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Religion and Water – The Most Sacred Relationship

Religion and Water – The Most Sacred Relationship

In most cultures water is also a source of inspiration and has been for many centuries. People have adopted deeply rooted spiritual and religious values and beliefs that bind them and support them in living the way they do. These play an important role in water management. Yet despite the water wisdom we find in many societies, wise water management is still a bridge too far. Lately, religious and spiritual leaders have been rethinking their values and their roles in safeguarding creation and the earth’s resources.

Today March 22 being the  “World Water Day”, lets have peek how the religions have taught us to treat water and water bodies. How significant water is in a Religion? Water is one of the most common elements in nature, alongside the air we breathe. It is as vital as air is, to our very existence. Life itself, had originated in the vast oceans, which are witness to the mysteries of creation.

Apart from being a vital element of nature, water has a lot of additional significance. Every religion including Hinduism holds water in an extremely high regard. Most religious rituals across all faiths involve the use of water too.

Water has a central place in the practices and beliefs of many religions for two main reasons.  Firstly, water cleanses.  Water washes away impurities and pollutants, it can make an object look as good as new and wipe away any signs of previous defilement.

Water not only purifies objects for ritual use, but can make a person clean, externally or spiritually, ready to come into the presence of his/her focus of worship.  Secondly, water is a primary building block of life.  Without water there is no life, yet water has the power to destroy as well as to create.  We are at the mercy of water just as we are at the mercy of our God or gods.  The significance of water manifests itself differently in different religions and beliefs but it is these two qualities of water that underlie its place in our cultures and faiths.

In Hinduism

Rivers (nadi, vahini) played an important role in the origin and development of Indian civilization. The Indus Valley civilization grew on the banks of major rivers like the Indus. Vedic civilization also grew on the banks of several major rivers, first in the northwest and later in the Gangetic plains. The rivers Saraswathi, Ganga, Yamuna, Sarayu and the seven rivers (Sapta Sindhu) figure prominently in the Vedic hymns. As manifestations of gods and goddesses, rivers have a divine origin.

The River Ganga descends from the heaven itself. Symbolically, it represents liberating consciousness or divine consciousness that flows from the head of a spiritual teacher (Shiva) and purifies everyone who comes into contact with it. According to Vedic legends, Indra released the waters of rivers when they were held a demon.

Rivers accept the offering made by humans and carry them also. Indian rivers are also associated with the birth of great heroes like Kumara, Krishna, Bhishma, and Karna. The origin of the Mahabharata can be traced to the River Ganga where Shantanu met first Ganga and later Satyavathi. Ayodhya, Lord Rama’s birth place is located on the banks of the River Sarayu. Many famous Hindu pilgrim centers such as Kasi, Prayaga, Ujjain, Madhura, and many famous Shiva and Vishnu temples are located on the banks of major Indian rivers only.

Hindu’s not only worship the rivers but also several important places associated with them, such as their birth place, and the places associated with the lives of incarnations, gods and goddesses, and seers. River water is used in daily sacrifices, bathing rituals, purification ceremonies, and sacrificial offerings. According to the Puranas, living on the banks of sacred rivers is a meritorious act. The Brahmanas (priests) who live there are superior to even those who know the Vedas. Offering prayers and sacrifices to rivers is much better than performing sacrificial ceremonies (yajnas).

The name Hinduism itself is derived from the name of the River Sindhu. The Vedas extol the rivers Saraswathi and Ganga as goddesses. Hindus worship almost all the rivers in India. Each river bears the name of a goddess, except a few like Brahmaputra, which is considered a male deity. Even the River Krishna is a female name. Rivers are also home to many life forms, birds, snakes, and water fairies. The Kumbh mela and Pushkaras are important festivals associated with the worship of rivers.

For Hindus, each river is a manifestation of a god or goddess. Hence, they are sacred and purifying. Taking a dip in the rivers is not only auspicious but also washes away sins and misfortune. Therefore, it is customary for Hindus to make a pilgrimage to sacred rivers and take a ritual bath in them. The River Ganga is considered the most sacred of all. It originates in the Himalayas, the abode of several gods. People use its water to perform rituals and make offerings. On auspicious occasions people worship the rivers and make offerings of food, flowers, and light.

