From Genesis 1:2 to Revelations 22:17, you’ll find one word written 722 times.
It’s not just a word — it’s the singular symbol shared by all of the world’s religions, the symbol that plays a central role in our rituals. Religions have recognized its sacredness for millennia because it is the foundation for all life. The Dao De Jing, an ancient Chinese text, beautifully observes that it is the “void within the cup” that makes the cup useful — as a holder of water.
From birth until death, our rituals may differ, but our commonality is as clear as clean water. Here are a few ways religions share similar beliefs about the sacred nature of water.
According to the Rig-Veda, “. . . in the beginning everything was like the sea and without light.” Water (jal ) carried a divine egg or seed from which the god Brahma was born — and it was he who raised the earth from the waters.
The Koran teaches that “we have created every living thing from water.”
To the Iroquois, diving animals brought mud from the depths to create the world.
In Genesis 1:2, the spirit or breath of God moves on the face of the waters and sets into motion the divine creation of the universe.
Temples are located near a water source so followers can bathe before entering. Many pilgrimage sites are found on riverbanks, and sites where rivers converge are considered particularly sacred. Every child born to Hindu parents is given an abhishek wherein he is bathed in milk and the holy waters of the Ganges River. The child is thus ‘purified’ from the sins of its last life and given a fresh start in this life.
Japan’s indigenous religion is based on the worship of innumerable deities believed to inhabit mountains, trees, rocks, springs, and other aspects of nature. But worship always begins with the all-important act of purification with water. Inside the many sacred shrines are troughs for ritual washing. Waterfalls are sacred — standing under them is believed to purify.
Wudu, or ritual washing, is done before each of the five daily prayers.
Orthodox Jews observe the practice of mikveh, which is the ritual immersion into water to purify.
Christians are baptized by water as a symbol of liberation — liberation from oppression and from the sin that turns humans into oppressors. Some Christians believe that a real change occurs at baptism, while others see baptism as a symbol of a change of heart.
Water is spiritually thirst quenching. Jesus said to a Samaritan woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). Here, water fills everything it enters as God fills those who are immersed in God. Just as we need water to survive physically, we need God to survive spiritually.
The Bahá’í Faith
Water is a key element for this monotheistic faith that emphasizes spiritual unity of all humankind. In “Prayer, Meditation, and the Devotional Attitude,” `Abdu’l-Bahá writes, “The Almighty Lord is the provider of water, and its maker, and hath decreed that it be used to quench man’s thirst, but its use is dependent upon His Will. If it should not be in conformity with His Will, man is afflicted with a thirst which the oceans cannot quench.”
Zoroastrians believe that pollution is evil and water that is pure is both sacred and a fundamental life element. Therefore, while water is used in rituals, by itself it is sacred and kept from being contaminated.
Catholics reaffirm their faith through the sacrament of Holy Water.
The Samadhi Water Repentance is a text written by Master Wu-da after his encounter with the force of karmic retribution that physically manifested itself as a human-faced boil on his knee. This wound would only heal after he soaked it in repentance water. It’s a lesson that teaches that hatred and conflict with others must be resolved and past faults must be repented.
Sikhs go through an initiation rite as soon as they are old enough to understand the full commitment they are making to the faith. During the Amrit Ceremony, hymns are recited from Sikh scripture, prayers are said, and the principles of Sikhism are affirmed. Then the amrit, a mixture of sugar and water that has been stirred with a double-edged sword, is prepared. The word amrit means “death is un come,” and implies a state of immortality. Candidates drink the sweet amrit and it is sprinkled on their eyes and hair.
In early Christian art, water surrounded by peacocks was the symbol of immortality.
To be baptized as a Christian enacts or dramatizes the “spiritual rebirth,” with water as the sacrament of initiation.
The Asthi Visarjan is part of the last rites and is a ritual deeply associated with rebirth. After cremation, ashes are to be put in any of the holy river waters. This death in spiritual water ensures the soul of the dead a favorable rebirth.
Noah’s Ark is no doubt the most famous story of water in all three Abrahamic traditions. Water becomes a powerful force when God uses it to wipe oppressors from the earth, essentially cleansing the world from violence and starting anew (Genesis 7:17). Water, the ingredient for life, is also the powerful force of destruction.
Similarly, the story of the Great Flood of Manu appears in Hindu scriptures. All of creation is submerged in a great deluge except Manu, who is rescued by a fish he once saved from being eaten by a larger fish. The fish tells him to build a large boat and fill it with seeds and animals. The fish then tows the boat to safety by anchoring it on the highest of the Himalayas. Manu’s boat stayed on the mountain while the flood swept away all living creatures. Manu alone survived.
During funerals water is poured into a bowl and placed before the monks and the deceased. As it fills and pours over the edge, the monks recite, “As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed.”
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From birth until death, water brings people together around meaningful religious rituals. Because water is essential for life, it is our sacred duty to make sure that clean and drinkable water is freely available for all. Tomorrow, in honor of World Water Day (March 22), we will share five ways you can make water your sacred priority.
Because to give the gift of water is to give the holy gift of life.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Olivia Henry.