Throughout human history, civilisations have been built around natural sources of water, for example an oasis in the desert, a tidal port or the fertile floodplains of a river. With such an integral role in humanity’s development there is little wonder that water holds great symbolism within religious worldviews, for example: the Vedas state that 'the waters are the foundation of all this universe'; the Torah states that in the beginning, G-d’s spirit 'hovered over the waters' before anything was created; Guru Granth Sahib calls water 'our great Father'; Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as 'the water of life', and in the Qur’an, the word 'Sharia' means 'the path to water'. This resource list will help the religion and worldviews teacher of KS3 and above explore some of the many symbolic meanings that water holds in religious traditions. 

Water in rituals in religions in Asia: a case study


by Ahmmed Raihan, published by We Art Water Festival 4, (2018)

This short film was made as part of the We Art Water Festival by Bangladeshi filmmaker Ahmmed Raihan and showcases the importance of water across various religious worldviews. We meet a Buddhist monk, a Hindu priest, a Christian friar and a Muslim imam, who each speak about the importance of water in their ceremonies, worship and daily rituals. Throughout each example we see the symbolism of water as life-giving and purifying. The resource could also be used in student investigations about how some areas of the world have many different religious traditions. 

The importance of water and water conservation

Loving Water Across Religions: Contributions to an Integral Water Ethic

by Elizabeth McAnally, published by Orbis Books, (2019), 9781626983076

This book is an exploration of the ethical and spiritual importance of water for life on earth. McAnally gives a thorough overview of the geographical processes that involve water, as well as the various water crises that humanity faces at the moment, along with political and environmental issues. Rather than succumbing to fear of our future, she seeks to provide some answers for how we can face these challenges. After discussing rituals, myths and actions relating to water across various religious traditions, McAnally offers up some contemplative, mindfulness practices, which can be used across religious or non-religious traditions, to help foster an ‘integral ethic’ whereby water is appreciated and not taken for granted. 

Applying geographical discipline to the world’s largest religious ritual

Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral Megacity

by Rahul Mehrotra, published by Niyogi Books, (2017), 9789385285073

At the confluence of three rivers – two physical and one mythical – the world’s largest religious gathering takes place at the pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela. This happens through a 12-year cycle. Over 49 days, 220 million people will come to a place where drops of Amrita, a nectar which provides immortality, was dropped during an ancient battle between the gods and demons. Pilgrims come to this site to bathe in the waters to be purified from sins and hope to break free from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This book applies geographical and architectural disciplines and shows how structures are put in place to support such a huge number of pilgrims. Students could explore the practical considerations, and how modern technology is being used to support ancient traditions. The practical issues are further explored in this clip, which shows how AI technology is being used to support safety at the festival.

Cold Water endurance for purification- a Shinto Ritual

Misogi, Traditional Japanese Ritual

by Terence Wang, published by FCA Life in Fukui, Japan, (2021)

Within Japanese Shinto traditions, the Misogi ritual allows priests to be cleansed of their sins and also to be cleansed on behalf of others. This video diary shows Terence preparing for and then taking part in the Misogi ritual, giving first-hand insight. Misogi also shows the importance of physical strength and willpower for those participating as this is a cold-water endurance test. This idea has been taken up in wider, secular cultures around the world, with many espousing the benefits of stepping outside our comfort zones and setting ourselves challenges. This resource offers the opportunity to explore the importance and symbolism of water in a religious tradition not usually studied in the classroom. 

Audiovisual clip

Sacred Wonders - Spirit-hunting in Bali

published by BBC One, (2019)

Holy water is collected from the sacred springs located at the Besaki Temple in Bali, Indonesia, where an annual 2 day battle against evil spirits is fought.

Further materials

Iraq's Mandaeans celebrate baptism feast, published by Al Jazeera English, (2021) Watch this video
Wudu: Islamic Washing Before Prayer, published by Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, (2016) Watch this video
Belief File: A Sikh journey to commitment, published by BBC Two, (2012) Watch this video
What is the Jewish Ritual Bath? The Mikveh an Orthodox Woman’s video diary., published by YouTube, (2022) Watch this video
Ruth Marx teaches Religion and Worldviews, is a Consultant for Religious Studies and PSHE, a Farmington Fellowship Scholar and a published blogger on Re:Online.

Text © Ruth Marx, 2023.