The Ganges River: Pollution and Spirituality in India’s Most Sacred River

The Ganges (known also as Ganga) river flows 2500 kilometers from the revered Gangotri Glacier high in the Himalayas of Northern India to the Bay of Bengal. According to Ganga Action Parivar, an NGO dedicated to restoring and protecting the Ganga river, more than 450 million people depend on the waters of the Ganga for every aspect of their life. From agriculture to tourism, the Ganga river is a crucial part of life and culture in India.

For Hindus, a bath in the sacred Ganga river is an important religious experience. Millions of people visit the purifying waters of the Ganga river each year. Over 100 million people flocked to the Ganga river in 2013 for Kumbh Mela, a 55-day religious festival. In Hindu culture, the Ganga is not just a river, but the embodiment of the goddess Ganga who cleanses those who bathe in her water from past sins and karma.



Along the banks of the Ganges there are countless temples, festivals, and rituals performed. One these important rituals for Hindus in India is cremation on the banks of the Ganga. It is believed that if one is cremated on the banks of the Ganga, the soul is freed from the cycle of death and rebirth. In Varanasi, the holiest of cities in India, nearly 200 bodies are cremated a day. It is a place where funeral pyres burn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. However, the cremation is an expensive endeavor and in a country where approximately 360 million people live under the poverty line, families of the deceased often forgo the cremation process and put the body of the deceased directly into the Ganga river. More than 100 bodies washed ashore in January of 2015. This is but one of the many pollution's wreaking havoc on the Ganga river.


It is estimated that 2.9 billion liters of wastewater from sewage, domestic and industrial sources, are dumped into the Ganga river every day. Sewage waste accounts for 80% of the pollution in the Ganga river. Exposure to sewage waste kills nearly 600,000 people a year in India alone. Furthermore, new scientific evidence indicates that exposure to sewage may account for many cases of childhood malnutrition in India.

Scientists at the Sankat Mochan Foundation have found that the Ganga river has a fecal coliform count of more than 1.5 million per 100ml of water. Water regarded as safe for bathing should not contain more than 500 fecal coliform per 100ml.

Yamuna Foam

Yamuna, the second largest tributary of the Ganga river, is believed to the embodiment of the goddess Yami. Yami manifests life-giving forces and blessings and those who bathe in her waters shall not have a painful death. Sadly, it seems Yami could not spare herself from the painful death of pollution. 600 km of the Yamuna river is considered a ‘dead zone’ because the river is so chocked full of pollution that it can no longer maintain aquatic life. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a dead zone as “a more common term for hypoxia, which refers to a reduced level of oxygen in the water. Less oxygen dissolved in the water is often referred to as a “dead zone” because most marine life either dies, or, if they are mobile such as fish, leave the area. Habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts.”

According to Yale’s Climate and Energy Institute there are 5 main issues with the Yamuna river:

·         Lack of flow due to dams and heavy withdrawals for agricultural irrigation and other purposes (at Delhi, where pollution authorities say the flow should be at least 285 cubic meters per second, it drops down in summer months to as little as 5 cubic meters per second)
·         Contamination of the river with agricultural pesticides and herbicides
·         Toxic industrial wastes
·         Human wastes, with more than half the sewage in Delhi entering the river untreated
·         And in the face of global warming the uncertain future of the dwindling Himalayan glaciers that are the source of the river

 Furthermore, on the surface of the water sits a layer of toxic foam. Despite the toxic pollution, people still bathe in and drink from the toxic waters.

Photo: Yamuna River Foam

Richard Conniff wrote the article The Yamuna River; India’s Dying Goddess for the Journal of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In this article, Conniff looks at how Yamuna river pollution has offered scientists and religious leaders alike a unique opportunity to work together. In January of 2011, TERI University in New Delhi and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale held a conference in Vrindaban, India. The conference brought ecologists, microbiologists, chemists, and hydrologists together with spiritual leaders and local nongovernmental organizations to discuss the issues and possible solutions to the Yamuna water pollution crisis.

David Haberman, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington, who attended the conference, stated “coming from America, we were all amazed at the comfort and readiness with which these scientists were willing to engage in discussions that included religion.” Furthermore, Conniff states that, “an inadvertent side effect was to leave some of the Americans wondering about missed opportunities back home. That is, would environmental remedies come easier if science and religion could look beyond their differences and begin to seek common ground?”

You may ask yourself, if the Ganga is so highly revered, why is it so polluted? There are two answers to that. One, while there have been environmental and industrial laws set in place to protect the waters of India, for a long time these laws were not enforced. Local corruption and governmental mismanagement have allowed industries to pollute without fear of repercussion. Luckily things are changing, as of May of 2016, over 100 tanneries (one of the main industrial contributors to pollution in the Ganga) along the Ganga have been shut down. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, committed 3.06 billion dollars towards Ganga river clean-up. The clean up efforts have hit some snags, but Modi seems committed to the restoration of the Ganga.

Secondly, many Hindus believe that not only can the Ganga purify humans of their sins and karma, but it is also able to cleanse itself. Swami Chidanand Saraswati, the spiritual head of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, told Justin Rowlatt for BBC News, “People think Ganga can take care of my sins, can take care of anything, and they forget that while Ganga can take care of your sins it cannot take care of your waste, of your pollution.” Perhaps there was a time when the Ganga could indeed cleanse itself. As the water flows into the Bay of Bengal so too does the debris and pollution it acquires along the way. However, industry and population growth has made this practice unsustainable.

The Ganga river offers us a unique look into a space where pollution, science, and religion intersect. Protecting and restoring the Ganga river not only requires an overhaul of infrastructure and governmental mandates, but a shift in spiritual outlook as well. The leaders of the movement spearheading a change in policy and local government accountability are not those who are strictly environmentalists, but religious heads and local groups whose interest in the well-being of the Ganga extends well beyond the physical state of things. The Ganga is so important to the well-being of India that Saraswati believes that “if Ganga dies, India dies. If Ganga thrives, India thrives.”