Water, an element common to religions
Upon arrival in India in 1962, I was taught the Hindi word for water—pani. Not only concerned about water generally, the Indian taught me peena ka pani, which means boiled water. For physical survival, a person needs water that is safe to drink. For spiritual well being, the imagery of water also surfaces.
During a memorable trip out of Kashmir’s stark beauty, in a dilapidated, over-stowed bus, I thought I might not live to tell about it. Crammed into space not intended for a seat, my legs bent around the hot, metal, motor cover. As the driver’s ‘helper ji’ funneled a paltry supply of water into a near-by, black hose, steam hissed. My own thermos had little more of the sacred commodity, certainly none to spare. What remained had to serve for hours. As my mouth grew drier from the blasts of heat spewed with each hill’s climb, mind-over-matter shifted into gear. ‘Don’t even think about drinking, not even sipping.’ A juicy orange came to mind. But I had eaten the last one from my shoulder bag along with the final, Krackel Cadbury bar with biscuits, biscuits gone stale from our night in the tent when conversation gave way to pouring rain. Already overdue at the bus stop, I settled for gratitude that the wheels rotated.
But water for quenching thirst will not be the focus of this essay. Here we look to water’s religious meaning. Its symbolic depth. Its properties of mobility and formlessness. Its purifying power. Wesley Ariarajah, a Christian from Sri Lanka, says, “Water has a very special place in all religious traditions.”1 Keenly interested in features that living faiths hold in common, I also honor differences, whether about water or problems of survival. The more broadly we adherents of a religion probe our own faith claims, the more open we can be to Truth from others. Or, the more open to another’s Truth, the more we discover in new ways personal loyalty. Fear about openness often reveals lack of experience in truly hearing others, or being insulated from exposure to difference.
Worldview depends on experience. Some people from protected Mennonite communities might be shocked to learn about diversity in Houston, Texas. Decades ago, that city already had “eleven mosques, eight or nine Hindu temples, at least seventeen Buddhist temples, four Sikh gurudwaras, a Jain temple, a Zoroastrian community center, a Baha’i center, and a Taoist temple, as well as its Christian and Jewish communities and its Christian Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean communities.”2 I am reminded of a visitor to Goshen College campus when I was a student in the late ‘50s: Until that weekend, she didn’t “know that there were Mennonites west of Lancaster.” (Pennsylvania) ‘The poor dear,’ I thought. Forty years makes a difference in general exposure, hopefully. But how will Christians who have never lived near people of other living faiths expect to meet, let alone be neighborly with, them?
Having lived in India multiple times, where exchange with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, or Jains might be part of daily friendship, I care for interreligious understanding in the U.S. I care for families that presume to live in ‘settled’ communities, marked by minimal change. For Mennonites restricted by the “quiet in the land” image. For Christians taught that God’s universal salvation for people of every nation and religion is available only through one Jesus of Nazareth. I care for international guests who arrive, to stay. For Muslims who are distrusted due to jihad, yet ever faithful with prayer. For Sikh men who struggle to uphold their five traditional signs. For Hindus who depend on rituals to bring balance to their lives.
Adapting past patterns goes with change of location. But do North Americans know enough about Hindu rituals, in order to sensitively care for the neighbor who longs to dip into a sacred river before worshiping God each morning? Intent to be clean before approaching the holy, the devotee washes while crediting the river that purifies. Bringing balance to the spiritual and the practical through simple rituals with water, ash, or red powder, the devotee confesses unity in the one great God. Other means to feeling centered or rites that furnish a sense of belonging take time to develop. Will Christians honor or denigrate the process?
The teacher in me wishes to bridge interreligious division. The student in me continues to learn—through resources, actions, and friends whose religion differs. The hesitant me holds back while the activist declares: “This must change.” The pragmatist questions what difference one person can make, while the optimist fully endorses political or social strength. Writers think we have ideas useful to share, on paper or stage. And preachers: who can accurately picture their diversity?
My opportunity to integrate interreligious issues evolved through a DMin study program completed in 1997. Starting with a listing of twenty-one questions, or paragraphs of questions, courses developed prior to my thesis that focused on Dialogues to Foster Interreligious Understanding. Before sharing excerpts from an imaginary dialogue between Hindu and Christian speakers on the universal, sacred symbol of water, this essay provides brief background to the discipline of dialogue.
