Worship of River Ganga at Haridwar, Uttaranchal
In India, water has been an object of worship from time immemorial. It has diverse socio-religious uses and plays a central role in many religious ceremonies and rites.
Water and in turn water bodies have been traditionally held sacred for the following reasons:
- Almost all rivers, lakes, springs are attributed some degree of holiness and are often associated with the local pantheon of Gods and Goddesses.
- Most Indian rivers are usually believed to be manifestations (avatars) of Goddesses. Rivers have been given a divine status and have been worshipped since ancient times.
- Water plays a vital role in holy rituals / rites. It cleanses our body and hence, symbolizes purification.
- The ecological significance of water as a source and sustainer of life.
Water in different religions
The religion seeks spiritual awakening through meditation and wisdom. Rites are basically absent. Water, however is used in Buddhist funerals. It is poured to overflowing into a bowl placed before the monks and the dead body.
Water is intrinsically linked to baptism, a public declaration of faith and a sign of welcome into the Christian church. When baptised, one is fully or partially immersed in water, or one’s head may simply be sprinkled with a few drops of water. The sacrament has its roots in the Gospel, wherein it is written that Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. In the New Testament, the 'living water' or 'water of life' represents the spirit of God, that is, eternal life.
Water is imbued with powers of spiritual purification for Hindus, for whom morning cleansing with water is an everyday obligation. All temples are located near a water source, and followers must bathe before entering the temple. Many pilgrimage sites are found on river banks; sites where two or even three rivers converge are considered particularly sacred.
There are seven sacred rivers: the Ganges, and the Godavari, Kaveri, Narmada, Sarasvati, Sindhu and Yamuna Rivers. According to Hindu beliefs, those who bathe in the Ganges or who leave part of themselves (hair, bones of the dead) on the left bank of the river will reach Svarga, the paradise of Indra, storm God.
Funeral rites are always held near rivers; the son of the deceased pours water on the burning funeral pyre so that the soul cannot escape and return to Earth as a ghost. When the fire reaches the deceased’s skull, the mourners bathe and then go home. The ashes are collected three days after cremation, and several days later, are thrown into a holy river.
The myth of the Great Flood is contained in some Hindu scriptures, and tells the tale of how Manu, the first man, was rescued from the flood by a fish (the god Brahma), who lead him to the Himalayas until the waters receded.
For Muslims, water serves above and beyond all for purification. There are three sorts of ablutions:
- The first and most important involves washing the whole body; it is obligatory after sex, and recommended before the Friday prayers and before touching the Koran.
- Before each of the five daily prayers, Muslims must bathe their head, wash their hands, forearms and feet. All mosques provide a water source, usually a fountain, for this ablution.
- When water is scarce, followers of Islam use sand to cleanse themselves; this is the third form of ablution.
Founded by Zarathushtra, this dualist religion is based on the opposition of good and evil. When the world was created, the Evil Spirit attacked the Earth and turned some of its water salty. Purity and pollution are central to zoroastrian belief: pollution is considered evil, and clean water, sacred. It is forbidden to spit, urinate or wash one’s hands in rivers, for fear of blemishing the water’s sacredness. So as to conserve the purity of water, fire and earth, the dead cannot be immersed, cremated or buried. Zoroastrianism also has a version of the great flood story.