Roughly 71% of the earth’s surface consists of water. It has been so since man was born on this planet. The average human being has around 55-60% water. This then is the significance of water in our lives. If we lose more than a couple of percentage in water we could die of dehydration. Ancient man must have learnt of this truth and in his hunter-gatherer days must have marked water bodies for drinking purposes to return to them. Once he settled down along the river for irrigation of course the water issue would have been pushed back in his psyche. Once again, civilizations have moved on when their water source either died out or the river changed its course. Water therefore was important then as it is now. But, how did ancient man look at water? The prehistoric man may have looked at rain, storm and thunder with awe but he would have probably looked at water as one of the essentials just as fruits, berries and nuts or the occasional bird or animal. But, in due course of time man would have deified nature. This in the case of India would be the age of the Vedas. In this article we will look at how ancient man looked at water from a spiritual point of view. For the Hindu, history starts with the Vedas. Let us understand the importance of water from the Vedic angle and thereafter move on to other ancient literature such as The Upanishads, The Mahabharata or The Gita.
The Vedic Times
While prehistoric man was more concerned with survival in times that were uncertain, the Vedic man had started figuring out things for himself. During this search for truth, man started off by the understanding that he cannot control nature’s forces. Therefore, he attributed special powers to nature and its attributes such as the sun, moon and rain. Later, once he had started leading an agrarian existence he found that somehow climate controlled his life. These powers were beyond his control and understanding. Since these aspects of nature controlled his crops and he not only had no control over nature he also could not predict nature’s forces, he concluded that somehow these powers were supernatural. The next step did not take long. Man started worshipping nature and its different forms. According to S Radhakrishnan, the learned scholar, during 1500 BC and 500 BC the Vedas shaped the way man thought about his existence.
The Worship of Nature and Hierarchy of the Gods
In the above, the author talks about man being amazed with the enormous powers of nature. While the sun gave energy, the rain poured water for his crops and Vayu gave oxygen for his life. Over a period of time since he was dependent on these aspects of nature, he started calling them deva or god or “the giver” since these gave the things to man that he depended upon. This was the time when the Aryan started worshipping the powers of nature as gods. These gods were just like supernatural humans that suffered from weaknesses that also troubled the normal human. These were the gods such as Indra, the god of lightning and thunder, Varuna, the god of the sky and Agni, the god of fire that purified. Slowly, since water was so important to man not only for his crops but for his very survival, water crept into various pujas and yagnas along with agni, the fire.
Once the concept of prayer came into man’s life he would pray to Varuna asking him for his forgiveness of sins committed and Varuna being the benevolent god, more like one’s father, would pardon. However, to a farmer, there was nothing more important than his crops. Indra being the god of weather, rain, storm and thunder exercised control over man’s crops. However, unlike Varuna, Indra came to be feared since he was perceived to be a law unto himself. Man prayed to Indra as he would pray to a powerful king. In the hierarchy of gods there were other lesser gods such as Vayu, the wind god and Saraswati, the goddess of learning as well as Shakti, the goddess of power.
In spite of the Upanishads and the age of rationalization, many of the Vedic gods still remain, albeit in different forms. But, water has remained today as in the days of Rig Veda, “an extraordinary and omnipresent element”. “It was the upholder of all lives and the savior of everything living or dead on earth. Not only Rig Veda but the societies existing even prior to it in the ancient world practiced spiritual veneration for water”. “Around 1760 BC Hammurabi set in place the earliest known human laws for regulation, distribution and maintenance of irrigation structures. Another 60 years later, a well dug in Egypt had reached to a depth of 100 (sic) to tap the water table and water tunnels were being used in Palestine and Syria to divert water from natural springs to towns”. Further, “Our Rig Veda ancestors were no more different from their predecessors in respecting all the natural elements. Water was therefore considered divine”. (“The Concept of Water in Rig Veda” Dr Chandni Saxena International Journal of Social Science & Interdisciplinary Research Vol 1 Issue 8, August 2012 ISSN 2277 3630).
