Posted by: shipbright | February 8, 2010

Holy water, Holy river. The Ganges. The Goddess is not well..Tibetan Plateau series 4

“The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India, born in Allahabad on the Ganges

[A Holy Man prays in the Ganges River during Magh Mela Photo: AP]

The Ganges River story is a challenge to tell in a brief format that distills the major issues for people to appreciate and link to their own lives half a world away.  The complexity of the issues around the River Ganges, or Ganga Ma [Mother Ganges], sheds light on the complexity of our own desires, needs, and flaws as a human race.

It is a compelling story and a difficult story because it exposes truths that are sometimes hard to admit.  The problems we face are problems we have created for ourselves in our collective behaviors.  The problems are easy to deflect personal responsibility for since our individual actions are merely straws in a large hay pile.  But a huge complicated hay pile it has become and we are to blame.  We are responsible, individually and collectively, to correct the problems.  While this story may be taking place on the other side of the planet it holds universal lessons for all of us.

Let’s begin with the spiritual face that Man has put on the river:   Throughout the ages, the Ganges has played a dramatic part in the spiritual lives of the Indian people. It is said that to know the Ganges is to know India and her people. The river is strong, proud, and overbearing; she is also humble, peaceful, and stern; she is always changing yet ever the same.  The Ganges is worshiped as a mother goddess, gangadevi, and her celestial water is believed to possess supernatural power. Mother Ganges is many things to many people. She is the provider for the millions who reside in the agricultural communities along her banks; she is the bestower of benedictions for the pious, and the redeemer of sins for the sinful; she is the healer of disease for the sick; and for the dying, she is the giver of liberation from the cycle of birth and death.  The devout deeply believe in the powers of the Ganges water. It is said that if one bathes in the Ganges or even sprinkles three drops of Ganges water on his head, he becomes freed from past sins (karma). The ganges is believed to have such purging effects on the impurities of the soul that if one even remembers the name of the Ganges, he acquires such merit that he easily attains a place in heaven. [courtesy of]

Mother Ganga, in the intricate and complex belief system of Hinduism, is the essence of purity.  To drink her waters is to heal, to bathe in her waters is to wash away the sins, to have your body cremated and ashes scattered in her waters is to ensure your place in heaven.  The waters are holy and revered…and humans and those that love the river are making her ill.  That which we love we often hurt in our ignorance.  Perhaps it is our fall from God’s Grace… a central theme in all the worlds religions that our sins are our imperfection and our challenge to redeem ourselves in God’s eyes.  It is the same for the River Ganges, in loving the river Man has made the river ill.

Physically, the Ganges River begins high in the Tibetan plateau and winds its way 2,500 Kilometers [about 1,500 miles] to the Indian Ocean in the Bay of Bengal.  The river flows through China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.  The Ganges river basin [~1million square kilometers~] is both one of the most fertile places on earth and also one of its most populated with over 400 million people dependent upon the river as a lifeline.

[courtesy of wikimedia]

Along its journey water is diverted for irrigation of crops and as a consequence water levels in the river have dropped to make the river unnavigable to cities and towns that once supported river boat trade.  The river is used for discharge of industrial waste from factories, such as leather makers and pulp mills, and raw human sewage.

“Indian scavengers look for coins and other valuable items from among the offerings of devotees in the Ganges at Varanasi on April 5, 2009. More than 400 million people live along the Ganges River. An estimated 2,000,000 persons ritually bathe daily in the river, which is considered holy by Hindus. In the Hindu religion it is said to flow from the lotus feet of Vishnu (for Vaisnava devotees) or the hair of Shiva (for Saivites). While the Ganges may be considered holy, there are some problems associated with the ecology. It is filled with chemical wastes, sewage and even the remains of human and animal corpses which carry major health risks by either direct bathing in the water (e.g.: Bilharziasis infection), or by drinking (the Fecal-oral route).” AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH

Humans ritually bathe themselves in the waters adding to the pollution.  Fecal coliform [from human “poop”] measurements have been recorded as high as 67,000 times the safe level for humans. 

[copyright Thomas Cunzolo]

Families cremate the remains of their loved ones and then scatter the ashes into the waters to ensure entrance into heaven.  For those who cannot afford a proper cremation the river receives partially cremated human corpses…

There are those that are working hard now to clean up the Ganges.  They seek to create and enforce more stringent pollution laws for industries as well as for cities and towns that discharge raw and untreated sewage into the river.  With 400 million people dependent upon her waters and a population that is second only to China in size it is imperative the Ganges River be cleaned up.  This is no longer a matter of a few pilgrims, farmers, factory owners, or local people who use the water.  We humans are killing the Goddess…and now we’re facing diminished seasonal water from the Tibetan Plateau as a result of shrinking glaciers from climate change.

