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HOME > Religious Fiction > Paganism Surviving in Christianity > CHAPTER III. ASIATIC PAGAN WATER-WORSHIP.
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Fundamental Corruption of Christian Baptism through Pagan Water-Worship—“Baptismal Regeneration,” the Product of Paganism—Spiritual Purity Sought through Pagan Baptism—Testimonies from Jamblicus, Virgil, Ovid, Herodotus, Juvenal, and others—Baptism and Serpent-Worship—Baptism and Egyptian Sun-Worship—The Sacred Nile—The Prevalence of Water-Worship in India—Sacred Wells—Sacred Rivers—Modern Buddhistic and Modern Hindu Baptism.
Corrupting Influence of Pagan Water-Worship.

The work of corrupting Christianity went forward systematically, as though an enemy planned to undermine its fundamental truths and ruin the Church through internal errors. When allegorical methods had shorn the Bible of authority, and pushed God, as represented in his word, far away from men, the next important step was to corrupt the developing Church by a false standard of membership, thus planting a sure seed of decay in its heart. In New Testament Christianity, baptism—submersion in water—was the outward symbol of a new spiritual life, beginning through faith and repentance. As such it had a specific meaning,[72] and from the earliest times formed the door to membership in the Christian communities. He who accepted Christ as the Messiah, testified such acceptance by being “buried with him in baptism.” This was the sign of an inward purity which entitled the believer to a place in the community, and to the fellowship of “those who believed.”

It was not the agent by which purity was produced, nor the source from which the new spiritual life sprung. All this was changed by introducing the pagan idea. The materials for such a corrupting process were fully developed in the pagan world.

Various forms of baptism, and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, were common characteristics of pagan religion before the birth of Christ.

The pagan water-worship cult is secondary only to sun-worship, in age and extent. Its native home was in the East, but it appears in all periods and on both hemispheres. It had two phases: water as an object of worship, and as a means of inspiration; and water used in religious ceremonies to produce spiritual purity. These phases often mingle with each other.

This reverence for water, and faith in its cleansing efficacy, arose from the idea that it was permeated by the divine essence, from which it had supernatural power to enlighten and purify the soul,[73] without regard to the spiritual state of the candidate. This doctrine of baptismal regeneration was transferred to Christianity before the close of the second century, and through it the Church was filled rapidly with baptized but unconverted pagans.

Sun-worship and water-worship were closely united in the pagan cultus, as they were in the corrupted Christian baptism. For instance, one fountain noted by Jamblicus is described thus, by Bryant:

“From this history of the place we may learn the purport of the name by which this oracular place was called. Colophon is Col-Oph-On, Tumulus Dei Solis Pythonis, and corresponds with the character given. The river into which this fountain ran was sacred, and named Halesus; it was called Anelon, An-El-On, Fons Dei Solis. Halesus is composed of well known titles of the same God.”[62]

The following are the words of Jamblicus:

“It is acknowledged then by all men that the oracle in Colophon gives its answers through the medium of water. For there is a fountain in a subterranean dwelling from which the prophetess drinks; and on certain established nights after many sacred rites have been previously performed, and she has drunk of the fountain, she delivers oracles, but is not visible to those that are present. That this water, therefore, is prophetic is from hence manifest.[74] But how it becomes so, this, according to the proverb, is not for every man to know. For it appears as if a certain prophetic spirit pervaded through the water. This is not, however, in reality the case. For a divine nature does not pervade through its participants in this manner, according to interval and division, but comprehends, as it were, externally, and illuminates the fountain, and fills it from itself with a prophetic power. For the inspiration which the water affords is not the whole of that which proceeds from a divine power, but the water itself only prepares us, and purifies our luciform spirit, so that we may be able to receive the divinity; while in the meantime, there is a presence of divinity prior to this, and illuminating from on high.”[63]

Of another oracle Jamblicus says:

