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As opposed to holy water, water elevated with the sacramental blessing of a cleric (Altman 2002:131), sacred waters are characterized by tangible topographical land formations such as rivers, lakes, springs, and oceans. These organic bodies of water have attained religious significance not from the modern alteration or blessing, but were sanctified through mythological or historical figures. Sacred waters have been exploited for cleansing, healing, initiations, and death rites (Altman 2002:6).
Ubiquitous and perpetual fixations with water occur across religious traditions. It tends to be a central element in the creations accounts of almost every culture with mythological, cosmological, and theological myths (Altman 2002:3-6,13-20). In this way, many groups characterize water as "living water", or the "water of life" (Varner 2004:19, Altman 2002:2, Strang 2004:83). This means that it gives life and is the fundamental element from which life arises. Each religious or cultural group that feature waters as sacred substances tends to favor certain categorizations of some waters more than others, usually those that are most accessible to them and that best integrate into their rituals (Altman 2002:3).
While all rivers are sacred in Hinduism, the Ganges River is particularly revered. In the Vedic myths, the goddess Ganga descended upon the earth to purify and prepare the dead (Alley 2008:171, Haberman 2006:60-61, Narayanan 2001:190-191). The River Ganges (Ganga) in India is seen as the physical embodiment of this goddess. Since the river waters are as both inherently pure themselves and having major purificatory qualities (Alley 2008:173-174, Nelson 2008:102), people come to bathe in them, drink from them, leave offerings for them, and give their physical remains to them.
The Ganges is said to purify the soul of negative karma, corporeal sins, and even impurities from previous lives (Nelson 2008:102). At sunrise along the Ganges, pilgrims descend the ghat steps to drink of the waters, bathe themselves in the waters and perform ablutions where they submerge their entire bodies. These practitioners desire to imbibe and surround themselves with the Ganges’s waters so that they can be purified (Altman 2002:136-138, 181-183, 196-198). Hindu conceptualizations of the sacred are fluid and renewable. Purity and pollution exist upon a continuum where most entities, including people, can become sacred and then become stagnated and full of sin once again (Lamb 2008:341-346). Performing these rituals is also an act to become closer to the Hindu deities, and ultimately the Divine.
The Ganges is one of the most highly favored sites for funerary rituals in India. It is presumed that if a deceased person is cleansed by the Ganges, it will help liberate their soul, or expedite the number of lives they need to achieve this (Altman 2002:137, McClaymond 2008:315). In the traditional funerary ceremony, a dead person is placed upon a funeral pyre until the body becomes cremated, then the ashes are sent upon the river (Michaels 2004:136-139). Many Hindus go to great lengths to purify themselves one last time before death. When this is not possible, family members will actually mail the ashes to a priest so that he can perform the ceremony of entering the waters (Altman 2008:136-137).
Manu, the mythic law giver, gave directives and prohibitions regarding the river: “impure objects like urine, feces, spit; or anything which has these elements, blood, or poison should not be cast into the water” (Narayanan 2001:183-184). Few or none of his directives hold forth along most places down the Ganges today. Journalist Joshua Hammer wrote a very illustrative account of his personal visit to the Ganges in which he described seeing both animal and human corpses floating down the river or sometimes embedded in heaps of garbage. People continued to bathe, and children to play in very murky waters; the color in some parts completely changed from toxic sewage and runoff (Hammer 2007). As the Ganges River remains interwoven into daily existence, Hindus are vulnerable to urban contamination. Irony lies in that this river is venerated for her ability to wash away contaminants, yet is being stagnated.
Lakes and underground water
Lake Titicaca is widely known as being a sacred place for the Inca people. The Inca Empire origins lie in Lake Titicaca. Ancient Incan myths describe the Incas as being blessed by the sun because the sun first emerged from Lake Titicaca. Since then, the sun organizes social order and the movement of the sun organizes rituals and gatherings. The first emergence of people in the time of the sun emergence is said to be the elite in their caste system. The origin of the elite was and continues to be contested among the people on the Island of Lake Titicaca. Thus, creating competition to become part of the elite rank (Bauer 1998:240-246). In recent times, the pollution of Lake Titicaca has built up and caused an increase of green algae. The people of Lake Titicaca Special Projects continuously are creating ways to bring awareness to the importance of a clean lake for their society (Holston 2008:42).