Dialogue is as diverse as the participants engaged in it. Whether formal or informal, between a master and student, or patterned from Plato, the art of conversation shifts. Rather than foster an imbalance between speakers, my creative dialogues find speakers as concerned to learn as to teach. Each provides information that the other integrates into deeper personal knowing. Rather than fear another’s Truth, it is welcomed to enrich growth in faith. Not starting with an absolutist conviction that “I have something that you need,” each wishes to move toward a better world for all, by sharing strengths from a religion that each presumes to be worthy. Neither presumes to be an expert or conveys paternalism or a “holier than thou” stance.
Regarding water, each speaker knows that while the world’s supply has limits, each religion values its qualities. Logic suggests that the more equal the distribution, the greater the benefit to all. Faith implies that the more my religious loyalty includes insight into and respect for your ritual use of the element, the less likely are we to ‘battle’ over its inherent Truth. Free to rejoice through insight held in common, we need neither deny nor ignore what differs. What appears to differ may need deeper knowing on each person’s part or readiness to hold plural views honorably. And what is shared in common enables commitment from both together to remove suffering or promote life—basic principles of all religions.
People experienced with dialogue have been my teachers. Paul Knitter identifies four essential ingredients of dialogue: differences, trust, witnessing, and learning. Beverly Lanzetta sees dialogue as “intensely communal”—mutually appreciative, each person alters prior misconceptions and comes to share more convictions. Ross Reat finds dialogue in more than direct exchange. Private reading, pondering, or humbly crediting other religions all reflect dialogue. For Maura O’Neill, women’s ways of thinking and being, as well as naming differences between women and men, are crucial to interreligious respect.
An experienced Indian, Raimon Panikkar names three prerequisites for interreligious encounter: deep human honesty in the search, intellectual openness (devoid of prejudice), and profound loyalty to one’s own tradition. He stresses how essential another person is to my becoming open to my own truth. Through understanding that honors the traditions of each, partners return to a “faithful and critical understanding of [their] own religion.”3 Panikkar’s multi-steps for dialogue begin with a faithful and critical understanding of one’s personal tradition (1). A similar understanding is required of another tradition (2), to the point that one’s new understanding becomes conviction (3). Then an internal, intradialogue needs to take place between the two religious convictions (4) within the self before a person engages in external dialogue (inter) with an adherent of the other tradition (5). Each dialogue partner completes this sequence of steps (6) before both test their new interpretations (7).4
The imagined dialogue that follows illustrates this sequence of steps in part. It includes content that is useful for the internal work needed for interreligious exchange. You the reader might ask whether personal tradition is affirmed. Does genuine learning about another’s tradition lead to being convinced by it? Do dialogue partners combine two traditions into a common language? Do you see occasions for them to test their interpretations? Are speakers better prepared to act together, as neighbors of living faiths, to relieve common problems with water that might recur? The excerpts are from an imagined dialogue that takes place in India. Two women, an educated Hindu from India whose father is a professor of Religions and a Christian seminary student who recently arrived from North America, reflect on sacred experience with water.
American: Good Morning! Thanks for agreeing to meet with me several times.
Indian: Good Morning to you, and welcome to India. I understand that you’d like to talk about water. Could I offer you a glass of it?
American: Thanks. Even the mornings are hot here.
Indian: Keep drinking, and know that it is sacred.
American: Sacred water. . .While riding over here, I noticed people gathered at several “taps,” as you call them. One young boy was enjoying his bath, right there on the edge of the street.
Indian: Did you think about his options? Perhaps he has no running water in his home. Yet, he expects to bathe before morning worship.
American: So, people store containers of it.
Indian: Of course. In large clay or brass pots, though not for too long, lest it lose its vitality.
Indian: We understand that part of the energy in sacred rivers is in the water’s constant flow. Only flowing water purifies; it absorbs pollution and carries it away. . . .
American: I’ve never experienced drought.
Indian: If you had, would you reverence water more? We experience a monsoon as a Deliverer. The brown of barrenness transforms into fertile green. The wetness of water brings life. The flow from a tap, compared to a teasing sequence of drips, restores the soul. Whereas neighbors might bicker in long lines during weeks of drought, a renewed aura of harmony settles over people during the early days of drenching rains.
American: Your image of being drenched reminds me that monsoons can also destroy.
Indian: That reflects the “verdict of the gods.” Even so, the rains are “rupees from heaven.” A monsoon can either terrorize or assist with survival. It can paralyze life patterns or leave a layer of silt essential for the next rice crop. We feel the same rainfall as relentless or sustaining.
