India’s Sacred Rivers: Purity and Pollution

Photo by Shirshasin Ghosh https://flic.kr/p/eum4zt
Sunset over the Ganges River

Hinduism is an ancient and highly complex religion. Because it is practiced in so many varied ways by such a large population of people, it’s nearly impossible to give it one precise description. But one thing all Hindus have in common is their reverence of water. With water, Hindus attain purity and avoid pollution — they cleanse their bodies as they cleanse their spirits.

There are seven principal holy rivers where Hindus can go to bathe, cleanse their sins, and receive other sacred gifts. But these rivers are threatened by pollution, development, and climate change. It may not be long before the gifts of the rivers dry up and disappear.

India’s Holy Rivers

Most people recognize the Ganges River as the most sacred river in India. But Hindus also bathe in the Yamuna, Godavari, Narmada, Sindhu (Indus), and Kaveri rivers to wash away their sins. (They would bathe in the Sarasvati if it actually existed — scientists think that the river dried up thousands of years ago.)

Each of these rivers is associated with a goddess, with the exception of the Indus River which is associated with a god, and each river is linked to myths and legends. For example, the Yamuna is named after the goddess Yamuna — the daughter of Surya, the sun god and the twin sister of Yama, the god of death. It is said that when Yama left his family to rule over the underworld, Yamuna cried so much that her tears became the river. People who bathe in the river will not only be cleansed of their sins, but also spared a painful death.

And the Godavari River is often linked with Sage Gautama. According to legend, Sage Gautama killed a cow unintentionally — a great sin for Hindus. Seeking redemption for his sin, he prayed to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. His ardent prayers made the gods bring the Godavari River to earth. When the waters descended over the dead cow, it came back to life and Sage Gautama was redeemed of his sin.

The Indus River, a Holy Namesake

"Indus river from karakouram highway". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indus_river_from_karakouram_highway.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Indus_river_from_karakouram_highway.jpg
Indus River

The Indus River, or Sindhu, is as holy as it is historical. In 1921, archaeologists uncovered evidence of an ancient civilization along the river, which today runs through northwest India into Pakistan. The Indus Valley civilization (also known as the Harappan civilization) may have originated as early as 7000 BCE, encompassed over 750,000 square miles at its height, and traded with the ancient Mesopotamians.

Little is known about the Indus Valley civilization and the effect it may have had on Hinduism. Archaeologists have identified baths, which may indicate an early form of ritual bathing similar to what modern Hindus practice. And some believe that a seal, featuring a horned figure surrounded by animals, may be a prototype of Lord Shiva.

Even the word “Hindu” is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word “Sindhu,” which is the local name of the Indus River. Sindhu means a body of trembling water.

Although the Indus Valley civilization began to decline around 1800 BCE, due possibly to flooding or drought, the river, which gave life to the ancient civilization, still remains sacred today. The Rigveda describes the Sindhu as a strong warrior amongst the other sacred rivers, which are seen as goddesses and compared to cows and mares yielding milk and butter.

HE singer, O ye Waters in Vivasvān’s place, shall tell your grandeur forth that is beyond compare.
The Rivers have come forward triply, seven and seven. Sindhu in might surpasses all the streams that flow.
Varuna cut the channels for thy forward course, O Sindhu, when thou rannest on to win the race.
Thou speedest o’er precipitous ridges of the earth, when though art Lord and Leader of these moving floods.
[Rigveda, Book 10, Hymn LXXV. The Rivers]

The Threat of Pollution of the Sacred Rivers

Photo by Daniel Bachhuber https://flic.kr/p/6aagBx
Cleaning the ghats by polluting the Ganges

The 1,550-mile Ganges River is heavily polluted with toxins, chemicals, and dangerous bacteria. The pollutants come from the chemicals that are produced by the factories and businesses that discharge 800,000 gallons of sewage into the river, toxic pesticides and fertilizers from farms, urban runoff, and the partially charred human bodies that are tossed into the river annually. According to the National Ganga River Basin, the amount of pollutants is now almost 3,000 times higher than what is considered safe by the World Health Organization.

And that’s just the Ganges. The Yamuna is also suffering. As it meanders through Delhi over a 48-km stretch, it picks up huge quantities of chemical waste and toxins. Thousands of fish continue to die in Agra and Mathura and there have been mass deaths of Gharials in the Yamuna. A large number of groups have worked to clean up the Yamuna, but the problem is not easy to fix.

The Godavari River is also reported to be grossly polluted. Noted water conservationist Dr. Rajendra Singh urged the government earlier this year to take urgent measures to curb industrial effluents and domestic waste. “There is a need to bring in drastic changes in the water purifying system,” he told officials.

The Threat of Human Development

The viability of the rivers is threatened by more than pollution. India is considering the construction of 16 new dams across a 1,600-km stretch of the Ganges between Varanasi and Hooghly. There are also plans to develop the Ganges as a waterway for commercial activities. Experts believe that such development activities would kill the river and the proposed dams would convert the Ganges into 16 huge ponds.

Probably the most controversial development project are the dams on the Narmada River. The project was first envisaged in the 1940s by the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, but was delayed until 1979. At that time it was proposed as the construction of some 3,200 small, medium, and large dams on the river. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), argued that the dam project would displace people, submerge forest farmland, disrupt fisheries, and possibly inundate the canals increasing the prospect of insect-borne diseases.

Photo by International Rivers https://flic.kr/p/bvqCYC
Hunger strike in protest of the Sardar Sarovar dam

Although the World Bank withdrew from the Narmada project in 1993, the Indian Supreme Court gave the go ahead for the Sardar Sarovar dam, the most controversial of all the dam projects, in 2000. And earlier this year, the government was given the go-ahead to raise the dam even higher, despite protestors strong opposition. Problems are already arising. When the area was inundated with heavy monsoon rains and the dam began to overflow, the Narmada district administration was forced to issue a warning to 39 villages located downstream of the dam.

