River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India DAVID HABERMAN UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, BERKELEY, CA, 2006 xv + 277 PP. $26.95 PAPERBACK
REVIEWED BY PRATYUSHA BASU
As human-induced environmental problems take on global proportions, understanding the intersections of religion and environmentalism has become part of attempts to expand the scope of contemporary environmental debates. seeking to harness the positive aspects of religious beliefs, including the ability to reflect on the larger questions of human existence and the perseverance to accede to the everyday demands of a moral life, David Haberman's study of Hindu religious practices along India's Yamuna river is a significant addition to the field of religious environmentalism. Melding poetic contemplation, scientific measurement, and environmental activism, Haberman traces the Yamuna river through the heartland of India, drawing particular attention to the region of Braj, where the Yamuna river is especially revered and currently the object of active efforts for protection.
Chapter 2 begins with an oft-asked question: Is Hinduism eco-friendly? Given that the deified personification of elements of nature is central to Hindu religious practices, the answer to this question seems self-evident. Haberman however points out that many scholars have argued to the contrary, asserting that the transcendental aspects of Hinduism are obstacles to serious engagement with the material aspects of nature. Against this, Haberman posits that while Hinduism does include worlddenying asceticism, or advaita traditions, it also comprises world-affirming temple cults in the form of the bhaguata tradition. In the case of religious and environmentalist activities around the Yamuna river, it is the latter strand that dominates. But the question central to Haberman's study is not the question of existing Hindu traditions as much as that of the future of river-based religious environmentalism in India. What happens to the divinity of the river when its water is visibly loaded with sewage?
To gain some insight into possible futures of river-centered religiosity, Haberman begins at the source of the Yamuna in Chapter 3. His own immersion in devotional activities associated with the river emerges vividly here, and journeys of many kinds permeate this chapter: pilgrims attest to the river's ability to ward off the sufferings of death, and the idol of the river itself is ceremonially carried to her brother's house where she resides for part of the year. Chapter 4 takes on a different tone, as the Yamuna flows through the city of Delhi, a city defined by its location on the banks of the river, and now responsible for changing the nature of the river for the worse. As Haberman recounts the degradation of water quality of the Yamuna at Delhi, he is also documenting the history of urbanization in India, and poetic rhythms fade in the dire predictions of environmental reports.
Chapter 4 is the center of the book. It focuses on the region of Braj, associated according to Haberman with the most passionate forms of worship of the Yamuna. The polluted nature of the river at Braj, given that the region is located downstream of Delhi, may raise concerns about the clash between its ritual significance and material impurity. The discussion in Chapter 2 of pilgrimages to the source of the river may suggest that there are other sites that are equally sacred and much cleaner that can be associated with the Yamuna. Haberman however skillfully utilizes poetic texts and ethnographic evidence to depict how links between the river Yamuna and the cowherd god Krishna make the river's journey through Braj the most meaningful part of its course. The only problem with such depictions, and one that Haberman alludes to in an endnote [note 134, p.252], is the ways in which the female river attains meaning through male deities, whether through taking the form of the lover of Krishna in Braj, or as the sister of Yama at its source. …