All nature is manifestation of the Divine, we piously say. We revere that river, this hill, that cave, this lake, and so on. This reverence for place is called geopiety.
Updated: 12 March 2022 — fixed broken links.
“Geo” of course, means Earth – from the Greek gaia, Earth. “Piety” comes from the Latin pietas – it means reverence, devoutness, bhakti.
Alas, our geopiety is largely professed but not practiced.
This geopiety is expressed in song and verse and lore in Indian culture. Much of this expression is beautiful, even sublime. Today, I look at Gangā. [As an aside: it is not ‘Ganges’ for us … it is Gangā! And since it is a proper noun, I avoid using “the” in front of it.]
There are several stories of the descent of Gangā to Earth. Each of these stories give us one or more epithets. An epithet is “any word or phrase applied to a person or thing to describe an actual or attributed quality.”
One story has it that the King Bhagīratha prayed for the celestial (heavenly) river to come to Earth and wash away the sins of his ancestors. However, Gangā’s force would have been such that her descent on to Earth would shatter it. Therefore, he prays to Shiva for help.
Shiva obligingly untangles is matted hair (jataa in Samksrtam) for Gangā to land on his head. He then re-ties his hair to contain her and release her more gradually so that her tremendous force does not destroy Earth.
Because Bhagīratha’s penance was what brought her to Earth, she gets the epithet Bhāgīrathī (in a way, the daughter of Bhagīratha).
Vaishnavas (worshippers of God in the form of Vishnu) believe that Gangā originates from the feet of Vishnu. This gives us another Samskrtam epithet: vishnupadī (she who arises from the feet of Vishnu; pada = foot, padī = one who comes from).
Whatever the story of Gangā’s advent on Earth, all the arts, the practices of the devout, and the overall culture of India, venerate (i.e., revere) Gangā.
Here is a famous painting of the descent of Gangā, by the renowned artist Raja Ravi Varma. Also, check out the sculpture of the same theme from Māmallapuram (also called Mahābalipuram).
As you probably already well know, Gangā is the holiest river to Hindus. She is of divine origin (that is the lore above) and is capable of taking away our spiritual and physical dirt. The spiritual dirt is the accumulation of the many ‘sins’ that we commit.
Śrī Muttusvāmi Dīkshitar (1775–1835) has composed a song of prayer to Gangā, here sung by Śrī Kuldeep M Pai.
She is celebrated in verse. Among the most famous is Śankarācharya’s (7th century AD) eight verses about the Gangā (Gangāshtakam).
Here is a sample in English translation:
Victory to that pretty Ganga, who took birth from the king of mountains,
Who makes people who dip in her waters cross the ocean of life,
Who reaches and plays in the ocean,
Who completely uproots sorrows from life,
Who imitates Aadisesha and bends and flows,
Who appears like leaves on the hairs of Lord Shiva,
And who flows very near the city of Kasi.
Listen to the late Dr P B Sreenivas, the celebrated Kannada playback singer, singing the Gangāshtakam:
Here is a Bangla version of the same song, sung by Śrī Sunirbachita Dwijendrigeeti:
Humans have always polluted rivers. When you think about it all living things ‘pollute’ the environment. However, the environment was generally capable of ‘clearing’ the pollution because most of it was organic. Even this can happen only up to a point. With the increase in human population, especially along the course of the Gangā, over time, the pollution that humans were dumping has gone way beyond her capacity to process it.
Not only is the volume of human pollution increased, we have increasingly added inorganic (non-biodegradable) wastes into not only the main channel of Gangā, but also the tributaries that join it.
There was a report recently about one exception to this pattern: Chambal, a tributary of Gangā. Chambal flows through the Chambal valley. For decades, the valley was riddled with dacoits (highway robbers; including one very famous woman dacoit called Phoolan Devi). Therefore, investments in industry etc. were almost absent along the Chambal. Even now, this is the least polluted tributary to Gangā. Interestingly, people still travel all the way to the highly polluted main Gangā channel, to worship her and bathe in her holy waters. (Read about Chambal here and this very interesting article about its cleanliness.
Pollution of Gangā is a serious issue. Not only does it affect the physical well-being of the environment, it also shows our hypocrisy. On the one hand, we profess great geopiety by singing songs and offering worship to her. On the other, we continue to pollute her beyond her capacity to cleanse herself.
We have lost the connection between spiritual cleanliness (chitta-śuddhi) and physical cleanliness (deha-śuddhi).
Watch this short video (6m26s) about the pollution of Gangā and efforts to clean the river.
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 27 November 2019