Mountains, forests, rivers, and livestock are seen as sacred elements in different cultures around the world. However, the Ganges is unique in that it has been seen as a sacred river for 5,000 years. It is seen as the physical manifestation of a divinity that not only guarantees salvation but is capable of purifying itself from all the contamination discharged into its waters.
Paradoxically, however, the water quality of the Ganges, or mama Ganga as we Indians call it, has deteriorated to dangerous levels due to the population explosion and inadequate management of industrial growth. Furthermore, when religious holidays such as Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world during which up to 100 million people including holy men, devotees and even strangers gather to bathe in its waters, contamination is inevitable.
During the trip with Alex, I tried to reflect on this paradoxical condition of the Ganges and I asked myself how can it be that one of the most sacred rivers in the world is also one of the most polluted? I would think that since sacred objects are considered worthy of protection, considering nature as sacred should produce positive consequences for environmental protection, but an alternative hypothesis is that considering a natural resource as sacred can evoke feelings of purity, protection from pollutants, and other risk factors and this can reduce the perception of environmental risk.
The Ganges supplies water to 40% of the Indian population and plays a vital role in crop irrigation. However, in some places, the amount of fecal coliform bacteria is up to 20 times higher than the maximum level allowed for bathing. Even though religious beliefs have led to less perception of risk, we must all increase commitment to conservation behavior and make sure our patron goddess is respected, because only then will she give us the gift of her continued protection.