The ancient Mayans valued social order and their society flourished because of the structure of their order. The ancient Mayans strived and focused their actions on pleasing their many gods. Essentially, the Mayans believed that the world consisted of three layers: the watery underworld, the middle earthly realm, and the sky realm. The Mayans viewed bodies of water as a direct connection to the watery underworld and underground water obtained through a cave as an even better connection to spirits and deities. Cenotes are very important to the Mayas. The famous cenote at Chichen Itza proves to be important with the many findings of artifacts and skeletal remains. Sacrifices were common at this site among the ancient Mayans. Different people were sacrificed and findings show that most of the people were men and children (Bruhns 1999:209). Like any archeological site, looting is problem in preserving and studying the cenote at Chichen Itza.
The Navajo and Hopi people have long embraced the water underneath and around the Black Mesa area as sacred to their people. The people have long lived around and became dependent on springs and wells of the Black Mesa. These waters are the only source of drinking water, water for livestock, and water for agriculture for the Navajo and Hopi people. In respect for the water, these people carryout religious and ceremonial tributes to the water of the Black Mesa. These waters have organized their people around the Black Mesa and resulted in the reliance of the waters for all aspects of their lives. With the emergence of Peabody Energy came threats to the preservation of their sacred water. Peabody Energy pumps water out from underneath the Black Mesa to transport their mining minerals. In May 2002 the Navajo and Hopi people from northeastern Arizona joined their people in St. Louis Missouri to fight against Peabody Energy and its shareholders. In January 2002 Peabody proposed and was granted the right to use thirty-two percent more Navajo Aquifer (Naquifer) water than they had already been using. The significant increase in water pumped out of the Naquifer, dramatically affected the drinkability of the water from the springs and wells connected to the Naquifer. Before the significant increase of pumping, the water was clean enough to drink without any kind of purification. Another result of the pumping is the noticeable drop in the water levels of the springs and wells. The drop in water levels was almost immediately recognized after Peabody was granted permission to pump out more water. This had caused disruption in the ceremonial and cultural lives of the Navajo and Hopi people as well as disruption to their farming (Lee 2010).
- Altman, Nathaniel. 2002 Sacred Water: The Spiritual Source of Life. New Jersey: HiddenSpring.
- Alley, Kelly D. 2008 Images of Waste and Purification on the Banks of the Ganga. City & Society 10(1):167–1982.
- Bauer, Brian and Matthew T. Seddon. 1998 The Sanctuary of Titicaca: Where the Sun Returns to Earth. Latin American Antiquity. 9 (3):240-258.
- Bruhns, Karen and Karen E. Stothert. 1999 Women in Ancient America. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Haberman, David L. 2006 River of Lover in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Hammer, Joshua. 2007 "A Prayer for the Ganges". Smithsonian Magazine 38 (8):74–82.
- Holston, M. 2008 Joint Action Protects Lake Titicaca. Research Library: The Americas.
- Lamb, Ramdas. 2008 "Sacred". In Studying Hinduism: Key Concepts and Methods. Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds. London: Routledge.
- Lee, Tanya. 2002 Hopi and Navajo People Confront Peabody Energy on Sacred Water Destruction. The Native Voice: The Women’s Voice.
- McClymond, Kathryn. 2008 "Ritual". In Studying Hinduism: Key Concepts and Methods. Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds. London: Routledge.
- Michaels, Axel. 2005 Hinduism: Past and Present. Barbara Harshaw, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Narayanan, Vasudha. 2001 Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions. Daedalus 130 (4):179–206.
- Nelson, Lance E. 2008 "Ecology". In Studying Hinduism: Key Concepts and Methods. Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds. London: Routledge.
- Strang, Veronica. 2004 The Meaning of Water. New York: Berg Publishers.
- Varner, Gary R. 2004 Water of Life Water of Death: The Folklore and Mythology of Sacred Waters. Baltimore: PublishAmerica.