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Tales of a (Un)Holy River: An Exploration into the Sacred and Profane

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

"Even with all my filth, I am still considered holy. And, this family reveres my presence" (Irland, 2015). These were the words written by interdisciplinary artist Basia Irland in her essay For the Holy River Bagmati as part of What Rivers Know — a series about seeing the world from the perspective of a river. The paradoxical nature of the sacred yet polluted waters of Bagmati was made apparent to me as I stood next to it at Arya Ghat, a prominent cremation site in Kathmandu, under the scorching summer heat on May 25th, 2019. As I lay a marigold garland on my grandfather's body wrapped in layers of fabrics, he was carried to a wooden pyre next to the Bagmati river. His head faced north. I remembered the countless times my mother told me not to sleep at night with my head facing north as it is believed that by our head facing north, our body’s magnetic field becomes asymmetrical to that of the earth’s, leading to health problems.


The eldest son — the lead cremator – my father circled the pyre, followed by my uncle with an earthen pot filled with water. Then came the moment — the moment to say goodbye. The priest instructed my aunt and me to look away from the pyre as it blazed, but we looked. That was our moment of closure. The age-old patriarchal custom that women should not be allowed to attend a cremation did not stop us from being there: two women amidst hundreds of men. Therefore, we looked, realizing this was the first step to a lifelong journey of acceptance and coming to terms with his loss.


As his ashes consecrated into the holy waters of Bagmati, it was hard not to notice the filth that engulfed the river. It almost felt like the pollution had obstructed my moment of closure. The Antyesti is the last sacred ceremony for a human being. Therefore, at that moment, my curiosity about the sacred and the profane awakened. Why do we still perceive Bagmati as a sacred entity and believe in the water’s power for spiritual regeneration despite the rampant pollution? To answer this, I explored rationalizing our contradicting habit of polluting Bagmati despite our perception of its sacredness.


Cremation ritual on the banks of Bagmati River (by Zheka-Boss)


The sacred-profane dichotomy is an idea presented by sociologist Emile Durkheim. He claimed that the sacred-profane division is an integral characteristic of religion. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim writes, "All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred" (Durkheim and Swain, 1965). Durkheim draws a division of the world into two religious territories. The sacred domain is represented by beliefs, myths, dogmas, and legends. They stand in distinction from the profane, which is perceived as impure. In other words, if something is considered sacred, it is implied that it is holy and pure —the profane, on the other hand — danger.


When you truly dive into it, sacred and profane are both abstract. We can draw an array of interpretations from both words. According to Durkheim, a sacred entity is not confined to a specific god or spirit. "A rock, tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred" (Durkheim and Swain, 1965). The Ashta Chiranjeevi Mantra, for instance, is an example of a sacred entity. The priest is the only person permitted to recite this mantra during a Hindu’s auspicious day of birth.


My confusion on the sacred-profane dichotomy led me to a conversation with Swami Madhavnanda Ji Maharaj, a Sadhu who resides in the premises of Pashupatinath Temple, in December 2019. Before we began talking, he applied a layer of sandalwood powder, similar to what he was wearing, to symbolize our devotion to God. Swami began clarifying my question regarding the dichotomy by repeating the statement "God is the director, and we are his actors" multiple times. He explained that the Bagmati river's sanctity persists despite its pollution because human beings cannot manipulate or break God's rules. "If God has defined something as pure, then it will continue to be pure until the end of time" — from his words, I conveyed that Bagmati continues to be celebrated as a symbol of veneration because of the belief that we should not rebel against God's wishes and commands. Comparable to the sacred and profane dichotomy, Swami Maharaj spoke about the concept of karma and dharma. The seed of good dharma sows the fruit of good karma. In this case, he implied that good dharma is refraining from the taboo of questioning God.


In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Mary Douglas writes, "[Taboo is used] for restrictions on man's arbitrary use of natural things, enforced by dread and supernatural penalties. These taboos inspired by fear, precautions against malignant spirits, were common to all primitive peoples and often took the form of rules of uncleanness" (Douglas, 1966). Although I disagree with the usage of the word "primitive" (Let's blame the use of this word on many years of bad anthropology!), there is a strong connection between Douglas' claim and the dharma and karma dichotomy. Perhaps many of us in Nepal opt for the "natural" or the socially expected route as we fear the supernatural. British polymath Bertrand Russel expressed in his lecture “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.” Perhaps the same fear that my mother has with me sleeping with my head facing the north is the fear that leads us to not rebel against the sacred waters of Bagmati despite its pollution.


