Politics in the name of Narmada River’s spirituality

The river is in peril, and the people of Madhya Pradesh are angry with what they describe as religious gimmickry in its name.
A woman meditates at the Amarkantak source of Narmada river that runs through 47 districts, 1,003 villages, hosts 290 temples, 263 ashrams and 161 dharamshalas on its banks.(Gayatri Jayaraman/HT Photo)
A woman meditates at the Amarkantak source of Narmada river that runs through 47 districts, 1,003 villages, hosts 290 temples, 263 ashrams and 161 dharamshalas on its banks.(Gayatri Jayaraman/HT Photo)
Updated on Apr 23, 2018 05:26 PM IST
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ByGayatri Jayaraman

Having halted awhile in its bowers, which are enjoyed by the foresters’ wives, and having become of lighter gait, through the voiding of thy water, and having traversed the path, continuing from this (mountain) you will see the Reva (Narmada) parted into many streamlets at the rock rugged foot of the Vindhya, like streaks cut to adorn the bodies of elephants. -- Meghduta, Kalidasa (transl. Henry Aime Ouvry, 1868)

Hariharanand Maharaj is not at his usual seat at the Mrityunjaya ashram at Amarkantak. One of the five religious figures from Madhya Pradesh offered minister of state status for his work on the Narmada, Hariharanand is a former professor from Jodhpur who took sanyas in 2007, when he was made the third head of the ashram. He has already released a statement declining the Madhya Pradesh chief minister’s claim that he will be inducted into the state Cabinet.

Narmadanand Maharaj, another seer enlisted by the chief minister, quietly left from the Mrityunjay ashram for a parikrama of the Narmada at 5am on April 8. The circumambulation of the river is undertaken by the devout along its 1,312km course and takes up to six months, walking 30km a day.

He will not be accessible socially or politically for the duration of his parikrama. Narmadanand didn’t even bother to decline the position before he left.

Hariharanand and Narmadanand have been working silently for the conservation of the Narmada river, pushing to have ghats built, kept clean, increasing public awareness such as not using soap in the river or washing clothes, and asking for treatment plants. The perennial river runs through 47 districts, 1,003 villages, hosts 290 temples, 263 ashrams and 161 dharamshalas on its banks, provides drinking water and fills agricultural canals. It is also eroded in 821 spots.

The Narmada’s most ardent conservationists are often its worshippers. The Narmada here is a deity in her own right and is locally considered more sacred than the Ganga. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The Narmada’s most ardent conservationists are often its worshippers. The Narmada here is a deity in her own right and is locally considered more sacred than the Ganga. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

With rainfall at a 15-year low in 2017, and several of the river’s supplementary sources and tributaries drying up, despite dams, the environmental neglect has only exacerbated the problem.

An associate of Hariharanand says his name has been clubbed with the other three -- Computer Baba, Bhaiyyu Maharaj and Pandit Yogendra Mahant, who were going to take out a protest march called the ‘Narmada Ghotala Rath Yatra’ to protest the chief minister’s tree-plantation drive — to lend credibility to those names.

“He (Hariharanand) declined the role because the upkeep of Narmada is everyone’s role. Narmada doesn’t belong to the government. She is the earth mother, she belongs to everyone. She doesn’t belong to Shivraj Chouhan, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) or the Congress party. And it is not necessary that only when you sit in government she can be cleaned. You don’t need a status of a minister or political power,” says Hariharanand’s closest disciple and the ashram-in-charge in his absence, Yogesh Dubey.

The anger at the state government in making the MoS-status offer is palpable in this town of sadhus and saints, many of them with followers extending beyond its boundaries. So influential is this quiet town of sadhus and so viscerally attached to its ecosystem that all prime ministers since Indira Gandhi, it is said, avoided attempting the flight here by helicopter, believing that anyone who does would promptly lose any impending elections, and made the drive down from a helipad at Dindori instead.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did the same when he visited Amarkantak in 2017 to endorse the CM’s Namami Devi Narmada Seva Yatra. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) shot off a letter to the state government before the visit, asking for details of the environmental impact it would have.

“If they had spent on the river what they spent on setting up the PM’s visit here, it would have helped,” says a municipality official who asks not to be named.

The NGT’s move was prompted by an application lodged by local petitioners, including businessman Sanjay Tiwari, who in 2015 asked for the protection of the river.

Formerly a resident of Amarkantak, he has left the town since, allegedly under pressure and fearing for his life. If the mood in the town is any indication, Chouhan’s recruitment, seen as a desperate bid to appease the rising anger of religious-minded voters, seems to have backfired. Combined with the agrarian distress caused by low water levels in the river, it is just the kind of thing Chouhan and his BJP did not want in an election year in the state.

Narottam Mishra, the state’s minister for water resources, called the river an entire culture and civilisation, not merely a river, and justified the offer to the religious figures as “participative governance” and admitted to targeting their wider reach.

