Bathing in the Ganges is a religious tradition that is an integral part of daily life in India. It represents a purification of the soul, as Stille states, “…[A] river that, because of its divine origin, is pure and purifies all those faithful who immerse themselves in her,” (598). However, presently, there exists a dilemma that threatens the survival of this tradition: the poor condition of the river. The river is polluted with “raw sewage, human and industrial waste, the charred remains of bodies, and animal carcasses” (598).
In the Ganges’ Next Life, Alexander Stille contrasts traditional and modern values. Traditional Hindu values, yet somewhat primitive, reflect thousands of years of experience and practice. Modern values, on the other hand, are adapted to contemporary practices and focus on immediate needs. As a result, religious and ethical conflicts arise when compromising between preserving rich cultural traditions and ensuring environmental safety. Stille points out the large contrast between traditional and modern values.
Hindu tradition is demonstrated through religious burials, bathing practices, and the use of obsolete boats for travel; it values worship, family lineage, and respect for leaders. “All Hindus seek to have their ashes scattered along the Ganges at their death, and it is considered particularly lucky to die in Varanasi because from there, your soul will travel straight to heaven,” Stille writes to show their appreciation of this ancient tradition (599). In contrast, modern values include money, education, political power, environmental issues, and technologies such as television, the internet, and waste treatment plants.
The two values seemingly conflict, for the traditional religious values seek more spiritual and intangible goals, rather than the superficiality of modern goals. Also, Mishra faces a moral dilemma because acceptance of the modern value of environmental safety requires rejection of the ancient tradition of bathing in the Ganges, Stile demonstrates: “There is a struggle and turmoil inside my heart,” Mishra says. “I want to take a holy dip… But at the same time, I know what is B. O. D. ”—biochemical oxygen demand—“ and I know what is fecal coliform. … For Mishra, this struggle of the heart is particularly acute because he has a complex double identity: he is the mahant—the head—of Sankat Mochan Temple, one of the principal temples of Varanasi, and he is also a professor of hydraulic engineering at Banaras Hindu University. (598) Nevertheless, he recognizes that environmental safety and other modern ideals cannot be avoided. Demonstrating his acceptance of technology’s ubiquity, Mishra says, “These things—satellite television, this internet surfing—are with us whether we like it or not” (610).
As technology advances and expands, the disparity between the two ideals becomes increasingly noticeable and unavoidable. Although modern and traditional values are very distinct, they have already begun to merge in many aspects of Indian life. For example, television, a relatively new technology, has been adapted for the traditional purpose of worshipping. Indian families set up television sets on altars and worship before them when viewing religious films. At a glance, this practice appears to be sacrilegious and almost sinful.
However, they are not worshipping the technology, but rather utilizing the technology to worship their gods. Also, when celebrating the wedding anniversary of the gods Shiva and Parvati, Indians decorate shrines with flashing electric lights pulsing disco music. In the western world, such decor often denotes sacrilegious activities, but “ordinary Indians were clustered around them in devout worship, just as they would have been a generation or millennium ago” (610). The integration of traditional and modern values indicates a new era of lifestyle consisting of combined ideals.
Mishra believes that the disparity among values can be overcome by compromise and finding a median. In order to find a solution to the ecological disaster that is the river, he understands that he must turn to western technologies. …This has taken Mishra far from the traditional, religious role of mahant and brought him into contact with politicians in New Delhi, American State Department officials, and environmentalists and scientists around the world…Like India itself on the eve of the new millennium, Mishra is trying to incorporate what is best from the West to preserve the Hindu traditions that he loves. 600) However, western technology alone cannot solve the problems of the Ganges. By seeking help from the western world, Mishra takes on a nontraditional role that bonds tradition and technology. Oswald’s water cleanup technology will in fact help to preserve bathing in the Ganges by cleaning the polluted water that endangers the tradition. The two values are both essential to optimally cleaning the Ganges, Stille illustrates: “The mahant is also convinced that science and religion have to mesh if the Ganges is to be saved,” states Stille (610).
Thus, in order to optimally and successfully clean the Ganges, love for the river and its tradition, and the western desire to prevent ecological disaster must be united. The cleanup of the Ganges, or the “test of India’s condition” is test of India’s culture’s ability to assimilate modern ideals. While maintaining a sense of tradition, Stille demonstrates that India must learn to integrate modern culture and technologies into daily life. Thus, compromise is necessary to save the Ganges by keeping in mind both tradition and new ideas.