August 2009

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The Ganges River: The Heart of Indian Civilization

by Keith Carey

This is the significance of the Ganges River, according to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: “The Ganges … is the river of India, which has held India’s heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of adventure of man….”

For thousands of years, this river has been essential to sustain millions of people, perhaps even billions. The Ganges Valley, or basin, is 200-400 miles wide, and includes some of the most fertile soil in the world. For this reason, the river makes possible the livelihood of 450 million people! Not only does it sustain millions of farmers, but also city dwellers. This and its tributaries provide the water source for the major cities of New Delhi, Allahabad, Patna, Varanasi, Kolkata, and Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh.

The Ganges River runs 1557 miles long. It begins at 14,000 feet in an ice cave in India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, near the Tibetan border, running south into the Indian plains. From there it runs east through Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, that has a population that exceeds all but eight countries in the world. Without the Ganges River, this state could never sustain this many people. It continues running east through Bihar and West Bengal, where it forms into a delta that spills over into neighboring Bangladesh, then empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Religious Significance

Instead of giving thanks to the God who created this river, the Hindus have deified it. Their holy scriptures mention it many times, saying that it has the attributes, and even the personification of a goddess.

In many religious traditions, there is a special river that symbolically washes away impurities and sins. In ancient Persia, there was the Tigris and the Euphrates, and in Egypt, it was the Nile. When it comes to the Ganges River, Hindus probably outdo them all. Some believe that life is incomplete without taking a holy dip, or bath, in the Ganges. One Hindu pilgrim told a BBC News reporter that, “I am here to wash away my sins-the sins I accumulated in my life so that I can die as a pious soul.” (Jan. 15, 2007, BBC News). Many Hindu families keep a vial of Ganges water in their homes. This gives the family prestige. If anyone is dying in the home, they can drink from this vial of water. They believe that act will either cure them or cleanse their souls of all past sins. Sadly, the water is so badly polluted that it most likely speeds their death.

The most important Hindu festivals are celebrated along the banks of the Ganges River, especially in the cities of Allahabad and Varanasi. The Kumbh Mela is celebrated every three years in one of four locations. Hindu astrologers find the most “auspicious” time to take a holy dip, and there are often such frenetic stampedes to get in the water at that time that, in recent years, hundreds have been trampled to death. But usually things are more orderly; Brahmin priests and ascetics are allowed to enter before the others.

Pollution of the Goddess

Indian guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the concocter of Transcendental Meditation, died and was cremated in an auspicious site; the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers at Allahabad. His ashes were scattered into the Ganges. He is not alone. Millions of Hindus seek to have their ashes scattered into this river. Many of them don’t have the funds to be completely cremated, so much of their burnt remains float through the water. You can only imagine what this does to the water quality.

Further water pollution comes from the leather industry, according to the web site, http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Ganges. This industry uses large amounts of chromium and other chemicals that wind up in the river. The government of Uttar Pradesh is lax about water pollution issues, so this problem continues. The web site also mentioned large amounts of human waste being dumped in the river. This is a strange way for Hindus to treat a river that they consider to be sacred! In fairness, we must mention that before the 45-day Ardh Kumbh Mela festival in January of 2007, Hindu holy men forced the powers that be to add clean water into the Ganges, according to a Feb. 18, 2009 article in BBC News.

As a nation that is quickly becoming industrialized, India needs electric power. They have built a hydro-electricity project near the source of the Ganges River. Opponents believe that dams would cause severe damage to the environment, and rob the river of its cultural and religious significance.

Hindu Pilgrimage

Devout Hindus make the pilgrimage to places like Allahabad and Varanasi. Most of the unreached people groups that we pray for this month are represented between these two cities along the Ganges River. These people come with the false hope of finding forgiveness for their sins, yet they are increasing God’s wrath by putting their faith in false gods, works and rituals. They hope to break the cycle of reincarnation, in hopes of reaching nirvana, the closest Hindu equivalent to heaven. Others bring their dying relatives and friends to the river in the false hope that the location will give them a better reincarnation.

Without Christ, these hopes are futile. How can they be reached with the truth in an environment that is so heavily influenced by malevolent spirits? Christian groups have tried to reach out to Hindus in Varanasi, a city with Christian fellowships. Other believers have gone to Varanasi and Allahabad to worship the Lord and pray for the Hindus who come with high hopes of spiritual enlightenment.

Pray that such efforts will break through deception so that pious and well-meaning Hindus will find that Jesus holds the answer for their spiritual quests.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

One of the most densely populated parts of the world is the land surrounding India’s Ganges River and her tributaries. For thousands of years this huge river has supported a large population with water and deposits that keep the land fertile for each year’s harvest.

But the yearly monsoonal floods also bring death through drowning and cholera along with agricultural fertility. Hindus know this river as the “Mother River” Ganga, a deity. Along with the “deity” have come holy sites. Varanasi is as holy to the Hindus as Mecca is to the Muslims. Ironically, Allahabad, a city named in honor of the God of the Muslims, is another holy site for the Hindus.

Though the Muslims were once the most powerful force during the Moghul Empire, Islam has been influenced by Hinduism more than Islam has affected Hinduism. Christians are a small minority in this region. Yet there are groups like India Gospel Outreach (day 18) and YWAM (day 17) that are trying to call attention to the One who created the Ganges River. It is hard for people to hear with the din of the worship of other gods.

This month we will pray not only for the ministries to the peoples in this region, but also for the communities themselves. The people who are doing missionary work there recommended that we feature communities like the Dhobi washer men, the Sonar goldsmiths, Lala accountants, and Brahmin priests. You will find these ancient communities as interesting as they are colorful.