The Ganges is precariously positioned to become a concentrated stream of poison to all life dependent upon her.  The Ganges is far beyond the point that “the solution to pollution is dilution”.  In fact, the earth as a whole is beyond that paradigm when we have a population explosion of almost 7 billion people…

The Ganges River is iconic not just for its spiritual inspiration for India and her people but because the River is a focal point of human needs.  It is our need for spirituality and meaning in our lives, the reality of growing food to eat, the creation of goods for our daily life, and the need for clean water for health, hydration and hygiene.    The river, and the life dependent upon her, faces diminishing freshwater runoff from glaciers, competing withdrawal of the water for agricultural and industrial use, human contamination of the water as a communal bathtub, graveyard, and worshipping site.  While the Ganges is being made ill by the people that flock to her shores, all of us have a hand in strangling the waters that flow into the river in the first place.  What will happen when the waters begin to dry up?  Or China diverts the water for its population? Or Bangladesh suffers from the Ganges being reduced to a toxic stream no longer able to support the Bangladesh economy or its people? 

I leave you with an excellent video documentary from Tyson Sadler on the Ganges.  Be forewarned that there are scenes that may be disturbing to some viewers.  I’ve gone back and forth about using this video but in the end it is the truth of the situation.  See for your own eyes…

…and say a prayer for the Ganges…



  1. […]… […]

  2. […]… […]

  3. its our holy ma ganga …its our duty to protect her from such a violent pollution.

  4. Holy river???? Hahahahahhahahaa looks like God dont care about his dirty rivers.

  5. Hi,
    I am interested in the first photograph, “A Holy Man prays in the Ganges River during Magh Mela .”
    Could you please tell me the photographer?

    • Google images reports it as an Associated Press image [the AP designation on the blog] and in searching more about the image I cannot find anymore information other than AP.

  6. […]… […]

  7. I am very sad to see people bathing and brushing their teeth, spitting, etc in Ganga Ma.

    Why dont the government impose a law to stop people doing such things and warn people that only dipping in Ganga Ma is allowed and not thorough bathing or washing of clothes. It is not fair or save for other devotees who come here to have a spiritual bath only to find the waters polluted. Being the most holiest place in Hinduism, shouldn’t everyone do their part to cure the unwell Ganga Ma?

  8. […]… […]

  9. I’ve learn some just right stuff here. Certainly price bookmarking for revisiting.
    I surprise how so much attempt you put to create one of these
    fantastic informative website.

  10. […] POLLUTION Stormwater Runoff 101 Non Point Source Pollution in North Carolina Pollution in Ganges Cuyahoga River Fire, Cleveland – Part 1, Part […]

  11. I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

  12. […] Holy water, Holy river. The Ganges. The Goddess is not well..TibetanFeb 8, 2010 … [copyright Thomas Cunzolo]. Families cremate the remains of their loved ones and then scatter the ashes into the waters to ensure entrance … […]

  13. may the holy river purify the hearts of we all

  14. Why are you posting a disclaimer? You thought about showing a video and then hesitated? What you were hesitate to show is an unfortunate reality. Don’t hesitate. Don’t ignore. Keep informing. We are better when we are better informed.


  16. ganges (the serenity of mother godess)

  17. pleas do you know wat is man made in the Ganges river ???
    I have a river report due on 11-3-10

  18. Hi,
    Can vi please use the picture with a man doing a prayer in the Ganges?
    We are currently preparing final tests in religion and philosophy for the 10. graders in the public schools in Greenland. For the test we would like to make use of the illustration below and hereby ask for your permission in this regard.
    Regards Ditte Bendtsen

    • The picture was open source on google images. feel free to use it 🙂

  19. when we say mother ganga or sacred or godess river ganga how can we make it dirty or meli or pour colours garbage or food stuff or any thing which polluting our richest minral water source its very very bad and sad!!!!!!!!!!????????????

  20. Hi,

    I was browsing on the internet for a few pictures, and I found one of the pictures posted (AFP/Prakash Singh) here to be very interesting.
    I would like to use it for our website.
    May I have your permission to do so?

    Do let me know.

    Thank you.


    • WOW very awesome

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