The Divinity of Water
In the Rig Veda there were several gods that were connected to water. These were Apas, Indra, Varun, Parjanya among others. In the form of Apas water is described as the mother while in another form it is in the form of a woman. In yet another it is addressed as the Master Lord who “blesses those who follow the gods and conduct Yagyas”. Here Indra, the bearer of thunder, Vajra, is credited for having created the path for water.
Samudrajyestha Saiilasya Madhyapunana Yantyanivishmanah
Indrah ya vajri vrihabho rarad TaApoa devirih mamvantu
“He whose destination is the ocean, who purifies the world, is always flowing, such water lives in the middle of the Universe. Indra who possesses Vajra and rains the desires, broke open a path for these divine waters. May these waters help me and be received by me”.
Then again, “water is looked upon as the mother of Agni and is therefore the producer of fire. The world moves with the pure and simple movement of the water. It washes away the impurities and also cleans the inconsistencies of human behavior”.
Rig Veda Extends the Divinity of Water to all its Forms
The Rig Veda extends the divinity of water to all its forms such as rivers and lakes, wells and canals, the waterfalls and the oceans.
Ya Apaodivya Ut Va Sravanti Khanitrima ut va yah swayamjah
Samudrartha Yah Shuchayah pavakasta Apao Divirih Mamvantu
Therefore, “the water which is created in the universe, the water which flows in the form of river etc, the water which comes from the digging of the wells, canals etc, the water which is self created in the form of waterfalls etc who enters into the ocean and who is pure and full of light, who is full of divine characteristics, help me in this world and be received by me”. Water is a great medicine. It does away with the diseases and is the giver of health, strength, long-life, wealth and immortality. The world prays for its favors. It is invited to receive the Som libation.
Here the duality of water comes into play with the power that Varuna wields over water becoming apparent.
Yasam Raja Varuno Yati Madhyai Satyanrite Avapashyanje yajnanam
Madhushchutah Shuchaye yah pavakah ta Apao devirih mamvantu (VII.49.3)
“The waters that are sent to the middle of the universe by King Varuna after checking the true and untrue deeds of human beings, the water that distills sweetness, full of light and is the great purifier, that is full of divine values, such water help me in this world and be received by me. The waters are often associated with honey: their milk mixed with honey is produced in the sky”.
The Duality of Water
Rig Veda assigns a dual control over water. Therefore, Indra, the greatest of the gods in Rig Veda is called the liberator of waters while Varuna, another god, is the overall lord of all waters on the earth such as the oceans, rivers and tanks or pools as well as the water below the earth. Varuna is assigned the role of the regulator of all such water as well as causing the rains to come down. (“The Concept of Water in Rig Veda” by Dr Chandni Saxena. International Journal of Social Science & Interdisciplinary Research Vol 1 Issue 8, August 2012, ISSN 22773630). The dual control therefore is between the liberator and the regulator. Parjanya or clouds causing water to pour is also deified in Rig Veda. When Parjanya protects the earth by irrigation, “then winds are blown, lightning strikes, vegetation sprouts and grow…and the earth becomes capable for the welfare of the whole world”. Thus, Parjanya “is responsible for all the medicines, vegetations and other life-supporting objects on earth”.
The Use of Water in Various Ceremonies
Ever since the time of the Vedic Aryan, all ceremonies invariably had a religious tone to it and every ceremony demanded a high standard of cleanliness. This high standard of cleanliness was obtained by the liberal use of water, both for cleaning the area and all utensils that were used as well as bathing prior to the ceremony. This desire for cleanliness and hence the use of water stemmed from the belief that water had spiritually cleansing powers. (All you need to know about Hinduism http://history-of-hinduism.blogspot.in/2010/06/water-and-hinduism.html). Therefore, all holy places were generally located on the banks of rivers and coasts or seashores and in certain cases mountains. Convergent rivers carried special significance and were especially sacred. Today, Ganges is considered to be the most sacred of all rivers for the Hindus. The holy river is said to have the powers of washing sins away and granting salvation to all those that bathe during the Kumbh Mela.