“The prophet woman too, in Branchid?, whether she holds in her hand a wand, which was at first received from some God, and becomes filled with a divine splendor, or whether seated on an axis, she predicts future events, or dips her feet, or the border of her garment in the water, or receives the God by imbibing the vapor of the water; by all these she becomes adapted to partake externally of the God.”[64]

Jamblicus also states that baths were a part of the preparation for being thus inspired. The same combination is shown by Virgil, in the following:


“He started up, and viewing the rising beams of the ethereal sun, in his hollow palms with pious form he raised water from the river, and poured forth to heaven these words: ‘Ye nymphs, ye Laurentine nymphs, whence rivers have their origin; and Thou, O Father Tiber, with thy sacred river, receive ?neas and defend him at length from dangers. In whatever source thy lake contains thee, compassionate to our misfortunes, from whatever soil thou springest forth most beauteous, hornbearing river, monarch of the Italian streams, ever shalt thou be honored with my veneration, ever with my offerings. O grant us thy present aid, and by nearer aid confirm thy divine oracles.’”[65]

Ovid, describing the feast of Pales, held in May, exhibits the same combination of sun and water-worship:

“Often in truth have I leaped over the fires placed in three rows, and the dripping bough of laurel has flung the sprinkled waters.... Shepherd, purify the full sheep at the beginning of twilight, let the water first sprinkle them, and let the broom made of twigs sweep the ground.... Protect thou alike the cattle, and those who tend the cattle, and let all harm fly afar, repelled from my stalls. Let that happen which I pray for, and may we at the close of the year offer cakes of goodly size to Pales, the mistress of the shepherds. With these words must the goddess be propitiated; turning to the East, do you repeat these words three times, and in the running stream thoroughly wash your hands.”[66]


In another place Ovid tells us of Deucalion and Pyrrha, resolving to seek the sacred oracles, in prayer, at the temple of the goddess Themis; he says:

“There is no delay; together they repair to the waters of Cephissus, though not yet clear, yet now cutting their wonted channel. Then when they had sprinkled the waters poured on their clothes and their heads, they turn their steps to the temple of the sacred goddess, the roof of which was defiled with foul moss, and whose altars were standing without fires.”[67]

The same combination appears among the Persians. Herodotus, describing the crossing of the Hellespont by Xerxes on his way to the invasion of Greece, says:

“That day they made preparations for the passage over; and on the following they waited for the sun, as they wished to see it rising, in the meantime burning all sorts of perfumes on the bridges, and strewing the road with myrtle branches. When the sun rose, Xerxes, pouring a libation into the sea out of a golden cup, offered up a prayer to the sun, that no such accident might befall him as would prevent him from subduing Europe, until he had reached its utmost limits. After having prayed, he threw the cup into the Hellespont, and a golden bowl and a Persian sword, which they call acinace. But I cannot determine with certainty, whether he dropped these things into the sea as an offering to the sun, or whether he repented[77] of having scourged the Hellespont and presented these gifts to the sea as a compensation.”[68]
Purity Sought through Baptism.

The pagan conception that water produced spiritual purity was expressed in many ways. Juvenal describes the custom of Roman women who sought to expiate their sins, committed in licentious revelries, as follows:

“She will break the ice and plunge into the river in the depth of winter, or dip three times in the Tiber at early dawn, and bathe her timid head in its very eddies, and thence emerging, will crawl on bending knees, naked and shivering, over the whole field of the haughty kings [the Campus Martius]. If white Io command, she will go to the extremity of Egypt, and bring back water fetched from scorching Meroe, to sprinkle on the temple of Isis, that rears itself hard by the sheep-fold. For she believes that the warning is given her by the voice of the goddess herself.”[69]
Mithraic and Gnostic Baptism.

The conception that water cleansed from sin was a prominent feature in Mithraicism and in gnosticism. King, who is authority on all gnostic questions, says:


“In my account of Mithraicism, notice has been taken of the very prominent part that sacraments for the remission of sin play in the ceremonial of that religion; the following extracts from the grand Gnostic text-book will serve to show how the same notions, (and probably forms) were transferred to the service of Gnosticism.

