Lesson 1: The Sacred Act of Bathing
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Ah, rain! Finally, the monsoon has begun in India, after months of relentless fiery heat. Water and bathing is a dominant theme in the month of Jyeṣṭha. Not only is the earth being bathed by the fresh rainwater, but many of the significant spiritual practices during this month also involve bathing – for example, the Snāna Yātra of Lord Jagannātha, where he is given a special bath and pūjā that confers particularly powerful blessings. Many people visit the Ganges River and our other holy rivers for ceremonial baths.
In fact, if you look throughout the tradition, and even in our daily pūjā rituals and our own personal habits, bathing is a significant and powerful practice.
First off, why is water so significant? Water is associated with the energies and qualities of the mind – which though pure and life-giving close to their source (i.e. pure Consciousness), as they move farther away they tend to become muddied and even polluted by the things it has picked up and internalized along the way.
Like all Consciousness, water is the source of all creation. It is playful, free, and appears to be constantly in motion – at least on the surface. In its depths, again, like Consciousness, water is absolutely still, quiet, and completely peaceful.
There are many more things we could say about the link between water and the energies of the mind, but for now, just know that whenever we work with water in our practice we are also working with our own mind, and ultimately divine Consciousness itself.
Rivers are sacred in our tradition because they nourish life. Each river is an embodiment of a goddess, a divine power (and not the other way around). For example, Gaṅgā is a spiritual force, and she is manifested in the river. But the physical river – no matter how vast and powerful – does not contain her full being any more than a statue or a drawing of her would.
Gaṅgā Mā (Mother Gaṅgā) is described in many ways, but she is universally recognized as the force of purity, power, and grace. To experience her is to return once again to our innate goodness, our natural state before it was “muddied” by all of our karmas, fears, pride, traumas and false beliefs.
She descends from the heavens and her power is so mighty that only Lord Śiva is able to tame and diffuse her force (he softens her impact by letting her get tangled in his hair before landing on earth, as seen in the image below).
Bathing, in this sense, is an opportunity to renew and refresh not just our bodies, but also our minds. And we do experience this, regardless of spiritual tradition or culture. Humans everywhere love to bathe – we love to experience that feeling of being rejuvenated and cleansed.
Now, because most of us do it every day, it is easy to take it for granted. However, in our tradition we recognize the profound value of everything in this universe, and experience it with gratitude and reverence. It is not a small thing to feel weary, exhausted, impure, and smelly – so much so that even you can not stand being in your own company – and then to have this divine, life-giving element pour over you and completely transform you into the shining opposite.
All of us have done things that we are not proud of, we have all experienced things that are so painful that we can not even bear to be with ourselves. Our path compassionately invites us then, to come to the sacred rivers, chief of all to Mā Gaṅgā, and let her wash away our shame. No matter how bad or impure or shameful we think we are, we know that this sacred bath is an opportunity to be freed from the weight of our shame. We can emerge cleansed, freed, and blessed by her mercy and grace.
This is why we say that even if you can not make the pilgrimage all the way to bathe in Gaṅgā or Yamunā or any of the holy rivers, each morning, in our own bath, we can make a prayer to her. You can ask for her grace and mercy. Experience that the water falling on your head IS her washing you clean. Let yourself feel that she is removing anything that is not authentic or needed, anything that has somehow gotten stuck to you and is weighing you down or making you avoid even your own self.
The Ritual Bath
There is an art and science to the ritual bath that can not be fully elucidated here. But the basic components are: people would first offer salutations to the Sun as the source of illumination, to the Earth as our foundation and Mother, and then to the river devī or devatā (for the ocean). Then they would enter the water, repeating their mantra. This way there is both inner and outer purification and cleansing.
Next, you would be sure to wash all nine gates to the body: the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, and the genital and anal regions. Yogis also make sure to wash the top of their head as it is also a place of opening in the subtle body.
Once you feel clean, you make your prayers and any saṃkalpas (sacred intentions). We also offer our gratitude to God and all beings for the myriad blessings in our life, and renew our alignment with the power of dharma.
In some cases, people also sip the water or ritually offer it back to the world with recitations of mantra (you may have seen people scooping water and pouring it back out slowly while repeating mantras). These are all different ways of deepening the practice.
Finally, we leave the bath with gratitude and the conviction that the divine has heard our prayers, that we are protected, and with fresh inspiration and love continue to our other tasks and activities.
Practices for Bathing on Jyeṣṭha Pūrṇimā
On this day, it is traditional to bathe in a river or other large body of water. You can also go to a body of water and sit next to it or meditate alongside it. Let your mind experience the power, freedom, and flow of pure water.
As mentioned earlier, if you don’t have a chance to go out to a large body of water, you can also do this as an inner practice and visualization in your own bath. No matter where you are, have the experience of Mā Gaṅgā blessing you and filling you with the power of pure life-energy, of purity, and of goodness.
-As you meditate, chant, or perform sacred practices, you can visualize your own consciousness, your own mind, as an endlessly moving stream of water. Instead of judging the movements, appreciate them, while also gently focusing and directing them to flow in the direction of their source – the oneness from which all things emerge.
-The moon is also traditionally linked to the mind, emotions, and also water. And of course we know that tides are created by the gravitational pull of the moon. So there’s a particularly strong connection between water and the full moon, almost as if the water leaps up to touch its light. Today, on the full moon, we invite you to notice and reflect on this relationship between the moon, emotions, and consciousness.
-Finally, you can also perform abhiṣekha, a ceremonial bath that is a component of longer pūjā ceremonies. It is a way of offering refreshment and expressing your love and devotion to the sacred power that you are invoking. Internally, we are also rejuvenating and illuminating that power within through this practice – cleaning the dust from the mirror, so to speak.
May you have an auspicious and healing practice of ritual bathing!
Teacher: Shivani Hawkins