Of Ganga Maiya & the Whanganui

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The news of a New Zealand river being granted legal personhood by its Parliament was as widely shared in the #socialmedia as it was treated with a sense of subdued wonder. But, at least it wasn’t scoffed at.

The river is called Whanganui. And it is now legally a PERSON – as in, it has the same rights as those of a New Zealand citizen. Apparently, this battle for Whanganui’s rights is 160 years old and New Zealand’s native people, the Maori, who fought it, sang the traditional waita folk song to celebrate this win. A personhood for Whanganui isn’t just about solving a legal tangle, it’s about identity, ecology, and human history above all else.

It’s also about something else: Confluence of Maori heritage with ancient Hindu (Indian) heritage and cultural history.

According to the article, the local Maori people have always recognized the Whanganui ― which they call Te Awa Tupua ― as “kin” and an “indivisible and living whole”. They view their own health as inextricably linked to the health of the river. There’s even a Maori saying that says: “I am the river and the river is me.”

Indians still call the river Ganga, fashionably contorted in English as The Ganges, Ganga Maiya or Maa Ganga. Maiya and Maa both words mean ‘mother’. Ganga maiya also has very many mythological stories about her. She finds a mention in the Rig Veda, the oldest of ancient Indian scriptures. She is also the holiest, purest, and most sacred of India’s rivers.

Ganga isn’t alone in her personhood and her divinity. She is joined in confluence by Yamuna and Saraswati, all three of whom merge into one another at the beautiful Triveni sangam (confluence of three rivers) at Prayag (meaning confluence, also a way of referring to Allahabad, a major city in Uttar Pradesh) in Allahabad.

Whanganui’s personhood entitles her to ‘$80 million in damages as well as $30 million to improve the new “person’s” health and $1 million to set up a framework to represent the river’s interests’ (link to the HuffPost article). Her interests will now be represented in court by two guardians from the indigenous Maori community.

While the modern New Zealand embraces its ancient culture despite its modernity, modern India has tried its utmost and continues to distance itself from that very culture that makes it great. As Indians, we need to keep in mind that when Ganga was Ganga maiya and not The Ganges, pollution and dams were not routine. That for us too ‘I am the river and the river is me’ was as true and pure as the life-giving powers of Ganga’s waters.

But, all went downhill when Ganga Maiya became The Ganges, and commission after commission has failed to stem its decline into a highly polluted water body. If we want to become a modern country, we should do it on our own terms – by reclaiming our cultural identity. Our ancient cultures have survived because we learnt to live WITH our surrounding environment and ecology, rather than exploiting it.

Whanganui’s legal personhood resurrects the need for this approach in our modern societies. Our emotional involvement with our environment is what makes us truly human, not the cutting off of it. Yes, we think rationally but our motivations have to come from a place of feeling and not logic.

The sooner we realise this as Indians, the better it will be for our generations to come. Let us accept and embrace who we are as a people. Let others not guilt us into mocking our own cultural identity that made us valuable enough for them to come and ransack, loot, pillage, and rule us for control over what we had once built.

Let’s join in the spirit of the Maori today…