Yamuma Part 5: Saving a Goddess with Lawsuits
Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2011
But along the banks of the Yamuna, what seems to rankle most, at least for now, is the desecration of the goddess herself. In his book, Haberman tells the story of Gopeshwar Nath Chaturvedi, from a priestly family in Mathura. His transformation took place in 1985, when he brought a group of pilgrims to the main site in Mathura for worshipping the Yamuna and found the river discolored with red and green dyes, dead fish clotting the surface and dogs gathering to scrabble over the carcasses. “All the water coming to Mathura was sewage,” Chaturvedi realized. “And this is what we are worshipping. It makes me feel bad!” His religion taught him that he was a son of the river, he told Haberman, and “when Mother is sick, one cannot throw her out of the house. We must help her. Therefore, I do Yamuna seva.” Since 1985, his seva has consisted of repeatedly filing lawsuits aimed at restoring the river to health.
That embattled approach is increasingly common among believers, particularly in Braj Mandal, the area below New Delhi that is both the holiest—and most polluted—section of the Yamuna. (On government maps, it’s often referred to as “the eutrophicated segment.”) The river is so visibly filthy there that most temples now use bottled water for the daily bathing of statues. In some areas they have no choice: at Gokul, construction of a dam means there’s no longer any river water in front of the temples for ritual bathing by pilgrims. At Vrindavan, religious leaders have had to fight, so far successfully, against efforts to build a highway directly over the surface of the Yamuna.
Science can help provide these religious leaders with the evidence they need to save the river, says John Grim. The ambition is to build a dialogue, with students taking the time, as they monitor water quality, to explain their work to priests in the temples, and vice versa: “‘What does the river mean to you? And what does it mean if you take statues into the river to wash them?’ Students bring those issues to the fore: ‘Can we assume the river is purifying if it’s polluted?’” Science is also the best tool for clarifying the unseen ways the river affects pilgrims who come to the river—for instance, with diseases like dengue fever, from mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water.
For Haberman, the struggle for the soul of religion—all religions, really—has to do with whether they continue to stand by as the world collapses around them or shift course to focus on stewardship, the idea that “the world was given as a gift of God” and that we are not its owners, but its caretakers. It has to do with whether science and religion can set aside their mutual suspicion and learn to collaborate.
“How that’s going to play out remains to be seen,” he says. “But the whole world has something at stake now in that conflict.”