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The Rights of the River Goddess: Environmental Law, Legal Fiction and Hinduism in India



The river Ganges came down from heaven as a goddess. The force of her waters was so powerful that it threatened to consume the earth. The god Shiva had to take the brunt of the goddess upon his matted hair so that the meeting of the Ganges and the earth did not destroy all.

It is such a myth that ensured the divinity of the river Ganges in the Hindu religion in the past. In today’s age, the Ganges is once again a person. A court in India has declared the Ganges river a legal “person” in order to protect her from pollution. The rulings were made in the high court in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. The BBC news website spells out the effects of the ruling:


“Making nature a legal entity means that cases can be brought up directly on its behalf. This has the potential to become a game-changer in legally enforcing environmental protection.

For instance, it may no longer be necessary to prove in court that polluting the Ganges actually harms humans. Contamination on its own could be enough to make the case that it violates the river’s “right to life””. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-39488527)


Bestowing legal identity upon the river is an efficient way of protecting the environment away from questions about the human impact of a worsening environment. The act also gives nature and the environment a value in its own right.

            In this piece of writing, I want to reflect upon the conjunction of legal fiction, Hinduism and ground-breaking environmental law in India in the ruling. I want to show that the path forwards into an environmentally responsible future does not have to make a radical break with the past, but can resurrect the 6,000 year old teachings of the Hindu religion, against the Christian-derived position that the environment is a resource given by the Christian God to be exploited. I wish to point out the constructive role of fiction in law, too, particularly in service of the environment.

            As the BBC website states:

“While radically new from a legal perspective, the case has also been about recognising the traditional Hindu view that regards the universe as a manifestation of the divine.

This means that rivers, plants, animals and even the earth are considered sentient divinities with particular forms, qualities and characteristics” (Ibid.).


The break with English law that the Indian environmental law derives from is effected by ancient Hindu belief. It is a commonplace in critical stances that nothing new can be conceived of in terms of reimagining what law is and does. The legal ruling that the Ganges is a real person is nothing culturally new. Its newness in law derives from the entry of Indian belief into an English-derived law which has been influenced by the Christian position that nature is to be exploited since it is a gift of the Christian God. The perspective of rich, white men with their self-serving interests has been radically configured by the assimilation of the perspective of the other – Hindus. Hinduism is the resource which has allowed environmental law to be reimagined against the Christian position. The ancient culture of India has triumphed to save the Ganges, regarded by Indians as their mother.

            While Hinduism is not a perfect religion and is objectionable on account of its caste system, Hinduism is an environmentally attuned system of beliefs. Nature is revered and valued for itself. Nature is not considered as simply a resource to be exploited. It is this worship of nature that has been translated into the recent legal ruling. There is an entirely different cultural attitude from the traditional English law, from which Indian law derives, in the ruling. The Hindu attitude towards nature is a sound basis towards building an environmentally responsible future because it valorises nature and worships it.

            In order to crystallise the Hindu worship of nature in the ruling, the Indian court had to turn to fiction, to myth. The myth of the goddess is realised in law in the ruling, that the Ganges is a goddess, that she is a person. If Hinduism can be considered as a system of mythology, the new law is modelled in line with this mythology. In a contrast to the English law, which is influenced by the Bible, the Indians have turned to the orally-transmitted system of beliefs and fiction in order to radically reconceive their environmental law. This 6,000 year old system of fiction has served to counter the threats of modernity: industrial pollution. The ancient way is how the evils of our present moment are being countered. The Indian returns to the past to fight the present in the grounding of Hindu fiction.

            The legal ruling struck an immediate cord with me as it is an example of how the self-serving English law of the rich, white man can be opposed by another form of legality and justice. In the ruling, the voice of those outside of the community of rich, white men is valorised. Nature is celebrated. The divinity of Nature is returned to her. The ancient way is able to fight against the evils of the present. The Mother Goddess, Mother Ganges, is once again given form and voice and status, legal status. The ruling is an example of how revolution in law can be achieved if only we listen to the past and our shared history.



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