Published on 16th November, 2019, in the Economic Times
Water plays a very important role in Hindu mythology. Every form of water seems to be linked to a god, and to a caste. The sea is called Varuna, the father of Lakshmi. He is the source of all water. The sea also gives salt and fish, without asking anything in return, which also makes him the symbol of generosity. From the sea come clouds, from the clouds come rain. The rain, in turn, is released by Indra. Indra becomes the god of fresh water who brings rain from the sky. So, the sea god is the father of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, while Indra is the husband of Lakshmi, who rides white clouds and hurls thunderbolts on dark, rain-bearing clouds.
Rivers and ponds are considered feminine. All the rivers are considered goddesses, associated with apsara or damsels, who flow onto earth (earth is also visualised as a female, Bhoodevi) before returning to their father’s house. Thus, the circle of water is seen as a movement from the sea god, through the rain god, via river goddesses, moving back to the sea. Ponds are also associated with nymphs and creatures known as yakshas, who take the form of birds and fishes to protect these water bodies.
Across India, a tirtha yatra is basically from one water body to another, from one river, to a river confluence, to a bathing ghat, to a pond. Every temple is attached to a pond, also known as Pokhari, in the eastern part of India, Kunda, in the southern part of India and Talav, in the northern part of India. You see this practice even in Sikhism, where the holiest shrine, the Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple, has a pond. Muslims also value water: one cannot start the reading of Namaz, without washing one’s hands and feet.
In ancient India, you will see that the water management system is strongly linked to caste. The Brahmin was supposed to perform rituals to get the rain. Therefore, temples are built across India, especially in the southern part of India, where a water pot is kept on top of the temple, almost beseeching the gods to bring in rain. The water flows down the pyramid-shaped roof and reaches the base, where you find, again, images of pots, overflowing with plants, grain, and flowers, indicative of prosperity following the arrival of rain.
The Kshatriya, or the king, who controlled the land, was responsible for building water bodies, like ponds and step wells, to retain the water which came from the heavens. Rainwater harvesting, thus, came under the Kshatriya’s domain. The Vanik, or the Vaishya, utilised this rain. He built canals for the farms and ponds for cattle and buffaloes. He made sure there was enough water for human consumption, as well as for plant and animal consumption in the village. So, he was a water utilizer.
The Shudra, or rather Ati-Shudra, the lowest rung of the service-cadre, was supposed to clean the village, and the toilets, and the garbage. He formed the waste management community. But he was never given respect, despite his role in the cycle of water. He was seen as dirty, unhygienic, polluted. No god was associated with sewage water. We hope this water will be purified on its own when mixed with rivers, and sea, but this does not happen as keeping these atishudras out of the village, the cycle of life is broken, a rupture is willy nilly created that has destroyed social order.
Shudras were denied access to common village resources, like food from the farm, water from the village well, clothes and pots from the craftsmen, despite playing a critical role. He who dealt with efflux of wastewater was seen as inferior to those associated with inflow of freshwater, though part of a life-giving cycle.
Even today, those who clean sewage systems are treated like sewage. They are kept at a distance, not given protective gear, not given cleaning materials to wash before they go home. They often fall prey to toxic gases. Constant contact with dirty smell has a negative impact of mental health. We have festivals for inviting water into our homes, no festivals for dirty water that leaves our homes. Surely a national day is needed for those who clean our sewers, a day to ensure we do not continue to strip them of dignity and deprive them of fair wages.
How many of us have met the men and women who clean our gutters and our cess pits? Do we know their names? Do we offer them gifts once a year, check if they regularly receive fair wages, or least make sure they have good protective gear, or material to clean before they return home? Have we outsourced this to a callous government. If not we are participants in a cultural adharma.