“‘Baptism Remitting Sins.’—(Pistis-Sophia) (298).

“‘Then came forth Mary and said: Lord, under what form do baptisms remit sins? I have heard thee saying that the Ministers of Contentions (?ριδα?οι)[70] follow after the soul, bearing witness against it of all the sins that it hath committed, so that they may convict it in the judgments. Now, therefore, Lord, do the mysteries of Baptism blot out the sins that be in the hands of the Receivers of Contention, so that they shall utterly forget the same? Now, therefore, Lord, tell us in what form they remit sins; for we desire to know them thoroughly. Then the Saviour answered and said: Thou hast well spoken; of truth those Ministers are they that testify against all sins, for they abide constantly in the places of judgment, laying hold upon the souls, convicting all the souls of sinners who have not received the mystery, and they keep them fast in chaos tormenting them. But these contentious ones cannot pass over chaos so as to enter into the courses that be above chaos; in order to convict the souls therefore receiving the mysteries, it is not lawful for them to force so as to drag them down into chaos, where the Contentious Receivers may convict them. But the souls of such as have not received the mysteries, these[79] do they desire and hail into chaos; whereas the souls that have received the mysteries, they have no means of convicting, seeing that they cannot get out of their own place, and even if they did come forth, they could not stop those souls, neither shut them up in their chaos. Hearken, therefore, I will declare to you in truth in what form the mystery of Baptism remitteth sins. If the souls when yet living in the world have been sinful, the Contentious Receivers verily do come, that they may bear witness of all the sins they have committed, but they can by no means come forth out of the regions of chaos, so as to convict the soul in the places of judgment that be beyond chaos. But the counterfeit of the spirit testifies against all the sins of the soul, in order to convict it in the places of judgment that be beyond chaos. Not only doth it testify, but also sets a seal upon all the sins of the soul, so as to print them firmly upon the soul, that all the Rulers of the judgment place of the sinners may know that it is the soul of a sinner, and likewise know the number of sins which it hath committed from the seals that the counterfeit of the spirit hath imprinted upon it, so that they may punish the soul according to the number of its sins; this is the manner in which they treat the soul of a sinner. (300) Now, therefore, if any one hath received the mysteries of Baptism, those mysteries become a great fire, exceeding strong and wise, so as to burn up all the sins; and the Fire entereth into the soul secretly, so that it may consume within it all the sins which the counterfeit of the spirit hath printed there. Likewise it entereth into the body secretly, that it may pursue all its pursuers, and divide them into parts—for it pursueth within the body, the counterfeit of the spirit, and Fate—so[80] that it may divide them apart from the Power and the Soul, and place them in one part of the body—so that the fire separates the counterfeit of the spirit, Fate, and the Body into one portion, and the Soul and the Power into another portion. The mystery of Baptism remaineth in the middle of them, so that it may perpetually separate them, so that it may purge and cleanse them in order that they may not be polluted by Matter. Now, therefore, Mary, this is the manner whereby the mystery of Baptism remitteth sins and all transgressions.

(301) “‘And when the Saviour had thus spoken, he said to his disciples: Do ye understand in what manner I speak with you? Then came forth Mary saying: Of a truth, Lord, I perceive in reality all the things that thou hast said. Touching this matter of the Remission of Sins, thou speaketh aforetime to us in a parable, saying: I am come to bring fire upon the earth, nay more; let it burn as much as I please. And, again thou hast set it forth openly, saying: I have a baptism wherewith I will baptize and how shall I endure until it be accomplished? Ye think that I am come to bring peace upon the earth? By no means so, but dissension, which I am come to bring. For from this time forth there shall be five in one house; three shall be divided against two, and two against three. This, Lord, is the word that thou speakest openly. But concerning the word that thou spakest: I am come to bring fire upon the earth, and let it burn so much as I please; in this thou hast spoken of the mystery of Baptism in the world, and let it burn as much as thou pleasest for to consume all the sins of the soul, that it may purge them away. And again thou hast shewn the same forth openly, saying: I have a baptism wherewith I will[81] baptize, and how shall I endure until it be accomplished? The which is this: Thou wilt not tarry in the world until the baptisms be accomplished to purify all the perfect souls. And again what thou spakest unto us aforetime: “Do ye suppose I am come to bring peace upon earth,” etc. (302) This signifieth the mystery of Baptism which thou hast brought into the world, because it hath brought about dissension in the body of the world, because it hath divided the Counterfeit of the spirit, the Body, and the Fate thereof, into one party, and the Soul and the Power into the other party. The same is, “There shall be three against two, and two against three.” And when Mary had spoken these things the Saviour said: Well done thou spiritual one in the pure light, this is the interpretation of my saying.’”[71]

