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Rishikesh is the place where the purest water for many falls from the Himalayas and joins five other rivers forming the renowned “Ganga-ji” or “Ganges river.” For those who don’t know, the Ganga river is one of the most sacred rivers for many religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. It flows mainly through Rishikesh and Varanasi, two of the holiest cities in India.
In Hinduism, there is the belief that if you bathe in the river, do morning and evening rituals, and cremate on the shore of the Ganga, for those who’ve passed away and had some of their ashes spread in the river, their karma will improve. This will bring them closer to god, making their next life better. These practices happen mostly in Varanasi because the four pillars of Hinduism are all present there at the same time. People pray to their god for life and for death in the same place. In Hinduism this god has many manifestations: he is The Creator, The Protector, and The Destroyer. This god is believed to have given life to one of the oldest cities in the world by providing the most essential resource for life: water.
Varanasi is also the place where Buddha shared his first teachings with the five monks. Everyday, people come to Varanasi from all around the world, people who practice a diverse range of religions, just to feel the sacredness of the city and appreciate the Ganga river.
The river that has given life to people from diverse religions is now, however, at risk. Varanasi used to have another important river passing through the city but it disappeared because of water misuse and pollution, caused by the upriver dams system, general water misuse, and industrial waste amongst other things. This was a wake up call for many who are now realizing that even if water is considered sacred, it isn’t treated like it. Honoring god by polluting the greatest gift he gave to humans is not congruent . Drinking the water that is used to wash clothing, swim, bathe, release ashes, and dispose of industrial waste is threatening people’s health. Some of these habits might seem irrelevant and incomprehensible for those who are unfamiliar with the culture of India and the important role that it plays, but there is no disputing that these practices are degrading the environment. That said, even if this is damaging for their health and is unsustainable, people have continued to do it. The cause might be a lack of awareness or a a near future oriented mindset.
Professor Mishra gave a lecture to our module during our time in Varanasi. The presentation was titled “Think of Earth as a Bank: You Need to Deposit to Withdraw.” This quote may sound crazy, but I’ve found it to be very accurate. As an example, people are withdrawing water from the Ganga river and depositing back polluted water. The only outcome they should expect on their next withdrawal is what they last deposited: polluted water.
There are things to do. The most basic one is spreading awareness and teaching people about the effects of their actions, without completely changing their cultural identity, during the transition to a more sustainable water use. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary and possible.