Offering dead bodies to a sacred river is a very ancient custom of Hinduism. While cremation is the prescribed method for householders upon their death, ascetics and children who die are usually consigned to sacred rivers. Hindus venerate rivers as mothers (nadima-mata). Like a mother, each river has a pleasant (saumya) and an unpleasant form (ugra). In their fierce form, they can cause great destruction of life and property through floods and rapid currents. Hence, the scriptures prescribe rituals to pacify them. Thus, in Hinduism rivers symbolically represent divinity, mothehood, purity, life, source of life, cleansing power, femininity, forbearance, death, destruction, impermanence, movement of time, fertility, and so on.

 In Buddhism

For Buddhists water is said to symbolize purity, clarity and calmness. It is crucial to Buddhists to live in harmony with the environment. Buddhists find symbolism and ritual as pointless because they seek spiritual enlightenment that comes from seeing the reality of unreality.  Bodhidharma, thought to be the first teacher of Zen Buddhism said this in the 5th Century CE:

“This mind is the Buddha.  I don’t talk about precepts, devotions or ascetic practices such as immersing yourself in water and fire, treading a wheel of knives, eating one meal a day, or never lying down.  These are fanatical, provisional teachings.  Once you recognise your moving, miraculously aware nature, yours is the mind of all buddhas.”

The offering of water at Buddhist shrines symbolises the aspiration to cultivate the virtues of calmness, clarityand purity with our body, speech and mind. It reminds us to deligently cleanse ourselves of our spiritual defilements of attachement, aversion and delusion through the generation of generosity, compassion and wisdom. Upon perfection of these qualities enlightment will be realised.

When Buddhists participate in the bathing of images of Prince Siddhartha with ladles of water on Vesak day, it reminds us to purify ourselves, to reveal our innate Buddha nature. Water also represents the sweet ‘nectar’ of the Buddha’s teachings which also quenches our spiritual thirst.

Water is also sprinkled in conscecration ceremonies during chanting services in temples and homes for blessing purposes. Water is also however features in Buddhist funerals where water is poured into a bowl placed before the monks and the dead body.  As it fills and pours over the edge, the monks recite  “As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed.”

In the Vajrayana tradition, instead of offering only a single cup of water, there is a custom of offering seven bowls of water, which represent the seven limbs of prayer. These seven components include – Paying homage, Giving of offerings, Repentance in goodness, Requesting the Budhas to remain, inviting them to teach and dedicating of merits. The seven Limb prayer which is the essence of all Buddhist prayers.

In Islam

In Islam water is important for cleansing and purifying.  first Muslims lived in a desert, so they were very concerned about water conservation. The Noble Qur’an mentions the Arabic word for water (Ma’) 63 times. Imagine, each Prophet (may Allah bless them all) has an intimate story with water.

Prophet Adam (Peace be upon him) was made from water. Allah took a handful of the dust of the earth and mixed into it the colors, white, black, yellow and red. That is the reason why men are born different colors. When Allah mixed the dust with water, it turned into potter’s clay that makes a sound. It was fermented and had a smell. Iblis passed by, wondering what was going to be made of that clay. From the clay Allah created Adam. He molded his form with His own hands and blew His spirit into him. Adam’s body quivered as life was imbued into it.

Muslims must be ritually pure before approaching God in prayer.  Some mosques have a courtyard with a pool of clear water in the centre, but in most mosques the ablutions are found outside the walls.  Fountains symbolising purity are also sometimes found in mosques.  In Islam ritual purity (called tahara) is required before carrying out religious duties especially salat (worship).

There are three kinds of ablutions.  Firstly, ghusl, the major ablution, is the washing of the whole body in pure water, after declaring the intention to do so.  Muslims are obliged to perform ghusl after sex which incurs a state of major ritual impurity.  Ghusl is also recommended before the Friday prayer, the two main feasts, and before touching the Koran.  Ghusl must be done for the dead before they are buried. The second ablution is wudu, the minor ablution, which is performed to remove minor ritual impurity from everyday life.  This must be done before each of the five daily prayers and involves using pure water to wash the face with pure water, rub the head with water, wash the hands and arms up to the elbows and the feet up to the ankles. This comes from the Koran 5: 7/8 “O you who believe, when you prepare for prayer, wash your faces and your hand to the elbows; rub your head and your feet to the ankles” and is elaborated on in great detail in the Sunna.  Every mosque has running water for wudu.  The third type of ablution is performed when no water is available.  In this case clean sand may be used.

