The Holy Ganga and the Danger of a Single Story

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In February of 2018, I traveled with six amazing women to India. We called ourselves The Sisters of the Traveling Sari. I have so many wonderful memories and lessons learned from that trip, but spending a couple of days in Rishikesh by the Ganges River was, for me, the highlight of the journey.

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Rishikesh was the last destination before our trip back home. One of my friends and I decided to change our return plans and remain in Rishikesh for a few more days. On the morning that the other four women departed, I had decided to walk to the river by myself, via a private entrance from our hotel. I was able to pray and meditate for some time before a young man from the hotel joined me. He asked if I’d like him to perform the ritual prayer in Hindi and I accepted the offer. We were alone: the river, rocks, this young man, and I. A perfect moment of reflection and revelation.

Rishikesh-which is said to be the birthplace of yoga-is a small town located in the northern state of Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, on the banks of the Ganges River. To the locals, the Ganges is a holy and sacred river, with healing and cleansing power. Temples and ashrams line its banks, and people come from all over the world to worship and study yoga.

During those last days that I spent along the river, a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi, The Danger of a Single Story, came to mind. In it, she states, “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete: they make one story become the only story.”

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For most Westerners who have heard of the Ganges, the story is incomplete. Before visiting the Ganges, what came to my mind was not always positive. Search “Ganges” and among other things, you will learn that it is the fifth most polluted body of water on the planet. Friends and family members warned me not to enter the water, reminding me how polluted and filthy it is.  People who have never been there but have heard of it will warn you about the foul smell, dead bodies floating in the river, animals, and people bathing alongside each other on its banks. Perhaps some of this is true, but it is not the whole story.

The Holy Ganga, or Mother Ganga, as the natives refer to it, is a river that is roughly 2500 km long and runs through many villages and towns. There may be some points along its journey that are not so sanitary, but that wasn’t my experience.

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We visited Mother Ganga in Haridwar and Rishikesh, close to the base of the Himalayas where the holy river begins its journey downhill. The source of the river is the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas. The area is spectacular. We visited during one of the most favorable times of the year, so the weather was perfect, ranging from 70F to 85F. The water was a pristine aqua color, like nothing I expected. Besides yoga or religious practice, people from all over the world travel to Rishikesh to do kayaking, white water rafting, and bungee jumping in the Ganges.

The Ganges is a place of spiritual heritage for many Indians, and during certain periods of the year, many travel to this part of the river on pilgrimage. As we drove into Haridwar, we saw hundreds, perhaps thousands of people with beautifully decorated vessels across their shoulders. They had come to pay homage to Lord Shiva and collect water from the river to take home. On the first night, we participated in the festival by sitting among them during the Aarti, a light ritual in praise of a deity, performed every night at sunset. Hundreds of Indians were all there to pray, supplicate, and make wishes. During the prayer ritual, I was reminded of loved ones who had passed, and friends who were ill or in need of prayer or a way forward. It was a powerful feeling.

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Rishikesh was bustling with people, stores, and ashrams, yet the water looked clean enough to swim in. We took a boat ride on the river, and indeed, we saw people kayaking and white water rafting, as well as immersing themselves in the river. I felt very comfortable submerging my feet in the river. It was surprisingly very cold.

There was some garbage in the river, but mostly marigolds, and leaves floating along. The marigolds were the remains of the Aarti ritual where small cups made of leaves with marigolds and a candle are lit and placed in the river after the devotions.

With all the activity that goes on in Rishikesh, the government and the people of India are making a great effort to protect and keep the river clean. We found out about the government initiative, Ganga Action Parivar, or “GAP,” at the ashram in Rishikesh. GAP is “a global family of professionals, engineers, scientists, activists, spiritual leaders, environmental specialists, and volunteers dedicated to workable solutions for the problems of pollution, obstruction, as well as numerous other problems plaguing the Ganga and her tributaries.” GAP is fighting to protect Mother Ganga and her tributaries, because “contaminated drinking water and crops naturally ensure the heavy pollution and obstruction of our sacred life-giving waterways--a grave infringement on human rights, especially for the over 500 million people who are directly dependent upon the river.” The World Toilet College (WTC) is located in Rishikesh. (Yes, I also laughed when I saw that sign!)  WTC is dedicated to educating the masses about building proper toilets, hygiene, and sanitation.

GAP and other such organizations in the area are pioneering an innovative sewage treatment process using bacteria to break down sewage into clean water. Leaders and activists come from all over the world to learn about natural ways to treat sewage. The leaders in the area are well aware of the earth’s ability to renew itself, and they are actively engaged in research and collaborating with leaders and activists worldwide to use new technology to improve the conditions of the Ganges.  In the words of Dr. Vandana Shiva, a renowned environmental activist, and scientist, “The movement to save the Ganga and its ‘nirmal’ (‘clean’) and ‘aviral’ (‘uninterrupted’) flow is not just a movement to save a river… If the Ganga lives, India lives. If the Ganga dies, India dies.”  Why don’t we in the west hear more about these efforts?

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The story of the Ganga is much more complex, rich, and powerful than just that single story of disease, dead bodies, and cows. The Rishikesh part of the Ganges is quite spectacular. It not only blew my assumptions right out of the water, but it also helped me reflect on all the ways in which making and holding onto assumptions and stereotypes can limit us from wonderful experiences, and from getting to know people on a deeper level. It can also lead to disunity and discord among people.

For centuries, the Ganga has served as the lifeline for millions of people. It has united its people through the legends and stories of its origin and has sustained its children. There are many good reasons why it is revered by its people. In the end, I realized that was also on a pilgrimage to this holy spot.

The danger of a single story is that it keeps us from appreciating the complexities of life and deriving enjoyment from it. This experience reminded me to keep my assumptions in check and to approach people and places with an open mind, allowing them to reveal themselves to me. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

Besides being a lot of fun, this trip to India taught me some wonderful life lessons about being open-minded about unknown places, people, and ideas, to see and listen to what is in front of me and let go of my previous assumptions about it.

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