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Every day millions of people flock to its banks to worship. Although the waters are heavily polluted, the feverish desire to pay homage to the goddess Ganga and to benefit from her powers continues unabated. The people are drawn from all walks of life – rich as well as poor – and many travel large distances to the banks of the River Ganges – the famed Ganga.
The Ganges is certainly unique among rivers worldwide. Yet, it is only the third longest river in India. However, every inch of it’s 1,678 miles is worshipped Fully one third of the population of India live along the Ganga basin. These 270 million people are physically dependant on the Ganga for their sustenance – their food, water and irrigation. Yet, the river is viewed as much more than a physical life-line. To the Hindu believer, Ganga is Ganga Ma – the mother Ganga. Like a loving maternal figure the river feeds and cherishes her children, both physically and spiritually. To drink from the river is like drinking from a mother’s breast. The ultimate life sacrifice for devotees of times gone by to drown themselves in the beautiful waters of the mother Ganga.
Yet, there is another side to the river Ganges. Winding its way past prosperous cities, the river has become a dumping ground for untold amounts of sewage and industrial waste. Combine the human waste that inevitably ends up in the waters as well as the dead bodies that find their ultimate resting place in the holy waters – estimated at 10,000 per day – and you have a real recipe for trouble. Daily thousands of people perform the ritual of achaman, the ritual swallowing of water from Ganga as a part of Sun worship. Interestingly, many of these people are fully aware of how polluted this water is. Yet, their religious devotion forces them to shut this rationality from their consciousness.
The religious hold of the Ganga is derived from the story of its origin. As with most Hindu religious stories, this one is a complexly woven tale. It can be summarised as follows:
King Sagara had 60,000 sons, who were killed by the sage Kapila. Their souls were condemned to roam the earth forever unless the Goddess Ganga came down from heaven to cleanse them and release them from their curse. On account of penance done by another King, Bhagarathi, Ganga came to earth and was caught in the god Shiva’s hair – the Himalayan snow peaks. From there, she rushed to the sea, and her waters purified the souls of King Sagara’s 60,000 sons and restored them to paradise.
To the faithful, then, the Ganga has the power of release, purification and cure. Having one’s ashes spread over the Ganga is believed to lead to eternal bliss. Unfortunately, bathing and drinking from this heavily polluted river is undoubtedly also shortening the lives of untold numbers of these devout worshippers. But, that fact is unlikely to lessen the desire of the hundreds of million of people who’s ultimate goal in life is to partake of the world’s most sacred waters – the river Ganges.