The Save Yamuna Campaign: Where Environmental Activism and Devotional Service Unite
By Chaitanya Charan das
Few topographical changes are as tragic as the death of a river. Thousands of years ago, the disappearance of the Sarasvati River reduced a fertile and flourishing tract of land in Northwestern India to the barren expanse now known as the Thar Desert. Today the Yamuna River, one of the largest water-resources in India, faces the same fate; indeed, the United Nations has already declared the Yamuna a dead river1, indicating that it is no longer capable of sustaining human, animal, or plant life.
But, fortunately, all is not lost; the death of the Sarasvati River was caused by natural forces that were irresistible and irreversible, whereas the present damage to the Yamuna River is caused by human influences that are resistible and reversible. And there’s reason to hope for a beneficial change in the human influences. Environmentalists value the Yamuna as a precious natural resource, and devotees of Lord Krishna honor her as an indispensable devotional treasure in whose water Krishna sported. Therefore, the campaign to save the Yamuna has the potential to unite environmentalists and devotees on a common platform, possibly opening a new chapter for both.
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 in his book: River of Love in the Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India.
The Death of a River
Devotees see the river Yamuna not just as a body of water but also as an eternal spiritual goddess who facilitates and participates in Lord Krishna’s pastimes when He comes to the material world. Shrimad-Bhagavatam details many of the pastimes that Lord Krishna performed in her waters as well as on her banks. In particular, the Bhagavatam’s Tenth Canto contains many descriptions of Yamuna’s beauty, for instance: “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.” (10.23.37)
For devotee-pilgrims, who have been visiting Vrindavana for centuries, the flowing Yamuna has flooded the mind with remembrances of the Lord. She is a merciful mother who bestows blessings of devotional service and a potent purifier who cleanses the heart of contamination. Shrila Rupa Gosvami charmingly depicts 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 desires to reside on her banks. May Yamuna-devi, the daughter of Surya-deva, always purify me.” Shrila Prabhupada likewise stresses the importance of the Yamuna in his purport to Shrimad-Bhagavatam (6.5.28): “Bathe in the Yamuna, chant the Hare Krishna mantra, and then become perfect and return back to Godhead.”
An article in the New Delhi Hindustan Times (June 23, 2010) reported the agonizing experience of a sixty-two-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. He had been forced to discontinue this traditional dip “because for a hundred-kilometer stretch between Delhi and Saharanpur district in western Uttar Pradesh, the Yamuna has disappeared. Only miles and miles of sand remain.” A photo accompanying the article 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 worshiped is a personal tragedy. ‘The death of the Yamuna here is like a disaster in my life,’ he said in a choking voice.”
What Has Caused the Yamuna Crisis?
The Yamuna crisis is caused by two primary factors: depletion and pollution.
According to Government of India statistics, the Yamuna River 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 the Yamuna’s long path, multiple barrages have been constructed that divide it during the non-monsoon season into four distinct segments. At these barrages, almost ninety-seven percent of the water is diverted to local towns and farmlands, with only a small trickle left to continue downstream. In each case this trickle dries up within a few kilometers, after which the riverbed turns into dry land. One mortifyingly large dry patch is the hundred-kilometer stretch between Saharanpur and Delhi already mentioned.
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 the Yamuna, including the national capital Delhi, dump partly treated or untreated sewage into the river, resulting in high contamination levels.
To be considered safe for human consumption, water must have a BOD (biological oxygen demand – in milligrams 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 quantities 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 Vrindavana2.
How can devotees reconcile their conception of Yamuna as an eternal goddess with the perception of Yamuna as a dying river, depleted and polluted?
The reconciliation comes by understanding how and why the divine manifests itself in the material realm. Let’s consider the example of a Deity. The all-powerful Lord Krishna manifests Himself in Deity form to give us opportunities 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 on 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 devotees in medieval India who exhibited courage and ingenuity in their attempts to “rescue” the Deities of Vrindavana from fanatical Muslim emperors like Aurangzeb are an inspiration for all generations of devotees.
Today a similar “rescue” operation is needed for the Yamuna River. On a spiritual level the goddess Yamuna is beyond being harmed by any material phenomena. But on a material level the river is being polluted, and devotees see the situation as an exceptional service-opportunity to protect the mother-goddess who has till now been protecting and nourishing them.
What Needs to Be Done?
There are several practical and feasible measures that 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 can be countered by implementing policies for sustainable water resources management. An Allahabad High Court order (in response to PIL no. 4003 of 25 January 2011), in the case of Ganga Pollution vs. The State of Uttar Pradesh, states, “Not more than fifty percent 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 can be countered by redirecting the pollutants that are presently being dumped into the Yamuna. Partially or fully treated town effluent, though deleterious to river water, can serve as a major source of water and nutrients for farmlands. 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 Agra can be provided with water for irrigation. A similar strategy for redirecting the effluents from Kolkata that were previously being dumped into the Hooghly has already been successfully implemented.
There are many other measures that need to be adopted, but these two examples underscore what will be needed to implement any major measure: political will.
What Can We Do?
In a democratic country, political will can be significantly, even decisively, influenced by mass mobilization. It is here that the alliance of environmentalists and devotees can play a vital, even critical, role. In fact, the alliance is already there, 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.”
Among the several religious-spiritual forums joining hands in this effort to save the Yamuna, Braj Raj Sharan Swami and his team from ‘Maan Mandir’ in Barsana have been a pivotal driving force in recent efforts to increase public awareness.
ISKCON being a global organization has played its part. It has initiated and executed major public awareness drives in its centers all over the world including America, Europe, Russia and, of course, India. The Executive Committee of ISKCON’s highest administrative body, the Governing Body Commission, has issued a statement urging ISKCON devotees to take an active role and has given the following broad suggestions of what can be done:
All ISKCON temples, congregations, yatras, and devotees please:
1. Include Yamuna Maharani in your 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. Effectively use internal media (Back to Godhead, etc.) and external media (newspapers, television, etc.).
9. Spread this cause all over the world through print media, audio-video media, SMS, Internet (dandavats.com, desiretree.com, etc.), and social media (Facebook, etc.).
The Save Yamuna campaign offers a perfect opportunity for devotional service, especially for those devotees who have long 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, Krishna empowers us to do extraordinary things and make miracles happen. As the Yamuna crisis unfolds, the confluence of ecological and devotional concerns may well be setting the stage for miracles to happen.
We request all readers to please sign a petition urging the government to save the Yamuna at:
I am indebted to Gautam Saha for providing this as well as several other references in this article.