Water, in its many forms, the gentle, flowing brook, the rushing, sweeping river, the roaring waterfall, the soft, dropping rain, the endless ebb and flow of ocean tides, all are essential to sustain life. In many faith traditions around the world, water plays an important role in ceremonies and rituals of purification, cleanliness, and important rites of passage. Many faith traditions honor water as sacred and integral to their worship.
Indigenous Peoples have long believed that water is sacred, and the home of divine beings and animals. The Blackfeet believed that there are three realms of existence: the sky, earth, and water. Sacred beings living in the water were “Soyiitapi.”1 Water was a distinct, sacred place to the Blackfeet, and all of the beings and animals that lived in the water could not be killed or eaten because they were divine teachers of the moral restrictions on human behavior.2 The divine beaver that spoke to humans taught the Blackfeet their most important religious ceremony that helped to support their connection to the three realms of existence.3 The Blackfeet were tasked with protecting the water world from pollution and disturbances.
On March 14, 2017, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River) Claims Settlement Bill which settled the historical claims of the Maori Whanganui Iwi tribe which fought for recognition of its ancestral relationship with the Whanganui River. The Whanganui River is NewZealand’s longest navigable river, and the Whanganui Tribe’s customary norms, relationship, control and management of the river were extinguished by theCrown and subsequent government actions over decades. The Settlement gave legal recognition of the “personhood” of the river with all of the rights, powers and liabilities of a legal person.4The Maoris wanted this recognition of the river’s personhood to acknowledge the importance of the life of water as indistinct from that of human life. There isa Maori saying, “Ko au Te Awa; ko-Te Awa ko au,” which means, “I am the River, and the River is me.”5
Shintoism is an indigenous religion of Japan. Water has an important role in Shintoism as a great purifier, and as an integral part of the totality of nature that gives, supports and sustains life. Before entering a Shinto shrine, it is customary to wash one’s hands and mouth at the washbasin provided outside. In the Kojiki, the “Records of Ancient Matters,”6ceremonies, customs and divinations, the water god, Sujin,7 is considered the guardian of fishermen, the patron of fertility, motherhood and painless childbirth. Rice is a major part of the Japanese diet and is grown in wet fields. Water is therefore seen to be a primary element in ensuring a vital food source. Many festivals are celebrated in Japan to honor Sujin, to ensure abundant crops, plentiful hauls of seafood, protection at sea, protection from drowning, and the safety and health of children, and mothers during childbirth.8
In Buddhism, water symbolizes life, purity, clarity and calmness.9 Nature and all life forms are seen as interconnected and interdependent to the wholeness of life, and the parts are inseparably linked together with the totality of life itself. “Not a single drop of water, not a single insect or animal, not a single human being, and of course, not a single country not a single continent escape this reality: we can live and exist only together.”10 Our inherent connectivity with all life forms compel us to grow in mindfulness of the suffering of others, and to develop the heart of compassion, caring and loving kindness. This heart of compassion and loving kindness calls upon us to affirmatively act to relieve the suffering of sentient beings and the myriad of life forms which comprise the wholeness of life.
In Hinduism, the attainment of purity and the avoidance of pollution are important to one’s physical and spiritual cleanliness and well being. Water is revered for its power to purify, and cleanse not only the body, but negative karma and sins. Many holy places are situated along sacred rivers, one of the most famous being the Ganges River in India. During the Kumbh Mela festival, the world’s largest religious assemblage, millions of Hindus gather to bathe in the Ganges River to wash their sins away. Mt. Kailash is considered to be one of the holiest, most sacred of mountains to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Bons. Hindus consider it to be the abode of Lord Shiva, the Supreme Deity in the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Lord Shiva is the creator, protector and transformer of the universe. Near Mt. Kailash is sacred Lake Monsarovar, one of the world’s highest altitude fresh water lakes. It is fed by the Kailash glacier melt, so the waters coming from Mt. Kailash itself is considered very sacred and pure. The Hindus will bathe in the lake to purify themselves and have their sins washed away. The Hindu poet Kalidasa claimed that drinking water from this lake could clean the sins of hundreds of lifetimes.11
Christians believe that water represents life. The baptism ritual of immersion into water symbolizes purification of the soul and an important act of admission into the faith. Water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible,12 andGod created water on the first day of the six days of creating heaven and earth.13 Holy water is water blessed by a priest, and can be used to provide protection against evil. Holy water is often part of ceremonies of matrimony, the administration of the Holy Eucharist to the sick, and in services for the deceased.14 There are several sources of water that are considered to be miraculous for its healing qualities and as sites of devotion for pilgrims. One such source is the spring water flowing in a grotto in Lourdes, France, where the Virgin Mary appeared numerous times to Bernadette Soubirous, a peasant girl, who was later canonized as St. Bernadette. Under the directive of the Virgin Mary, Bernadette dug in the dirt of the grotto where this spring started to flow and has been flowing continuously since 1858. Pilgrims can bathe in the water, and many have reported being miraculously cured of their diseases and sicknesses.
Zoroastrians believe that water and fire are integral to ritual purity, and purification ceremonies utilizing both elements recognize their primordial nature in the creation of the universe. Both are considered essential to the sustenance of life, with fire as the source of light through which wisdom is attained. Water is considered the source of that wisdom which is strengthened through the Yasna service which is the principle act of worship which represent the “strengthening of the waters.”15 Water is considered to have been created after the creation of the sky, and seven important Zoroastrian divinities are associated with water.16 Several commemorative festivals and days of the Zoroastrian calendar are dedicated to the sanctity of water.
The Sikh, Jain, Muslim, Jewish faiths, and most of the world’s religions honor the sacredness of water. Volumes can be written about the numerous rituals, ceremonies and practices associated with water in the everyday lives of adherents around the world. As with all matters sacred, we must honor and respect it, properly conserve it, and avoid polluting it. May we live the wisdom of our collective practices and rituals which acknowledge the importance of water in our lives. May we always cherish it as if our lives depend upon it, because it does. -----