The Apotheosis of Water and its Inevitability
in Indian Culture, Part Three
BY: SUN STAFF
Ganges Delta, India and Bangladesh
May 28, 2011 CANADA (SUN) A paper by Dr. Gauri Mahulikar, presented for a study on the ancient, traditional water and agricultural management systems of India, in three parts.
Water and Culture
Culture has a very vast connotation. It deals with the concrete material world as well as the abstract inner world. For a commoner, it means rites and rituals, beliefs and practices, festivals and fairs and general norms of life. All these aspects can't be discussed here for want of time. I would, therefore deal with the samskaras, an integral part of Indian culture and Indian festivals.
What is Samskara:
Technically, <samskaras means consecration that removes blemishes (if any) from a thing/person and deposits qualities and virtues in it (Brahma Sutra, Sankarabhasya, I.1.4). In Indian tradition, right from birth till death, various
samskaras are prescribed. The number oscillates between 16 and 40. These include garbhadhana, pumsavana, namakarana, upanayana, vivaha, sraddha, etc. In all these, the presence of water is inevitable.
All our rituals begin with samkalpa, sipping water before declaring the wish/decision to undertake any rite. This is supposed to purify one from within. Then water is offered to the desired deity as padya. Arghya, offering of water
with flowers or sandalwood paste, is given as a way of greeting. The most important and
distinguishing feature of any ritual, however, is ritual bath or sprinkling.
Snana and Abhiseka:
Regular river bath is advised and preferred in our scriptures. Bath in a river is worth the donation of 100/1000 dark-coloured cows, according to holy texts. Bath is supposed to give new life, new birth to a person, because the river is regarded to be a living unit.
In the Skanda Purana there is a story of Katha, a celibate, studying in the hermitage of sage Bharadvaja. As gurudaksina, the sage asked him to marry his unattractive daughter Revati. After marriage, Katha propitiated Siva and asked him to confer beauty and prosperity on his wife. As told by Siva, he bathed his wife and washed her. She turned into a beautiful lady. The stream which flowed got the name Revati, which later on joined Ganga. Thereupon a reward of beauty was assured for a person who took bath at that place.
The sage Chyavana got rejuvenated and cast off his old emaciated body after a bath (Bhagavata Purana IX.3.13ff). A ceremonious bath is given to a bride in the open as a lustration rite (Rigveda X.85, AV.XIV.1 - both are marriage hymns). Ceremonious bath (avabhrthasnana) is a customary rite for a student, indicating end of his celibacy and eligibility to attain the new status of a householder (Manu Smrti.3.4).
Water is imbued with the power of spiritual purification. All temples are located near a
water source. The devotees are supposed to bathe or wash their hands and feet before
entering the shrines. This is a universal custom. In Judaism at Mikveh, a holy day, ritual
bath is considered important. Muslims, before their daily prayers (namaz) wash hands, feet and eyes. All the mosques have a water source. In Christianity, water is linked with baptism. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, with a belief the water rejects original sin. Thus bath is important in all traditions.
When full bath is not possible, sprinkling is done through jars filled with water. It is symbolic bath. Divinity and positive vibrations are stored and protected in closed jars
and not in the open buckets. Therefore in Indian culture, much prominence is attached to
ghata or kalasa. It is believed that Visnu, Rudra, Brahma and other gods and goddesses dwell in different parts of a ghata. Thus worship of ghata is worship of all these gods and sprinkling of water from a ghata is being blessed by them.
Ghata also symbolizes the womb and signifies fertility. The water in a ghata is thus creative, fertile fluid and not just elemental water.. The water from a ghata is used in pacificatory rites as well. Water has the inherent power to remove evil and illness.
Festivals form a special feature of any culture. They provide occasion for people to gather together, socialize with each other and pay homage to the deities for their favour. All over the world, some festivals are associated with harvest. After reaping bumper crops, sons of the soil express their gratitude towards the factors causing their prosperity. Water, rain and river are among these prominent principles.
In India, many festivals are connected with the rainy season. Nagapancami, to
express gratitude to serpents, the real friends of farmers and the zoomprph of water is
celebrated in Sravana. Onam or Pongal also come as harvest festivals. On the full moon
day of Sravana, the fishermen throw coconuts in the ocean to pacify it. Then comes Pola,
the veneration of bulls. Bull is an emblem of physical strength and symbolizes Indra.
Simhastha or Kumbha, after every 12 years, is the most distinguishing feature of
Indian Culture. No invitations, letters or brochures are sent to anyone and yet thousands
of devout people gather at places like Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, Kumbhakonam Puskar, etc. and take a dip in the holy river. The binding force is Water.
I'll end up my paper with a Vedic verse, in the veneration of pah (Rigveda VII.49.4):
yasu raja varuno yasu somo
visve devah yamurjam madanti
vaisvanaro yasvagnih pravistah
ta apo deviriha mamavantu
"Water itself, particularly that of the Himalayan rivers, is a kind of Soma…"
Kumar Savitri, The Pauranic Lore of Holy Water Places, Delhi, 1983
Keith, A.B., The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanisads, Delhi, 1970 (1925)
Ram Gopal, India of Vedic Kalpasutras, Delhi, 1959
C. Sivaramamurti, Ganga, Delhi, 1976
S.Abid Hussain, The National Culture of India, Delhi, 1978
Macdonell, A.A., A Vedic Reader for Sanskrit Students, Delhi, 1992
Anne Feldhaus, Water and Womanhood (Religious Meanings of Rivers in
Maharashtra) , New York, 1995
Bhat, Y.A., Dharmasastraca Itihasa (Marathi), Mumbai, 1980 (1967)
Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Vedas, Pondicherry
Mahulikar Gauri, Vedic Elements in Puranic Mantras and Rituals, Delhi, 2000
Morvanchikar, R.S., Bharatiya Jalasanskriti (Marathi), Dombivali, 2006
This paper was presented at the National Seminar on Water and Culture, Hampi, Karnataka, 2007, organised by Kannada University and Sahayoga in 2007. Edited slightly for readability.
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