American: Does that paradox affect people’s emotions?
Indian: I don’t have skills to analyze. I receive what comes. We understand both mercy and fate.
American: But you affect your point of view. How do people respond when they feel desperate?
Indian: Since you’re a Christian, I’ll refer to Christians in Goa, a state over toward the southwest coast. When the rains were late, people carried “loads of rocks up steep mountain slopes in penance.” Is that act what you mean by “affecting a point of view”? Goans who pray to St. Anthony for rain also lowered his statue into a well during drought.
American: Christians pray to a saint for rain?
Indian: Have you never felt desperate? [Silent discomfort]
American: Perhaps we might discuss your phrase “sacred rivers.” My Bible is sacred, but rivers?
Indian: Why not? We believe that they come down from heaven. Don’t Jews value the sacredness of water in biblical rivers?
American: I’m embarrassed. Of course, my heritage includes that view. But I don’t often think of the abundance of water in paradise or the four rivers spreading out from the Garden of den.5Early Israelites saw water as a symbol of life and agent of fertility. They turned to springs or sacred trees to receive manifestations of God. They carried out purifying rituals on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Indian: For us to prod each other to recall our religious texts seems fine.
American: I also recall the first part of Ezekiel 47. The prophet describes the trickle that runs out from under the temple’s threshold, after being empowered in the innermost sanctum. From the temple, where God’s eternal presence made people and elements holy, the miracle transpired. A guide led the prophet along the rising water to behold the river that would heal the wilderness or whatever was ill. It first covered his ankles. Then, his knees were submerged, before he paused waist-deep.
Indian: A dramatic portrayal of Divine control through water. I understand the power of the temple’s inner sanctum too.
American: To further the miracle, on either side of the bank grew trees with ever-bearing fruit and leaves that offered food and healing.
Indian: Don’t you Christians sing hymns with the river image?
American: Perhaps it’s not really a hymn, but there’s “Old Man River…It just keeps rolling along.”
Indian: I connect with the imagery of constant rolling, but did you say “Man” river? We think of rivers as feminine, as nurturer, as Mother—like goddess Ganga, our most sacred Ganges. Rivers feed us; they supply energy; they touch our ordinary time or place, and we feel the divine light. . . You seem lost in thought.
American: Excuse me; I was remembering hymns. “Shall we gather at the river?” is one. “. . . “Gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God,” the refrain concludes. One verse affirms “Soon we’ll reach the shining river, soon our pilgrimage will cease.”
Indian: So, you share with us Hindus the figurative miracle of “crossing over” a river when we die?
American: I’d like to research whether crossing over a river at death is a motif for most religions.
Indian: I’m reminded of the seven Indian cities where people near death long to be taken, to find release from sin for generations, to be cremated there at the water’s edge, and to have one’s ashes add their silver sheen to the river at dusk.
American: You alert me to more details of my faith. “O healing river” is the title of another hymn.
Indian: There you are. You too personify the river when you think of it as a healer. Recall more.
American: “O healing river, send down your waters, send down your waters upon this land.” And now that I think of it, the last line ends, “O healing river, from out of the skies.” But my first reaction to your Hindu idea of rivers coming from heaven was, ‘How strange!’
Indian: Perhaps we might pause to let you consider other hymns.
American: If you have the time, fine. [Pause]
American: Would you believe, I’ve thought of several more. There’s an African-American spiritual called “Wade in the water” that includes a phrase, “God’s gonna trouble the water.” It continues with verses about people dressed in different colors and ends, “There ain’t but one God made them all.”
Indian: That last phrase has a wonderful link to my experience! When Hindus wade in the water, we become so focused on the rituals we’re doing. We express deep gratitude to the sun while rhythmically lifting water. In fact, we totally overlook features that otherwise separate us. Caste difference has no bearing when we immerse ourselves in sacred water.
American: That’s remarkable! If only that freedom were true on sacred ground as well.
Indian: You just opened me to a latent truth in Hindu thought; I’ll ask my dad about it.
American: May I mention one more hymn? “Oh, have you not heard of that beautiful stream…?” From the refrain I recall “O seek that beautiful stream. . . Its waters, so free, are flowing for thee.” Other verses state “. . . Its fountains are deep and its waters are pure. . . A balm for each wound in its water is found; O sinner, it flows for thee!”
