The rains began as we sang the Hanuman Chalisa. Typically if it’s raining prior to the aarti, we set up under the overhead awning. However, on the 16th June, the skies were clear in the afternoon after morning showers, and the rain resumed only once we had all gathered on Ganga’s banks to sing Her glories and meditate next to Her waters. “Jai Jai Jai Hanuman gosahin…kripa karaho gurudeva ki nyahin”…The rain came down in sheets as we clapped and sang euphorically. Pujya Swamiji’s eyes were closed and He led the chanting in ecstasy. It was as though we were being bathed from all sides by Mother Ganga. She flowed below us and next to us, in Her riverbed, and rained upon us as Akaash Ganga from Heaven. “Gange Ma, Gange Ma, Gange ma,” we clapped and sang, moving in an out of a rapturous trance.
Post Aarti we returned to the ashram, soaked from the inside out with gratitude, love and devotion. The monsoons had started, slightly early even, bringing the nectar of rain to parched soil, parched mouths and parched spirits.
All evening the water rose and rose, and Akaash Ganga bestowed Her copious blessings upon us.
The next morning, we awoke to the unique and precious smell of Indian soil saturated by rain. I remember from my first days in India, noticing that the rain smelled here. There is an intoxicating fragrance of cool Himalayan showers upon hot Himalayan earth, that is so rich it inevitably pulls me out of my chair or off the floor to the nearest doorway where I can inhale its scent. I have found myself, year after year, fixed in doorways, half in and half out of the rain, filling my airways with this ambrosial nectar.
On the morning of the 17th June, the delicious fragrance filled the ashram; yet upon catching a glimpse of Mother Ganga I realized this was not just any rain storm. Within 24 hours the water level had risen more than fifteen feet and showed no signs of ceasing. Excitement, exuberance and awe filled my heart as I went out to offer my morning prayers to Ganga. Kneeling on wet marble as the rain bathed me from above, I lay my forehead upon the ghat and offered my usual prayer: “Oh Ma Ganga, wash through me, flow through me, cleanse me of anything and everything that is impure, that is not conducive to a life lived on Your banks, in Your seva. Wash over me, under me, around me and through me. Hold me in your waters forever.”
Raising my head from the wet marble, I turned and walked up the ashram steps and into my office, as I’ve done every morning for nearly 2 decades.
“Ganga is rising, Ganga is rising” was the ubiquitous chant all day in the ashram, but it was still filled with joy, reverence and awe. “Mother Ganga is filling and filling.” Our hearts pounded with excitement and devotion. Her glories, Her grandeur, Her divinity were filling more and more of the river bed, and more of and more of our hearts, our minds and our beings.
Evening aarti had to take place, for the first time ever, in the street next to the ghat. Ganga’s waters had risen up onto the top of the ghat, and we’d locked the gates to ensure no one wandered dangerously close. Hands folded in prayer, we performed aarti to Her now raging glory as She paid no heed to anything that thwarted Her flow -- trees, cars, buildings – the animate, the inanimate, the large, the small. She carried it all in Her waters, seizing the “aviral” flow environmentalists had been demanding.
No conference, no meeting, no agreement, no anshan, contract or commission could now deprive Her of Her right to flow, and overflow, through Her natural river bed, tearing by the root and the foundation anything that stood in Her way. All the signs and symbols of our “progress,” of man’s triumph over nature – the highways, the cars, the trucks, the buildings precariously defiant on mountain top ledges – with one wave of Her hand, the illusion was shattered, and the Truth of Nature’s power was laid bare, undeniable, non-negotiable, for all to behold and mourn.
As the sun set beyond Mother Ganga’s turbulent waters, Her waves crashing now like a storm at sea, a moment arose in which the surge of bhaav (devotion) -- rising, rising, rising, bhaav -- reached its peak and was transformed, almost imperceptibly, into a swell of bhaya (fear).
