Water in Hinduism

Evening prayers at Har-Ki-Pairi Ghat on Ganges River

At the February 2012 meeting of the Shepparton Interfaith Network, there was an Interfaith Dialogue on "Water in our Spiritual Traditions. One of the presentations given was on Water in Hinduism.

Perhaps the most popular image in Hinduism that that of temples on the Ganges River in India, crowds bathing in the river, and chanting their prayers or conducting funerary rites. To Hindus all water is sacred, especially rivers, and there are seven sacred rivers, namely the Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri.

The concept of pilgrimage is central as well. A sloka from a famous poem of Bhakta Meera (a lady devotee of Lord Krishna) contains the aspirations of many devout Hindus:

Go off with pilgrims, undertake fasts,
wrangle for wisdom,
trek to Banaras to die,
what's the use?

It is a sacred, holy tradition to die and have the body burnt and the ashes cast into the waters of the holy River Ganges, in Sanskrit, Ganga Ma, the holy Mother. If one's mortal remains are cast into the holy Ganges River, one is freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth.

Purify the Body, Purify the Mind

Water plays a central part in purity, inner purity of the devotee of the Lord. There is a tradition of the "twice born" in India, when young Brahmins undertake the sacred thread ceremony, they are also initiated into the chanting of the Gayatri Mantra. This mantra is said three times daily, morning, noon and evening. The morning chant is often done during the morning ablutions. (In recent times, recitation of the Gayatri Mantra has spread far beyong the priestly castes, so in mornings, millions upon millions of Hindus are praying Gayatri whilst undertaking their ablutions.) Gayatri is prayed during ablutions for purity; one prays to the Goddess to purify water in order that both the exterior and interior, the mind of man are cleansed, purified, illumined.

(There is a principle called the triple purity; this is purity of thoughts, words and actions. When one acts with this triple purity, one is said to be following righteousness or dharma, the foundation of Hindu life, and indeed, the foundation of the Universe.)

A typical temple-tank in Coimbatore, South India

Many temples have a bathing place attached; this is called a "tank" and it is customary to wash before entering and undertaking the rites.

Water is sanctified when placed on a shrine or altar during a ritual (often called a puja). A brass pot may be filled with water, adorned with a coconut. During, or after the ritual, this may be distributed to those present. Sanctified water is called tirtha (pronounced teertha).

Divinity and the Waters

Hinduism has a tradition of the Lord incarnating to destroy evil, and restore righteousness. There is a common tradition of the Ten Avatars (called das-avatar). Not all these avatars (descents of the Divine) have been human. One has been cetacean (fish) and one has been amphibian (turtle).

Matsya Avatar: This occurred in the ages when the Earth was covered with water. It is held that an Asura (a wicked spirit) had stolen the sacred teachings and Lord Vishnu had to incarnate as a fish to save the Vedas and also save Manu, the progenitor of Man, from the deluge. After Manu performed austerities and penances, the Matsya Avatar destroyed the wicked spirit, restored the sacred teachings and saved Man from the deluge.

Kurma Avatar: (The turtle avatar symbolised the amphibian age.) From water, Earth was born. When the waters receeded, land appeared, and amphibians populated them. The wicked spirits had agreed to churn the sea of milk to obtain the sacred nectar. They were using a mountain and a great serpent for a rope to churn the seas. At one stage, the mountain appeared to sink, so Lord Vishnu appeared as Kurma, the turtle, supported the mountain and afterwards, took another form (that of a beautiful woman) tricked the evil spirits into giving the sacred nectar to the good spirits.

Some Teachings on Water in Hinduism

Water takes the shape and form of the container it is placed in. Water in lakes, pits, wells and rivers is rain water, though the taste, colour, name and form are different, based on where the rain has fallen and how pure is the container. Divine grace is like rain, pure, pellucid, falling on all. How it is received and used depends on the heart of man.

The lotus is often a symbol of man in Hinduism

Humankind should be like the lotus stalk, which penetrates deep down through all the layers of water into the soil underneath; but the leaf floats above, unaffected by the water which gives it the essential environment. Humans should struggle similarly to rise above the sensory world which is their inevitable environment; the sensory world tempts you to strive for this triviality you should discard the hankering and fix your eye on the vitally precious fountain of joy, the goal of life.

For the bird in mid-ocean flying over the dark deep blue waters, the only resting place is the mast of a ship that sails across the waters. In the same way, the Lord is the only refuge for man who is swept by storms over a restless sea. However far the bird may fly, it knows where it can rest; that knowledge gives it confidence. It has the picture of that mast steady in its mind; its form is fixed in the eye. The Name of the Lord is the mast for you. Remember it; even associate it with the Form, and have that Form fixed in the mind's eye. It is a lamp shedding light in the recesses of your heart. Have the Name on the tongue and it will drive away the inner darkness as well as the outer. Peace within, brotherliness without—that is the sign of a person engaged in repeating the Name of the Lord.

There is a teaching in Hinduism, yad bhavati, tad bhavatum, as the feeling, so the result; as you think, so you become. Let me share a story:

A Hindu and his British friend once happened to come to the bank of the Godavari River (one of the seven sacred rivers in India). The Hindu said, "I will bathe in this sacred water". He recited the name "Hari" as he plunged in and came out refreshed in mind as well as body. He felt great happiness that he got the rare chance of a bath in the holy river. The Britisher laughed and said, "This is mere H2O: how can you get unspeakable joy by dipping into it? It is all superstition!" But the Hindu replied, "Leave me to my superstition; you can stick to your superstition" The cynic got only physical cleanliness but the believer got mental purity also.

It is a central teaching in Hinduism that thought creates reality.

Human beings are immersed in the Ocean of the God. God is above you, below you, before you, behind you. In this ocean of the divine, the human is like a bubble on the surface of the water. You are but a sparkling bubble upon the waters; born on water, living for a brief moment on water and dying upon its breast, merging in it. You owe your birth to God: you subsist on God and you merge in God. Every living thing has to reach that consummation.

Men at a Shrine on the Kaveri River, Karnataka, India

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons


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