New Religion

The saffron-clad sadhus and former dacoits now find a ritual for social restructuring and acceptance: water harvesting. They are building "temples of water" instead of temples of stone. Water harvesting has brought the new age Valmikis dignity and respect

By Eklavya Prasad
Published: Sunday 31 March 2002

New Religion

Sant as water crusader Swami N THINK saffron. Think sadhus and sants, communal frenzy, the Gujarat pogrom, of swords raised to the sky and the battle cry of kar sevaks and their adversaries renting a fresh spring morning. Now take a break. Picture a rishi meditating on the edge of a temple tank - say, a postcard shot of a matted hair, unshaven, bare-chested ascetic immersed in deep thought gilded by the setting sun.

This rishi could be Swami Narayan or Devi Prasad and ironically, both live in Gujarat, a state known for its chemical and industrial power as much as for communal riots now. But here they are not involved in moving pillars to build a temple of stones. They are here to build "temples of water", where wisdom-seekers learn prudence and sagacity. Where the value of a drop of water is considered more than that of a place of worship. Here, water is the new religion.

More and more sants and mahants are taking to water harvesting. For some, it is to widen their social appeal, for others water is an instrument for social restructuring. The mantra is catching on.

Water is a great leveller, too. It's not just the puritans who are involved in harvesting water. At the other extreme are the social charlatans. Former dacoits Kalyan Gujjar or Jagdish Gujjar, for instance, whose lives now revolve around tapping and channelling water. Their past lives are but a bad dream, better left forgotten. Their reason for the metamorphosis is no different from their strait-laced brethrens: social acceptance. And with good work, that's not difficult to attain.

Water harvesting has brought the new age Valmikis dignity and respect. This in an age where water can kill too. Israel and Palestine have locked horns over water sharing, the Cauvery waters is still disputed in south India, and as recent as 1999, water riots in Gujarat led to the death of four people in police firing. So, the fact that future wars could be fought on the issue of water is a reality that cannot be washed away.

Ironically, it is not water that discriminates. People do. In the male-dominated society, women are yet to emerge as water heroes. This when women are the worst affected in a water-scarce scenario. It is they who travel long distances to fetch water. And this discrimination extends to almost areas of life. Down To Earth photographer, Preeti Singh, was denied entry by sants to some areas of the temple in parts of Gujarat.

This attitude must change if water has to become everybody's business. New communities will emerge only when there is equity. Discrimination will only lead to violence. These fragile water structures are like children. They need care and nurturing. And only local people can ensure this. We need more temples of water. And more kar sewaks. This is their story.

The Redeemer
There are those who despite years of formal education barely comprehend life's truths. And there are those who though living far away from the acknowledged centres of learning breathe wisdom. Among the latter is 82-year-old Pandurang Shastri Athavaleor Dada to the wisdom-seekersa self-taught individual.

Hindus believe, or rather used to believe, that water is the nerve centre around which their life and fertility depended. By and by, the spiritual obligation to keep the environment clean among other things gave way to blind faith and pernicious rituals.

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