Whether you are reading fiction or a scientific report on India, you will learn that the country is typified by contradiction. I have been trying to wrap my brain around the contrasts for over two weeks now, as I travel from one end (the foothills of the Himalayas) to the other (the sludgy-surfaced lagoons and coconut palms of the south).
The people can be loving and cruel in an instant; meals are always on time but the train never is; skin is gleaming and clothes are neat but the scent of human urine and cow feces is present everywhere.
The most potent contradiction is the one between the sacred and the polluted. Two main examples: India’s holy cows and holy river, the Ganga. I’ve been excited to experience both in person. Both have delighted and disgusted me, two contrary but all-too familiar sensations here.
The holy cow, revered because it represents life in all its forms, roams city streets and private entrance-ways. It can create chaos on a highway (more than a dog, less than an elephant, I’ve found); you can touch its forehead and murmur a prayer for blessing; and it may have more than 20 kg of plastic remnants in each of its four stomachs.
If I could upload pictures here, I would. Cows snack and feed along roadsides everywhere. As often as you see a sacred cow chewing on actual food, you will see him munching plastic bags, which litter just about every conceivable surface of the country – roads, fields, waterways alike.
Possibly revered even more than the cow, the Ganges River is the most sacred and the most toxic river in the world. “Mother Ganga” is a Hindu deity and pilgrimage and bathing in the sacred water are said to release a person of sins. You couldn’t pay me to bathe there.
Not only are 1 billion tons of raw, untreated sewage dumped in the river each year, but bodies of the dead (humans, animals) are placed in the river for a direct path to heaven. In addition to this, the river is a dumping site for plastic. In the form of garbage, but also in a more sacred form.
I am partially guilty. One night filled with chants and the curling smoke and scent of incense, I sent a burning candle in a wreath of flowers down the Ganga during the Haridwar Ganga Aarti, a beautiful moonlight ceremony. But in trying to cleanse my sins, I sinned against the Ganga.
I am not alone. According to the Environmental News Network, every year toxic chemicals released by the immersion of thousands of Hindu deity sculptures kill fish and other aquatic life, and poison agricultural crops irrigated by the water.
I spoke with C.M. Sharma, a Lead Auditor for India’s environmental management system ISO, dedicated to improving the country’s awareness. “Slowly, more of the working population is being educated,” he says. “They are learning ownership of the country – that if you dispose of waste improperly, it will spoil your own land and water.”
India needs to redefine what it means to respect the sacred – in terms of their land, at least.