulates this understanding, elaborating on the oneness of all forms of existence. This notion bears striking parallels to the tenets of quantum physics. That everything is linked in a continuum, and that different units of existence aren’t really separate, are facts no longer restricted to the realms of theology. In Hinduism this is seen as a connecting consciousness, which manifests itself in the form of different qualities present in different elements of nature. For this reason, there is no clear separation between diverse natural phenomena, objects and people. Consequently, everything is divine. Some Hindus see the word ‘Bhagavan’, which means ‘God’ in Hindi, as an acronym: ‘Bh’ stands for bhoomi (earth), ‘ga’ for gagan (sky/ether), ‘v’ for vayu (air), ‘a’ for agni (fire), and ‘n’ for neer (water).
In Hindu mythology, characters often oscillate between natural and human embodiments. Many of the Hindu gods and goddesses have several avatars – manifestations – in animal and plant forms. There is an abundance of nature-based deities, both in the ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions. These deities stand as metaphors, celebrating the divinity of nature and the reciprocity that human societies share with it. Therefore, we see three different phenomena – nature, humans and divinity – converging in what can be understood as a complicated, four-fold process of myth-making:
– Nature is first made intelligible in its natural form, as in the form of rivers, trees, mountains, etc.
– But it is considered dangerous to see nature in simply a scientific manner, as just water or plants or land, stripping it of all its deeper sacral meanings. Thus, divine qualities are identified in each object so that humans understand the deeper value of nature. According to Hindu belief, these divine qualities are not superimposed on different objects at random, only to make humans think that a particular object represents a particular divine attribute. On the contrary, divine consciousness is intrinsic to the object, and the myth’s purpose is merely to recognise it.
– To make this abstract idea popularly intelligible, the oneness between nature and divinity, gods of nature are given human forms (rain god, sun god, river goddess). The human form allows for easy comprehension of nature as divine.
– This human form is authenticated by attaching ordinary human emotions and depictions to it, allowing humans to relate to these mystic natural phenomena and something immediate approachable, not pure and distant. Hence we hear stories of gods and goddesses partaking in human activities.
This process is not contrived, engineered by just a few individuals. Rather, it is the way Hindu society has, over generations, come to understand the environment and build a culture around it. The Hindu belief that god is all life and existence, in and around us, comes alive through such mythology. Eulogising nature in this way is also a tool for ensuring deference towards it.
However, not all people of a community perceive nature as divine; for many, deference towards nature comes not just from its perceived spiritual importance, but also from an understanding that it sustains life and livelihoods. From that perspective, nature takes the form of gods and goddesses in mythology not because of its inherent divinity, but because myth sanctions and legitimises the relationship people already have with the object. Here nature is worshipped simply for what it is and the uses it brings. Here, myth serves more of a moral and cultural purpose than a spiritual one. For instance, considering people’s utilitarian need for rivers, they are eulogised as river goddesses to prevent their abuse or over-exploitation. This is how the valued relationship a community collectively experiences with that object is crystallised and sealed in religion. For the person who does not hold a metaphysical outlook, this form of mythology is most comprehensible. This is why the cultural significance of myth assumes much wider understanding and acceptance than the spiritual one.
So, mythology has two distinguishable forms: the spiritual, where myth is symbolic of the inherent divinity of nature; and cultural, where myth sacralises the relationship of use that human society has with nature. And there is a third form, the ritualistic one, where nature is worshipped not for spiritual or cultural purposes, but simply because inherited tradition and myth says that nature is god. Why this is so does not matter. The relationship is restricted to blind worship alone, and no connection is made between this worship and nature’s spiritual or utilitarian aspects.
God is not the answer
It appears that this ritualistic understanding of mythology and religion has come to dominate today, replacing the basic tenets of respect for nature. So now Hindus bathe in rivers because they fear breaking tradition and possibly inviting god’s wrath, but without recognising the river as a spiritual symbol or respecting the river environment, if not for ecology’s sake then at least for their own. Most Hindus are no longer aware of the rules set in their scriptures about ritual bathing and rivers: that one is supposed to bathe at home first, and only enter the river in an already clean state; that sewage and dirty water, let alone human excreta, should never reach rivers.
