Post Ganga Asnan: the mess on the beaches

First of all, on behalf of my fellow Hindus who messed up the various beaches of the country on the occasion of the Ganga Asnan festival on Monday last, I present my deepest apologies to our non-Hindu compatriots.

I am not an addict of all social media, but I do check out on Facebook regularly and only occasionally comment where there is something that I feel strongly about. This is how I came across a picture taken at Belle Mare which showed the litter that was left on Monday after the participants in Ganga Asnan had departed. The comment that I posted was ‘Absolutely disgraceful and shameful’, and if I have to repeat it a thousand times I would. And this comment is addressed to the individuals as well as to the leaders of the socio-cultural organisations who plan these fests, without paying due attention to all the aspects since their main focus is to hobnob with the politicians whom they invite.

In an article I wrote in this paper last year (‘Post Maha Shivaratri’ – January 20, 2015), I had commented as follows: ‘While, therefore, the latter (N.B. the National Authorities) take their part of the responsibility, functioning through a Task Force, it goes without saying that the rest is up to the individual pilgrims and all those associated with them in the performance of the yatra – namely the religious heads and guides, the organizations under which the latter are grouped, the various civil society entities such as youth associations and so on. What I refer to as software is the mindset of the individual as s/he embarks on the journey, as well as the associated organizational and operational aspects, and which eventually influence on the hardware aspects too.

And what follows is a self-critical look at what happens during the several days that this event lasts.

We are a country of many cultures and faiths, and generally speaking it is fair to say that we have always desired to and have actually lived in peace among ourselves, mostly. If we are to continue doing so, then we must at all times behave in such a way as not to inconvenience others, especially with respect to our customs and practices. This is where ‘sensitive thinkers’ – to use a term from Jawaharlal Nehru – in each community must from time to time engage in auto-criticism and suggest adjustments/accommodations as the need arises to achieve greater social harmony’. I have added the italics to emphasise clearly where responsibilities lie.

The issues I had covered then were: kanwars on the roads, litter, noise and other pollution, smoking, and food distribution.

I had concluded the article by saying that ‘These are a few personal observations, and there may be more points that others may have noted and that equally need to be articulated… The whole thrust must be on the pilgrim’s discipline…That would certainly be a great service to both the pilgrims and to the country at large’.

It is in the same spirit of taking a self-critical look that I am writing this article, because I know that many are the Hindus like me who are greatly disturbed by the mess that they see. Again like me, they contrast it with the scrupulous cleanliness that these very same people observe in their own homes and personal environment. Why then do they not extend the same courtesy to the outside environment? And it is not as if this is rocket science.

Like on all such mass occasions, what is required is recalling the cleanliness and tidiness aspects through an awareness campaign some days before the festival, which must be the shared responsibility, as mentioned before, of the individuals and the organisers, as well as the religious leaders. This should naturally be accompanied on the day of the event by the appropriate logistic arrangements for waste collection, such as waste bins in adequate numbers placed at readily accessible locations.

Further, given the seeming disregard for these bins, perhaps what is additionally needed is a reminder through loudspeaker on site at frequent intervals that all litter may please be put into the waste bins and not left to fester in the open.

Another matter I wish to point out is the misunderstanding about the festival that is conveyed by pilgrims, which is excusable since they are not theology experts, and by the priests when they are interviewed. Invariably what they say is that ‘we have come here to pray and to purify ourselves in the waters of the ocean which for us represents the water of the sacred river Ganga’. What the latter don’t do is to explain more clearly the symbolism of the dip, which is not about physical purification only. Besides, water does not ‘purify’ the body, which would imply getting rid of all the microbes of the body, which is a physical impossibility. Water only cleans, it is fire that purifies – physically.

The symbolism is about two aspects: one is an acknowledgement of the importance of water in the scheme of things. For, according to the Hindu model of existence, water is one of the five primordial elements – panchmahabhutas or tattvas – of which creation is made: space, fire, air, water and earth. As such it is literally a vital part of existence, and especially of sentient life. Indeed, water is the sustainer of life as we know it, and that is why we must periodically remind ourselves of this fact, which Ganga Asnan affords an annual occasion to do. We all know, as scientists and environmentalists have been harping upon, that if we are not careful the next world wars will be about water, and hence the ‘sacred’ concern that it deserves, which the occasion is about as well.

The other dimension is the ‘purification’: in Hinduism, what we mean by purification is not the physical cleanliness after the bath which seems to be the popular (mis)conception. Rather, it is about neutralizing the ragas and dveshas or likes and dislikes in our minds that are created by our desires.

Desires are certainly important for one’s survival, and they are expressed through our five senses of touch, taste, hearing, vision and smell, and our organs of action such as the limbs, etc. But we also know that excessive desires can do us harm, and also that they create restlessness in our minds or to use the term preferred by our Hindu sages, mental agitations. These mental agitations can lead us to indulge in actions which are harmful, as much as they represent an obstacle to our progress on the spiritual path of peace, which requires a calm, tranquil mind. So purification is about damping down and managing these desires to a level that does not cause harm either to the individual or to the collectivity.

The dip is therefore symbolic of this mental purification and not of physical cleanliness as is mistakenly conveyed.

To those who participate in these beautiful Hindu celebrations, individuals and organisers, for heaven’s sake please do your homework ahead of the festivals so that you give a correct picture of what they are all about. And take a pledge that you will stop messing up on all these sublime occasions. Thank you in advance. I hope that next year I will not get another shameful post on Facebook.

RN Gopee

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