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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 20 New Delhi May 7, 2016

Water and Spirituality

Saturday 7 May 2016

by Ishrat Jahan


The planet earth is endowed with a number of marvellous natural forces and natural resources as well. Each of these forces has a specific role. Of these forces water, wind, fire, ether, sunshine, moonlight, earth etc. are functioning eternally ever since the Universe was born. The watery world covers nearly three quarters of the earth’s surface. The under- water world is still a mystery and an abode of at least 20,000 species of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, worms, insects, underwater plants and so on. If someone names the water- world as the keeper of human species and the entire nature, it will not be an exaggeration. From ancient time countless humans found their living by fishing. Humans and many wild animals depend a lot on fishes of the water- world. Fishes of water is one of the richest sources of animal protein and the water-world is the habitat of unique marine creatures. The connection between men and water as a natural resource is structured. The ocean, bay, river, lake, lagoon, stream, waterfall, delta and other water forms, for example, the rain, spring, brook etc. have been an inspiration and evolved the human imagination over the ages and its reflection came out in legends, myths of different cultures. Rain forests, which are the site of amazing plants and wildlife, is the gift of heavy rainfall. Rain forests cover six per cent of the earth’s surface. Almost 30 million species of plants and animals live in the tropical rains forests.

If we think about the atmosphere, it arouses the realisation that it is the existence of water which is responsible for the misty weather, cloudy day, rainy day or in the winter snowfall in some parts of the earth, dampness of objects due to moisture—all these are related to the functions of water and its scientific quality.

The mysterious quality of water raised a question to philosopher Sophie: is there a basic substance that everything is made of? The earliest Greek philosophers asked themselves: where does everything come from? They assumed that something had always existed on the planet earth. By their questions and assumptions the philosophers wanted to mean the existence of water. The water molecule (H2O) in its three forms, that is, liquid water, vapour and ice, have been shaping the earth ever since its journey began. No other planet has the privilege of transforming itself for lack of water. Survival of plants, animals, insects and human beings are largely dependent on the availability of water. On an average the amount of water in the human body is 65 per cent. The human body and other living organisms are largely built with water. When a man loses only five per cent of his normal body water, his skin will shrink, his mouth and tongue will go dry and he may face hallucinations.

The Jordan river,Zamzam well, river Ganga and the worldview concerning these water sources are believed as sacred respectively by the Catholic Christians, the Muslims in the Middle East and the faith holders of Hinduism.

Water contributed to building human civili-sations through its varied use; for instance,

a) Water for domestic activities and maintaining hygiene,

b) Water for irrigation,

c) Water for industries,

d) Water for producing electricity,

e) Water for transportation,

f) Water for building structure,

g) Water for fish cultivation and fisheries,

(h) Water as fire extinguisher,

(i) water for mankind, other species of nature, and for the earth as well.

However firstly, the key objectives of the proposed topic are to reveal the extraordinary functions of water in its different entities.

Secondly, to define spirituality from the perspective of Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism and Chinese Philosophy,

Thirdly, the discourse focuses on the underlying reasons why the river Ganga, Kailash Mountain and Mount Fuji are believed as sacred.

Fourthly, to explore causality between water and spirituality in accordance with the cultural system.

The discourse ahead is divided into four parts.


Extraordinary Role of Water in its Different Form or Entities

Water as a Chemical Compound and Motion:

The physical and chemical attributes of water transformed the world’s landscape, the contours of hill, valley, sand, upstream valleys with the assistance of the wind. From the beginning till today water is constantly reshaping the earth.

The motion in water is defined precisely as water current observable in sea, river, water- fall, rainwater, stream and so on. The water current, in particular the oceanic current, is influenced by tides, winds and gravity which maintain the balance of life on earth; at the same time it could be disastrous to nature as well as human life. Tide is an oceanic phenomenon exerted by the sun, the moon and effects of the gravitational forces in a combined effort. The ocean current is a continuous force and work from great distances by influencing climate in many parts on earth. For example, the Gulf stream. When water turns into ice, it expands and becomes lighter; thus it floats on heavier liquid. Water in the form of vapour largely exists in the climate and influences the weather system.

