With his passing, the holy city of Varanasi has lost an iconic figure. Perhaps, as importantly, the Ganga has lost a favourite guardian.
The noted environmentalist and mahant of the famous Sankatmochan temple, Professor Veer Bhadra Mishra, died on Wednesday at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) hospital, where he was admitted on March 3 for a lung infection. He was 74.
He is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, and leaves behind a legacy of exemplary commitment and devotion towards the well-being of the Ganga. His last rites were performed on Thursday on the ghats of Varanasi.
Professor Mishra, who inherited the position of mahant at the age of 14 after the death of his father, was the founding president of Sankat Mochan Foundation, a non-profit, non-political organisation working for the cause of Ganga in Varanasi since 1982.
A former professor of hydraulic engineering, he had retired as the head of the civil engineering department at his alma mater, the Institute of Technology, BHU.
Though he was better known as a religious person, he joined his training with his spirituality, juggling the political, environmental and the holy into a practical crusade to free the river of pollution.
The Swacha Ganga (Clean Ganga) campaign was synonymous with Mahantji, as he was popularly known.
As an expert member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), he worked toward arresting the Ganga’s fast deteriorating condition, promoting education and health-care programmes for the underprivileged, and maintaining and encouraging age-old cultural traditions of Varanasi in tune with present day environmental needs.
His multifaceted and innovative measures won him recognition from the United Nations Environment Programme, which put him on its Global 500 Roll of Honour in 1992. Time magazine declared him the magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” (1999) for bringing the plight of the Ganga to the world’s attention and inspiring other river activists.
He was adept at explaining the issues concerning the river to both experts and laypersons. In his words, “When I talk to officials I show them reports on faecal coliform. When I talk to locals I tell them there is filth in the holy Ganges. It’s the same thing but I say it in different languages.”
For his commitment to the river, he rightly won the epithet “Ganga Putra (Son of the Ganga”). Varanasi will also remember him for his “Ganga-ethics” and his personal relationship with the river, which motivated him to say: “I am part of Ganga and Ganga is part of me.”
Each morning he would slowly and respectfully step into the waters at Tulsighat for prayer but not before he poured Ganga jal on his forehead.
The river was more for the mind and less for the body, he believed.
He also displayed a multi-talented character, from his pahalwani (wrestling) in the akhara, to being the upholder of Sanskritic values and education, and conservator of classical music. He also personified the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, even in times of communal distress, especially during the 2006 Sankat Mochan attack.
Yet, just as he once said that he “can’t think beyond [the] Ganga,” it is difficult to think of him beyond his intimacy with the river. At Varanasi, considered the sacred heart of the Ganga, the river bends north towards the city as if to prove affinity with it. It was his dream to cleanse the Ganga from its sacred point and at the same time inspire the political world and society to work towards it. Though he considered the Ganga’s devotees a vanishing species, he remained hopeful to the end that one day, there would not be a drop of sewage in the river.