Environmental activism and devotional service unite for a common cause.
Few topographical changes are as tragic and traumatic as the drying and dying of a river. The disappearance of the Saraswati River thousands of years ago reduced a fertile valley and a flourishing civilization in northwest India to the barren expanse of the Thar Desert. Today the Yamuna River, one of the largest water resources in India, faces the same fate; the United Nations has already declared Yamuna to be a dead river (http://www.unhabitat. org/content.asp?typeid=19&catid=4 60&id=2170).
But all is not lost. While irresistible, irreversible natural forces erased the Saraswati from the world map, resistible, reversible human influences are causing the lethal damage to the Yamuna River. And there’s reason to hope for a beneficial change in the human influences. Environmentalists value the Yamuna as a precious natural resource, and devotees of Lord Krishna honor her as an indispensable devotional treasure in whose water Krishna sported. Therefore, the campaign to save the Yamuna has the potential to unite environmentalists and devotees on a common platform.
The Death of a River
Devotees see the river Yamuna not just as a water body but as an eternal spiritual goddess who supports and participates in Lord Krishna’s pastimes when He comes to earth. The Srimad-Bhagavatam details many of the pastimes Lord Krishna performed in her waters and on her banks. The Tenth Canto of the Bhagavatam contains many descriptions of the beauty of the Yamuna, as in 10.22.37: “The cowherd boys let the cows drink the clear, cool, and wholesome water of the Yamuna. O King Parikshit, the cowherd boys also themselves drank that sweet water to their full satisfaction.”
For devotee-pilgrims who have been visiting Vrindavan for centuries, the flowing Yamuna has flooded the mind with remembrances of the Lord. She is a merciful mother who bestows blessings of devotional service and a potent purifier who cleanses the heart of contaminations. Srila Rupa Gosvami depicts charmingly this multi-faceted glory of the Yamuna in his Stava Mala: “Sprinkling a single drop of her water on oneself destroys the reaction of the most heinous crimes. She increases the flow of confidential devotional service for Nanda-nandana [Krishna] within one’s heart and blesses everyone who simply desires to reside on her banks. May Yamuna Devi, the daughter of Suryadeva, always purify me.” Srila Prabhupada echoes the importance of the Yamuna in his purport to the Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.5.28): “Bathe in the Yamuna, chant the Hare Krishna mantra, and then become perfect and return back to Godhead.”
An article in the New Delhi Hindustan Times (June 23, 2010) reported the agonizing experience of a sixty-two-year-old man who had a lifelong habit of starting every day with a bath in the Yamuna, in keeping with a tradition that extends far back into history. For the past seven months, he had been forced to discontinue this traditional dip “because for a 100-km stretch between Delhi and Saharanpur district in western Uttar Pradesh, the Yamuna has disappeared. Only miles and miles of sand remain.” A photo accompanying the article showed the empty riverbed being used as a roadway for trucks. For this man “who now bathes at home, the drying of the river he once worshipped is a personal tragedy. ‘The death of the Yamuna here is like a disaster in my life,’ he said in a choking voice.”
The disheartening implications of the Yamuna crisis and the heartening networking of environmental and devotional groups in the campaign to save it have been analyzed by Professor Dr. David Haberman (aka Sri Prem Das), Department Chair, Religious Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, in his book: River of Love in the Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. I draw from his book as well as from other relevant sources in this article.
Sources of the Yamuna Crisis
Two primary factors depletion and pollution have caused the Yamuna crisis.
Depletion: According to the Government of India statistics, the Yamuna provides water to a massive hinterland of 366,223 square kilometers in several states of northern India. Like many other Indian rivers, the Yamuna gets depleted in the non-monsoon season. But what brings matters to the tipping point of crisis is the indiscriminate and excessive human intervention in its flow. Along its long path, multiple dams divide the Yamuna during the non-monsoon season into four segments. At these dams, almost 97% of the water is diverted to local towns and farmlands, with only a trickle left for going downstream. This trickle dries up within a few kilometers, after which the riverbed turns into a dry patch of land. One mortifyingly large patch of almost 100 km lies between Saharanpur and Delhi, as mentioned in the newspaper article.
Pollution: If the river gets depleted to the point of drying out, then how does it continue on?
With polluted water. It gets refilled with town runoffs and effluents, farm discharges, industrial effluents, and incidental ground water. Moreover, all the towns and villages adjoining her, including the national capital, Delhi, dump partly treated or untreated sewage into her, resulting in high contamination levels.
To be considered potable, water must have a BOD (biological oxygen demand, in mgs per liter) not exceeding 3. But the BOD of the Yamuna water has measured about 51 during the monsoons and as high as 103 during the non-monsoon periods. Additionally, lead and other heavy metals, like iron and zinc, together with pesticides, arsenic, and NDM 1 (agene immune to all known antibiotics) are also present in the water in a quantity way beyond the maximum acceptable limits.
The magnitude of this depletioncum- pollution is so alarming that the Central Pollution Control Board of the Government of India has declared that there is not a drop of natural river water in the Yamuna at Vrindavan (http://www.unhabitat. org/content.asp?typeid=19&catid=4 60&id=2170).
How can devotees reconcile the conception of Yamuna as a goddess with the perception of Yamuna as a dying river with depleted and polluted water?
The reconciliation comes by understanding the dynamics of how and why the divine manifests in the material realm. To understand these dynamics, let’s consider the example of a deity. The all-powerful Lord Krishna appears as a deity to give us an opportunity to remember and serve Him. Yet when ignorant or malevolent people under the grip of iconophobia threaten to harm the deity, devotees don’t rest apathetically with the presumption that nobody can harm Krishna; they rise proactively with the conviction that it is their responsibility to protect the deity. They see this situation of protecting the deity form of the Lord as an exceptional service opportunity provided by the Lord, who is always their protector. In fact, the resourcefulness and courage exhibited by devotees in medieval India to “rescue” the deities of Vrindavan from fanatical Muslim emperors like Aurangzeb are inspirational for all generations of devotees.
A similar “rescue” operation is needed today for the Yamuna River.