The reason for the Ganges and other rivers attaining the status of reverence is not difficult to find. Once the ancient Hindu became agrarian and settled down along the banks of rivers he understood the significance of their waters. Each year he would find the rivers such as the Ganges swell up with gushing waters from the Himalayas, bringing life to the parched land in the plains and its trees and crops. In due course of time water, especially from the Ganges, was associated with powers of divinity and was used in ceremonies starting from the birth of the baby till the death of the man. Milk and water came to be trusted as symbols of fertility and even temple tanks were considered holy and possess cleansing properties.
The practicality of imparting water with divine qualities is evident in Chandogya Upanishad 18 in which a scientific and logical reasoning is quite clear. “Water is greater than food. Therefore, if there is not sufficient rain, living beings fail from fear that there will be less food. But, if there is sufficient rain, they become happy because there will be much food. This water, by assuming different forms, becomes this earth, sky, heaven, mountains, gods and men, cattle, birds and trees, all beasts down to worms, midges, and ants. Water itself assumes all these forms. Meditate on water.” It was quite obvious that the deification of water was not born out of ignorance but was due to a deep sense of gratitude and moral discipline. (Divine, Panacean and Emancipative Water in Vedic Religion. Rohana Seneviratne. University of Oxford).
Historical References to Water
Today one can see early images of water in Indian art going back to 4th century AD in the Varaha cave at Udaygiri where one can see Ganga on a crocodile and Yamuna on a tortoise flanking the doorways of early temples. The two goddesses meet in a wall of water thereby creating Prayag or as Allahabad was known then.
In the Rig Veda the land of the Indo-Aryans is mentioned as Sapta-Sindhu or the land of the seven rivers in the northwestern part of South Asia, one of these rivers being the Indus or Sindhu in Vedic Sanskrit.
(All you need to know about Hinduism http://history-of-hinduism.blogspot.in/2010/06/water-and-hinduism.html).
· Water is important not only for cleaning vessels and ablutions but also for the Abhishekhas or the ritualistic bathing of deities. The water offered to the deities is collected and later distributed among the devotees as “Theertha”. In Poorna Kumbha the water in the jar is said to be divine in nature. In several pujas a kalasa of brass, gold or silver is filled with water with a coconut inside and covered with leaves of mango and others.
· Tarpana is also one of the religious festivals meant to gratify or please the gods. The ritual consists of pouring water through the hands while using sacred grass or durva. This ritual signifies a gesture of pleasing and thanking gods, ancestors and sages. Water is used to purify not only the offering made to the deities but also all objects that are to be purified. Tarpana is also practiced by a Hindu sitting down to a meal when he will sprinkle water all around the leaf or the plate in which he will eat his meal.
· During coronation too the king would be sprinkled with water in order to purify him and this act was understood to ensure that his reign would have an auspicious beginning.
· A combination of meditation and concentration would be performed in a ritual called Sandhya (Sandhyopasana or Sandhyavandana). This is a duty to be performed daily for the self-purification and self-improvement. Sandhya inculcates devotion and sincerity besides purifying.
· This in turn involved Achamana or the ritualistic sipping of water with the recitation of mantras. Achamana purifies when it is performed after answering calls of nature, after walking in the streets, just before taking food and after food as well as after taking bath.
· Marjana or the sprinkling of water on the body that purifies the mind and the body,
· Aghamarshana or the expiation for the sins of many births and
· Surya Arghya or ablutions of water to the Sun or Surya God. The other two elements of the ceremony that did not involve the use of water were Pranayama, the control of breath for steadying the wandering mind and the silent recitation of Gayatri and Upasthana, religious obeisance.
· The first part of Arghya consisted of hymns addressed to water and its benefits while the sprinkling of water on the face and head as well as touching the different organs with wetted fingers are meant to purify these parts and invoke the respective deities on them. This also stimulates the various nerve centers and wakes up the dormant powers of the body. Arghya is meant to drive the demons that obstruct the path of the rising sun. While the sun is the intellect, the demons are the evils of lust, anger and greed.
