Cool breezes ruffle through my hair and the murmur of the river over rocks fills my ears. Eyes closed, I sit in meditation on the banks of the river Ganga at dawn. Aware of each breath passing through me, my forehead feels like a miniature sun as I am filled with a radiant light, joy, gratitude, and stillness.
Ganga. The name alone has always evoked longing and a sense of wonder. What is it like at that sacred place, where rishis and the Gods themselves have sat and debated and prayed and meditated? Now I am here, unplanned, in Rishikesh. What is the inner purpose of my time here and how can I make the most of this special opportunity?
I open my eyes and watch the birds circle above the river. A pigeon lands on a rock about 20 feet away from me and bends to drink water. The same bird lands on the same rock at the same time every morning, like a pilgrim taking her daily sacred bath. On the opposite bank, a steady stream of people are already walking alongside the ghat in a colorful parade on their way to work or class. I pray to remain connected to Spirit and stillness deep within, no matter the external circumstances.
During my week in Rishikesh – the last week of my three and a half months in India – the Ganga was the literal and metaphorical center of my experience. Her song lulled me to sleep each night, called me into alert wakefulness each morning, and guided me to revelations of gratitude, humility, and spiritual knowledge during my hours of meditation each morning and evening. The beauty of her form, and of the forested hillsides surrounding, entranced me as I visited holy places up and down the river, including as far north as Dev Prayag, the confluence of rivers where the Ganga formally begins. In wonder, I gazed at waters that were by turns bright and sparkling in the sunlight; dark and muted in twilight; powerfully roaring and crashing around boulders; dancing in eddies around small rocks; or moving steadily, swiftly, and quietly in an inexorable pull towards the ocean. This is the eternal river that has purified India for millennia, coming directly from the spiritual world and flowing thousands of kilometers from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Yet will she one day end up like the Yamuna – polluted and dead?Here in Rishikesh, the Ganga is vibrant, powerful, and cleansing, with her purity so strong that it’s felt in the air the moment one nears. Yet as one moves downriver, the river becomes increasingly contaminated with industrial wastes, sewage, and agricultural runoff, while her flows are simultaneously siphoned off for irrigation and to augment the flow of other rivers, such as the Hooghly. The ecological integrity of the river is highly compromised by the time she joins the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, with public health implications for farmers, villagers who rely on river water, pilgrims, and aquatic life.
Yet in a sense, the Ganga is still purifying India (and Bangladesh) throughout her 2500 km journey – picking up all that waste and carrying it out to the ocean. Reckoning with pollution of the Ganga is also a purification of the heart for the half a billion people who rely upon her. The many farmers, bhaktas, workers, and river-dwellers who feel the pain and remorse of pollution don’t necessarily have a way to do anything about it. Individual actions are limited and minuscule in their impact compared to corporate and governmental actions. Although popular media love to lambast small farmers or encourage individual behavioral change, ethical advocacy would instead address corporate and political behaviors. In the meantime, for millions across India and for devotees around the world, understanding the situation of a revered river is the ultimate purification of the heart. Ganga continues to teach, humble, and purify, whether her waters are pure or polluted. Feeling the pain of a circumstance we are powerless to change is the ultimate humility – the existential humility we hold before the Ultimate.