The Ganga’s sacredness doesn’t guarantee its purity, as devotees draw a distinction between material cleanliness and ritual purity. Paradox! Exploiting the very source of life for economic and political gains has reduced our individual and collective relationship with water. With the intrinsic value of water being ignored in its sheer assessment as a resource worthy of appropriation, an uncertain water future threatens humanity like never before. Drawing insights from her passion for understanding water and reflections from her study of religious worldviews, Elizabeth McAnally in Loving Water Across Religions advocates the need to reinvent our relationship with water by developing an integral water ethic. There is much to learn from religious practices in developing an integral approach to understand and preserve water.Nothing less than cultivating an ‘I-Thou’ relationship with water can help circumvent the global water crises, stresses McAnally. Integrating her personal experiences with practices in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, she constructs an integral ethic that brings the study of religion into dialogue with natural and social sciences, with an aim at transforming the current objective assessment of water to include the subjective perspectives on this finite resource. “Seeing the physical world as a manifestation of the divine has the potential to lead religions to a more respectful relationship with the world.”
There is inherent value in what is being said, but how to reconcile religions that have already lost out to science? Despite religious practice being laced with compassion, respect and reverence for nature, the material world in contrast is a manifestation of indifference, scorn and contempt towards it.
Seized of the contrasting realities, McAnally argues for the need to integrate knowledge from as many different perspectives to address the complexity and urgency of the impending water crises. The world may have run the whole distance to manage water as objectively as it could; but there is still scope to make a fresh start by imagining it through an integral lens. Loving Water Across Religions is a clarion call for developing a deep love for water by acknowledging that water has interiority, an intrinsic value over and above its instrumental value. It seeks consciousness to realize it, and a conscience undertaking for enhancing relations between humans and water for overcoming our current destructive attitudes. It may be important to pay attention to such a proposition, but the author doesn’t offer empirical evidences to backstop it.
While invoking love and service as a crucial component of an integral water ethic, McAnally observes the state of the revered Yamuna with disdain, as one of India’s most sacred rivers has remained one of the worst polluted. Should the case of Yamuna belittle the significance of listening to water as a source of inspiration?
The challenge is to convert individual love and compassion for water into collective consciousness for preserving our rivers. The author’s hope that by combining individual efforts something much larger can be achieved is already a reality in Punjab. Efforts by Sikh Saint Balbir Singh Seechewal have restored Kali Bein, the 160-km long tributary of river Beas, to its pristine glory. The rivulet has also been cleaned some dozen times in the last two decades.
It remains an isolated case of empathy and compassion, to which McAnally’s philosophical basis can be the replicating catalyst.
Loving Water Across Religions
by Elizabeth McAnally
Orbis Books, New York
Extent: 180, Price: US$ 26.
First published in BusinessLine dated August 12, 2019. A shorter version was published in AnthemEnviroExpertsReviews on July 23, 2019.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)