Water has played an important role in many major religions in both ceremonial and mythological aspects. In fact, while the term “holy water” is derived from Christianity, many religions have linked water to spirituality.
One of the oldest living major religions, Hinduism has long used water for cleansing and ceremonial purposes. Seven rivers are considered sacred in India, and every day many Hindus follow these rivers on pilgrimages to holy places near riverbanks, coasts, and shores. Rivers are also used in funeral ceremonies; Hindu funerals are almost always located near a river, and the ashes are scattered in the river after cremation. Further, many stories in Hindu mythology associate rivers with gods and goddesses.
Many of Judaism’s most important stories prominently feature water. In the book Genesis, God destroyed humanity by casting a great flood upon the earth, and Noah was tasked with building an ark to save all of the earth’s animals. Water also played a significant role in the tale of Moses. Leading the Israelites in escape from the Egyptian army, Moses used divine powers to part the Red Sea and ensure the freedom of his people. Judaism, like Hinduism, also recognizes water as a purifier. Judaism states that, in order to achieve spiritual purification, followers must immerse themselves in a ritual bath (called a mikveh) connected to a natural source of water.
In Christianity, many stories depict control over water as a symbol of divinity. For example, Jesus Christ was said to have performed miracles such as walking on water and turning water into wine. Further, Christianity uses holy water for a number of ceremonies. In a ceremony called baptism, a priest initiates an infant into the religion by pouring or sprinkling holy water on the infant’s head. Further, in some churches, priests provide basins of holy water or sprinkle holy water on denizens in preparation for Mass.