Interview: Veer Bhadra Mishra
As the mahant, or spiritual and administrative head, of the second largest Hindu temple in Varanasi, Veer Bhadra Mishra carries a tremendous weight on his shoulders. He inherited the family job at just 14, when his father passed away. Yet in spite of the pressure of being a priest, he was the first in his family to attend university, where he studied hydraulics engineering and later became head of the department. As if that weren’t enough to take on already, in 1982 he set up the Sankat Mochan Foundation, an NGO devoted to cleaning up the Ganges, which in 1999 earned him the Time magazine honor of “Hero of the Planet.”
I am thrilled with the opportunity to interview Mishra in person, having read about him for years. Although I am not easily star-struck, when Mahant-ji, as his followers call him, steps outside his temple, silver hair and white robes reflecting the sharp late morning light off the river Ganges winding 10 meters below, I find myself at a loss for words. The powerful presence he possesses, the wisdom he radiates, overwhelms me.
As we speak about the pollution that makes this sacred river unsafe to drink or even bathe in, I watch a steady stream of people make their way from the top of the embankment down to the Ganges for their rituals. The men wear no more than a swath of blood red or tangerine colored fabric, the women, saris. They step into the water, cup it with their hands, and take a drink. Then they immerse themselves fully. I ask Mishra why so many people we’ve spoken with here in Varanasi deny that their purifying river goddess is poisoned, and what can be done to convince them otherwise. Mishra, reflecting his unique perspective as both a scientist and a holy man, says that you must appeal not with reason, but with heart.
Next we speak of the potential loss the Ganges may suffer in coming years from climate change, which will turn it into a seasonal river. This troubles Mishra deeply. “Hindu faith cannot live at the philosophical level,” he says. “You have to practice it in the physical realm. If Ganga were to just go away to the heavens, I think the Hindu faith, the culture, and this heritage, what India can offer to the world, and what India considers as the uniting force, that will be gone.”
Fortunately, after all this time, Mishra still has faith—and a practical, scientific solution to the problem of pollution. He has worked for the past 25 years with William Oswald, an engineering professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, on a sewage treatment system (called AIWPS), which uses gravity to carry wastewater to ponds where bacteria and algae naturally eliminate toxins and purify the water over a period of 45 days. After decades of lobbying and what Mishra describes as “persistence, resilience, and optimism,” the Indian government finally approved a pilot program this past year, a tremendous victory.
As we wrap up our interview and I thank him for his time, I feel such strength of emotion, a combination of respect and gratitude. It occurs to me that Mishra’s commitment to his cause and ability to inspire others remind me of my grandfather: two great crusaders, tirelessly fighting to protect and preserve our planet’s most precious resource. I only hope that our current generation can shepherd their dreams to fruition. Our very livelihood as a species depends on it.