- River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India
What is the role—perhaps even the responsibility—of religion in a world quickly and alarmingly succumbing to environmental degradation? This is the question that David L. Haberman asks in a richly ethnographic encounter with one of the world's most revered and most polluted rivers, the Yamuna in Northern India.
I must admit to reviewing this book with a particular goal in mind: I was seeking an ethnography that would allow my 100-level anthropology/environment students evocative and provocative access to forms of environmentalism that embraced religion as a central way of understanding people's connection to and responsibility toward the land. Certainly this book goes a long way toward attaining that goal, yet, it also falls short in a number of organizational ways that would make it difficult for the student body I have in mind to readily identify main themes and important points.
To begin, in chapter one Haberman has courageously attempted to distill two very complicated ideas into a single chapter in order to form a backdrop for students and readers unfamiliar with both Hinduism and the emerging fields of religion and ecology. While I appreciate the need for such an explanation, especially for undergraduate students who may not [End Page 911] be studying religion, the result hovered somewhat uncomfortably between expert knowledge and lay knowledge. Thus, for instance, I imagine the beginning student struggling to place complex discussions of the readings and re-readings of the Bhagavad-Gita. Perhaps, in a religion class, taught alongside an actual reading of the Bhagavad-Gita, this would give readers a focal point for deeper understanding, but without such additional reading, I see the beginning reader struggling too hard to place such references in Haberman's larger story. Outside a familiarity with Hinduism, I think this chapter may end up being too diffuse with too many small, but unexplained details. Similarly, Haberman's discussion of the atman and advaita, and Shaivite and Vedantic theologies are only perfunctorily mentioned and explained. Thus they are lost in a sea of explanations that too quickly move from one idea to the next, few of which emerge well enough for an audience unfamiliar with Hinduism. At the same time, the brevity of the chapter—based upon its ambitious goals—means that important points such as the contextual nature and local complexity of religious life along the river were often buried beneath cursory explanations of unpunctuated theory and background that did not reach a depth that would have made it useful for scholars already immersed in Hinduism, religion and ecology.
The greatest strength of River of Love, however, follows in its rich ethnographic descriptions of Haberman and his family's own pilgrimage along the Yamuna to its source. Interspersed with locally-told stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and interviews with some of the river's advocates and holy men, Haberman's prose brings us remarkably close to being there and experiencing the wrenching contradiction of beauty and worship heavily marred by deadly poison. From its pure source high in the Himalayas where icy water drips from the Yamunotri glacier into natural hot springs we are brought to the top of the world where the Yamuna begins pure and life-giving. We can see, as Haberman describes it, the great river's path down the mountainside through valleys and local villages linked to the epic Mahabharata until, in Dakpathar, just over 20 miles from its source, "everything changes" and the river meets the great industrial populations and their overwhelming pollution. The river, according to Haberman and many of his sources, is "dead" as it reaches Delhi. Already polluted to the point of poison by the time it gets to the great city, nevertheless the capital pours tons more toxic wastes into the struggling river—providing more than 70 percent of the total pollution [End Page 912] load in the river even though the Yamuna's journey through the city...