The opinion of Simon Magus, a representative Gnostic, concerning baptism is expressed by King thus:

“The Kabbalists, or Jewish Gnostics, like Simon Magus, found a large portion of apostolic teaching in accordance with their own, and easily grafted upon it so much as they liked. Again the Divine power of working miracles possessed by the Apostles and their successors, naturally attracted the interest of those whose chief mystery was the practice of magic. Simon the Magician was considered by the Samaritans to be ‘the great Power of God’; he was attracted by the miracles wrought by the Apostles, and no doubt he sincerely ‘believed’—that is, after his own fashion. His notion of Holy Baptism was probably[82] an initiation into a new mystery, with a higher Gnosis than he possessed before, and by which he hoped to be endued with higher powers; and so likewise many of those who were called Gnostic Heretics by the Christian Fathers, were not Christians at all, only they adopted so much of the Christian doctrine as accorded with their system.”[72]
Baptism of Blood.

The importance which the sun-worship cult attached to baptism is further shown in the baptism of blood, which formed a prominent feature in the Mithraic system of atonement and spiritual enlightenment. This is commented upon by King as follows:

“The ‘Taurobolia,’ or Baptism of Blood, during the later ages of the Western Empire, held the foremost place, as the means of purification from sin, however atrocious. Prudentius has left a minute description of this horrid rite, in which the person to be regenerated, being stripped of his clothing, descended into a pit, which was covered with planks pierced full of holes; a bull was slaughtered upon them whose hot blood, streaming down through these apertures (after the fashion of a shower-bath) thoroughly drenched the recipient below. The selection of the particular victim proves this ceremony in connection with the Mithraic, which latter, as Justin says, had a ‘baptism for the remission of Sins’; and the Bull being in that religion the recognized emblem of life, his blood necessarily constituted the most effectual laver of regeneration. No more conclusive evidence of[83] the value then attached to the Taurobolia can be adduced, than the fact mentioned by Lampridius that the priest-emperor Heliogabalus thought it necessary to submit to its performance; and a pit, constructed for the purpose as late as the fourth century, has lately been discovered within the sacred precincts of the Temple at Eleusis, the most holy spot in all Greece.”[73]
Baptism at Death, and for the Dead.

The following throws light upon the pagan origin of baptism as a saving act, at death, and after death. Describing the nature of the mystic formul? which the Gnostics used, King says:

