India’s Sacred Rivers: Purity and Pollution

Photo by Shirshasin Ghosh
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 -
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
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
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 .