Indian: There again I resonate—with references to purity and sin. To bathe in a sacred river purifies a sinner from amassed wrongdoing. The effort taken to visit sacred places itself is a form of penance. Pilgrimage is a prominent form of popular piety here, says Diana Eck. An American, she studied Hinduism in Varanasi. With attachments left behind, pilgrims for a time pursue the discipline of sannyasa.
American: I know little about Varanasi. And explain again the term sannyasa.
Indian: A sannyasin renounces this world in order to be an ascetic, to concentrate on spiritual existence. Totally dependent on daily charity, a solitary sannyasi walks between holy places. Also called sadhus, with a tradition of two thousand years, they take vows of poverty and chastity, like Christian monks. Thousands gather for the Maha Kumbh Mela that takes place at Allahabad every twelfth year.
American: Why at Allahabad? The name sounds Islamic.
Indian: Wherever rivers come together, that place is especially sacred. In this northern city, a little west of Varanasi on the famous Grand Trunk Road, the Ganga and Yamuna rivers converge. Such a confluence is called a Sangam. There also the “mythical river of enlightenment called Saraswati” once flowed.
American: So, Hindus stream to the Maha Kumbh Mela?
Indian: Crowd estimates of fifteen million form the largest human gathering anywhere in the world. Tent cities with shopkeepers fill the riverbed space. Entertainment depicts Hindu stories. The location attracts tourists the rest of the year too. Astrologers determine the most auspicious times for bathing or for dipping images. Having “dressed” in ashes, sadhus merge with the thronging pilgrims in mass immersion rituals. All who worship believe that their sins of past lives are washed away. . .
American: Perhaps we could talk about several biblical texts that highlight water.
Indian: Good suggestion. The element must shape your view of creation.
American: Yes, in the Bible’s first book called “Genesis” and the final book titled “Revelation,” reference to water recurs. “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” or “over the deep” suggests God’s plan toward form, for the two shapeless elements of water and wind.
Indian: God the Creator that is.
American: And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” That text reflects the ancient view of the cosmos. Out of, or superimposed upon, the chaos of primeval waters, the formless, known in Hebrew as tohuwabohu, began to know shape.
Indian: What a melodic, energizing term—tohuwabohu. So too, in my myths, Vishnu removes the earth from watery chaos. Or Prajapati invades the special properties of primal waters in the form of wind.
American: As God set boundaries for the waters, created goodness took place. Some water formed above the firmament, from which rain falls to the earth. And some formed below it, as the earth’s dry ground emerged distinct from the Seas.
Indian: What appears in the Christian Revelation about water?
American: Your question puts me in a bind. I had hoped that we’d talk about water from content in the Gospel of John. . .
Indian: Let’s turn to Sister Vandana’s book, Waters of Fire, with stories from the writer John. Your messenger left it here yesterday, so I read several chapters.
American: Good. We won’t have time for all the accounts. Was Sister Vandana’s insight into Hindu thought appropriate?
Indian: Authentically Indian. I especially valued her knowledge of and numerous references to the Upanishad writings.
American: For Sister Vandana to refer to “God’s Spirit hovering over the water,” whether at the time of creation or Jesus’ baptism, seemed right.
Indian: So was her naming of Shakti as the power of God hovering over the waters.
American: Water, used with Christian baptism, symbolizes the Spirit’s washing away of sin. That it corresponds with the Hindu tradition of being purified through the power of rivers had not occurred to me.
Indian: How purification happens is less important to us than that it does. And the greater the sin, the greater the river’s glory in overcoming it. Hindus have fewer texts about sin than Christians do, but one from Rig Veda6 states “O waters, carry off everything that is sinful in me, the wrong I have done, or the false oath I have sworn.”
American: How do waters carry off sin, for you?
Indian: We understand that water detaches sin from the sinner and carries it away. An idea from the book Water & Womanhood comes to mind: Like a woman who at a river swings wet laundry high above her head and then slams it down onto a rock to remove dirt, so the waters carry off sin.
American: Even the rhythm of that rings true. The other day I watched a family of laundry workers in their open ‘hive.’ Their dependence on water likely has symbolic merit too.
Indian: Which chapters impressed you from Vandana’s writing?
American: I valued her discussion of God’s words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. “Thou art my Beloved Son” relates to the guru’s word to a sannyasin at his initiation ceremony—Tat-tvam-asi. “That Thou Art.” Each awoke to Self-consciousness. By the Jordan River, Jesus awoke to his mission for life.