“The motive for placing in the coffin of the defunct illuminato these ‘words of power’ graven on scrolls of lead, plates of bronze, the gems we are considering, and doubtless to an infinitely greater extent on more perishable materials, derives much light from the description Epiphanius gives of the ceremony whereby the Heracleonit? prepared their dying brother for the next world. They sprinkled his head with water, mingled with oil, and opobalsamum, repeating at the same time the form of words used by the Marcosians in baptism, in order that his Inner Man, thus provided, might escape the vigilance of the Principalities and Powers whose domains he was about to traverse, and mount up unseen by any to the Pleroma from which he had originally descended. Their priests therefore instructed the dying man that as he came before these Powers he was to address them in the following words: ‘I, the son from the Father, the Father[84] pre-existing, but the son in the present time, am come to behold all things, both of others and of my own, and things not altogether of others, but belonging unto Achamoth (Wisdom) who is feminine, and hath created them for herself. But I declare my own origin from the Pre-existing One, and I am going back unto my own from which I have descended.’ By the virtue of these words he will elude the Powers and arrive at the Demiurgus in the eighth sphere, whom again he must thus address: ‘I am a precious vessel, superior to the female power who made thee, inasmuch as thy mother knoweth not her own origin, whereas I know myself, and I know whence I am; and I invoke the Incorruptible Wisdom who is in the father and in the mother of your mother who hath no father—nay, not even a male consort, but being a female sprung from a female that created thee, though she herself knows not her mother, but believes herself to exist alone. But I invoke the mother.’ At this address the Demiurgus is struck with confusion (as well he might be) and forced to acknowledge the baseness of his origin; whereupon the inner man of the Gnostic casts off his bondage as well as his own angel or soul, which remains with the Demiurgus for further use, and ascends still higher into his proper place.”[74]

We shall find that this pagan conception became very prominent in the early Church. The “being baptized for the dead,” of which Paul speaks, and which was much practised after the second century, sprang from this source; also delaying baptism until the moment of death.

Baptism and Serpent-Worship.

The serpent worshippers formed a prominent branch of the Gnostics, if they were not the originators of the system. Water-worship was a special and fundamental idea in their creed. Witness the following from King.

“The well-informed and temperate Hippolytus, writing at the most flourishing period of these transitional theosophies, thus opens his actual ‘Refutation of All Heresies,’ and his Fifth Book with the description ‘of that sect which hath dared to boast the Serpent as the author of their religion, as they prove by certain arguments wherewith he hath inspired them. On this account the apostles and priests of this creed have been styled “Naaseni,” from “Naas” the Hebrew word for serpent; but subsequently they entitled themselves “The Gnostics,” because they alone understood the deep things of religion. Out of this sect sprung many other teachers, who, by diversifying the original doctrines through inventions of their own, became the founders of new systems.’ Further on he has a passage bearing immediately upon this subject. ‘This Naas is the only thing they worship, for which reason they are called “Naaseni,” (i. e., Ophites, or Serpent-worshippers). From this same word Naas, they pretend that all the temples (ναο?) under Heaven derive the name. And unto this Naas are dedicated every rite, ceremony, mystery, that is; in short, not one rite can be found under Heaven into which this Naas does not enter. For they say the Serpent signifies the element Water; and with Thales of Miletus contend that nothing in the[86] Universe can subsist without it, whether of things mortal or immortal, animate or inanimate. All things are subject unto him; and he is good, and hath all good things within himself as in the horn of a unicorn, so that he imparts beauty and perfection unto all that is, inasmuch as he pervades all things, as flowing out of Eden, and divided into four heads.... This Naas is the “water above the firmament” and likewise “the living water” spoken of by the Saviour. Unto this Water all Nature is drawn, and attracts out of the same whatever is analogous to its own nature, each thing after its own kind, with more avidity than the loadstone draws the iron, the ray of the sea-hawk, gold, or amber straws. Then they go on to boast: We are the Spiritual, who have drawn our own portion out of the living water of the Euphrates that flows through the midst of Babylon; and who have entered in through the True Gate, the which is Jesus the Blessed. And we of all men are the only Christians in the Third Gate, celebrating the Mystery, being anointed with the ineffable ointment out of the horn, like David, not out of the earthen vessel, like Saul who conversed with the Evil Spirit of carnal concupiscence.’”[75]

The conception of water as a life-producing agent appears prominently in the religion of the Egyptians. They associated it with Osiris, the[87] life-producing god of the sun. Speaking of this King says:

“The symbols of the same worship have been to some extent explained by persons writing at a time when they were still a living though fast expiring language. Of such writers the most valuable is Plutarch, who in his curious treatise De Iside et Osiride, has given the meaning of several of these symbols, and, as it would appear, upon very good authority. According to him, Isis sometimes signifies the Moon, in which sense she is denoted by a Crescent: sometimes the Earth as fecundated by the waters of the Nile. For this reason water, as the seed of Osiris, was carried in a vase in the processions in honor of this goddess.”[76]

