Hindu philosophy and environmental pollution

Pilgrims believe that Ganga carrying away all the filth to somewhere else justifies the act of pouring dirt into it

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

Pilgrims believe that Ganga carrying away all the filth to somewhere else justifies the act of pouring dirt into it
A cacophony of sounds permeate the Kumbh mela area. Vedic mantras, devotional songs, spiritual discourse, lost and found announcements from countless loudspeakers, coupled with noise from vehicular traffic and humming of million souls crowding the area, can easily drive anyone insane. The effect of such high level of noise pollution is bound to cause damage to health and the environment. Yet, people feel a sense of calm and bliss over here. This logic-defying behaviour begs the question, 'Is Hinduism insensitive to the environment?'

Anger, disgust and outrage were the emotions I expected, when I asked this question to a curious mix of the faithful and the enlightened, but it was the wide-spread indifference which bowled me over.

People who flock to the Kumbh are mostly those who are propelled by tradition and the urge to follow the religious customs to seek salvation. An average Hindu pilgrim here is hardly bothered by the state of the environment or quality of water at the Sangam. He or she will take a bath even in a sewage drain if convinced it is the holy confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna, exposing the deep-seated Hindu belief which describes dirt or pollution as things out of place or order.

Dung by virtue of being dung is not pollution if it is in its rightful place –the toilet or open field. But dung in the house or kitchen is pollution. In other words, out of sight out of mind. Thus Ganga carrying away all the filth to somewhere else justifies the act of putting dirt in it.

Pilgrims assembled for Kumbh offer simplistic and varying explanations for their act of polluting—river water is flowing and only stagnant water can get polluted; there will be some pollution if so many devotees bathe but come monsoon river flood will clean everything; or that their individual contribution is insignificant to the big picture. The understanding of pollution load on river and land is not there at all.

The mathematics of 100 g of ritualistic offerings to the river by each 100 million individuals will add up to 10,000 tonnes of offerings eludes the understanding of a devotee. And this is apart from the solid waste generally generated by people. Allahabad as a city generates only 500 tonnes of solid waste daily, Kumbh's scented offerings themselves are going to be 20 times this quantity. But nobody wants to risk their salvation by defaulting on their personal and insignificant 100 g of assorted offerings.

‘Most scientific religion’

Swami Hasdevacharya, the head of Swami Jagannath Math of Haridwar, who is visiting Allahabad for his third Kumbh, voiced concern about increasing pollution. He shared his grief about the pitiable state of the Ganga and poor water quality at the Sangam. He was critical of the superstar self-styled godmen of the religion who merely deliver discourses in air-conditioned halls and travel in chartered planes.

But when confronted with facts that Hindu rituals and festivals are also adding to the pollution, Hasdevacharya dismissed them. He alleged that the allegation was baseless and shows ignorance of Hindu philosophy; he even termed it as an anti-Hindu propaganda of other religions.

Hasdevacharya explained that Hinduism is the only religion which is based on respect for nature and the environment. Animals, birds, trees and geographical entities are given status of gods and goddess and are worshiped and preserved. Peepal tree release more oxygen, thus by ensuring its survival by declaring it holy, Hinduism conserves the environment. Hindu gods have always come to the rescue of nature affected by the excesses of humanity.

Lord Vishnu took form of a fish in his Matsya avatar to clean the polluted sea and rivers; he even took form of a swine in Varaha avatar and cleaned the land by eating up all the filth. Hasdevacharya proclaimed Hinduism as the most environmentally conscious religion. The blame of polluting rivers should be put on fish eating; it is the fish that clean water and the reduction in their numbers has affected the regenerative quality of rivers.

Upper Ganga, Lower Ganga

Kumbh is also unique because it is also a gathering of the more mystic unit of Hinduism, led by ascetics called Naga sadhus (naked saints). The understanding of Hindu philosophy and religion is slightly different for this sect of Hinduism, but Naga sadhus are very difficult to interact with, as they don't find sharing their understanding with lesser humans (read non-ascetic) important or required. After constant persuasion, Mahant Rajgiri Naga Baba, one of the many Naga sadhus camping at Kumbh agreed to answer my question.

Rajgiri explained that the Ganga is everywhere and that the Ganga's water is the purest. The physical river is of no importance, neither is its pollution of any significance. The Ganga is created at his tent by the fire of his yajna and ritualistic offerings. The fire produces smoke which will cleanse the air and leads to formation of clouds. These clouds collect the water from the Ganga flowing in heavens above the sky and bring it to earth in the form of rains. Rain is always pure and nurtures all the life. In this way Hinduism cleanses the Earth.

I was not enlightened enough to assimilate his boundless sea of knowledge, proclaimed Rajgiri, and he refused to share any mystic revelations with me. He returned to his tapasya (meditation) after smoking a new joint of weed. He was slightly intoxicated the whole time, but when are the Naga sadhus not intoxicated.


Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.