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The striking tales the rain tells

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Rain, or the lack of it, is very much on our minds today. Though about 70% of the surface of the earth is covered with water in the form of oceans, life on the land depends on precipitation as rain and snow.

The occurrence of precipitation is subject to the vagaries of nature, leading to unexpected droughts and floods. Man, over the ages, has adopted various strategies to propitiate nature and the gods to ensure adequate rainfall. The ancients were aware of the importance of trees and mountains in ensuring rainfall and conserving water. I recount two stories from Indian mythology to illustrate the point.

Bhagavatha Puranam contains chapters on Govardhan puja practised in Gokulam during Krishna’s childhood.

This was an agrarian community whose livelihood was farming and cattle-rearing, and timely rain was important. Every year, they would conduct a puja or yagam to propitiate Lord Indra who was believed to be the one who controlled rain.

Once when Krishna was about seven years old, preparations were afoot for the annual Indra puja. Krishna questioned the elders of the community on the puja. When told about its purpose, he could not accept it. He argued that rain was a natural phenomenon and Indra, if at all involved in it, could act only according to the rules of nature. Scanty rainfall, if it happened, was the result of our own acts of commission and omission. (I am using modern terminology here for what I think Krishna meant by ascribing it to karma.)

He further said they were living in the foothills of the Govardhan mountain and the mountain and the trees were responsible for bringing forth rain. We neglect the mountain and the trees at our own risk and Indra had no role to play in this.

So he suggested they perform a puja for the mountain. An environmental activist today could not have expressed it better. He was so persuasive that the people of Gokulam followed his advice. The subsequent events are well-known. Krishna’s suggestion should be interpreted as a call to protect and conserve nature.

Bhagiratha’s task

Let me now go fast backward to another era and another scenario. King Bhagiratha ruled his country in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was a troubled person. The souls of his forefathers were doomed to perdition without salvation due to their own karma. Rituals had to be performed with holy waters from heaven to put their souls to rest.

Bhagiratha was determined to cajole Ganga Devi herself from the heavens to come down to earth, and to this end, he performed rigorous tapasya. His arduous efforts finally bore fruit and Ganga Devi agreed to come down to the earth.

But the fall of the waters would result in a deluge and the entire earth could be washed away unless means were in place to contain the floods. Lord Siva agreed to receive and hold the waters when they descend, in his tresses. Here Siva symbolically stands for the Himalayan mountains and his tresses for the trees, vegetation, hills, valleys and lakes. Ganga Devi did descend in the form of heavy rains or cloudbursts and the waters were contained by the mountain.

But even that did not solve the king’s problem. Water in the mountain is not water in the plains where the ancient ashes were waiting to be quenched, and that location was far away. Poor Bhagiratha went back to his tapasya and persuaded Siva to release the waters in measured quantities via rivulets and finally into the mighty Ganga, which flowed down the plains till it reached the grounds where the rituals were performed.

The purpose of reciting this well-known story is only to emphasise the importance of mountains and trees to regulate floods and in water management, to use a modern term. Disturbing the ecosystem of the catchment areas, be they the hills or the plains, can have disastrous consequences all around the region. The devastating flood that inundated Uttarakhand and the neighbouring Himalayan States in 2013 was attributed to the wanton destruction of the mountains in various ways by people for short-term gains.

In the present-day context, experts in this field are aware of these matters. While a spate of quick-fix measures are being undertaken, it is good to remember that such measures can only be of limited use, and long-term measures should be implemented on an ongoing basis.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 6:11:40 PM |

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