Living Water: Through the lens of Tirtha at Ganga

Living Water: Through the lens of Tirtha at Ganga

An effective tirtha is necessary if one hopes to encounter God.  Tirtha (Sanskrit तीर्थ) means “crossing place, ford”, and refers to any place, text or person that is holy.  Tirtha is a holy junction between worlds that touch and yet are different from each other. The word also appears in ancient and medieval sanskrit texts to refer to a holy person, or a holy text that can spur transition from one state of existence to another.

Tirtha-yatra is the process or journey associated with Tirtha, also known as Kshetra, Gopitha and Mahalaya in some traditions to refer to a “place of pilgrimage”.

We undergo tirtha-yatras for their potential to rejuvenate & purify our inner selves, and because there is spiritual merit in travel, a theme affirmed in the Vedic texts.  They assert that tirtha-yatra (journey to a holy place) is a way for us to redeem sins.  This journey can range from an inner meditation journey to physically traveling to famed temples or bathing in rivers such as the Ganges, probably the most important tirtha site.  Water is the most sacred symbol in Indian tradition, and water from the Ganges is especially so.  The goddess of the Ganges River is revered as Ganga Mata.

Ganges Water as Tirtha

The Ganges is sacred along its entire length.  The daily rituals, myths, practises of worship, and belief in the power of the goddess Ganga and her waters are all central to bhakti even today.  Ganges water is especially used in death rituals.  Ganges is thus the tirtha between the world of the living and dead. Ganges is said to be flowing in three worlds: heaven, earth, and netherworlds, refered to as triloka-patha-gamini. Thus it is at the tristhali (“three places”) of the Ganges where the rites of sraddha for the dead and visarjana of the ashes are performed the most.  Many want their ashes to be put in the Ganges River after death.

Ganges River in the Mountains

The Mythology of Ganges

Siva, also known as Gangadhara or “Bearer of the Ganges”, is said to be the companion of Ganga.  Siva’s role in the descent of Ganga is widely told in Vedic texts.  When Ganga descended to earth, Siva promised to catch her on his head so the fall wouldn’t shatter the earth. When Ganga fell on Siva’s head, Siva’s hair broke her fall and broke Ganga into seven streams, each flowing to a different part of India.   Therefore, if one cannot make the yatra to Ganges River, a yatra can be made to these other sacred streams that are believed to possess the same power as Ganga itself: Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu, and Kaveri.

The descent of Ganga is considered to be continuous; each wave of Ganga touches Siva’s head before touching the earth. Ganga is the liquid form of Siva’s sakti, or energy. Being a liquid sakti, Ganga is God’s incarnation, God’s divine descent, freely flowing for all. After the descent of Ganga, Ganga became the vehicle for Siva, being depicted to be on top of her vahana (vehicle) crocodile (makara) while Ganga holds a kumbha in her hands (vase of plenty).

Ganga Dasahara

To celebrate these mythologies every year there is a festival dedicated to Ganga, called Ganga Dasahara.  The festival runs for ten days in May and June, concluding on the tenth day of the month Jyeshtha. On this day, Ganga’s descent (avatarana) from heaven to earth is celebrated. A quick dip in the waters of Ganga or the other sacred streams on that day is thought to get rid of ten sins (dasahara) or ten lifetimes of sins.

Jesus: A Tirtha offering Living Water to you

Jesus used these very same concepts to describe himself.  He declared he was ‘living water’ giving ‘eternal life’ to a woman trapped in sin and desires.  In effect he was saying that he was a tirtha and the most important tirtha-yatra we can perform is coming to him.  This woman found that all her sins, not just ten, were purified once for all.  If you travel far to get Ganga water for its purifying power, then the ‘Living water’ offered by Jesus should be understood.  You do not have to undergo physical travel for this water, but as the woman discovered, you will have to undergo a journey of self-realization of your situation before his water can purify you.   

Here is the encounter recorded in the gospels.

Jesus Talks With a Samaritan Woman

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

John 4: 1-42

Jesus started the conversation by asking for a drink for two reasons. First, as it says, he was thirsty. But he (being a sage) also knew that she was thirsty in an entirely different way. She was thirsty for satisfaction in her life. She thought she could satisfy this thirst by having illicit relations with men. So she had had several husbands and even as she was speaking to Jesus she was living with a man who was not her husband. Her neighbours viewed her as immoral. This is probably why she had gone alone to get water at noon since the other women in the village did not want her along when they went to the well in the cool of the morning. This woman had had many men, and it alienated her from other women in the village. 

Jesus used the theme of thirst so she could realize that the root of her sin was a deep thirst in her life – a thirst that had to be quenched.  He was also declaring to her (and us) that only he could ultimately quench our inner thirst which so easily leads us into sin.

To Believe – Confessing in truth

But this offer of ‘living water’ threw the woman into a crisis. When Jesus told her to get her husband he was purposefully causing her to recognize and admit her sin – to confess it. We avoid this at all costs! We prefer to hide our sins, hoping no one will see. Or we rationalize, making excuses for our sin.  But if we want to experience the reality of God leading to ‘eternal life’ then we must be honest and admit our sin, because the Gospel promises that:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:8-9

For this reason, when Jesus told the Samaritan woman that

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth...

John 4:24

By ‘truth’ he meant being truthful and authentic about ourselves, not trying to hide or excuse our wrong. The wonderful news is that God ‘seeks’ and will not turn away worshipers who come with honesty like this – no matter how impure they have become.

But it was too difficult for her to admit her sin. A convenient way of hiding is to change the subject from our sin to a religious dispute. Today the world is full of religious disputes. In that day there was a religious dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews regarding the proper place of worship. The Jews stated that worship should be done in Jerusalem and Samaritans held that it should be on another mountain. By turning to this religious dispute she was hoping to divert the conversation away from her sin. She could now hide her sin behind her religion.

How easily and naturally we do the same thing – especially if we are religious. Then we can judge how others are wrong or how we are correct – while ignoring our need to confess our sin.

Jesus did not follow into this dispute with her. He insisted that it was not so much the place of worship, but her honesty about herself in worship that mattered. She could come before God anywhere (since He is Spirit), but she needed to come in truth about herself before she could receive this ‘living water’.

So she had an important decision to make. She could continue hiding behind a religious dispute or perhaps just leave him. But she finally chose to admit her sin – to confess – so much so that she went back to the village to tell others how this sage knew her and what she had done. She did not hide anymore. In doing this she became a ‘believer’. She had performed pujas and religious ceremonies before, but now she – and those in her village – became ‘believers’.

To become a believer is not simply mentally agreeing with correct teaching – important though that is. It is about believing that His promise of mercy can be trusted, and therefore there is no longer a need to cover up sin. This is what Abraham had modeled for us so long ago – he trusted a promise.

Do you excuse or hide your sin? Do you hide it with devout religious practice or religious dispute? Or do you confess your sin? Why not come before our Creator and truthfully confess sin causing guilt and shame? Then you can rejoice that He ‘seeks’ your worship and will ‘purify’ you from all unrighteousness.

The woman’s honest acceptance of her need led to her understanding of Christ as the ‘Messiah’ and after Jesus had stayed for two days they understood him as ‘the Saviour of the world’.  Perhaps we do not yet fully understand Jesus.  But as Swami John had prepared people to understand, by confessing their sin and need, this will prepare us to recognize how we are lost and need Living Water from Him.