The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 5, 2003
Time Off

Vedic fantasy to come true?
Manohar Malgonkar

ARE there people so crazy about baths that they would die for them? Indeed there are! — Indians. We do it almost routinely, every year. On specially auspicious days when it is important to have a dip in a river at a spot which is thought to be holy. There are stampedes and men and women get crushed and smothered and die. It happened in Nasik, on the Godavari river only a few weeks ago.

No matter what the statistics say, we Indians must be the most bath-conscious people in the world. I know that claim is made on behalf of the people of the United States of America. But that assessment is based on the per capita annual use of soap, and the ratio of bathrooms to populations. Not reliable, because we Indians don’t bother about having a closed-in place for taking a bath. A public tap in the street, the platform around a well, is all that we look for to take a bath. Or, as in the Godavari at Nasik. A quick in-and-out immersion in the company of hundreds of other bathers. And soap is for the rich.

Anyhow, we as good as invented the concept of washing the body — taking a bath, thousands of years before anyone so much as knew that there was on this planet, a large land-mass that would one day call itself after an Iberian sailor named Amerigo Vespuci — America. We had institutionalised and ritualised bathing. Ablutions, baths, became a part and parcel of our daily life, compulsory, indeed mandatory, because you could not even pray if you had not had a bath. In order to address the Gods, you had to wash your body, first.

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Of course, the Romans, too, made a ritual of bathing —they built pavilions around hot springs or supposedly ‘medicinal’ waters for the elite to marinate their bodies, and some of the richest among them are said to have made a practice of washing their bodies in the milk of asses — Yuk!

But then the Romans did not so much as enter the pages of history till well into the 5th century B.C. which, by our standards, is not ancient times at all. Our own civilisation was much, much older. The Vedas, written so long ago that no one knows how old they are, were the backbone of our faith as practised over the length and breadth of the continent, and in the Vedas, ablutions — baths—are a taken-for-granted feature of daily life.

So Hindus from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari, from the Indus to the Brahmaputra chanted the same mantra as they poured water over their heads and shoulders: Gangecha, Ymunechaiva, Godavari cha Saraswati, Narmada-Sindhu-Kaveri, jale, asmin sannidham kuru. (Bring to me the waters of the Ganga and the Yamuna and also Godavari and Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Cauvery.)

A wild flight of fancy? Or, as many Hindus believe, an inspired device to highlight the essential one-ness of a nation? A vast land-mass in which millions of people of different cultures and languages subscribe to one of the world’s oldest surviving faiths. That Pandit of Gangotri has no idea where the river Kaveri might be; or, for that matter, that Aiyangar in Kanchipuram, where the Yamuna and the Narmada are. Yet, as they slosh water over their shoulders, they reach out to one another across the immensity of India, by reciting the same mantra. And they do it every day.

And yet, if those rivers are remembered in daily worship, they are held in fear, too, for they’re known to be capricious. They can go into sulks and shrivel to mere trickles or even to a chain of puddles for weeks on end. Or again, they can have fits of anger which make them go on the rampage, bringing ruin to thousands of people — wash away whole villages and transform farmlands into lakes.

It happens every year during the monsoon. Parts of India remain cloudless while in other parts, it rains in buckets. Some rivers dry up while others swell and swell. Even as I write, in mid-September, several towns in Karnataka are undergoing acute water shortages, and large farming communities have been declared to be ‘famine stricken’. And all this while they can watch on their TV screens the plight of the lowland villagers of Orissa. How their fields have been converted overnight into lakes. There are families fleeing, with their belongings, and some are actually marooned on trees, waiting to be rescued.

And the Ganga at Patna has made inroads into the city’s streets. How high will the water-level rise? The terrified residents keep a vigil, ready to flee, trying to interpret what their chosen leader was telling them. He, Laloo Prasad Yadav, has as good as reproached them. How can anyone complain if Ganga-mayi herself has come to his door?

Popular leaders must have an instinct which enables them to take crisis situations in their stride. And here, himself appearing totally unmoved, he was telling his people not to lose their cool. Why? — if Lalwa himself was telling them that they should treat the water lapping menacingly at their walls was indeed a blessing conferred by Ganga-mayi — it must be so!

Anyhow, such upheavals are to be a thing of the past. A miracle is around the corner. Plans are already afoot to make sure that, within a matter of years, there will be neither floods nor famines. Those self-willed rivers will have been tamed and made to behave. If one of them chooses to remain dry, its channel will receive its normal flow from the overflow of some other river. The chronically dry lands of the Deccan plateau will no longer experience famines.

Nor will Orissa and Bihar be plagued by floods every year. All the surplus water that comes into their rivers will be diverted to other rivers to ensure a balanced flow during all seasons. The bickering between states that they have been done out of their proper share of the water in a river will be a thing of the past. The Cauvery will not be a cause of dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It will have enough water and more to assuage the needs of both states.

And lo and behold! That absurd fancy conconcted by the rishis who lived in Vedic times as a device to make the people of the land conscious of their common heritage, will have come literally true.

That Aiyangar in Kanchipuram taking his bath will not so much as know where the water in his bucket has come from. It might be from his own Cauvery, but, equally so, it might be from the Narmada or the Mahanadi. Why, it may even be Ganga-mayi herself, answering his prayers.

The rivers of India are going to be joined to one another.