· There are other rituals with water such as Jalanjali, offering a handful of water to the gods, Jaladhivaasam or the submersion in water and Jalasthapanam as well as the purification ceremony of Jalaabhishekam.
· Similarly, Kaamyasnanam is the bath performed in the holy water for the achievement of some desire while Prokshana involves the sprinkling of water over one’s body in order to purify whenever it is not possible to have a bath. Further, Nir talikkuka is performed after childbirth by a close relative of the child who pours a few drops of water on the child’s body. (Christians have baptism ceremony that too involves the use of water).
The Use of Water for Health
The Vedas recommended the use of water for other than in rituals. Therefore, water was to be offered to the Sun in the evening to convert drops of water to stones that “cause death to the demons. For humans, demons are like all sicknesses” such as typhoid and TB or pneumonia. Saints were able to bless a sick person by sprinkling water while chanting mantras. Similarly, water therapy has been practiced to heal the sick for centuries using Usha Kaala Chikitsa or water therapy. Water still plays an important role in death. For this reason funeral grounds used to be made near the rivers in India. After the cremation was over, the mourners would bathe in the river prior to returning home. On the third day, the ashes would be collected and on the tenth day these were to be cast into the holy river. Yoga enthusiasts will of course remember the use of water in a yogic exercise such as jala and sutra neti meant to clean the nasal and sinus passages and said to be useful for combating asthma and bronchitis.
This subject will be incomplete without discussing briefly the concept of holy rivers. After the nomadic Aryans became agrarian they needed a river bank to settle down. One will not find reference to the Ganges in the Vedas. However, one will come across references of the Indus or Sindhu. Subsequently though the Ganges became the holiest of rivers for the Hindu and it has stayed that way for more than a millennium now.
In the Religious Importance of Ganga River (http://www.indianetzone.com/29/religious_importance_ganga_river.htm) the author speaks about the Ganges and its religious significance. Right from the Gangotri, the origin of the majestic river, to the point of sangam with the Yamuna at Allahabad and finally its meeting with the sea, Ganges retains its holy image and this is in spite of the fact that today pollution has tarnished its image immensely. While all the cities on the banks of this river are important, Varanasi is considered to be the holiest city in Hinduism. As mentioned earlier there is reference of this river in Rig Veda in the nadistuti that lists the rivers from the east to the west. One will also find Ganga mentioned in the Rig Veda but it is not clear whether the word refers to this river or not.
Hindus regard the Ganges as sacred and worship her as a Devi goddess holding a significant place in Hinduism. Bathing in the river especially at the time of the Kumbh Mela is said to wash one’s sins away and impart salvation. Some believe that one can achieve similar advantages by normal bathing as well. Cremation is one reason that draws people all over the country to Varanasi and the Ganges as her water is believed to send the soul of the deceased to heaven. Hindu believers store the water from the Ganges in small bottles and copper pots when they make the pilgrimage to Varanasi. This water is thereafter used in various ceremonies right through the year even when they live hundreds of miles away from the Ganges. This water is poured down a dying person’s throat in the hope that he/she will find everlasting peace in heaven. The Kumbh Mela once every twelve years at Allahabad and the Chhat Puja are two of the many festivals that are celebrated on the river banks of the Ganges.
Water has a deeper meaning for the Hindu than just for the quenching of thirst. From the time of the Vedic man water has been worshipped and also used as offering. It has been used for puja ceremonies and is still an essential part of all the pujas starting from the birth of a child to the cremation of the dead. There are rivers such as the Ganges and the Yamuna that are worshipped as goddesses while glacial lakes such as the Mansarovar are considered sacred and revered. Even in the 21st Century the modern Hindu still uses water at the time of weddings as a purifier bordering on reverence and drinks or at least touches to the lips the Charanamrit at temples and during the pujas. It is doubtful if any other race attaches so much significance to water, as the Hindu.