The Hydrologic Cycle:

The tremendous engineering of water is known as the hydrologic cycle. The prodigious force of the sun evaporates the ocean water and releases it into the air as vapour. Water, in the form of vapour, is soon re-condensed and released as rain, hailstorm or snowflakes to the earth by the force of gravity. Scientists presume because of the water cycle there is as much water today as there ever was. But there is no equal distribution of water on earth on every part of the planet earth; eventually the deserts are barren land.

The Poles:

The marvellous two poles, namely, the Arctic and Antarctic, keep our planet cool and contribute to the world’s climate. Geologists assume that the glaciers in the polar region are the remnants of the ice age. Despite inhospitable weather, the Arctic is blessed with natural beauty. Surprisingly, the position of the Arctic is amidst a pack of ice of the ice world that is mostly glacial ice. The glacier ice flows down- hill like rivers. It took millions of years to form these glaciers. Despite severe cold in the two poles, they are the habitat of humans, polar animals, marine animals and marine birds.

Marine World:

 Men have considerable experience of spectacular ocean current and the mysterious sound by the motion of current.

The marine world comprised of oceans or seas. This world has 300 times more space than on land. In the oceanic habitat varieties of sea creatures live and the ocean is a place of abundance of food source for marine animals, birds and humans as well. In fact the contri-bution of water to the mankind and natural world is beyond measure.


Water-related Thoughts

Water has been all along a source of inspiration to the creative agents as well as the mystics. Some mystics explained their spiritual experi-ences about water by referring to a drop of water that loses its identity after mingling with the ocean. In other words, the mystics experience being one with God or merging with him. A mystic of the seventeenth century, Angelus Silesius, interpreted from a different view: thus every drop becomes the sea when it flows ocean ward, just as at last the soul ascends and thus becomes the Lord. In traditional religion, the concept of water is used as a metaphor. Baptism in the Catholic Church symbolises washing away of the original sin from the individual. Today there is a ritual in the Catholic Church: pouring water three times a day. To Muslims, water is a symbol of purity. From the comparative outlook Taoists regard water as the symbol of humility because it always flows to the lowest place.

Defining Spirituality:

The term spirituality we find in differing meanings in different historical eras. According to Harriet Mowat, spirituality is the search for the meaning through the inner journey which is mediated sometimes with each other, some-times with nature, and sometimes with god.

In the beginning of social life, phenomena in Nature associated with intellect and speculation of men heralded the feeling of spirituality. In the absence of scientific knowledge the early man defined some events in nature as magical, and some as miracle. For instance, natural forces like floods, gusty winds, volcanic eruptions, and the clouds that create the atmosphere follow the law of nature. Some search of man was related to the beliefs and practices concerning the super-natural order or power, for example, Allah/ God/Bhagavan/Atman/spirit, universal soul, or the entire nature, specific natural forces, cosmic spirit according to the cultural belief system. For some people, spirituality is engendered with their search to the mystery of the natural world, its creation and its functions wherein man is an agent of questioning. Having watched the wonder of nature many primitive men felt a kind of dissonance. Naturally the quest arose in them: who created the nature? Spirituality is also a sort of consciousness for some to communicate with the supernatural or natural forces while for others spirituality is of profound faith concerning nature or higher power believed to have the power to control events of human life. Spirituality can also be an intended effort to listen to one’s inner voice. Spiritual searches depend on personal interest or motives as well. Many ancient religions have the belief in nature’s action as the cause of life’s happenings. Spiritual practices of a person generally takes shape according to cultural beliefs. The individual’s belief system or religion reveals through cultural practices. People’s faith in the existence of powers and processes cannot be proved by simple observation. But these faiths are still continuing over the ages. Sometimes the individuals faith also transforms as experience changes with the change of the life situation. Now the question comes: why do people take refuge in the spiritual journey? Spirituality is mostly a private effort while religion is mostly organised and likewise tends to be believed by its followers. According to William James, spiritualism in Indian philosophy means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and letting loose of hopes.

 Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski explained that religion is a bridge to fill the gap between human aspirations and abilities of life. Sociologists of the functionalist approach generally comment that in cases of immature death, accidents and failure despite hard efforts of individuals result in a spiritual journey that may be the search for the meaning of life events and some guidelines for actions that religion provides to humans.

It also teaches individuals to adjust with a given situation. As mentioned earlier, spiri-tuality is associated with some practices or rituals according to the teaching of the cultural system. In this sense spirituality indicates particular behaviours, that is, prayer, meditation etc. in some cultures. Spiritual practice ensures that supernatural orders are concerned with the humans’ problems and resolve difficulties of life if the means of communication are proper. Spirituality in one sense is a psychological state of surrendering oneself to the universal soul with devotion. The spiritual pursuit ensures some sort of confidence on the part of the individual.

 I have made an attempt to understand spirituality from the perspective of eastern philosophy. In my discourse I have not intended to distinguish between spirituality and religion. Generally religion tends to be institutionalised but spirituality is a natural process which may come to a person from his environment or it may be the person’s need to know something that the person has inquired into from a few past happenings. Spirituality in eastern philo-sophy, in particular Buddhism and Jainism, is a logical search about life and its misery, a path to salvation through meditation and right action as the functionalists describe the aim of religion in human life. Spiritual practices in the modern era are often a path to release stress and negative feelings. For some people, the spiritual path is a search for liberty. Traditional religions place high value and hope of after-life with the concept of reward or punishment that leads many of its followers to observe rituals to make connection with the divinity.


The concept of devotion or Bhakti is primary to understand Hinduism. Krisna Sharma writes about

bhakti in general and relative terms which can be used in a wide range of contexts, secular as well as religious. It can assume particularity only when it is used in connection with its objects. Hence the use of phrases like guru-bhakti, desa-bhakti etc. is quite common. Bhakti can mean devotion to God in a general sense. Hindus conceive God in different forms, personal as well as impersonal, Bhakti in the sense of religious devotion common to all. However, variations can be caused in its character and overexpression on account of the pluralistic character of the Hindu religious tradition, The notion of devotion in Hinduism reveals an evolutionary process of flexibility and adaptability. The foundation of Hinduism lies in mythology. Here one finds the idea of the trinity of Gods, for example, Brahma (the creator of the world), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer of the Universe). Besides paying devotion to these three Gods, ancient Hinduism prescribes to pay devotion to the river Ganga, the planets, namely, the sun and the moon, the mountains and even animals like the cow.

In the Upanishads the link between a devotee and Brahma is interpreted thus—as flowing rivers disappear into the sea losing their iden-tity, name and form, likewise a wise man, freed from the name and form, ultimately goes to the divine who is beyond all.

Despite multiplicity of cults and beliefs Hinduism also reveals the philosophy of monism—the South Indian philosopher Shankara-charya preached a monism that was un-comprising, absolute and idealistic.

The Philosophy of Gautama Buddha:

The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, was awakened to a consciousness of human suffering from his observation of birth, the will to be born (rebirth), pain, disease, old age, death and other miseries to which man is subjected. Buddha always tried to answer questions regarding the origin of sorrow, its cessation and the path that leads to supreme wisdom and Nirvana. Spirituality in Buddha’s philosophy is getting used to reduce attachment towards worldly life and objects. According to Buddha’s philosophy, the origin of human suffering is attachment. The practice regarding attaining Nirvana may dissolve human miseries. Nirvana does not mean end of existence for a lifetime: rather it ceases rebirth and introduces spiritual bliss and a state of serenity. In China, the Buddha statue symbolises a spiritual force.

During funerals there is a rite of pouring water into a bowl before the monks and the dead body which symbolises that as the rain- water fills the river and overflows towards the ocean, the water ritual of the funeral likewise functions in the case of the deceased.

Feng Shui Philosophy:

The Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui depicts a theory of five aspects which says that we are the combination of all the aspects or elements, namely, fire, water, wood, metal and earth. According to the Feng Shui philosophy water and wind possess ch’s. By the notion ch’s the followers mean universal energy. Feng Shui means wind and water. Wind persists every-where in the earth but if water is introduced it brings wildlife in the garden. Here the Feng Shui philosophy speaks of the water’s ability about creation.


