The Enviro-Litigators

Contemporary Debates

Never impure

In 1986, at the inauguration of the government's first environmental program, the Ganga Action Plan, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi spoke these words in Banaras:

The purity (pavitrata) of the Ganga has never been in doubt. Yet we have allowed the river to become polluted (ganda hone de rahi hai), a river that is the symbol of our spirituality. The felling of trees has caused severe floods and silt and mud now flow into the Ganga making the river shallow so that boats cannot ply in it as they did before. Along with this we are seeing that the different kinds of pollution (polyusan)--the dirt (gand) of the city, of industry, of factories and of dead animals--all kinds of dirtiness (gandagi) we are throwing in the Ganga. From now on, we shall put a stop to all this. We shall see that the waters of the Ganga become completely clean (bilkul saf) once again.

People gathered in home in IndiaIn this speech, Rajiv Gandhi made a significant statement about the nature and quality of the river Ganga, one that cut through several cultural logics and tied core symbols together to create a curious bricolage. He was calling for a new conceptual space by setting up metaphoric linkages between categories considered distinct in popular discourse, especially in the popular discourses of Hindus of Banaras. By talking about Ganga's sacred purity (which Hindus refer to as pavitrata) and human-generated pollution (what Hindus call gandagi and he called the dirt [gand] of the city), he modified and gave new meaning to the terms he invoked purity (pavitrata), dirt (gandagi) and cleanness (saf hona).

The problem of semantic disjunction is one that many government officials have largely ignored since Gandhi's inaugural address. Even those officials who in their private lives practice Hindu rituals of purification with faith and devotion do not address this issue in policy debates. Government policies often use the English term 'pollution' to define a series of problems that involve waste and its impact on the river. Since the term pollution can also gloss over a distinction between the toxic waste of industry and the organic waste of households and human interactions, it has the potential to obfuscate ecological processes that may be harmful to residents. This is because government offices tend to under-report levels of toxic waste in the river by focusing more on the parameters of dissolved oxygen and biological oxygen demand, parameters that say nothing about heavy metals and other toxins in the river (see National River Conservation Directorate web page: This also allows government officials to allocate a disproportionate amount of blame to religious interactions with the river and deflect attention away from industrial uses. This is problematic for the development of the public's understanding of industrial waste and wastewater in general.

People in India gathered near water sourceThe English term pollution also confuses or disregards the distinction that many Hindus of Banaras make between sacred purity and impurity (pavitrata/suddhata and apavitrata/asuddhata) and material cleanness and dirtiness (saf hona/svacchata and ganda gi/asvacchata). Rajiv Gandhi did not ignore this distinction but used it to argue for an ecological understanding of the river. What Rajiv Gandhi did was use the terms that were most familiar to his audience by opening with the argument that Ganga's purity (pavitrata) was not in question. Then he roped in the audience for a more difficult stretch by suggesting that Ganga could be adversely impacted by dirt and waste (gandagi) and that she could become unclean (ganda). Taking the position of manager of cities and the nation, he argued that Ganga needed to be clean again (dobara bilkul saf hone lag jae) and in doing so opened up a fresh discursive space in which to consider the conditions of uncleanness or pollution in a sacred river.

People on stone constructed river sideGandhi argued that Ganga's purity was not in doubt. But he asked people to recognize that human activities were causing harmful pollution, a pollution which he transliterated from English as polyusan. He promoted the idea that humans had the power to stop their own misuse of material power and stop waste disposal practices that were harmful to the river. With the power of human agency, Rajiv Gandhi explained, the Ganga could "become clean once again."

The primacy given to human agency over ecological, natural or divine power departs in significant ways from assumptions about Ganga's power that members of his audience were likely to have made at that time. To deliver that address, Rajiv Gandhi lectu red from a platform on Rajendra Prasad ghat. This ghat or flight of steps gives the public access to the Ganga and is adjacent to the ghat on which I have conducted most of my fieldwork in Banaras. Speaking toward a modest crowd sitting in decorated boats and to a larger one gathered along the riverbank, he communicated to residents who, I would argue, had very different views about the power of the river.

As members of the Hindu community, pilgrim priests have views on dead bodies and dirtiness that differ in significant ways from the views of journalists, activists, lawyers and government officials working in environmental programs. According to the views of pilgrim priests, dead human bodies are cremated and after this, the ashes are immersed in the Ganga for purification. This constitutes a good sacrificial death, reaffirms Ganga's purpose on earth, and enacts a sublime form of cosmic regeneration. They explained to me that Hindu sacred texts told of Ganga's descent from heaven, a descent that brought her into contact with the three Gods Brahma, Siva, and Visnu. Through this contact, she acquired the power to purify human souls and absolve moral and material impurities. The Bhagavata Purana, for instance, expresses this theme of imperishability in the parable of Ganga's descent from heaven. Ganga, who flowed over the foot of Visnu into Brahma's jug, "washed away the dirt, in the form of the sins of the whole of the world, by her touch, and yet, remained pure [unpolluted by sins]" (Bhagavata Purana 5.17.1). After years of penance, a mortal named Bhagiratha requested that Brahma pour her out of his jug onto the locks of Lord Siva. Containing her powerful flow, Siva guided her descent to earth.