In Christianity

The Bible and water are very much connected. Water is mentioned 722 times in the scriptures.  That is less than God, Jesus, heaven or love, but many more times than faith, hope, prayer or even worship. When I found that out I thought it very interesting and wanted to learn more from the Bible and water. Water symbolizes Gods Word in many places throughout the Bible. In both Psalms and Ephesians water is a symbols of God’s word.

Almost all Christian churches or sects have an initiation ritual involving the use of water.  Baptism has its origins in the symbolism of the Israelites being led  by Moses out of slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea and from the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan.  After Jesus’ resurrection he commanded his disciples to baptise in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20).  Baptism is regarded differently in different denominations within Christendom.  Baptism is a symbol of liberation from the oppression of sin that separates us from God.  Except for within the Catholic Church, it is believed that baptism does not in itself cleanse one from sin, but is rather a public The Baptism of Christ declaration of a person’s belief and faith in Christ and it is a sign of welcome into the Church. The Catholic Church, however, believes that a real change occurs at baptism – it is more than just symbolism – it is at baptism that Catholics believe that the stain of original sin is actually removed from the individual.   The use of water is important for its own symbolic value in three ways: it cleanses and washes away dirt, fills everything it enters as God fills those who are immersed in Him and we need water to survive physically as we need God to survive spiritually.  In the early church baptism was usually performed with the person standing in water and with water being poured over the upper part of the body.  This was called ‘immersion’ but today the term refers to the method of dipping the whole body under water which is used, for example, by the Baptist and Orthodox churches.  In most Western churches today the rite is performed by pouring water over the head three times (affusion) and sometimes sprinkling water over the head (aspersion).

Another important significance of water for Christianity is the “living water” that Jesus described himself as.  John 4: 1-42 is the story of Jesus and a Samaritan woman to whom he offers living water so that she will never thirst again, in other words eternal life through him.  Read the story here.

Holy water is water which is blessed for use in certain rites, especially that which is blessed at the Easter Vigil for baptism of catechumens.  The use of water other than for baptism goes back to the 4th century in the East and the 5th century in the West.  The custom of sprinkling people with water at mass began in the 9th century.  At this time ‘stoups’, basins for holy water from which people could sprinkle themselves on entering a church, were in common use.  Holy water is also used at blessings, dedications, exorcisms and burials.

Ablutions in Christianity are mainly baptism and the washing of fingers and communion vessels after the communion.  This takes place in two parts.  Firstly the chalice is rinsed with the wine, and then the chalice and priests’ fingers with wine and water.  This ablution is important because after the bread and wine has been consecrated, Christ is believed to be present.

In Judaism

Water in Hebrew is known as mayim is mentioned 22 times. The portion begins with God’s command to mix water with the ashes of a red cow for purification. Next, Miriam dies, and the well which provided the Israelites with water disappears. The Jewish people quarrel with Moses, complaining (Numbers 20:3), “There is no water to drink!” Moses and Aaron strike the rock and God brings forth water.

Next, Moses asks the Edomites to pass through their land, with a promise not to drink their water, or alternately, to buy it from them. Then the Jewish people travel by way of the Sea of Reeds–where God had split the sea for them–and on their desert journey complain again about lacking water. They arrive in modern-day Jordan and sing an exultant song about their appreciation to God for water. Finally, the Torah portion ends with them encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

In Judaism ritual washing is intended to restore or maintain a state of ritual purity and its origins can be found in the Torah.  These ablutions can be washing the hands, the hands and the feet, or total immersion which must done in ‘living water’, i.e. the sea, a river, a spring or in a mikveh.  In Temple times ablutions were practised by priests, converts to Judaism as part of the initiation rites and by women on the seventh day after their menstrual period.  Priests had to wash their hands and feet before taking part in Temple services.  The ritual washing of hands is performed before and after meals and on many other occasions.