James Bonwick, F.R.G.S., says:

“The baptism of Egypt is known by the hieroglyphic terms of ‘waters of purification.’ In Egypt, as in Peru, the water so used in immersion absolutely cleansed the soul, and the person was said to be regenerated. The water itself was holy, and the place was known, as afterwards by the Eastern Christians, by the name of holy bath. The early Christians called it being ‘brought anew into the world.’ The ancients always gave a new name at baptism, which custom was afterwards followed by moderns. The Mithraic font for the baptism of ancient Persians is regarded as of Egyptian origin. Augustine may, then, well say that ‘in many sacrilegious rites of idols, persons are reported to be baptized.’”[77]

The Sacred Nile.

Pagan water-worship everywhere was closely associated with sacred rivers. Hardwick speaks of the Nile as follows:

“As the Nile, for instance, was a sacred river and as such was invoked in the Egyptian hymns among the foremost of the national gods, whatever bore directly on the culture of the soil, and the succession of the crops in every district of the Nile valley, was enforced among the duties claimed from husbandmen by that divinity. To brush its sacred surface with the balance bucket at a forbidden time was a crime equal in atrocity to that of reviling the face of a king or of a father.”[78]
Water-Worship in India.

Sir Monier-Williams describes water-worship in India as follows:

“Rivers as sources of fertility and purification were at an early date invested with a sacred character. Every great river was supposed to be permeated with the divine essence, and its waters held to cleanse from all moral guilt and contamination, and as the Ganges was the most majestic, so it soon became the holiest and most sacred of all rivers. No sin was too heinous to be removed, no character too black to be washed clean by its waters. Hence the countless temples with flights of steps lining its banks; hence the array of priests, called ‘Sons of the Ganges,’ sitting on the edge of its streams, ready to aid the ablutions of conscience-stricken bathers, and stamp[89] them as whitewashed when they emerge from its waters. Hence also the constant traffic carried on in transporting Ganges water in small bottles to all parts of the country.”[79]

Sacred wells abound in India, especially in and around the city of Benares. Mr. Williams describes some of these as follows. The one first noted is said to be sacred, because when a certain temple was destroyed by the Mohammedans the outraged god took refuge in this well; thus it became a sacred shrine. Mr. Williams says:

“Thither, therefore, a constant throng of worshippers continually resort, bringing with them offerings of flowers, rice and other grain, which they throw into the water thirty or forty feet below the ground. A Brahman is perpetually employed in drawing up the putrid liquid, the smell or rather stench of which, from incessant admixture of decaying flowers and vegetable matter, makes the neighborhood almost unbearable. This he pours with a ladle into the hands of the expectant crowds, who either drink it with avidity, or sprinkle it reverentially over their persons. A still more sacred well, called the Manikarnika, situated on one of the chief Ghats leading to the Ganges, owes its origin, in popular belief, to the fortunate circumstance that one of Siva’s earrings happened to fall on the spot. This well is near the surface and quite exposed to view. It forms a small quadrangular pool, not more than three feet deep. Four flights of steps on the four sides lead to the water, the disgusting foulness of which, in the[90] estimation of countless pilgrims, vastly enhances its efficacy for the removal of sin. The most abandoned criminals journey from distant parts of India to the margin of this sacred pool. There they secure the services of Brahmans, appointed to the duty, and descending with them into the water are made to repeat certain texts and mutter certain mystic formul?, the meaning of which they are wholly unable to understand. Then, while in the act of repeating the words put into their mouths, they eagerly immerse their entire persons beneath the offensive liquid. The longed-for dip over, a miraculous transformation is the result; for the foul water has cleansed the still fouler soul. Few Hindus venture to doubt that the most depraved sinner in existence may thus be converted into an immaculate saint, worthy of being translated at once to the highest heaven of the god of Benares.