People on steps leading to waterThis view is held by Banaras pilgrim priests working in the sacred space of Dasasvamedha ghat, a space that intersects with the Ganga in the material form of a flight of steps that gives pilgrims access to her water. At this spot, pilgrim priests argue that Mother Ganga purifies the ashes of cremated individuals, and if need be, carries away the partially cremated or fully uncremated bodies without being adversely affected. They add that it is not material dirtiness or waste (gandagi) that transforms Ganga but Ganga who transforms material waste. The priests pictured in images seven and eight communicate these messages to pilgrims during the performance of religious rituals. Interacting with pilgrims in this way, they glorify Ganga's purificatory power and encourage devotees to seek her abiding grace. Pilgrims seek her grace through ablutions and by offering her water to other deities.

Responding to the messages implicit in media reports, pilgrims priests argue that fully uncremated bodies floating in the Ganga are less ecologically dangerous than are the social conditions they reflect. In their view, these corpses represent a decline in the practice of cremation and mark the moral degeneracy of the contemporary age (kaliyuga). In their view, Ganga has the capacity to carry away all sorts of human created waste without being defiled. After all, they argue, she came down from heaven to carry out that very mission. But having said this, many priests also complained to me about the failure of government programs to deal with waste disposal and to clean the river. These laments indicate that they are not "completely oblivious" to the problem but are in fact concerned about the problems of waste accumulation and inadequate disposal practices. But their concern with waste or gandagi does not mean that they are willing to reduce Ganga's purificatory power to a level at which it might be rendered vulnerable to processes of ecological pollution. Ecological pollution, in fact, never enters their equation because the Ganga is not envisioned as an entity that can be impacted by biotic processes.

People in water in IndiaReligious codes relating to the use and worship of the Ganga cannot be conflated with secular law. In many instances, these codes and laws speak about different realms of Ganga's ontology and exert their influence in different spheres of everyday life. This means that "resource management" is only partially coopted by a state vested with legal authority. Instructions about worship in religious texts and rituals are in many cases more crucial to processes that shape public uses of this resource. These instructions may be construed as another cultural code of resource management, one that in some contexts is more respected by the public than laws and official policies are.

In Hindu traditions, pilgrim priests and other ritual specialists have taught pilgrims and devotees how to worship Ganga as a Mother Goddess and how to seek her abiding grace. These leaders and ritual specialists have insisted that Ganga's purificatory power and motherliness cannot be understood in terms of the materialist logic of environmental pollution and because of this her condition cannot be reduced to a state of dirtiness or pollution. Instead, one must strive to gain knowledge (jnan) of Mother Ganga and seek her blessings. This can be done by offering oil lamps to Ganga in a ritual called arati. This ritual is performed daily at sunrise and sunset on Pancaganga ghat, another sacred spot along the Ganga in Banaras. Arati enacts the belief that Ganga has supreme power over human agency and can bless the faithful and those who engage in proper ritual practices.

According to pilgrim priests, official policy is also incapable of defining the meanings of sacred objects immersed (or, as government policy would have it, "disposed") in the river. To Hindus, Ganga's power to purify these and other items cannot be overstated. To receive Ganga's grace and power, one must bathe in, cook with, and wash utensils in the Ganga. Pilgrims in Banaras wash utensils in the Ganga after a meal. In this way, Ganga purifies both ritual and everyday objects. Pilgrims also provide offerings to the Goddess in the form of statues of gods and goddesses, religious books, saris and garlands of flowers. They are offered to Ganga every day and also at moments of cosmic juncture.

Rituals of purification have long been a part of interactions with the Ganga for Hindus of India. Before colonial schemes sought to manipulate the river for irrigation, those who worshiped Ganga and practiced rituals of arati and ablution (snan) commanded considerable respect among the Hindu population. Ritual specialists and pilgrims continue to hold the power to contest, at a grassroots level, ideas about river pollution and scientific ecology. This is articulated through different words to talk a bout sacred purity and impurity and material cleanness and uncleanness. While Ganga may have become unclean (ganda) in a material sense, she has not and cannot become impure in a sacred sense (apavitra or assuddha).

Many pilgrim priests reject river pollution as an erroneous notion but they are not blind to waste problems. Likewise, pilgrims are not mindlessly collapsing their understanding of sacred practices and defiling substances when they bath near waste water drains. For many pilgrims and pilgrim priests in Banaras, the degeneracy of this age, the age of Kaliyuga, is most vividly expressed by the practices of industry and government waste management agencies. They consider government officials and industrialists who corrupt the administration of waste management and dump effluent with impunity as the temporal agents of this degeneracy. (Conveniently, they leave themselves out of this agency!) In their view, government officials and industrialists are attempting to manipulate a powerful Goddess that cannot be controlled, thereby dishonoring themselves by attempting to dishonor her. Wastewater drains and solid waste dumps point to these debased behaviors. But to pilgrim priests, the recognition of wastes capes does not mean that the river has reached a state of ecological degeneracy or as scientists and government officials would have it, that the Ganga herself has been rendered powerless or polluted.

Last Updated: February 14, 2018