Water in Religion and Ritual
There are many reasons why this plain liquid plays a key role in the ceremonies and belief systems of world religions. It is both a ritualistic object and a symbol. On one hand, it is used for washing away impurities, nourishing the body and offering protection. On the other, it can destroy life with floods or by its absence. The power to give life and take it away, just like that demonstrated by the gods, gives water a place at the heart of most faiths.
Buddhists sometimes acknowledge statues or images of Buddha by bowing, but this is in respect, rather than worship. They are not bound by symbols or rituals because the spiritual enlightenment they seek comes from within. However, at Buddhist funerals, the body is laid out and a ceremony involving water is performed. In it, a large jug of liquid is used to fill a small bowl, when the bowl is full it is allowed to overflow, representing a return to the ocean and alluding to the impermanence of living things.
Christianity in all its forms is intrinsically linked with water. Saint Francis of Assisi referred to it as his ‘Sister’ and it is mentioned in Genesis, the first chapter of the bible. The significance of baptism, to wash away original sin, or to represent a welcoming into the church, has its origins in two Bible stories. First, Moses was led from slavery in Egypt through a parted Red Sea, and second, Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was resurrected, he asked his disciples to baptise his followers, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Holy Water is used in all baptisms, but also burials, dedications and other ceremonies. As it is blessed by a priest, Christians believe it has the power to protect people and drive out evil.
For Hindus, water not only cleanses the body, but also the spirit. It is a sacred substance, especially when found in seven specific rivers, Kaveri, Sindhu, Narmada, Godavari, Sarasvati, Yamuna and the Ganges. Within the various Hindu denominations there are many differing beliefs, but in each there is a devotion to a purity of the body and mind. A morning routine consists of washing and performing the Tarpana, cupping the hands and pouring the liquid back into the river whilst speaking in mantras. Spiritual purity is achieved through making pilgrimages to a holy place, and most of these are sited beside coasts, riverbanks and in rivers.
In Islamic teachings, this liquid is considered sacred, the Quran states that god used it to create the world and it is required for daily rituals. Salat is the second Pillar of Islam and it refers to the five prayers said at set times each day by Muslims. Before approaching god in this way, followers must wash and purify themselves for the task ahead. Some mosques even have a pool in the centre, but more often basins are found just outside, and fountains are also installed as symbols of purity. Muslims have three levels of cleansing, the ghusl is a full body wash usually carried out before feasting or Friday prayers, the second is wudu, which is a minor wash to remove everyday impurities. Thirdly, Muslims can also carry out the wudu using sand if they do not have access to a fluid.
Shintoism is a faith that is indigenous to Japan and steeped in rituals involving water. Known as ‘the way of the gods’ to its followers, this state religion is highly inclusive, regularly incorporating other belief systems, like Buddhism. Standing beneath a waterfall is a sacred act known as suigyo, which offers purity and readies a person for the day ahead. A less complex version of the purification ritual is performed prior to entering a shrine. Fluid is scooped from the Temizuya or basin and poured into the right, then the left hand. Some is then used to cleanse the mouth and then the left hand once more. Any remaining liquid is dripped back, in a nod to the longer version of the ritual.
The Source of all Life
As it plays such an important role in our existence, religions have sought ways to associate this everyday fluid with their own teachings on life and death. In many ancient texts that include a creation story, rivers and lakes are mentioned as a source of life. In ancient Egypt, worshippers believed that the oldest of the gods, Nun, emerged from stormy seas to create the world.