As direct contact with natural resources has declined, as piped water has replaced the need for individuals to interact with rivers, concern for the environment has diminished proportionately. This suggests that religion was never the prime factor behind environmentally friendly practices in India in the past. It was livelihoods, lifestyles and culture – all of them born of a necessary intimacy with nature – that ensured respect for the environment. This is not to say that Hinduism does not make a case for environmentalism, but it was never the prime motive of environmental concern for most people. Now that practical links with the environment have been severed, so have popular concerns.
Only ritual remains intact. The Ganga is no longer pure, but a ritual bath in it is still considered vital. People taking holy dips understand that the holy rivers are now dirty, but disparage those who think they have also become impure. In their minds, dirtiness or cleanliness is a quality of the outward form, whereas impurity and purity are a state of the soul. As they differentiate between ‘impure’ and ‘dirty’, the rivers’ inherent divinity and purity will remain intact no matter how much they are defiled. This is why many river worshippers do not take the problem of pollution seriously. Their connection is not with the rivers’ natural form, but with the rivers’ divinity. As a result, perversely, the actual condition of rivers is irrelevant to those who hold them sacred. This is also true of other aspects of nature. On Diwali, Holi and the Kumbh Mela, the levels of water, soil, air and noise pollution keep rising, and yet the devotees revel in it, disregarding the trail of filth they leave behind. Hindu rituals themselves reflect a contradiction, as they give concrete form to abstract ideas of nature worship, but in doing so mock that very idea by despoiling nature through the ritual.
This problem perhaps has its roots in Hindu theology itself, according to which the physical is maya – not real, an illusion. It is disputed whether Hindu theology unanimously states this, or whether it is a misinterpretation of the idea that one needs to rise above worldly desires and attachments. Nevertheless, what we have today is most Hindus believing that the material world is ‘maya’, and so defilement of the physical form means very little. Defilement too is an illusion; the essence is the soul, and is above materiality. But this maya is what we live in everyday, and it is quite an assault on all our senses.
The reason for this isn’t just the lack of connection with nature, but also that our current economy and society encourages ecologically harmful choices. It is inconvenient to buy and use organic colours made with flower dyes, for Holi and for rituals of immersing idols in rivers. It is inconvenient to clean oneself before taking a dip in a river that is far from home; to not make offerings wrapped in plastic. It is almost a universal expectation during Diwali that we will burst firecrackers. It would be too romantic to assume that all people of the past connected intimately with nature or agreed with Hindu theology, but they did lead more eco-friendly lives as noxious chemicals simply weren’t available to them. Modernity comes at a price, and doesn’t just affect industry, but religion too. Hindu rituals now incur a heavy environmental cost. Besides, our water and sewage infrastructure is such that we pollute rivers with our waste even if we care enough not to directly throw things into them ourselves. Today, even if we only made organic offerings like flowers or unpainted clay idols, we still indirectly continue to burden our already ailing rivers.
In this daunting scenario, initiatives like the ‘Green Kumbh’ by the Ganga Action Parivar, a network of individuals and organisations concerned for the river’s wellbeing, are welcome beginnings. The ‘Green Kumbh’ was started by a religious leader in partnership with NGOs, schools and government officials. It focuses on planting trees, building toilets and managing solid waste during the Mela. However, it fails to address core ecological issues with river bathing, offerings thrown into the rivers, and other Kumbh rituals, as well as the major problem of sewage being dumped into the rivers. The program aims to beautify the area for a ‘clean and green’ Kumbh, but sadly, like many environmental initiatives, falls prey to simplistic rhetoric instead of actually tackling problematic practices. The other problem with such initiatives is that of saffron-ising the green. Environmental movements, if driven by religious sentiments, can turn fundamentalist, exclusive and communal. This danger looms large, even though religion can be an easy way to draw people towards environmentalism. Nonetheless, religious leaders have an important role to play in endorsing eco-friendly rituals and modifying practices to suit current needs instead of looking to the ‘pristine past’ for answers. Still, whatever the answer is for India’s rivers, religion is only a small part of it.
~ Sarandha is the author of In Search of Yamuna: Reflections on a River Lost (Vitasta, 2011). After working with the Centre for Science and Environment, she is currently a research scholar at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.