The Save Yamuna Campaign: Where Environmental Activism and Devotional Service Unite
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 and flourishing civilization in North-Western 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.
But all is not lost; unlike the irresistible natural forces that caused the disappearance of the Saraswati from the world map, the human influences that have caused lethal damage to the Yamuna River are resistible and reversible. In fact, because the Yamuna is valued as a precious natural resource by environmental and as an indispensable devotional treasure by spiritualists, the campaign to save it has the potential to bring both environmentalists and spiritualists on a common platform, thereby opening possibly a new chapter in the history of both.
The Death of a River
An article in the New Delhi Hindustan Times (June 23, 2010) reported the agonizing experience of a 62 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.” Accompanying the article was a photo that 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, Department Chair, Religious Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, aka Sri Prem Das, 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.
What has caused the Yamuna crisis?
The Yamuna crisis is caused by two primary factors: depletion and pollution.
According to the Government of India statistics, the river Yamuna provides water to a massive hinterland of 366,223 kilometers in several states of northern India. The Yamuna, like many other Indian rivers, 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 barrages have been constructed that divide it during the non-monsoon season into four distinct segments. At these barrages, almost 97 % of the water is diverted to local towns and farmlands, with only a small trickle left for going downstream. This trickle dries up within a few kilometers after which the river bed turns into a dry patch of land or becomes dead. One mortifyingly large patch of almost 100 km is the one between Saharanpur and Delhi, as mentioned in the earlier newspaper article.
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, and 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 been seen to be 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 (a gene that is immune to all known antibiotics) are also present in the water in a quantity way beyond the maximum acceptable limits.
The magnitude of this depletion-cum-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 Vrindavana.
Devotees see the river Yamuna not just as a water body but as an eternal spiritual goddess, who facilitates and participates in Lord Krishna’s pastimes when he comes to the material world. The Srimad Bhagavatam details many of the pastimes that Lord Krishna performed in her waters as well as on her banks. Especially the tenth canto of the Bhagavatam contains many descriptions of the beauty of the Yamuna, as in 10.23.37, “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 Vrindavana for centuries, the river Yamuna has served as a moving memory-anchor that floods the mind with remembrances of the Lord. Of course, the Yamuna is much more than a memory-anchor; she is a merciful mother who bestows blessings of devotional service and a potent purifier who cleanses the heart of contaminations. Srila Rupa Goswami 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 (raganuga bhakti) for Nandanananda within one’s heart and blesses everyone who simply desire to reside on her banks. May Yamunadevi, 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.”
How can devotees reconcile this 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 this dynamics, let’s consider the example of a Deity. The all-powerful Lord Krishna manifests as his 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 courageousness exhibited by devotees in medieval India to “rescue” the Deities of Vrindavana from fanatical Muslim emperors like Aurangzeb are inspirational for all generations of devotees.
A similar “rescue” operation is needed today for the Yamuna River. At a spiritual level, the goddess Yamuna is beyond being harmed by any material phenomena. Yet at a material level, when the river is being polluted, devotees see the situation as an opportunity to protect their mother-goddess who has nourished them for centuries.
What needs to be done?
There are several practical and feasible measures, which, if implemented, can minimize and even reverse the crisis. Let’s look at one measure for countering each of the two factors that have caused the crisis:
- Depletion: It can be countered by implementing policies for sustainable water resources management. An Allahabad High Court order ( in response to PIL no. 4003 of 25th January 2011 ), in the case of Ganga Pollution vs. The state of Uttar Pradesh, states, “Not more than 50 % of the water should be drawn from the river at any given place.” If this order is extended to the Yamuna, then depletion will be tackled at its roots.
- Pollution: It can be countered by redirecting elsewhere the pollutants that are presently being dumped into the Yamuna. Partially or fully treated town effluent, though deleterious for river waters, can serve as a major source of water and nutrients for farmlands. So if a canal is constructed to divert most of Delhi’s sewage into the Agra canal, then the Yamuna can be saved from pollution and the Agra area can be provided farm-water. Such a redirection using canals has already been successfully implemented for the effluents from Kolkata that were earlier going into the Hooghly.
There are many other measures that need to be adopted, but the example of these two major measures underscores what is essential for implementing any major measure: political will.
What can we do?
In a democratic country, the political will can be significantly, even decisively, influenced by mass mobilization. And it is here that the joining hands of the environmentalists and the devotees can play a vital, even critical, role. In fact, this role is already being played, as explained by Dr Haberman, “As devotional service to Yamuna Maiya, educational programs have been launched, clean-up days have been scheduled, boatmen have been organized and enlisted in restorative work, and PILs have been filed in the courts, resulting in sewage treatment plants being built, polluting industry shut down, and minimum flows established for river health. Such work — which already exists and is enacted as loving service to Yamuna Devi herself — demonstrates the great potential for a more robust and effective alliance between environmental scientists and policy makers and members of religious communities. This work represents an initial trickle that may just turn into a mighty river of restorative action.”
ISKCON has played its part in this cause with numerous ISKCON centers all over the world have initiated and executed major public awareness drives. Some of these centers are:
- India: Centers at Delhi, the three centers in Mumbai, Vasai, Kolkata and Mayapur,
- Europe: Centers at Manchester, Birmingham and the two centers in London, all the ISKCON centers in Germany, Radhadesh in Belgium,
- America: Centers at New Vrindavana, West Virginia, Potomac, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Atlanta, Houston, and several others.
Additionally, ISKCON’s highest administrative body, the Governing Body Commission’s Executive Committee has issued a statement urging ISKCON devotees to take up an active role in this cause and has given following broad suggestions of what can be done:
All ISKCON temples, congregations, yatras, and devotees please;
1. Include Yamuna Maharani in their daily prayers.
2. Explain the spiritual importance of Shri Yamuna Maharani to others.
3. Organize special kirtans or dedicate existing kirtans to the Yamuna cause.
4. Organize special programs or dedicate existing programs to the Yamuna cause.
5. Explain the environmental issues to others, especially working through the relevant ISKCON ministries that deal with the environment.
6. Create worldwide campaigns
7. Encourage and assist in petitions to accomplish the aforementioned purposes.
8. Use internal media (Back to Godhead etc.) and external media (newspapers, Television etc.) effectively.
9. Spread this cause all over the world through print media, audio-video media, SMS, Internet (dandavats.com, desiretree.com etc.,) social groups (face book etc., etc.)
The save Yamuna campaign offers the perfect devotional platform especially for those devotees who have had an environmentalist lying dormant inside them. And as Lord Krishna assures Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita (11.33), if we do our part in his plan, he empowers us to do extraordinary things and make miracles happen. As the Yamuna crisis unfolds, the uniting of ecological and devotional concerns may well be setting up the stage for that miracle to happen.
I am indebted to Gautam Saha for providing this as well as several other references in this article.