“On October 15th, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind -THE ENVIRONMENT. Every blogger will post about the environment in their own way and relating to their own topic. Our aim is to get everyone talking towards a better future.”

I was going to write about organic gardening or seed-saving or living more sustainable, but then I thought it would be fun to post something from our India book project. When we were in Varanassi (Benares), we were fortunate to spend time with Professor Mishra, a ‘guardian angel’ to the Ganges River. I read the book A Bond Between Woman: A Journey to Fierce Compassion (i highly recommend it) during my first trip to Nepal and India. Professor Mishra is another example of someone who lives with fierce compassion. He has been an inspiration for us and so many around the globe. We all want to help the earth and our environment, but the truth is, we need a lot of leaders like him to help guide us.

Preserving the River Goddess
a visit with Professor Veer Bhadra Mishra
by Patrick Shaw, Photos/art by Jenny and Patrick Shaw
“If we are not living an optimistic life, then what is there?”
– Veer Bhadra Mishra

Each morning, while the sun’s predawn glow radiates from below the horizon on the opposite shore of the Ganga, 60,000 bathers purify their souls in the holy river’s water along the ghats (steps to the river) of Benares. At Tulsi Ghat, where the great poet-saint Tulsidas composed the popular version of the Hindi epic Ramayana 400 years ago, resides the modern day spiritual warrior Veer Bhadra Mishra. We joined Mishra in his unembellished room, stationed at the top of the long flight of steep stairs leading up from the river like a sentinel post above the sacred Ganga. Now in his 60’s, the white-haired, white-clad Mishra, has been the mahant, or spiritual head, of the renowned Sankat Mochan Temple since the age of 14. In addition to his duties as high priest and administrator of the temple, Mishra is also a hydraulics engineer who served as head of the civil engineering department at the prestigious Benares Hindu University. These seemingly contrasting roles prepared the impassioned, yet calm and gentle Mishra to take on an even greater responsibility that he told us is “the mission of my life” – to clean up the heavily polluted River Ganga.

Although the Ganga is spiritually pure, endowed with the ability to cleanse sins and liberate souls, she is also exceedingly saturated with raw sewage dumped into the river along the 7-kilometer stretch of Benares. Wastewater and industrial contamination from upstream add the river’s dilemma, as well as animal carcasses and human remains that end up in the river because of families who could not afford wood for a proper cremation. This noxious combination of toxins breeds a plethora of waterborne diseases including amoebic dysentery, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid.

Professor Mishra told us that despite these health dangers, people continue to bathe because of the centuries-old intimate relationship between traditional Hindu culture and the river, “They cannot live without Ganga as a fish cannot live without water. For them Ganga is divine, Ganga is Goddess. Looking at her with devotion, touching her water, submerging our body into her waters and sipping that water will give you Bhukti and Mukhti – will give you well being in this world and salvation after you leave.” But he also warned, “If they go on using the polluted water, at some point they will die, and with them this culture associated with Ganga. This tradition and these endangered species of human beings will be over.”

Motivated by immense love and respect for Ganga, Mishra spearheaded the formation of the Sankat Mochan Foundation. Sankat Mochan is a name for the Hindu deity Hanuman and literally means “the reliever of dangers and difficulties.” Their vision is to restore the Ganga by alleviating deteriorating environmental conditions, to promote education and health care programs for the less privileged and to maintain the ancient cultural traditions of Benares. With international support, SMF works with the community to educate everyone from children and boatmen to government officials about environmental concerns affecting the Ganga. Mishra tells us, this takes an understanding of cultural sensitivities, “If I start talking with the common people and say that ‘Ganga is filthy, dirty, it’s polluted,’ people would say ‘please do not say this, it is unbelievable, this is disrespect to Ganga Ma.’ But if you take them to a point where the sewage is discharging to the river and show them what is happening, they say ‘this must stop.’”

With the help of UC Berkeley, SMF developed a plan to completely eliminate sewage discharge into the river. It involves an interceptor line that catches the sewage before it runs into the river and feeds it by gravity to a series of treatment ponds that utilize algae to transform the wastewater into usable water for land irrigation and fishery ponds. This technological solution is less expensive to build and operate than the current government-installed system that relies on large amounts of regular electricity (a rarity throughout India) and is not suited to clean up the levels of pollution found in the Ganga. Mishra hopes that once Benares succeeds in transforming their portion of the river, it can be a model for all the cities on the Ganga, all the rivers in India and endangered environments throughout the world.

Although SMF has the support of the residents and the local government for their plan’s implementation, the state and federal government refuses to budge from there failing program. The greatest obstacle to a clean Ganga in Benares has become the power, ego and selfish financial priorities of India’s mired political system even when “they know in their heart of hearts” they must do the right thing. “I know that one has to be persistent and one has to be resilient. So, I’m both,” Mishra told us, “I’m just not creating any tension for myself and I believe in God and I believe in miracles. Some day something will happen and we will be able to clean this river.”