Friday, November 19, 2010

Geography Awareness Week: Fresh Water and Religion

Water truly is the building block of life.  Our bodies are made from it and we need water to think, act, and live.  It is somewhat natural therefore that fresh water plays a role in many world religions.  Whether because of some divine tradition or some holy act, water has become holy for many faiths.



The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee are the closest things Christianity has to holy bodies of water.  The Jordan River was the sight of several Old Testament miracles including Elisha ordering Naaman to bath in the Jordan so that Naaman would be cured of leprosy (2 Kings 5:14).  The Jordan River plays a large role in the New Testament as the place where John the Baptist preaches and Jesus is baptized (Matthew 3).  The Sea of Galilee, the lowest freshwater lake in the world with its surface 686 feet (209 meters) below sea level, is the sight of several miracles including Jesus' walking on water (John 6:19) and Jesus feeding the masses (Mathew 14: 16-20).

These bodies of water, while held highly in regard, are not considered to have holy properties (unlike the Spring at Lourdes, for example).  However, both the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee are popular pilgrimage sites and there is a trend among Evangelicals to be rebaptized in the Jordan River to imitate Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church ties water well into the Rite of Baptism.  Water in this ritual represents the word of God, Christ’s death and rebirth, a purifier of sins, and the source of life.  Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestants require water baptisms, of "living water" i.e. fresh, because of the importance assigned to water.



The Ganges River is the major holy river in Hinduism.  While holy tradition or divine acts make mundane bodies of water holy in other traditions, Hindus believe the Ganges River itself is divine.  Most Hindu traditions hold that the river is the goddess Ganges.  Hindus believe that water from the Ganges can wash away sins and free one from the cycle of reincarnation.  Having one's ashes released into the river is seen as being completely absorbed into the goddess and heaven.  There are also six other major rivers viewed as holy in Hinduism: the Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu, and Kaveri Rivers.


Fresh water plays a major role in Hindus' daily lives.  From a morning cleansing ritual to having funeral grounds next to rivers, fresh water is a must for Hindus.



Depending on the branch of Islam there might be a holy source of water or an oasis which was visited by a prophet and therefore held in estimate.  However, one thing Muslims of all domination can agree on is that the Zamzam is a very holy spring.
The main Islamic tradition holds that when Hajar and baby Ishmael reached present-day Mecca they found an extremely hot valley and had at the same time run out of water.  Ishmael began to cry which put Hajar into a panic.  As Hajar frantically searched for water Ishmael began to dig his feet into the ground.  The feet dug into the earth and a spring of water emerged saving Hajar and baby Ishmael from dying of thirst.  Another tradition holds that the Angel Gabriel dug the well for Hajar and baby Ishamel.
Today the building housing the well that pumps water from Zamzam is located next to the Kaaba (the big black cube) in Mecca.  The building was constructed in the early 1900s because the old building housing the spring was getting in the way of the millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Kaaba.  So now a well pumps water into the building from the spring.
Water from Zamzam is considered holy and there are many Muslims who believe it can purify the soul or help cure sicknesses.  A black market has emerged in countries, including the United Kingdom, of people selling fake Zamzam water.  Saudi Arabia, which king's title includes being the caretaker of religious sites, prohibits the sale of Zamzam wonder considering it the right of every Muslim to have access to it.
Fresh water in general is considered a purifier.  Many Islamic purification rituals require one to wash themselves with water.  Mosques will either have purifying water inside or outside a mosque, usually in a courtyard, for one to prepare themselves for prayer.


On fresh water traditions within modern Judaism, whether global or local, I must admit my ignorance.  However, a well trusted a graduate student in Jewish studies (and reader of this geography blog!) gave me some insight.  While there is no globally-viewed holy body of water, water is used as a purifier in the mikveh bath.  The rabbi states, "the mikveh is used for purposes of ritual purity, including for the use by women following menstruation.  It is used for important lifecycle events in the life of men and women and is an important component in the conversion process.  There must be a natural water source (living water) for the mikveh - from rainwater, a flowing stream, or from snow for a mikveh to be valid.  The rituals can also take place in a living body of water like a river or the ocean."


Anonymous said...

Tashlich is a ritual involving flowing bodies of water performed as part of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. See for details.

Yofie said...

As a religious Jew (though not a rabbi), I could say that Judaism requires ritual handwashing before eating bread, and such handwashing is preferred before prayers as well.

Catholicgauze said...

Thank you Anonymous and Yofie!

Jonathan said...

Love reading this blog, very informational - thank you