Full Moon vol 25: The Ritual Bath

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Ah, rain! Finally, the monsoon has begun in India, after months of relentless fiery heat. However, due to climate change, the rainfall this year is significantly less than usual in many areas, and there’s a risk of drought.

Water is a dominant theme in the month of Jyeṣṭha. A few days ago in the north, there was a big celebration for Gaṅgā, the holiest of holy rivers, marking the day she descended to earth from the heavens to wash away our adharmic karma, i.e. anything we did that was out of alignment. The river is worshipped as an embodiment of compassion and grace.

In the east, on Pūrṇimā, the full moon, they are celebrating the ritual of deva-snāna, where the icons of the major deities (in particular at the Jagannath temple) are given a ceremonial bath. And all over India, people and animals are soaking up rain, thankful for fresh water and a respite from the scorching heat. [N.B. There is one more holiday associated with this full moon – Sāvitrī-vrata, which is a day of fasting and sacred practice that wives can perform to invoke protection and a healthy life for their beloveds.]

It’s also the last major day for ritual bathing in holy waters for four months (the period known as caturmāsa) until after the rains subside. Bathing is a major practice within the tradition, and is utilized in everything from our daily practices to worship ceremonies to meditative visualizations.

There are two basic ways to clean and purify something: to wash it, or to put it through fire. The former is far gentler and more nourishing. Water – especially fresh flowing water – sustains all of life, and is sacred in every form. In some sense, to offer water, to wash with water, is to replenish and renew life itself.

There’s a long history of ritual bathing that goes back thousands of years to the Vedic tradition. The tradition recommends bathing first thing every morning, normally before spiritual practice or performing any other task. In the old days, when people mostly lived and bathed near rivers, they would also use that time to repeat their morning mantras, and offer salutations to the sun and to the earth. Even today, and even in urban cities, you can see – and hear! – people bathing outdoors, loudly singing their morning prayers.

People would also bathe after using the toilet, especially after a bowel movement. This both reduces the risk of infection, but also allows you to refresh and renew yourself after releasing unwanted substances and energy. Of course, this also meant that you might end up bathing 2-3 times a day. And this is still normal in some parts, assuming that there’s enough water in the region and no drought, etc. Most of all though, it’s a measure of how large a value is placed on impeccable cleanliness throughout the tradition.

Gargling with water is also considered part of daily cleansing. There are nine traditional gates to the body (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mouth, anus, and genitals), and gargling stimulates and refreshes the seven that are located near the head. It is a wonderful way to clear your mind and refresh your energy, especially if you do it for a longer period of time (i.e. more than a minute).

There’s another special category of ritual bathing worth mentioning here – the washing of feet. Normally, the first thing you do when returning home in India is wash your face, hands, and feet. This is true across most of the Middle East as well – at least where there is available water – because of all the dust.

When guests, elders, teachers, or other respected people arrive, one of the most profound ways to show your respect and care is to gently wash and anoint their feet. For example, during some Goddess festivals, the feet of little girls are washed and anointed to show respect and gratitude for the sacred feminine.

To some, all this ritualizing of something so mundane might seem like unnecessary overkill. What’s the big deal? It’s JUST water. However, see if you can remember a time when you were really thirsty, or had walked or traveled a great distance. What was it like to finally drink something? Or to brush your teeth? And to take a shower, and feel the dirt wash away? What happens to your energy, and your mood? And what about your mind, to the quality of your vision and thoughts?

It’s important that we start to shift our concept of what constitutes sacred as being something outside the scope of our daily life. To be able to physically wash away the layer of inner and outer grime that we collect as we move through the world is no small thing! It is amazing that such a small action can so profoundly transform our state.

Along with our personal practice, bathing is an integral aspect of pūjā, ritual worship. One of the essential principles behind pūjā is that we treat our sacred objects in the same way we would like to be treated. This not only deepens our love and respect for the sacred and what it represents, but also reinforces our understanding that we are one with the divine.

At the beginning of every pūjā, the priest and the person performing the ritual will symbolically wash their hands, purifying action, and also their eyes, purifying vision. All the ritual instruments, vessels, food, flowers, and offerings are also washed and purified by getting sprinkled with water. (Note that they are meticulously washed ahead of time anyway – this is cleansing within the sacred space of the ceremony). And, on that note, even the water itself gets purified by having mantras chanted into it!

If it’s an abhiṣeka-pūjā, then the deity or other sacred object is washed with water for initial cleansing, then slowly and luxuriously washed again with other substances such as milk, sugar, ghee, yoghurt, honey, and maybe also water from the river Gaṅgā, rose water, and of course also the vibrations of song and mantra. After the ceremony, water is sprinkled or poured on the heads of those who participated as it contains the living energy and blessings of the ritual.

Whenever we use water to cleanse on the outside, we can also experience an inner cleansing and rejuvenation. The power of divine blessing is often described as a waterfall that descends – an experience that you may have had in meditation practice – of energy cascading all around, healing and restoring life and beauty.

Practice: Take a Ritual Bath

Traditional practices for this full moon include:

-Go to a body of water, preferably a river (because the water is fresh and flowing), but the ocean or a large lake will also suffice. Immerse yourself in the water, visualizing yourself being cleansed and purified from anything not aligned with dharma or the sacred. Let the water carry away any pride, shame, fear, anger, guilt, or exhaustion. Three dips are customary, followed by slowly pouring three handfuls (put your hands together, like a big cup or bowl) of water as you repeat your primary mantra. When you are finished, offer your salutations and gratitude to the sun, the earth, the water, and all beings who have supported your practice.

-Lovingly wash and clean the icons on your altar. You can even go all out and perform an abhiṣeka, a ceremonial bath (bathing not just in water, but also pouring milk, honey, sugar, yoghurt, ghee, & rose water while chanting the appropriate mantras).

-When you bathe in the morning, whether it’s a shower or a bath, take a handful of water and visualize that it is water from the Gaṅgā. As you repeat your main mantra, slowly pour it over your head, and experience that you are actually bathing in the holy river. Be sure to also gargle for a minute or more, awakening and purifying the upper gates of the body.

-As you meditate, chant, or perform sacred practices, you can visualize grace and blessing washing over you, and cleansing and rejuvenating you, inside and out. There is a deep connection between the moon and water, so the full moon is a particularly beautiful and appropriate time to have this awareness.

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