July 2, 2022

Book Review: Neera Misra’s “Ganga, The River of ‘Sanatana’ Civilization”

Written By: Bibek Debroy

Editor: Neera Misra

Publisher: Research India Press, New Delhi, 2021

Book Review by: Bibek Debroy

Entire books can be written on Ganga. Indeed, entire books have been written on Ganga. Eric Newby floated “slowly down the Ganges”. Steven Darian has a book on the Ganges in myth and history, domain traversed by Sudipta Sen too. Ganga features prominently in Diana Eck’s book on India’s sacred geography. There are books by Giulio Di Sturco and Victor Mallet and lovely photographs in a book by Raghubir Singh. Ganga is that kind of river. We have yet another book on Ganga, the river of “sanatana” civilization and “samskriti”. For years and years, people have written about Ganga. There is a beautiful description of Ganga in Valmiki Ramayana, where Valmiki refers to Ganga as divine (दिव्या) and the one with three courses (त्रिपथगा). She has three courses because she flows in heaven, on earth and in the nether regions. Adi Shankaracharya composed a wonderful stotram to Ganga. This is the one that begins देवि सुरेश्वरि भगवति गङ्गे and most people will have heard it. At the time of taking a bath, many Indians recite a shloka गङ्गे च यमुने चैव गोदावरि सरस्वति। नर्मदे सिन्धु कावेरि जलेऽस्मिन् संनिधिं कुरु॥ “O Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu, Kaveri! Please be present in this water.” In this list of seven rivers, Ganga is the first.

Ganga is important for our civilization, culture and history and it is understandable that Ganga should be written about. Yet, this book is different and it is probably the only book of its kind, since it includes papers presented at a conference that brought a multi-dimensional lens to bear on Ganga. Therefore, there are papers on what can be called a textual tradition, with stories about Bhagiratha, Kapila, Jahnu and Bhishma.

Cutting across India and Bangladesh, from the Himalayas to the confluence with the ocean in Bay of Bengal, Ganga is a long river. Depending on how the river (and its tributaries) are defined, it is around 2,600 km long. Bhagirathi originates in Gomukh (literally shaped like a cow’s mouth), from the Gangotri glacier. In a way, this is the source of Ganga. Alakananda originates in some other glaciers. In a way, this too is the source of Ganga. Both Bhagirathi and Alakananda are joined by their own respective tributaries, before they merge in Devprayag. One could say that this is when the river becomes Ganga. From the mountains, Ganga starts to enter the plains in Rishikesha/Hrishikesha and completely enters the plains in Haridwar (earlier known as Gangadvara). As Ganga flows through the plains, there are many rivers that join it along its course, some of which are proper tributaries – Ramganga, Yamuna (there is a separate Jamuna in Bangladesh), Tamasa (Tamas or Tons), Gomati, Ghaghara (Karnali), Son, Gandaki and Koshi. As Ganga approaches the ocean, distributaries like Hooghly branch off. (Hooghly has a tributary in Damodar.) The Hooghly part enters the ocean in Sagar island in Sundarbans, known as Gangasagar. Human civilization, or at least settled human civilization, always sought out rivers. It is no different for Ganga and Ganga’s tributaries and distributaries. Badrinath, Haridwar, New Delhi, Agra, Prayagraj, Kanpur, Jaunpur, Varanasi, Mathura, Mirzapur, Auraiya, Etawah, Farrukhabad, Fatehgarh, Kannauj, Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Bhagalpur, Patna, Gaya, Munger, Baranagar, Kolkata, Murshidabad and many more. Some of these are very old cities. Varanasi is believed to be the oldest inhabited city in the world. The area of Ganga’s basin is 860,000 sq. km and it is spread across 11 States and 600 million people live in this basin and 40% of India’s GDP (gross domestic product).

These are staggering numbers from today. But the numbers were no less staggering in the past, which is why Ganga has been part and parcel of our civilization. In iconography, Ganga holds a water-pot. Iconography is based on symbolism. For our purposes, the water in the water-pot represents life. As I said, there are papers in this book on stories and the textual tradition. But there are also papers in this book documenting that history of urbanisation, such as janapadas, through archaeological excavations and even inscriptions. That’s where this book scores. It also has a rich section on Ganga’s iconography, in paintings and in sculpture. Indeed, beyond the papers, there is an entire Section 2 on Ganga’s depictions in texts and visual forms. That multi-disciplinary approach makes this a unique book.

Ganga may give life to 600 million Indians, but Ganga is in bad shape. In 2013, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had a devastating assessment of pollution in the river. There is actually a hierarchy of pollution, based on levels of BOD (biochemical oxygen demand). One can legitimately argue BOD is at best a partial indicator. There are other measures of a river’s well-being. Lists float around of most polluted rivers in the world. Ganga and Yamuna will invariably figure in these lists. Ill-being of rivers is primarily due to raw sewage and industrial waste. Neither problem is new. Many people may not have heard of Kashi Ganga Prasadini Sabha, established by concerned citizens of Varanasi in 1886. The Sabha’s objective was to introduce drainage and clean up the river, improvements we are still struggling with today. Rivers now have legal rights. In March 2017, Uttarakhand High Court have Ganga and Yamuna legal rights, as minors. They needed guardians. Granting legal rights to rivers (and water-bodies) opens up a new area of environmental jurisprudence. But that is best left to lawyers. As guardians, what do we plan for Ganga?  In that conference and in bringing in that multi-dimensional perspective that has led to this book, I detect only one weakness. There is only one brief paper that lists out steps for rejuvenating Ganga. A lot has been done through Ganga Action Plan, Namami Gange and National Mission for Clean Ganga. The intention is not to suggest that everything is perfect. But, shouldn’t there have been more discussion on this issue? It would have made the book more complete.

Despite that minor carping, this is a wonderful book. It is expensive. Once you get it, you will realise why.

Brief Bio of Book Reviewer: Dr Bibek Debroy is an economist and was educated in Ramakrishna Mission School, Narendrapur; Presidency College, Kolkata; Delhi School of Economics and Trinity College, Cambridge. Presently, he is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India (EAC-PM) and President, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).


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