The story of the Great Flood is told in Genesis 6-8.  God destroyed humanity by sending a great flood.  Only Noah and his family and a pair of each animal were saved in the ark built by Noah.  Afterwards God promised he would never attempt to destroy the earth again and sent the rainbow as a sign of this covenant.  The story of a Great Flood is also found in other cultures such as the Australian Aborigines and some Pacific Islanders.  The Israelites’ story is different to these because it emphasises the ethical demands of God.  The flood is a divine punishment from which Noah survives because of his moral worthiness.  The Flood washed away all the sins of the world so that we could start afresh.  This is echoed in Christianity by the death and resurrection of Christ that eradicates sin so that nothing will stand in the way of man and God.

The Red Sea is significant in Jewish history because its parting by Moses was a miraculous event at the beginning of the Exodus which enabled the Israelites to escape from the Egyptian army that was chasing them.  God allowed Moses to part the sea so that the Israelites could walk safely to the other side on dry land, while the Egyptians drowned as the sea came together again.  This miracle was a reward for the faith of Moses and the Israelites, God’s Chosen People.  The parting and crossing of the Red Sea shows that God has power over nature, even the mighty oceans.  Water here is powerful, but an instrument of God for punishment (for the Egyptians) and blessing (for the Israelites).

A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath used for cleansing after contact with a dead body or after menstruation.  It can also be used used for immersing vessels and as part of the initiation ceremony for converts.  Only water that has not previously been drawn into a container can be used, and there must be no leakages.  The mikveh has its origins in Ancient times when people had to be purified in a mikveh before they could enter the Temple area.  Water in this case is important for its cleansing properties.

In  Zoroastrianism

The significance of water in Zoroastrianism is a combination of its purifying properties and its importance as a fundamental life element.  Therefore, while water is used in purification rites and rituals it is sacred itself and so must be kept from being polluted.

Zoroastrianism is a very dualistic creed with a great emphasis placed on the opposing forces of good and evil.  When the world was created the Evil Spirit Angra Mainyu attacked the earth and among other things made pure water salty.  Zoroastrians believe that pollution is evil and that water, when pure, is sacred.  Zoroastrians themselves must avoid pollution of any kind and must perform ritual ablutions before saying their prayers (which are said 5 times a day facing a source of light) and before any religious ceremonies such as weddings.

Purity and pollution are central concerns in Zoroastrian thought and practice.  For minor pollutions, padyab-kusti is performed, which involves washing and saying special prayers (kusti).  On special occasions such as weddings or initiations, nahn is performed which combines padyab-kusti with the symbolic eating of a pomegranate leaf and the drinking of nirang (ritual cow’s urine) for spiritual cleansing.  This is followed by the prayer of repentance, the Patet, and finally a bath.  Serious pollution, for example contact with a corpse, requires the nine day baresnum ceremony which is held in the temple precincts and includes periods of prayer and washing with the aid of priests.

The sanctity of water is very important to Zoroastrians.  People must not urinate, spit or wash one’s hands in a river or allow anyone else to.  In Zoroastrianism the dead are not cremated, buried or immersed in water because fire, earth and water must be kept pure.  Thus, corpses are left to birds of prey.  Zoroastrians believe in 6 benevolent divine beings known as Amesha Spentas, which with God’s Holy Spirit, Spenta Mainyu are linked with God’s (Ahura Mazda’s) creation, certain priestly rituals, observances by laypeople and the seven holy days of obligation.  The Amesha Spentas are believed to dwell within each of their creations while at the same time remaining aspects of God’s nature.  Each Amesha Spenta protects its creation and represents an aspect of Ahura Mazda and a feature of the good creation.  These creations are the means by which worshippers can approach Ahura Mazda and by which Ahura Mazda can approach his worshippers.  Haurvatat (meaning wholeness, health and integrity) is a feminine being and the creator of water and is represented by consecrated water used in priestly acts of worship.  The holy day of Haurvatat and water is in midsummer and people pray and make offerings by the seashore or any natural water.  In everyday life Haurvatat is observed by keeping water unpolluted and being temperate and self-disciplined.  Haurvatat is the personification of what salvation means to the individual.

Zoroastrianism also has a Great Flood story.  Ahura Mazda warned Yima that destruction in the form of floods, subsequent to the melting of the snow, was threatening the sinful world and gave him instructions for building a vara in which specimens of small and large cattle, humans, dogs, birds, fires, plants and foods were to be deposited in pairs.


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