The Waters of Life
Water. A prerequisite for all life on earth, but also with the power to kill. Since the beginning of history, mankind has worshiped water as a god. Along the ghats along India's sacred river Ganges, we reflect upon what makes water so special to humanity.
Ohm, Nama Shivaya! Ohm, Nama Shivaya!
Clutching his begging bowl, the wise man - sadhu - dressed in yellow with one deformed leg drags himself along the rows of people at the stairs that make up one of Hindu's holiest places, Dasashvamedha Ghat in Varanasi. Down by the edge of the river, the bronze bells begin to ring, first slowly, then more and more intensely. The sound blends with scents of incense and seeps out across the velvety black water, sprinkled with hundreds of floating lights. Night has fallen, and it is time for Ganga Aarti, the ceremony that for as long as anyone can remember has been dedicated to Ganga Mata - Mother Ganges.
Water. Few substances are as present in our lives. Few phenomena have as many descriptive verbs attached to them. It roars, splashes, bubbles, drips and drops, sloshes, gurgles, burbles, wooshes, pores, trickles! The very word water originates from one of our oldest language roots, the Indo-European *wed (as in English wet, Russian voda and Swedish våt). A shared linguistic heritage that implies just how central water has been to humankind since the beginning of time. Because it's not just the word that is old. Scientists and religious leaders may argue about a lot of things, but that the world was once covered with precisely water, is a fact they quite agree on. As a matter of fact, our most revered religious scriptures reached this conclusion many thousands of years ago. The book of Genesis, for example, states in the King James Version that:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
A passage which is strikingly close to the creation story in the ancient Indian sacred scripture Rig Veda translated by Wendy Doniger:
"Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning;
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that one arose through the power of heat."
If we instead go back in time following Darwin’s theories, we reach the same fact: that it was from the same ocean that one of our most ancient ancestors crawled up on dry land. And not only do are we born from water - we are water. Our bodies consist of 70 percent water. We produce and discharge water: we sweat when we are hot or bervous, we shed tears when we are very happy or sad, it even signals that new life is on the way when the female body prepares to give birth.
But water does not only give lives, it also steals them, through tidal waves, floods, avalanches and landslides. So perhaps it is not strange that indigenous people have always seen water as something so powerful that it must be holy. The ancient Romans and Greeks raised temples at various freshwater springs. In a sacred scripture of the Chinese philosophy Tao, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote about 500 BC.:
"The highest goodness is like water. Water nourishes everything without struggling. And still, it visits places that people hate.”
"Nothing in the world is softer than water, and yet there is nothing better to overcome what is hard and strong. That is because nothing can change the water."
Perhaps the peace and tranquility we feel while listening to the sound of water has been hidden in our genes for thousands of years. Raindrops drumming on the roof, a babbling brook or rhythmic waves, to have water close by makes us feel safe. It signals freedom, life, that the hot rays of the sun - another lifegiving, yet dangerous divinity - are balanced and will not scorch the crops on the fields.
It is no wonder that the three Norns Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld in ancient Norse tradition were believed to fetch water from the well of Urd in order to pour it over the roots of the holy ashtree Yggdrasil. From the branches of the tree, the water fell as dew all over the world, which made the soil fertile. By one of Yggdrasil's roots the well of Mimer was hidden, the source of knowledge where the god Odin sacrificed one of his eyes as a price to drink himself to wisdom.
Also archaelogical finds prove the human relation to water. In mosses, lakes and springs, archaeologists have made discoveries of offerings in the form of weapons, wagons and coins, even mirrors.
Even today, many of the World's cultural ceremonies are strongly linked to water: in Christianity, baptism has a central role, just like the Jewish purification bath mikve, or Islam's wudu performed before the daily prayer. In addition, we performe pilgrimages to holy springs, such as Lourdes in southwestern France or the River Jordan, where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, or the Bolivian lake of Titicaca, whis is revered as the holy water from which the gods once were born.
In Varanasi, morning has broken. The stairs down to the holy river are full of Brahmins taking their cleansing morning baths, of women with shaved heads offering small flames of fire to Mother Ganges and, with shining bronze pots, offers Ganges’ holy water back to the river itself, just as Rig Veda misteriously prescribes: the sacrifice is a sacrifice to the sacrifice.
For the pilgrims in Varanasi, the water is more than a symbol, the bath brings more than only purification. It is a union between the human and the World’s divine soul, atman, which we all hope to dissolve into once we leave our physical bodies.
A stone's throw away from the people having baths, deceased family members are assisted in their very last bath in Ganges, carefully supervised by Mr Kailesh. Mr Kailesh was born in the Pariah cast and should therefore normally be considered an outcast in hierarchical India, but Mr Kailesh is one of Varanasis most prominent men. For 45 generations and counting, his family has been tending one of the cremation sites along the river.
- People come to Varanasi to die, he explains matter-of-factly. The men carry the dead body to the river bank and leave it in the water for 30 minutes, to be purified, before placing it on the pyre.
When asked how the fire so quickly can transform a body wrapped in soaked cloth to ash, he smiles.
- It’s a miracle from Lord Shiva, he answers, and looks out across the river. Just like the pyre does not smell, even though you stand in the middle of the smoke.
Not far from the burning ghats sits a sadhu in yellow clothes and recites an ancient Vedic hymn in flowing Sanskrit.
”Waters, you are the ones who bring us the life force.
Help us to find nourishment so that we may look upon great joy.
Let us share in the most delicious sap that you have, as if you were loving mothers.
For our well-being, let the goddesses be an aid to us, the waters be for us to drink.
Let them cause well-being and health to flow over us.
Waters, yield your cure as an armor for my body, so that I may see the sun for a long time.
Waters, carry far away all of this that has gone bad in me, either way I have done in malicious deceit or whatever lie I have sworn to.
I have sought the waters today; we have joined with their sap.
Oh Agni, full of moisture, come and flood me with splendor.”