Cow roaming on the banks of the polluted Bagmati River (by Asiafoto)


Douglas also writes about a holy Sadhu woman in India to whom villagers showed respect by drinking the water with which her feet were washed. The water "was passed around to those present in a special silver vessel used only for worshipping and poured into the right hand to be drunk as tirtha, or sacred liquid, indicating that she was being accorded the status of a god rather than a mortal…" (Douglas, 1966, p. 9). Douglas' claims made me think of cow dung, which is also used as a cleansing agent in our culture. Despite its intrinsically impure nature, it is continued to be seen as a symbol of purity in our society.


After speaking with Swami and reading books from Durkheim and Douglas, I found myself wondering if, in fact, "there is no such thing as absolute dirt" (Douglas, 1966). I met with an official at the Pashupati Sarsafai Trust, a government organization established to protect and clean the holy waters of Bagmati. He explained that Bagmati's water is a part of the Panchamrit, sacred concoction that Hindu mythologies often associate with immortality. When I asked him if the pollution makes a difference to this, he said, "it is essential to remember that it is not the river that is polluted, but it is, in fact, human beings who are responsible for the pollution," further implying that Bagmati's sanctity does not change despite it being used as on open sewer by factories, industries, and homesteads.


Human settlements adjacent to the Bagmati River (by weaver1234)


Sociologist James Frazer writes in The Spirits of the Corn and the Wild, "This...points to a hazy state of religious thought in which the idea of sanctity and uncleanness are not yet sharply distinguished, both being blend in a sort of vaporous solution to which we give the name Taboo" (Frazer, 1912, p. 23). Frazer and Durkheim both believed that traditional social environments are the only culture where people's thoughts, beliefs, and habits are closely entangled in ways of which they are largely unaware. Mary Douglas, however, argued that it is not only traditional culture that struggles with the confusion between the sacred and the profane, but also "modern cultures" that are shaped beyond our consciousness and will. For instance, Stephen R. Karcher, the presiding priest at St. Anthony Greek Orthodox Church, believes that "Everything created is sacred and nothing profane. If there is anything profane, it's to think that and act like we can exclude God from the world that he made. However, he cannot be displaced from his world because he is present everywhere and fills all things." Further, Bradley S. Corbin, a Baha'i faith teacher, also believes, "The boundaries between the sacred and the profane are deliberately blurred in the Baha'i faith… Baha'u'llah brings about unity by abolishing the concept of ritual purity and declaring all humanity to be one with no division into believers and saved ones or infidels and the damned." In other words, people are undivided and perhaps “rituals of purity and impurity create unity in experience.” (Douglas, 1966).


To conclude, do we continue to perceive Bagmati as a sacred body of water despite the filth because we fear the supernatural? And is our perception of Bagmati, in fact, the reason why we continue to pollute it? Do we fail to see the apparent pollution because we are confident in the water's eternal holiness? From my research, I found that in the sacred and profane realm, “dirt” cannot be objectively defined. From cow dung to the villagers drinking the water with which a Sadhu woman’s feet were washed, perceptions of sacred overshadow our usual sense of clean and dirty. This has led to a polluted body of water that is not perceived as dirty merely because of people’s perception of it as sacred. Sacred and profane territories continue to bemuse me. However, I am certain the process of reviving the Bagmati river will not be successful without a clear distinction between these territories. It is essential to have boundaries, especially when the water that was once as translucent as glass has transitioned to an open sewer for the people of Kathmandu Valley.


Sitashma Thapa is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Philanthropic Studies, with a personal focus on environmental philanthropy. As a McKinney Fellow, she is working at the Hoosier Environmental Council — Indiana's leading educator and advocate for the environment, whilst pursuing a certificate in Fundraising Management. Her interest in climate advocacy has led her to co-found Anthropause, a podcast that talks about the pressing environmental challenges in the South Asian subcontinent.


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