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Yamuna Part 3: Religion as a Pragmatic Tool

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2011

Worshipping Yamuna (photo by Sanjay Kumar)

And yet there are few places on Earth with as rich a cultural and religious story about the natural world as India. It’s also a story that might seem particularly suited to getting the environmental answers right: In place of Judeo-Christian ideas about man’s “dominion over nature,” Hinduism and Buddhism both regard humans as more integrated into nature through karma. And while some traditional religious groups in the West tremble at any hint of pantheism, Hindus see God in the world around them and freely worship trees, animals and especially rivers. (Hinduism actually ranks a monkey, Hanuman, in its pantheon of deities and has no problem with Darwinian evolution being taught in schools.) So why didn’t this religious tradition prevent environmental catastrophe in the first place on the Yamuna? And why should anyone expect the combination of science and religious faith to work there now?

“There was clearly a lack of coordination, a lack of information and perhaps an ignorance of the aggregate impacts [of modernization].” – John Grim

What happened to the Yamuna “was essentially the result of isolated actions, which were not connected,” says Rajendra Pachauri, who is director-general and chancellor of TERI University and director of Yale’s Climate and Energy Institute. The river seemed relatively healthy when he first moved to New Delhi almost 30 years ago. “People were swimming in the river. You could drink the water.” But the condition of the Yamuna deteriorated rapidly from that point as India began to modernize. “There was clearly a lack of coordination, a lack of information and perhaps an ignorance of the aggregate impacts. But now there is no such excuse. Now we see the collective impact of what happened.”

The condition of the river is so dire that it has become impossible for anyone to ignore. The problems fall into five broad categories:

  • Lack of flow due to dams and heavy withdrawals for agricultural irrigation and other purposes (at Delhi, where pollution authorities say the flow should be at least 285 cubic meters per second, it drops down in summer months to as little as 5 cubic meters per second)
  • Contamination of the river with agricultural pesticides and herbicides
  • Toxic industrial wastes
  • Human wastes, with more than half the sewage in Delhi entering the river untreated and fecal coliform counts in places reaching over 100,000 per 100 milliliters (200 times the standard for water to be swimmable)
  • And in the face of global warming the uncertain future of the dwindling Himalayan glaciers that are the source of the river

Pachauri, who advised the organizers of the January Yale-TERI conference, is primarily a scientist, trained in industrial engineering. In his view religion is less important than the combination of science and popular protest that he feels it will take to fix the Yamuna. He notes that many rivers in the United States were also dead 40 years ago. But lobbying by early environmentalists led to massive federal and state clean-water initiatives and a rapid recovery of many waterways.

In India, two costly attempts to clean up the river, the Yamuna Action Plan (or YAP) in 1993 and YAP II in 2004, have failed to produce improvements. Both suffered, according to Pachauri, from a lack of enforcement of existing regulations and overall “inept management.” But as politicians begin to recognize “the seething anger and level of disgust on the part of the people,” he believes they will have no choice but to respond more seriously—if only to avoid the turmoil of recent political uprisings in the Middle East.

Religion could serve as a pragmatic tool for bringing that anger to bear on policymakers, according to Nandini Kumar, a chemist at TERI, who also attended the January conference. Too many people have become politicians, she says, “because they want the status, the money, rather than because they have a vision of India. If we want to change the politicians, we have to tie what we do to a ‘vote bank’,” a term coined in India for a bloc of voters from a unified community. “If we use the religious angle to tell people they should be angry about the river, and these people rally and go out and say, ‘Look, if you don’t fix this we’re not going to vote for you,’ then politicians will respond.”

But some skeptics argue that this pragmatic approach is one reason Hinduism failed to protect the Yamuna in the first place. Environmentalists often romanticize Eastern religions as more environmentally friendly, assuming some past “eco-golden age,” writes Emma Tomalin, a religious studies lecturer at the University of Leeds. But unlike the largely Western phenomenon of religious environmentalism, the “nature religion” of Hinduism is merely the worship of elements of the natural world, she argues, “most often with no basis in the ideas and values of contemporary environmentalist thinking.” The idea that a river goddess “can carry away impurities—both spiritual and physical—may actually act as an impediment,” encouraging people to continue treating the river as a dumping ground. In the “empty belly” politics of India’s poor, questions of survival and the tantalizing promise of prosperity can also easily trump environmental or religious considerations. Thus India’s first prime minister after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was able to deftly co-opt river worship by describing the big dam projects he espoused as “the temples of a modern India.”

Tomalin is right about the tendency to romanticize the religions of both Asians and Native Americans, says David Haberman, whose 2006 book, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India, explores the intersection of religion, science and environmentalism with the Yamuna. She’s also right in saying that “nature worship doesn’t necessarily translate into environmentalism.” But she goes too far in ignoring its potential to do so. Like Christianity, Hinduism has multiple traditions and interpretations. The tendency of British colonialists in India, he says, was to reduce Hinduism to “an ascetic, world-renouncing tradition.” But that meant carefully ignoring the equally rich world-affirming attitudes embodied in such influential texts as the Bhagavad-Gita: “The Victorians misinterpreted us,” says a character in the 1935 novel, Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand. “It was as if, in order to give a philosophical background to their exploitation of India, they ingeniously concocted a nice little fairy story: ‘You don’t believe in this world; to you all this is maya (illusion). Let us look after your country for you and you can dedicate yourself to achieving Nirvana.’”  (Continued.)

One Response to “Yamuna Part 3: Religion as a Pragmatic Tool”

  1. […] also take a pragmatic approach.  As I have written here and here, religions are the world’s largest NGOs.  Though they are sometimes […]

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