Cleanliness isn’t next to godliness: From temples to upscale neighbourhoods, Indians show extraordinary tolerance to filth

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In his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that when he visited the famous Kashi Vishvanath temple in Varanasi, he was “deeply pained”. He described how the approach to one of the most holy sites in Hinduism was through a narrow and filthy lane, swarming with flies, the gutters overflowing, and rotten and stinking flowers were piled up within the precincts of the temple. That was in 1928.

I visited the Vishvanath temple some days ago, and i can vouch that, in terms of our tolerance to filth, nothing has changed. The ‘galis’, narrow alleyways, are as dirty. There was garbage piled everywhere. A short spell of rain had caused flooding, and filth and excreta floated around. A dead dog lay to the side of one alleyway, even as busy shopkeepers, tea stalls and paan-wallahs carried on their trade as though nothing was wrong.

Only recently, i also visited the Jagannath temple at Puri. This too is one of the most important ‘tirthas’ or places of pilgrimage for Hindus. Plastic and filth and empty containers of prasad were strewn all around. Huge swarms of flies hovered over the food being cooked for devotees. Cockroaches could be seen on the ornate garlands on sale for offering at the sanctum sanctorum.

Illustration: Uday Deb

What explains our extraordinary tolerance to filth? At an individual level we are consumed with ‘purity’, and till recently, a person from a ‘lower’ caste could cause ritual pollution. But, strangely, our temples, which should be the highest embodiment of this obsession with personal purity, are, often, the dirtiest demonstrations of our obliviousness to public cleanliness.

Families will keep their own homes spick and span and throw out garbage on the street because that is the public domain, somebody else’s concern. A pious Hindu will take a dip in the Ganga totally unaffected by the garbage on and around the bathing ghat, and the polluted state of the river itself. His concern is the religious ritual, and the rewards it could yield, for individual benefit. Anything outside this personal zone of priority remains perpetually out of focus.

There is a pervasive feeling among the privileged that the poor are inherently dirty. Perhaps, it is true that for the impoverished to be cleaner is more difficult, given their living conditions and lack of resources. But, the truth is that middle class or affluent colonies produce more uncollected garbage that is less biodegradable, than do slums. Moreover, even when the privileged can voluntarily do more to keep the public domain cleaner, and have the resources to do so, they don’t.

Markets in upscale residential areas are unacceptably dirty. The shops are luxurious, and air-conditioned, but the pavement outside and the environs are filthy. It is not uncommon to see the affluent step out from their air-conditioned cars, close their noses to the stench, and rush into the ‘oasis’ of the glitzy shops. Their moksha lies in individual gratification, not public welfare.

There is another uncomfortable truth that better-off Indians are unwilling to accept. Every conclave of the privileged is bound to create a satellite slum. It is from the slum that the labour they need – cooks, maids, drivers and other ancillary help – comes.

The slums are dirty, no doubt, because they have almost no municipal facilities, and the density of population there is so overwhelming. Indira Gandhi had said long ago that poverty pollutes, and that still holds good. But, the privileged, while resenting the slum next to them, will not forego the human facilities it provides, or do anything collectively (except curse the government) to ensure cleaner living conditions for the support staff that they cannot do without.

On 11th September this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while speaking to students about Swami Vivekananda on the 125th anniversary of his address at Chicago, lambasted our ugly cohabitation with uncleanliness. The unusual metaphor he used could not be more blunt: “50 baar soch lijiye kya hamein Vande Mataram kehne ka haq hai? Paan kha kar Bharat maa par pichkari marein aur Vande Mataram bolein?” Think a fifty times. If we eat paan and spit at Bharat maa, do we have the right to say Vande Mataram?

The message was powerful because it linked patriotism to cleanliness, and did so while remembering Swami Vivekananda’s clarion call that service of the people is akin to service of God – Jan Seva is Prabhu Seva. The intention was to tell his young audience that patriotism must translate to greater public welfare and a heightened social sensitivity to collective good.

Transcending the sterile politics around the chanting of Vande Mataram, the PM asked instead why improving cleanliness was not an issue when universities hold their elections. He also linked patriotism to social equity by asserting that those who work to keep India clean – and often die cleaning toxic sewers – have the first right to say Vande Mataram.

Gandhiji believed that cleanliness is next to godliness. A clean body, he said, cannot reside in an unclean city. PM Modi has also said: “Pehle Shauchalaya, Phir Devalaya.” First toilets, then temples. The message is the same. But are Indians willing to understand that an unhygienic nation can never become a superpower?

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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