It signifies Islamic mysticism. Some of the Sufis themselves associate it with the Arabic safa which means (purity). Sufism explains that the goal of human life should not be directed to avoidance of hell and wish for heaven but to merge into the universal soul. According to Sufism, the departed souls of the Sufi Saints have the potential to influence the living human beings.

Sufism in India is popularly known by many as the Islamic Bhakti movement. The Sufis in India preached liberal religious beliefs and practices. They tended to be more rational than being fanatic. In India they also confronted the challenge of the Ulema (Muslim theologians).

Among the various orders of Sufism in India, the Chishti order became very popular because this order assimilated local beliefs and practices from India. Khawaja Moinddin Chishti, Abu Ishaq, has been regarded by several writers as the founder of the Chishti order.

Liberal Sufis of this order consider music as a medium of attaining spiritual union with god. But they did not approve every kind of music. Music for entertainment was not sanctioned by them. They approved only Sama.

The Sama, signifies a circular dance and Qawwali (congregational singing) which is performed with a view to induce a state of ecstasy in Sufis. In India it is popularly called Qawwali and the singer is known as the Qawwal.

Sufism, particularly the Chishti order, became popular among the masses not only for its liberal philosophy but due to the mystic songs of the Sufis. In each mosque and Sufi shrine there remain a number of water sources like fountain, water pipe or water pool for the devotees to be cleaned prior to prayer. This signifies preparation to sit for meditation of the Almighty. In every Sufi shrine in India one will observe that before prayer, washing the external parts of the body is a compulsory ritual. The ritual relating to water is the manifestation of symbolic value. According to the Sufi order, the Almighty likes those who live clean. Secondly, cleaning before the prayer gives the believers some sort of psychological preparation and energy to sit for meditation. One of the main aspects of the eastern religions is the concept of reaching the mystical experience. But the question is: what should be the medium to attain that experience? Water has got such a potential by which the human being can reach the mystical experience he wishes to attain. The inherent quality of water, its vastness, its presence in varying forms, its life-giving potential provide the idea and inspiration to think it as a medium of making spiritual connection with the spiritual path-holders. My objective here is to analyse the rituals and faith concerning what the mystics and the common people perform, what exactly is the relation of such rites and what those rites have to do with the cultural system.


It has been an age-old tradition in many cultures to offer devotion to River Ganga, Mount Kailash and Mount Fuji (in the latter case by the Japanese).

River Ganga: 

Ganga originated in the Gangotri glacier of the Tibetan frontier. Far up on the glacier’s face snow melts in the summer sun and seeps downwards. Rivulets merge underneath the cracks and crevices. Finally the River Ganga appears like a gushing river that emerges from the bottom of the ice-wall cave (popularly known Gaumukh or cow’s mouth) where the pilgrims bathe out of their profound faith.

The River Ganga is conceived as sacred to the Hindu community. The river seems to them like a goddess. It is believed that the water of Ganga has the power of purifying human souls. Believers take ritual bath in the river keeping in mind that sins will be washed away by the water and life will be transformed. In Hinduism the concept of sin is violation of moral and ethical codes which results in negative actions and consequences.

 Sociologist Emile Durkheim’s notion is that the sacred is potentially dangerous as well as beneficent. The sacred things could be a rock, a spring, gods, spirit, a house or any material thing but the thing must bear a symbolic value. The sacred thing at the same time means god and the society. In the study of the Australian aborigine’s belief system, Sociologist Durkheim explained so. Sacred imposes certain ethical imperatives and moral obligations on the believers. Worshiping the sacred object means worshipping the society. Rituals concerning the sacred objects are the expression of common feelings and sentiments of a particular group and its identity. Similarly among the believers of Hinduism the river Ganga and rites concerning the river serve the same purpose as the sacred object does to the aborigines of Australia.

