Yoga guru Swami Ramdev has been campaigning to save the Ganga from pollution, as have so many others in the past including religious heads and members of civil society.
He wishes that the river that is considered holy by millions should be given heritage status. At least then, he reasons, polluting the river would be considered a punishable crime. Swami Ramdev started his campaign from Kanpur since it is here that the river receives large volumes of toxic effluents from the city's tanneries and other small-scale industries.
The Ganga is both goddess and river. Sitting on the banks of the Ganga is in itself an uplifting experience, as the ambience is rich with the meditations of sages from time immemorial. As the consort of Shiva, flowing from his matted locks as Shakti, her waters are believed to have the power to wash away all sin.
How the Ganga was brought down to earth is told in the story of Bhagiratha who obtained permission from the gods for the river to descend to earth so that the sacred waters might wash over the ashes of the sons of his ancestor, Sagar. The Ganga came down but Shiva absorbed the force of the mighty torrent by letting it flow through his hair. From the head of Shiva it flowed down as the Sapta-Sindhva or the seven sacred rivers.
The Ganga is also called Alaknanda - from the locks of Shiva; Deva-Bhuti - heavenly; Gandini - ever-shining; Hara-Shekhara - Shiva's crest; Jahnavi - from Jahnu; Khapaga - flowing from heaven; Kumarsu - mother of Kartikeya; Mandakini - gently flowing; and Tripathga - flowing through the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell.
If the Himalayas are supreme among mountains and Kashi is supreme among holy cities, the Ganga is supreme among rivers. Jawaharlal Nehru said: "The Ganga especially is the river of India's age-long culture and civilisation, ever changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."
Poet Jagannath, in his poem, 'Ganga Lahri', approaches the Ganga with total surrender: "I come to you as a child to his mother/ I come as an orphan /To you, moist with love/ I come without refuge/ To you, giver of sacred rest/ I come a fallen man/ To you, uplifter of all./ I come undone by disease/ To you the perfect physician/ I come, my heart dry with thirst/ To you, ocean of sweet wine/ Do with me whatever you will."
It is not only in India but in other parts of the world also that rivers have been referred to as mothers. Volga is Mat Rodanya, that is, mother of the land. Ireland's river Boyne is worshipped as a goddess. The Thai river Mae-nau translates literally as Water Mother. In ancient Egypt, the floods of the Nile were considered the tears of the Goddess Isis.
The name of Ganga appears twice in the Rig Veda. We find references to the Ganga in the Valmiki Ramayana, the Brahmanda Purana, the Devi Bhagavatam and the Mahabharata. A number of Sanskrit poets, including Adi Sankara, have composed beautiful verses in praise of the Ganga.
Our great rivers, including the Ganga, are dying. If we do not succeed in a determined effort to save these important water bodies, we are risking the right of future generations to a healthy, life-enhancing environment. Veda Vyasa said: "Anyone who cuts trees and pollutes rivers commits suicide."