The Indian government is also considering a river-linking project designed to bring more water to drought-stricken agricultural fields and villages. The Ganges, Godvari, and Narmada are just a few of the rivers that are included to be linked.

Many are concerned. “Environmentalists, hydrologists and economists around the world have expressed deep concerns at the irreversible damage that this sort of mega project can do to the country’s environment and our water resources. Massive civil works will be involved, lakhs of people will be uprooted and vast sums of money will be required,” Congress leader and MP Karan Singh said.

The Threat of Climate Change

Rivers that flow from the Himalayan glaciers, like the Ganges and the Indus Rivers, face another looming challenge: climate change. Glaciers provide the Indus with 70-80% of its water and the Ganges with 30-40%. When the glaciers melt, due to warming temperatures, flow to these rivers will no longer be moderated the way it is today. Communities and ecosystems along the river are, therefore, more prone to severe water shortages, variability, and potentially greater flooding.

Maintaining the Sacredness of the Rivers

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has promised to clean up the Ganges, and even sought the advice of the country’s holy men. President Barack Obama of the United States has promised to give “concrete support” to Modi’s campaign to improve hygiene and sanitation throughout India. Countless nonprofits, activists, and environmental groups are working to make sure these words actually become action.

But is it enough?

Tough pollution laws and water treatment plants may be able to clean up the pollution in these rivers. But as the threats of climate change become more apparent and India’s government seeks to improve the lives of farmers and drought-stricken villages with development projects, is there any real hope that these rivers will survive?

Perhaps like the great Sage Gautama, it’s time for us all to pray for our sin — our sin of allowing these rivers to become so threatened. Maybe the gods will hear our prayers and fill the rivers with fresh, clean water so that we can purify ourselves again.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .
  • Colin

    Hi Robyn,

    Thanks for another great article.

    As one who has been fortunate enough to have spent a couple months backpacking around India when I was younger. I can confidently state that to note that “the Ganges is polluted” deserves a nomination for the award of “History’s Greatest Understatement!” So it’s good to hear that Narendra Modi intends to clean up the Ganges.

    Your comment on our environmental sins and our consequent need to repent bought back earlier memories of the orthodox Christian teaching on the Fall of humanity into sin and its effects on our (now broken) relationships with: 1. God; 2. Our Neighbour; 3. Ourselves; and 4. Creation.

    Please consider Dr. Milne’s take on this issue:
    “In relation to the created order
    Humanity loses its harmony with the natural order and our God-given stewardship of the environment gives place to sinful plundering. This is manifest as exploitation, the needless destruction of the world without thought for its created beauty or intrinsic worth. It is also manifest as pollution, the selfish and rapacious use of raw materials, contaminating the oceans and the very atmosphere, all too often in the interests of economic profit, luxury and self-indulgence.”
    — Dr. Bruce Milne
    Lecturer in Biblical and Historical Theology
    Spurgeon’s College, London, United Kingdom

    • Eden Keeper

      Wow, I would love to travel India, but I can imagine seeing all the pollution is pretty depressing. I’m hopeful that Modi has it in him to take on the monumental task of cleaning it up. It seems that the people there want to help.

      Thanks for sharing Dr. Milne’s quote. I think “harmony” can also be seen as “connection” — a feeling that the natural order is something separate from us.

      • Colin

        Pollution?

        Warning to Reader: Nostalgia Mode Enacted!

        I can well remember my time backpacking through India in 1987. At the end of a long day of exploring the wonderful sights, sounds and rhythms of India we would relax by sitting on an YHA balcony sipping coffee and watch some of the most spectacular sunsets you could imagine.

        Why so spectacular in India?

        Well, as a few million Indian families all started their “small stoves” to cook their dinners, the air was filled with a massive amount of smoke. The result was some truly beautiful sunsets. The larger the city the more beautiful the fading sun appeared.

        These sunsets reminded me of watching (from a safe distance) the sun setting behind a raging bushfire (wildfire) in the Australian countryside. The smoke and haze (soot?) etc. caused the same effect i.e. some of the most beautiful sunsets you could imagine – seen through the haze. A truly magnificent sight. Deep vibrant colours that literally took your breath away. But it was a terrifying beauty. Perhaps comparable to seeing a Great White Shark up close. The beauty of a powerful destroyer.

        It was then that I began to wonder just how long the earth could sustain our rapidly expanding population. From memory India then had around 850 million people. Since then it has grown by nearly 400 million people (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_India).

        That’s a whole lot more Indian families cooking dinner on their “small stoves” today. I imagine that the sunsets are even more spectacular now…but I’m not sure how long the planet can sustain such “beauty”.

        • Eden Keeper

          Wow, thanks for sharing this! It’s a reminder that it’s better not to live in a technicolor world.

          • Colin

            “It’s a reminder that it’s better not to live in a technicolor world.”

            You lost me there, Robyn.

            However, I just wanted to say good luck with it all as I’m getting ready to move interstate next yr and so won’t have the time to comment for awhile. As for climate change with the IEA advising that we only have 14 yrs left at our current rate of emissions (which increase by 3%/yr) to have only an 80% chance of staying below 2C. And with India admitting that their emissions will increase till 2025 at least I think it’s time to admit defeat on 2C.

            Keeping the world below 2C was always an optimistic hope that hasn’t panned out in reality. However, there is much we can do to mitigate the effects of a +2C world. This is where my spare time will be spent in the future; in preparing my Plan B.

            There is still hope even in a +2C world.

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