Indian: As the sannyasin descends into the holy river to begin his fourth stage of life, he renounces his lower self to find his true Self—Atman, or Spirit within.
American: A difference strikes me in that adult baptism cleanses the participant’s conscience to move into the world with new commitment, whereas the sannyasin leaves the water to renounce the world.
Indian: A different shift, I quite enjoyed the symbolism in the story of Jesus’ turning water into wine. Large water pots stacked at the door where a wedding occurs symbolize new life, for Jews then and for Indians today. Water symbolizes God’s abundant love. Also, the servants, those who tasted the new supply, truly knew the good quality of the changed water.
American: Jesus also took radical action with water when he encountered the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. A Bible professor of mine Tom Boogaart said, “Every river and every well was a symbol of woman, was a symbol of God.” Jesus requested water from her and drank from her vessel; an orthodox Jew would never do that.
Indian: The contrast here would be for a Brahmin (high caste) to interact with a Dalit (underclass).
American: Another striking water scene involves washing feet.
Indian: At some Hindu ashrams, disciples wash the guru’s feet in a weekly ceremony called “Guru’s Pad-Puja.”
American: And, from Jesus’ pattern of washing the disciples’ feet on the night of his betrayal, some Christian ashrams each week practice “Christ’s Pad-Puja.” Residents wash each other’s feet. I value Vandana’s idea that “feet washing portrays a complete bath.”
Indian: We Hindus believe that a ritual bath promotes cleanness of thought and body. Special merit goes with doing the ritual in the Ganga. To make the mind pure involves certain steps: naming Ganga while bathing, hand postures, and casting water. For example, “water poured out over the tips of the fingers is for the gods, while water poured out between the thumb and the forefinger is for the ancestors.”7 Other ritual steps include repeating verbal mantras, offering water mixed with flowers and grains of rice, and bowing to the sun while circling a lotus.
American: My own experience of worship is far less ritualized. You referred again to Ganga, the Hindu’s most holy Ganges River.
Indian: We also call her the River of Heaven. When she agreed to flow upon the earth, we believe that all three major forms of God—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—were involved in the descent. She came down for the sake of humanity—to elevate the human to the divine—to show “the interconnection and harmony among all facets of the heaven and earth,” suggests Lina Gupta.8
American: We have only begun this conversation, but I’ve learned so much. Perhaps you could conclude by explaining why Ganga’s water at Varanasi, also called Banaras, holds such aura.
Indian: Far too briefly: Hindus also call this city which lines the Ganga for three miles, Kashi, the Luminous, or the City of Light.
Thought to be eternal, the city truly is remarkable. It has been continuously inhabited for three thousand years. To help you comprehend, this place was once contemporary with Babylon and Nineveh. Distinct from them, it continues to thrive. Fifteen hundred temples fill the spaces between milling worshipers. The riverbank, entirely lined with stone, provides many ghats, or landing places. “Crowds, like the river itself, never cease to flow.”9 Contradictions converge—purity and pollution, sin and salvation, birth and death and birth again. And central to it all flows the rich symbol of water.
American: Thanks so much. I will never again think casually about sacred water.
Allman, T. D. “The Eternal City of Benares,” Asia, July/Aug. 1981, 44-49, 54.
Eck, Diana L. “Exploring the New Religious Landscape of the U.S. A Preliminary Report on the Pluralism Project,” Church & Society, Sept./Oct. 1992, 4-8.
_____. “India’s Tirthas: ‘Crossings’ in Sacred Geography,” History of Religions, 20/4, May 1981, 323-44.
_____. “The River Ganges and the Great Ghats,” in Banaras City of Light. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Pr., 1982, 211-51, endnotes pp. 390-92.
Feldhaus, Anne. Water & Womanhood Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra. New York: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1995.
Ford, J. Massyngberde. Revelation, The Anchor Bible. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1975.
Gupta, Lina. “Ganga: Purity, Pollution, and Hinduism,” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred. Carol J. Adams, ed., New York: Continuum, 1994, 99-116.
Heiderer, Tony. “Sacred Space, Sacred Time, India’s Maha Kumbh Mela Draws Millions,” National Geographic, 177/5, May 1990, 106-17.
Huyler, Stephen P. Meeting God Elements of Hindu Devotion. New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 1999.
Sister Vandana. Waters of Fire. Bangalore: Asian Trading Corp., 1989.
Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel. vol. 2, Phila: Fortress, 1983.