Exploring the Sacred and Cultural Worth of Water
Water is one of our most important spiritual medicines. The morning dew from the sword fern, the rain, and even the water we drink every day can purify and cleanse us. Water is precious and you have to ask for it’s healing. -Kimberly Miller, Skokomish Tribe
In an earlier issue of AquaBuzz, we discussed the ‘value’ of water, which incorporates not just the monetary costs of procuring, purifying and distributing water, but also the intangible worth manifested into its recreational, cultural and spiritual value. People’s beliefs regarding water are varied - that water can heal, cleanse, purify or bestow blessings, or even convey curses. The failure to incorporate the full representation of these diverse values of water results in weaker water governance today. The scope of water governance should encompass the spiritual and sacred values that many indigenous communities, whether in Africa, South America or Oceania, attribute to water.
Since time immemorial, water has been closely related with mankind and cultural development. Most ancient civilisations developed near water, be it the Indus Valley Civilisation along the Sindhu, Egyptian civilisation along the Nile, or the Mesopotamian civilisation along the Tigris and Euphrates. Since then, water has developed a spiritual significance and symbolism e.g., in Egyptian mythology, Sobek was the God of the Nile and depicted as a crocodile; in Aztec mythology, the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue represented the entire range of the natural manifestations of water and as such she was involved in every part of life, from birth to death. For the Mayans, “cenotes”, which are natural wells or reservoirs, common in the Yucatán Peninsula, formed when a limestone surface collapses, exposing water underneath, were considered the gateway to another world, where supernatural beings live and where the souls of the dead go. This divine connection with water manifested itself also through the development of installations aimed at conserving and managing water for ceremonial, economic and social purposes, such as the crop terraces and irrigation systems in the Inca Sacred Valley or the Nazca aqueducts in Peru.
This spiritual relationship between mankind and water still exists in many ethnic communities today. In the Wayuu community in La Guajira, Colombia, Juya (rain) is viewed as a life-giver, and in that sense, represents the source of life. The vision of water as sacred is stronger in areas like La Guajira, where water scarcity is common. For the Wayuu, water is not considered an inanimate object, but a living being at the heart of traditional rituals and ceremonies. The symbolism of water as a lifeline is also prevalent in the traditional Aboriginal Australian culture of the Ngarrindjeri who see River Murray as “an immense artery of a living body consisting of the Lakes and the bush and over the southern plains and undulating plain”.
Various cultures or religions symbolise the value of water in their own distinct ways, with water playing a leading role in many of their rituals and practices. Hindus place an importance in physical and spiritual wellbeing by achieving purity. Water in Hinduism is sacred, believed to be holding purifying and cleansing powers. Even worshipping bodies of water as divinities is a custom that still exists today in Hinduism, as in certain other religions as well. For Hindus, the river Ganges, that flows for more than 2,500 km across northern India, is considered sacred. In Hinduism, the river is embodied by the goddess Ganga, Mother of all human beings, which is considered the holiest of rivers. Hindus from around the world traditionally gather at the banks of the river for holy festivals and immerse themselves in the water for purification from sins.
Many other rituals also highlight the significance of water in Indian culture. Divine water is consumed in the temple after puja worship rituals; idols of worship are sprinkled with water (abhishekam); and a plantain leaf kept for a meal is cleaned with water and a prayer.
In temples, the one drop of water, i.e., teertham or charanamrit (literally, nectar from the feet of God), is coveted by the poor and rich alike because that water cannot be bought anywhere. People want to drink it because they believe that the divinity and blessings of the Gods are transferred to them through it. Though some may regard this as a matter of faith, it has been scientifically established that water does transmit energies.
A Buddhist’s path to enlightenment includes a diligent cleansing of body, mind and spirit. Buddhism embodies the calmness and serenity of water by practicing water offerings at Buddhist shrines. In Christianity water is primarily linked to the ritual of Baptism, where a follower professes his/her faith by bathing in ‘holy water’. This symbolises rebirth and purity. In the Islamic holy book of Quran, water symbolises wisdom. Water is recognised a part of life, with the belief that we are made up of, live, breathe and consume water. To know this is a conscious awareness of the self.
Nowadays, with the perception of water as an economic resource, its cultural or religious connect is being ignored in many instances. However, it is essential to involve local communities in the decision-making processes regarding water management, particularly for activities that might affect them and their beliefs and livelihoods. Moreover, understanding the multiple values attributed to water can also help avoid situations where a community’s traditional way of life is disrupted to further another’s economic interests.
References: https://www.iucn.org/news/environmental-law/202104/insight-cultural-and-spiritual-value-water  https://www.zipwater.com/zip-effect/the-importance-of-water-in-different-cultures https://www.iucn.org/news/environmental-law/202104/insight-cultural-and-spiritual-value-water