Mount Kailash:

A peak in the Gangdise mountain which is a part of the Himalayas in Tibet, it lies near the source of some of the longest rivers in Asia, namely, the Indus river, the Sutlej river, the Brahmaputra river and the Karnali river. The mountain lies near Lake Mansarovar and Lake Rakshastal in Tibet and the peak is covered with glacier. Among the local Tibetans, the mount is also known as the water peak or river peak. Mount Kailash is the most significant peak in the world to the believers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and some sects in Tibet.

There are a number of legends regarding Mount Kailash in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Jain belief system perceives it as astapada and a site of attaining nirvana. In Hinduism Mount Kailash is conceived to be the habitat of Lord Shiva.

 The Kailash Mountain is considered as mythical and sacred to the Buddhist monks in Tibet because it has got many faces. Sacred rituals are performed to pay devotion to the mountain by the pilgrimage to wipe out sin and attain nirvana by the Buddhist monks as well as the Hindus. As the glacier melts, waters fall from the Tibetan plateau flowing into India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Phnom Penh, Burma, and contributing to enriching vegetation, economic life and social life of these lands over ages.

Water-related Japanese faith:

Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion. Here the water fall and Mount Fuji are considered sacred.

Every year during summer the glacier of Mount Fuji starts to melt. The water that melts from the glacier of Mount Fuji is considered sacred to the Japanese as it has created eight springs. That is why drinking spring water in surrounding shrines is a widely practised ritual from ancient times till today for the contem-porary Japanese. In the early days Japanese also used the spring water of Mount Fuji to purify themselves. Even in modern times shrines around the mountain and its keepers maintain the belief system concerning Mount Fuji as the spontaneity of age-old traditional belief. Worshipping any natural force by any group lies in the collective cultural belief which developed from experience gathered the way the natural object the people use and conse-quently the benefit they receive from it. Some-times the quality inherent in any natural substance/object can arouse spiritual feelings. Melting waters that flow from Mount Fuji also contribute to the irrigation of the farmers surrounding the mountain habitat and sustain the eco-diversity. Therefore not only the humans but also farming largely depends on the mercy of the glacier of Mount Fuji and its springs.

Even in the contemporary era taking a bath with cold water for half-an-hour is a technique to control the brain and a path to attain nirvana in which many Japanese monks have profound faith. Water is perceived as the water God to the traditional Japanese belief-holders.

It is not only Asia but Africa is also blessed with water.

Zambezi is a river between Zambia and Zimbabwe. This river water created the biggest fall, named Victoria, which is the nature’s wonder for us. The tremendous river current also contributes to producing electricity in Africa. During the rainy season flash floods caused by massive rain lead to the overflow of the water in the river reaching the surrounding valley. But at the same time water-borne earth and minerals become a blessing for the land of the valley which results in good cultivation. The Zambezi river also contributes to the fishermen making their living by the abundance of fishing.

Apart from the positive functions of water it sometimes poses a big fear before the humans due to water-related natural calamities like floods.

The humans always have the fear of devas-tation by flood waters. But over the ages floods have been shaping the land of the subcontinent into different forms. The floods caused by the River Ganga and incessant rains bring blessings for the farmers in India. Each year the flooded plain contributes to the cultivation of a parti-cular type of rice. In 1957, 2.5 million Indian farmers were affected by drought for lack of flood and timely monsoon rain. A documentary, named failure of Nile flood, on Discovery Channel revealed the fact that over 4000 years ago lack of food caused catastrophe of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.


Causality of Water and Spirituality

Water itself is a self-governing natural resource and life-giving element. The humans have experienced that water functions with its innate nature. Water follows its own law. Moving water creates such sounds which lead some humans to express dream-like experience, some say other-worldly feeling.

Following the line of discourse I find it relevant to give some possible explanations as to why the River Ganga, Mount Kailash and Mount Fuji are considered sacred. Spiritual connection to water alongside some mountains to which believers of eastern religious traditions hold such belief and experience is largely shared by the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Chinese, and Japanese. Their beliefs are an indispensable part of eastern cultures as well. Eastern religious traditions have one thing in common: paying devotion to natural forces, in particular water and huge mountains.

