Water holds special significance in many cultures and religions, primarily due to its cleansing, life-giving properties. Believers of various religions use water in ritual washing to purify themselves, both literally and spiritually, in preparation for worship or contemplation.
Water is widely regarded as one of the basic elements, along with fire, earth, air, and sometimes space, which has led to it being considered all over the world as the sacred foundation of all life.
Sacred texts such as the Qur’an, Bible, and Vedas are full of imagery that uses water, the abundance or lack of it, to explain and symbolise spiritual health and blessings. Floods, rains, storms, waves, aridity and drought feature heavily, and carry particular relevance for cultures living in harsh desert climates, for whom water is the essential, precious resource.
The belief that water is the source of life, and point of origin and creation, is shared by many religions. The Hindu text Rig-Veda describes how ‘in the beginning everything was like the sea and without light.’ Water precedes the creation of life and light, and initiates the process, as the creator god Brahma was born from the water (jal).
The Bible’s account offers a similar picture: ‘The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters.’ The spirit of God was said to hover over the waters before the creation of anything else.
In the Qur’an, it says that every living thing was made from water, which existed before anything else as the seat of God: ‘And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and his Throne was upon water.’
The Native American Hurons tell that in the beginning there was only one water and the water animals that lived in it. A divine woman fell from the sky and animals dove down to fetch earth to make her some land to live on.
Ceremonies and Washing Rituals
Many ceremonies in Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shinto, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and countless others involve water in some way. Believers are often immersed, sprinkled, or washed in pure water before participation in marriage, death, birth, and affirmations of faith, among others.
For many, bathing a newborn baby is an important ritual. Hindus practice different ceremonies for birth, depending on the region. One involves washing the child in milk and water from the sacred river Ganges to purify and cleanse sins from its past lives. Christians believe baptising or christening a baby welcomes them into the church family and washes away original sin.
In Sikhism, believers have an Amrit ceremony when they are old enough to commit to their faith. Sweet water stirred with a double-edged sword is drunk and sprinkled on the hair and eyes.
Washing is an important part of everyday prayer for Muslim, Shinto, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Hindu worshippers, who cleanse themselves of pollution and impurity before offering their devotion.
Wudu is the essential washing of hands, arms, face, ears nose, head, and feet that Muslims must perform before Salaat. It must be repeated if an action is carried out that nullifies Wudu, such as passing gas, urination, bleeding, natural discharge, and deep sleep.
Purification called Harae is necessary before a Shinto worshipper can bring an offering to the Kami, revered gods that inhabit natural spaces, like mountains, trees and rocks. Waterfalls are sacred, and to stand under one is a cleansing ritual.
Concerns of purity are central to Zoroastrianism, and the ritual of padyab-kusti is carried out to cleanse minor pollutions. More serious pollutions such as touching a dead body require a nine day baresnum ceremony, involving priests’ assistance in prayer and washing.
The Torah outlines the need for believers to wash their hands and feet in ‘living water’, which can be in a sea, river, spring, or special bath called a mitveh, before approaching God.
Hindu temples are built near a water source so that one can bathe before entering the place of worship, and carry out Sodhana purifications. Pilgrimage sites are often found on riverbanks, especially as the point where rivers converge is regarded as sacred. Water is involved in all ceremonies in Hinduism.
Water can sometimes not be such a prominent feature in Buddhist practices, as it is believed that ritual practices pose a distraction from the goal of spiritual enlightenment. However, yonchap are water offerings in Tibetan homes that can encourage one to give with an open heart.
In Buddhist funerals, there is a tradition of pouring water into a bowl near the deceased, so that it overflows. Monks may recite the words: ‘As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed.’
Sacred water sites
Many religions have bodies of water or related sites that are historically or spiritually significant, and can be popular sites for pilgrims to visit.
- There are seven rivers in India that are considered sacred, and seen as maternal, life-giving female deities: Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri.
- The most famous river is the Ganges, believed to be the most sacred river in India. Millions travel to the Ganges to wash, be cleansed and healed. Some Hindus see the Ganges as a crucial site of pilgrimage, and believe that a life is incomplete without bathing in the river at least once. Families often keep a vial of water from the Ganges in the home.
- The Well of Zamzam is a site of pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where Muslims go to drink the sacred water. It is believed that the well is a miracle source of water, which sprung up to quench the thirst of Ishmael, son of Abraham, thousands of years ago. The well lies 20m east of the Kaaba, the holiest place in Islam, and is visited as part of the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages.
- Many Christians consider the Sea of Galilee to be a special place of pilgrimage, as this is the region around which Jesus’ ministry centred. The river Jordan is particularly visited as the site where Jesus baptised and was himself baptised by John.
- Lake Titicaca in the Andes is a sacred site for Inca people as, according to ancient myths, the sun first emerged from this lake and blessed it.
- Cenotes, or natural pits of water, are important in Mayan culture, thought to offer access to the watery underworld. Chichén Itzá is the most famous cenote, and one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico.
This is only a brief overview of the religious weight of water. There is much more to be said and gained from learning about how cultures revere water in diverse traditions.