“Their energies can be channelised in the conservation of Narmada. They have been independently working to restore the glory of the river. These religious figures have a significant following among the public which will help in conveying CM’s vision and mission for the conservation of Narmada and create further awareness about the importance of ecological protection. They will also act as independent auditors for the Narmada Seva Mission,” he said.

The Narmada’s most ardent conservationists are often its worshippers. The Narmada here is a deity in her own right and is locally considered more sacred than the Ganga. As a ‘kunwari’, or unmarried river, she is said to offer liberation on sight (darshan) rather than ritual dipping.

In fact, the orthodox frown upon the dipping into the river, or making offerings upon her, which is why the issue of her ‘pollution’ is a controversial one. While she is one of three rivers that flows east to west, no other river in India is circumambulated from end to end, clockwise and counter-clockwise.

According to SK Tiwari, former head of tribal studies at the University of Jabalpur, and author of several books on the Narmada, and a jal yatri – one who has performed the parikrama by water instead of land -- with the submergence of 566 villages as per official records in the construction of the Omkareshwar dam, 48 tirthas or sacred spots have also been submerged.

Parikramas, in which the devout walk barefoot, carry no money or food, and survive on whatever the river provides, “began as a means of conservation, to put people in touch with nature and to be in touch with and understand the river,” Tiwari says.

There was also an ecosystem of hosting pilgrims that developed through the villages. Even today, along the river banks, homes that line the roads keep clay pots filled with water for those on parikramas.

With the establishment of the dams altering the space occupied by the waters, submerging the original path and in places the path that once followed the waters has now extended up to 10km away from the water’s edge.

Nine out of 10 people in Madhya Pradesh are Hindus, dominant in the Narmada valley and its embankments. Where the population is largely Adivasi close to her source, as with the Raj Gonds the Narmada remains a leitmotif in traditional song, myth and legend. The religiosity of the river is not something that political parties can afford to neglect. Unfortunately for them, loyalty to the river outranks loyalty to parties.

Amarkantak is middle India’s only non-glacier-fed water hub. The Narmada sits at the meeting point of the Vindhyas and the Satpura range, in the Maikal hills of Madhya Pradesh, with part of its ecosystem falling in the now biforcated Chattisgarh. The entrapment between two states is also cause for much inaction.

It is said seven perennial rivers also originate and feed into the Narmada here. Many have dried up now due to various environmental factors.

Legend has it that Sage Markandeya was searching for a river to meditate alongside and picked the Narmada. Kabir meditated here as did Bhrigu and it is said to have housed the Pandavas. Adi Shankaracharya is said to have met his guru Govind Bhagavatpada and established the Pataleshwar temple here.

While the government has offered to build a 108-foot statue of the Shankaracharya on the banks of the Narmada, his followers here would really rather not stress the river with more construction. The ancient temples of Kalachuri maintained by the Archaeological Society of India are said to date back to 1042AD.

Brahmacharini Chinmayee, a woman mendicant from West Bengal, came to meditate at the site of its origin leaving behind a young daughter and her husband. “I was told that those who meditate on the river banks are able to obtain siddhic powers,” she says. She’s been here 20 years and lives in a hut without electricity or running water.

The three peaks on which Amarkantak rests are still referred to by old timers as the ‘trikoot’ – the Rudra (Shiva) peak, Brahma peak and Vishnu peak. Two key rivers rise out of this site — the Narmada that runs to Bharuch, and the Sone that runs east through Chattisgarh. Areas that residents describe as once swampy are now at risk of forest fires.

The water columns at source have dropped by 30%, the mean temperature is rising, the forests are being denuded, and this has caused much anger against those who would espouse Hinduism but let a sacred river die.

Religious figures such as Mohan Maharaj, the ‘Gurubhai’ of BJP leader Uma Bharti, have been among the most vocal voices for action against the government’s neglect of environmental norms.

“We have been asking for water treatment plants, for control over deforestation, curbs on rampant construction, the sewage being dumped by cities and towns into the river, and the NGT has been passing order after order that is lying neglected. Instead we are fed gimmicks. It is just incredibly sad to see the state of the river. We fear that at this stage, after Amarkantak, she will become ‘gupt’, i.e. go underground till Mandla (184 km away).”

In Jabalpur’s Gwarighat, the whole town comes out for the evening aarati to the river every day. Anushree and Tanushree, two young women who now live in Pune and Bangalore, still come whenever they’re in town.

Uday Krishna Shastri, a 22-year-old priest who is one of five to perform the evening aarati, says: “You cannot play politics with the Narmada, she has an adhyatmik (spiritual) purpose, and a social one.”

That’s more or less what the water resources minister Mishra says – that the Narmada “should be kept away from politics as much as possible”.

Given its state, though, it is unlikely that will happen.

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