 If sociologically explained, any big-sized mountain, river, waterfall appear mysterious to the humans, for many reasons: first, these are not humanly created. Secondly, nature remains before humans eternally a site of questioning and knowing more and more and also a subject of dependence. Quests regarding nature remain an unresolved matter to the inquisitive minds timelessly.

However, if we look into the social life of the Indian communities it gives enough solid evidences that over the ages the water of the Ganges is adequately serving Indians in the cultural, social and economic spheres.

Sidney Dillon Riplay writes—in India the arrival of the monsoon brings joy. The land is watered, the spirit seems to come back into all living things—along the Ganges the faithful flock to bathe in the rain—sweetened waters, believing that they can wash away 10 sins from 10 previous lives. In this season the Hindus observe fasting. 85 per cent of the rain that falls on India comes from the monsoons. Tossing coconut into the monsoon flood is also practised by many in honour of the god Varuna.

Similarly the abundance of moving water flow from Mount Kailash gradually advances across from its origin sustaining social life, economic activities and wild life of many lands. The bottom-line is: Mystics lead simple life wherein offerings of nature are more valuable to them than worldly and material gains. To explain the eastern religion, distinguished Danish philosopher Herald Hoffding said: religion here is the belief in the conservation of values. Mystics realise living in harmony within the forces of nature retain the energy of healthy life. Dynamism, innate quality of transforming into varied entity such astounding nature of water bolsters to view water in other eyes. Any spiritual action initiates with the cleansing of a particular body part in many eastern belief systems actually admit the power of water and its necessity as a life-sustaining element. In the beginning of life and the end of life water plays an important role. In eastern belief systems water serves a role that is of symbolic value. Besides, the rite of throwing remains of the dead into the River Ganga, prevalent among the Hindus, denotes that there is a connection of water even after life and water is a passage to the heaven.

The history of indigenous and traditional religion unravels the truth that any natural force/energy, which serves human necessity, is understood like a spiritual entity and considered as sacred. Water and its transforming capacity are beyond the human imagination. Any natural disaster related to water happens so quickly where the humans are helpless. This also is a message that water alongwith its potential is beyond our control.

In 2013 the cyclone Mahasen was supposed to strike Bangladesh badly, according to the weather message at that time. According to the Holy Quran, Allah created the whole nature. Hence if prayer to Allah is accepted by Him man can remain safe from the danger of any natural disaster. Out of such belief people of Bangladesh observed the collective ritual to their utmost. At last the tremendous cyclone slowed down by heavy rainfall with slight devastation. People thought it was the manifestation of the mercy of Allah. The expressive mass said that it was Allah who listened to their prayers and controlled the natural phenomenon.

Therefore, we can interpret that human perception and utilitarian consideration of any natural substance also construct the beliefs and rituals of a culture.

When any natural substance is assocated with life-saving element, devotion comes out of gratitude.

Sometimes the huge size, vastness of any natural object and its beauty also arouse special inner feelings, evoke positive energy and thought in the humans. The history of the ancient cult reveals that the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain have been matters of worship due to services these forces provide to the humans and to the whole nature. In this connection water is considered as a spiritual entity. As water is considered metaphoric by the mystics, such metaphorical expression helps to find out more truths about the substance as well. Everyone knows scarcity of water means the end of all living organism.

Fromthe sociological viewpoint, considering some natural resources as sacred is inherent in the cultural beliefs of particular social groups. Sacredness is a tendency valuing something that is related to the conservation of the natural resource and at the same time survival of the human species.


Despite water being a spiritual element in the mystic’s watery world, nowadays it is threa-tened by irresponsible human activities. Water pollution by men has already caused demise of many marine animals and water birds. Oil-spill is also a big threat to the watery world including the plants and insects of water. Glaciers are melting due to global warming all over the world. It is evident that the sea level is rising. Today’s climate clearly indicates that there lies unseen catastrophe in the near future for the humans as well as the planet Earth if urgent measures are not undertaken seriously. If the unconsciousness of the humans about water continues for long, the whole nature as well as human society may confront unimaginable consequences.


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Dr Ishrat Jahan is an academic at Bangladesh University, Dhaka in the Department of Sociology. Besides, she is a highly acclaimed vocalist of Hindustani classical music.