In many religions, water is considered a “purifier”. Its role as both a spiritual and physical cleanser means that water take centre stage in many rituals and festivals. Here are some of the practices which involve water in the main religions…
Although Hinduism encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices, all Hindus believe in purifying the soul. Water is sacred and there are seven rivers which are considered particularly so: the Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Unfortunately ritual washing is often marred by deadly levels of pollution and sewage in the rivers, most notoriously the Ganges.
Muslims are required to wash themselves with clean water prior to doing ritual prayers or handling the Qur’an – this process is called Wuḍūʾ. All mosques have a special area dedicated to washing, with small fountains or pools of running water available.
Ritual hand-washing is carried out before and sometimes after a meal, and during Passover food is dipped into saltwater to represent the tears of Jewish ancestors in Egypt. Ablutions can be washing the hands, the hands and the feet, or total immersion which must done in “living water”; this can be the sea, a river, a spring or a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath.
The ritual of initiation into Christianity, baptism, involves pouring or sprinkling water over the head of the believer. In all denominations apart from Catholicism, baptism represents symbolic purification only, whereas in Catholicism, it has a performative quality which absolves the recipient of their sins. Many Christian pilgrims also travel to Lourdes in France, to try the famous water which flows from a spring and which is claimed to have healing properties.
Buddhists generally do not carry out purification, since their ultimate goal is to depart this life in the quest for spiritual enlightenment and rejection of ritual. However, during funerals, water is poured into an overflowing bowl near the dead body while monks chant recitals.
Water is of incredible significance to hundreds of millions of pious people across the globe. While the priority must be to provide drinking water, the religious value of water remains strong as ever – and rituals will continue regardless of water purity in pious countries, potentially leading to worshippers falling ill and spreading disease. This only makes the need for clean water more urgent.
Main image: Travelbusy.com