In this third and final article on water, we discuss how water is regarded as sacred by Hindus and how its sacredness is borne out from the day one’s samsara yatra starts at birth to the end at death and even after.
At birth, a child is given a purificatory bath with water. The mother also bathes to attain purity.
On awakening in the morning a person is only purified from the impurity of dreams and karmas during night sleep by having a bath. Hence nitya pratah snan – a daily morning bath – is the first daily ritual of purity attained by water. The shastras enjoin that this bath attains greater merit in the following manner: Do not bathe naked – ‘Na nagnaha snānamācharet’ (Manu Smruti 4.45, Vishnu Smruti 64, Baudhayan Smruti 2.3.61, Sushrut Samhita, Chikitsa 24.100, Charak Samhita, Sutra 8.19, Mahabharat, Anu. 104.51, 67, Vishnu Puran 3.12.19, Agni Puran 155.22, Vaman Puran 14.47).
The bath should be with cold water (Shankha Smruti 8.9-10, Daksha Smruti 2/64). This accords spiritual merit, besides the physical benefits of improving circulation to the internal organs and boosting immunity. Water also boosts the body’s prana (vital wind) because water itself is prana – ‘Ãpo vai prānaha.’ A morning drench thus infuses chetna (energy) and invigorates us.
Great punya (merit) is gained with a bath in a river, stream, lake or well (Chintyagama 4.3-5). A bath in an ocean confluence is superior to any of the above (Diptagama 55.2-4). Therefore, Hindus always try to bathe in holy rivers or lakes at least once in their life. On retirement, even aged people will make the most perilous journey to bathe in Mansarovar, in Tibet. This is the most sacred lake in the world and the source of seven sacred rivers of India.
Only after such a purificatory bath is the body eligible for religious rituals such as puja, japa and arti (Bruhad Yajnavalkya Smruti 7.121, Daksha Smruti 2.9).
While bathing, one should chant sacred mantras, Bhagwan’s holy names (Vishnusahasranama, Janmangal Namavali), names of the seven holy rivers and tirths (Laghu Vyas Samhita 2.16, Sankarshan Samhita, Acharatra 1.57). The vibrations of the mantras further purify and calm the mind.
Purificatory baths are also taken after a haircut, death of a family member, tonsure (chaul samskara) and after an eclipse.
In Rameshwaram, pilgrims first bathe in the ocean. Then they are drenched from the water of 22 wells in the mandir campus. After this, they have attained such purity that they have better darshan of Mahadevaji.
Water in Puja Rituals
Water is used to purify one’s self, a ritual known as ang nyas before beginning any one of the rituals mentioned below. The sentiment is to worship the Deity by becoming [like] a deity – ‘Devo bhutvā yajeddevam.’
Water is placed in a kalash (pot) in which deities or the seven sacred rivers are invoked. This sacred water is then used during puja rituals such as pavitrikaran, havan, yagna, vivah samskara (marriage), simantonayan samskara and mahapuja (in the Swaminarayan Sampradaya). The mantra chanted to invoke the rivers is: “Gange cha Yamune chaiva, Godāvari, Sarasvati, Narmade, Sindhu, Kāveri, jalesmin sannidhim kuru.” – “O Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri, please manifest in this water.”
If a sacred river dries up seasonally, then the sand of the river bed is touched with the hand and the hand is then touched on the eyes and head since the river’s sacredness still prevails.
Water is used to perform achaman and sankalp rites.
Deities invoked in the betel-nut (sopari) are bathed with sacred water from the kalash. In some sampradayas this is also known as abhishek.
Finally, to end the puja ritual, ashirvad (blessings) are given to the participants by sprinkling sanctified water on them.
Water is used for abhishek (bathing) of murtis during their prana pratishtha in new mandirs.
In the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandirs, abhishek of Nilkanth Varni is performed with water. This water retains his divinity and is given to devotees in bottles to be used in illnesses and to cope with other stressors in life.
At the end of an arti, water from a shankh is poured clockwise around the jyot (lighted wick) three times to preserve the divinity received from the deity during arti. This is due to Varuna Deva’s security to guard the divine energy infused in the wick. This divine energy is then availed of by devotees when they take aska of the arti (see photo).
Maha arti is performed in the evening of several sacred rivers such as Ganga at Haridwar and Kashi, Yamuna at Mathura and Narmada at Chanod.
Hindus also sprinkle water three times around their food dish before eating the food. This is known as jalavartan. By this, one offers food to the Bhagwan within, but who is invoked out of one’s self by the water.
Water from a sacred river or any water body, is offered as arghya to the rising or setting Surya Deva (Sun-god) by cupping water in one’s palms and letting it dribble down through the fingers. This is known as Suryopasana – solar worship.
Water as a Purifier
After sleep or a short nap, it is customary to rinse one’s mouth with water twice to attain purity.
After eating anything, Hindus rinse their mouths with water as a purificatory ritual known as mukh shuddhi. Only after this ritual, can a person get up from a meal. One does not need to rinse the mouth when prasad of a deity is eaten, since the prasad itself is sacred.
Water in Yoga
In some yoga practices, water is sucked through the nose to cleanse the sinuses and airways, and released through the mouth. This is known as kunjar kriya, like an elephant which sucks water through the trunk. (Warning: this should not be attempted by novices).