Societally Western religions throughout the eras have had many thoughts on bathing. In the past, Christian monks forewent bathing as part of an ascetical practice. Imperial Romans took untreated public water baths. Abstaining from bathing has led to many plagues, epidemics and even terms such as taking a ‘French bath’ throughout time worldwide. Eastern religions apply close attention to bathing rituals and rites. Hindu, Buddhist, and Shinto believers extra concern for cleanliness and purity predates most Western hygiene practices. Through the duration of this article I will highlight bathing rituals, rites, customs, symbols, and each religion’s relationship to hygiene.
From early Hindu art to an instrument of purification, water plays an important role within all sects of Hinduism. Some believe one cannot achieve Moksha without bathing in the mother Ganges River before death. Waters prominent influence demonstrates the duality of having a clean mind and body attains a clean spirit. From birth to death, ritual purification has immense importance to a Hindu.
With seven sacred rivers including the Ganges, the significance of water starts before conception in a Hindu’s life. Water represents purity, fertility, a life giving force, well being, and the destroyer of evil. Garbadhana, the ritual of conception, is considered part of that couples child’s life ritual.(Gatrad, Ray & Sheikh, 2004)
“Garbadhana—the fetus laying ceremony is performed at the
consummation of marriage and involves special prayers for fulfilling
parental duties to perpetuate the human race. In ancient times, the
bridegroom did not approach the bride until the fourth night, but today
this practice is only symbolically enacted at the marriage ceremony.”
The ritual contains the standard practice of bathing before puja, as well as, symbolic washing of deities at the same time of reciting mantras. Multiple ceremonies involving water occur up to birth and after. Before initiating breastfeeding of a newborn, female relatives of the mother will wash her breast to ensure cleanliness and purity.
For a Hindu. a major taboo is touching unclean feet. Feet are considered impure as they come into contact with contaminated ground. Before entering a Hindu temple one must wash their feet. Washing another’s feet is considered to be selfless, an act towards better karma; but is usually only done for those one respects such as parents or newlyweds. Krishna’s special attention towards the cleanliness of feet indicates the relevance and need of purity within the Hindu religion and it’s possible tie to transcendence.
Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, condemns frivolous ritual and any unnecessary symbolization. (Bodhidharma, 1989) “A man habitually wicked in deeds, with his conscience benumbed with evil thoughts, cannot be cleansed with a thousand lumps of clay or a hundred pots of water.” For a Buddhist, it is more about the inward spiritual progress than outward attachments of worldly charms like bathing, the process of detaching.
However, Buddhists do have a high regard for water and it symbolizes many things to this religion. Water symbolizes purity, clarity, and calmness. Rivers, oceans, lakes, and other naturally occurring water features prompt a Buddhist to remember our mind must maintain a state of pureness. Through meditation, Buddhists symbolically wash away spiritual pollutants. Afterwards, a Buddhist is free of poisonous thoughts, and other worldly defilements. This is similar to a river rinsing small dirt particles down a mountain, springing forth new life.
Vesak Day or Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated by Buddhists worldwide and features ‘bathing the Buddha.’ It is one of the holiest days of the year for a Buddhist. Ritually, since the Enlightened One’s death, consecrated water and fragrant oils are poured over an infant prince version of Buddha. In symbolization, a Buddhist is actually washing away his or her own impurities in hope of being closer to achieving nirvana.
Similar to Hinduism, Shinto believers consider water to represent purity and a reminder to awaken the god within. Therefore, a pure body equates a pure mind and spirit. (Bbccouk, 2016) “Purifying rituals are always used at the beginning of Shinto ceremonies.” The Temizu ( te-hand, mizu-water) ritual, purifying of the hands with water happens before one enters a Shinto temple. Culturally Temizu is crucial shrine etiquette and must be performed by even visitors.
Another important water ablution ritual of the Shinto faith is Misogi Harai. Misogi occurs before a ceremony or while visiting a shrine. The full body is purified preferably by sacred waterfall. Misogi happens every morning at the first Shinto shrine in the state of Washington, here in the United States.
Ritual purification is the driving force behind Shintoism because life naturally pollutes us. Harai (purification rites) can happen for many reasons, banishing a new home, welcoming a new baby’s soul to a body, or even a complete symbolic cleanse of Japan’s inhabitants. The Shinto tradition of Harai arises from the tale of Izanagi. A Shinto god who touches death, becomes defiled and uses water to purify himself. It’s relevance and practice illustrates how central purification is within the Shinto religion.
As it seems with most religions that concentrate on cleanliness, as a main focus cleanliness alone does not lead to enlightenment. As with a car, once clean, if the mechanics are not functioning the overall value of the car is low. The car must be a fully operating machine. Though it may have more value to us than just health and satiating thirst, water seems to play an important role in many Eastern religions. Water is viewed as a life giver world wide and carries those religious implications.
Gatrad, A. .R. , Ray, M. & Sheikh, A. . (2004). Hindu birth customs. Arch Dis Child , 89(12), 1094-1097. Retrieved 26 February, 2016, from http://adc.bmj.com/content/89/12/1094.full
In-text citation: (Gatrad, Ray & Sheikh, 2004)
Bodhidharma. (1989). The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. (Illustrated ed.). US: Macmillan.
In-text citation: (Bodhidharma, 1989)
Shen shi’an. (2011). Moonpointercom. Retrieved 26 February, 2016, from http://moonpointer.com/new/2011/02/significance-of-water-in-buddhism/
In-text citation: (Shen shi’an, 2011)
Bbccouk. (2016). Bbccouk. Retrieved 27 February, 2016, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/shinto/ritesrituals/harae.shtml
In-text citation: (Bbccouk, 2016)