World Religions: A River Runs through Them: How Water Shaped Our Beliefs and Rituals

Article excerpt

Religious leaders from many faiths have staked out climate change as an important issue. That's not a surprise, given how central water is to many religions.

Global warming could rearrange Earth's water--flooding coastlines, soaking deserts, and drying out formerly wet regions. Add those shifts to pollution, population pressures, and habitat destruction in the name of development, and people in many parts of the world are justifiably worried about their water supply.

How central is water to many religions? Very:

* In Genesis, water exists before light, as God's spirit hovers over the deep. (Where did the water come from? Maybe the same place as the wives of Cain and Abel. Genesis is silent on the subject.)

* In the New Testament, Jesus starts his ministry with a river dunk, or baptism, from John the Baptist. The Christian Messiah later declares himself the source of the water of everlasting life.

* The Quran says that all life, human and otherwise, was created out of water. The word sharia, now understood as the name for the system of Islamic law, originally meant "the way to the water."

And those are just the religions most familiar to Westerners. How about some less familiar examples?

* Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak Devji, who vanished into a river for three days. When he reappeared, he explained that he had spent that time with God who told him "There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim," a radical statement in his time and ours.

* The Tao of Taoism is the "way," the moral and spiritual path that followers believe enlightened people should follow. The Lao Tzu, one of Taoism's essential texts, says, "The highest good is like water ... Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water/Yet nothing can better overcome the hard and strong...."

* Hinduism may be the most water-linked faith. India's Ganges River, where many Hindus go for ritual bathing, is not merely sacred. It's considered a deity--the Mother Ganga. In her waters, sins are removed and the karmic burden for the next life is lessened.

* For the Muskogee Creek Indians of Florida's panhandle, Creator first created creatures, then water. Turtle realized that mud was at the bottom of the water and piled up enough to create dry land.


The sacred stories keep flowing. Ancient people recognized four basic elements: earth, fire, air, and water. Air and earth currently do not have much ritual use in most faiths. But fire still has a starring role, and is used for candles, Yule logs, and sacred cremations.

"But in general water is more important than fire," says Terje Oestigaard, an archaeology professor at the University of Bergen in Norway and a member of the executive council of the International Water History Association. "Water by its very nature dissolves the traditional boundaries between science and religion, facts and beliefs, the sacred and the profane, and questions the scientific method and approaches by which we seek to analyze the world," he and co-author Terje Tvedt wrote in the third volume of the massive A History of Water.

The importance of water explains why many religious leaders have declared water quality in general--and climate change in particular--an important religious issue. Some view green concerns as a stewardship matter--they feel responsible to God for taking care of the environment.

Dozens of Christian evangelical leaders signed a statement last year that called for action against human-induced climate change. The statement says, "Christians must care about climate change because we love God the Creator and Jesus our Lord, through whom and for whom the creation was made. This is God's world, and any damage that we do to God's world is an offense against God Himself."

Baptism is the main Christian ritual use of water. Some sprinkle, some dunk. But the water does not have to be from any particular source or meet specific standards of purity. …