“Oh Ma Ganga,” hearts now beating rapidly in apprehension rather than awe, voices trembling with more fear than faith, we prayed: “Please calm Your tumultuous flow. Please return to your normal level and normal path. Please allow us to hold on, for a brief time more, to our illusion of living in control of nature. Permit us please, oh Mother Ganga, to hold onto our delusion of invincibility, our megalomania, our blind race for development. Please Mother Ganga, allow the curtain of illusion to once again drop over our eyes so that we may not be forced to see, to realize and recognize Your True nature as a river with rights, as a Goddess who will -- as a last resort -- wrest those rights from the hands Her captors.”
“Mother Ganga, the giver of life, the giver of liberation, whom we have abused, used, disregarded, neglected and turned into a commodity in the name of progress and development, please have mercy upon us, your children who have promised time and again to protect you and preserve you, and yet who time and again have neglected to do so.”
But, our chances had been used up. Year after year in different ways, Ganga had tried to warn us – first Uttarakashi, then Rudra Prayag, year after year breaking bridges, overflowing banks, demolishing buildings, roads and lives. Voiceless, She had used every means in Her hands to warn us, to make us understand. Yet, blinded by our own agenda, foolish in our wisdom-less knowledge, reckless and deluded, we ignored Her message. We have deforested Her hillsides, blasted Her fragile, young, soft mountains with dynamite, encroached further and further upon Her banks, dammed and diverted Her flow, dragged Her helpless tributaries out of their natural beds into steel tunnels, built non-porous structures in the riverbed, impeding the natural flow of water, polluted the air, causing excess heat and carbon dioxide to melt Her glaciers. We have pushed Her, pulled her, taunted Her and tried to tame Her. We have used her, abused Her and then, as though redemption were so simple, taken our token dupkis (baths/dips) in Her water during auspicious positions of the planets and moon. “Jai Gange” we chant as we bob in and out of Her waters, feeling redeemed of our sins against She to whom we turn for liberation, redemption, and purity.
Unfortunately the laws of the Shristi (creation) are not so simple. Yes, Ganga is a Goddess. Yes, Ganga is the Mother. But the divine Creator has laid down laws of nature for the Creation – divine, mortal, tangible, intangible, organic and inorganic – to follow. One may chant “He Bhagawan” or “Jai Hanuman” or pray to “Vayu devta” as one jumps off the top of a tall building, but one’s body will still plummet to the ground, for the law of gravity is non-negotiable.
Whatever name we use for the Divine, He/She is, of course, omnipotent and infinite. Yet, God has created laws of nature which do not bend. These laws were not meant to punish us. Rather, in His infinite compassion and love, God created these laws to nurture and nourish us. The falling leaves of autumn, packed under the snow of winter create the fertile soil for spring’s blossoms. Each aspect of nature has its purpose, its life-giving properties. There is a reason we say “Mother Nature.” Nature provides for us, creates us and sustains us as a divine mother….but, in accordance with her own laws. If we, defiantly and with blatant disregard, disobey these laws, we will reap the consequences. A good man, a well-intentioned man, a pious man, will plummet to earth as fast as a villain if they jump together off the Empire State building. The laws of nature apply equally to all –the pious and the profane. Singing Ganga’s glories or taking dupkis in Her waters on auspicious occasions does not render us immune to the laws of Mother Nature. That which we sow, so shall we reap. If we sow unchecked and illegal construction, vision-less development, deceptive politics and pockets lined with commissions….if we sow consumerism as the highest good, we shall reap the fruits of destruction and devastation.
Fortunately, Mother Ganga and Mother Nature are forgiving. Eventually, over the next several months, the rains will dissipate, the flood waters will recede, the final rites will be performed for those who have perished, the soaked soil which has rushed hundreds or thousands of meters downstream will dry and some semblance of normalcy will return to the Char Dham valleys. That is our chance. Perhaps our last chance. When we make plans for the reconstruction, restoration and rehabilitation of the Uttarakahand mountain villages, what vision of development will we use? What natural laws will we obey? Which will we defy? What seeds for the future will we sow? Today we are eating the very bitter fruit of the seeds we’ve planted for the last few decades. What seeds will we plant today for the fruit of tomorrow?