“But to return to the temple of Visvesvara. I found when I visited it a constant stream of worshippers passing in and out. In fact, Siva, in his character of the lord of the universe, is the supreme deity of Benares. Not that the pilgrims are prohibited from worshipping at the shrines of other gods, but that Siva is here paramount, and claims the first homage. Yet this supreme god has no image; he is represented by a plain conical stone, to wit, the Linga or symbol of male generative power. The method of performing worship in this great central and confessedly typical temple of Hinduism, appeared to me very remarkable in its contrast with all Christian ideas of the nature of worship. All that each worshipper did was to bring Ganges water with him, in a small metal vessel, and pour the water over the stone Linga; at the same time ringing one of the bells hanging from the roof,[91] to attract the god’s attention towards himself, bowing low in obeisance and muttering a few texts, with the repetition of the god’s name. In this way the god’s symbol was kept perpetually deluged with water, while the crowds who passed in and out lingered for a time close to the shrine, talking to each other in loud tones. Nor did any idea of irreverence seem to be attached to noisy vociferation in the interior of the sanctuary itself. Nor was any objection made to an unbeliever, like myself, approaching and looking inside; whereas in the south of India I was strictly excluded from all the avenues to the inner Linga sanctuaries.[80] In the courts adjacent to the Linga were other shrines dedicated to various deities, and in a kind of cloister or gallery which encircled the temple, were thousands of stone Lingas crowded together carelessly, and apparently only intended as votive offerings. I noticed the coil of a serpent carved around one or two of the most conspicuous symbols of male generative energy, and the combination appeared to be very significant and instructive.”[81]

In another work Mr. Williams says:

“Passing on to the worship of water, especially running water, it is to be observed that river-water is everywhere throughout India held to be instinct with divinity. It is not merely holy, it is especially pervaded by the divine essence. We must, however, be careful to distinguish between the mere sacredness of either fire or water, and their worship as mere personal deities. In Rig-Veda, X., 30, X., 9, VII., 47, and other passages of the Veda, the Waters are personified, deified and honored as goddesses,[92] and called the Mothers of earth. In X., 17, 10, their purifying power, and in VI., 50, 7, their healing power, is celebrated. They cleanse their worshippers from sin and untruthfulness (I., 6, 22, 23).... The river Sarasvati—called the purifier in Rig-Veda, I., 3, 10—was to the earlier Hindus what the Ganges was to the later. She was instinct with divinity, and her influence permeated the writers of the Vedic hymns. Sometimes she is identified with the Vedic goddess, vac, speech, and invoked as the patroness of Science.”[82]

The confluence of the Ganges with the Jumna and Sarasvati is one of the most hallowed spots in India. Many other rivers are held as being especially sacred. The river Narboda is deemed by some to surpass all others. The mere sight of it cleanses the soul from all guilt. It makes all other waters sacred for thirty miles northward and eighteen southward. The banks of all the chief rivers in India are considered holy ground from their source to the sea. Pilgrimages, which continue for six years, are undertaken, the pilgrim going down one bank of the Ganges, and returning by another. Many hardships are incidental to such pilgrimages, but are counted light, and the greater the difficulties the greater the resultant merit.

In a still later work, Sir Williams describes the present baptismal custom in Thibet and Mongolia, as follows:


“It is noticeable that a kind of baptism is practised in Tibet and Mongolia. It is usual to sprinkle children with consecrated water, or even to immerse them entirely on the third or tenth day after birth. This is called Khrus-sol (according to J?schke). The priest consecrates the water by reciting some formula, while candles and incense are burning. He then dips the child three times, blesses it, and gives it a name. After performing the ceremony he draws up the infant’s horoscope. Then, as soon as the child can walk and talk, a second ceremony takes place, when prayers are said for its happy life, and an amulet or little bag is hung around its neck, filled with spells and charms against evil spirits and diseases.”[83]

Other writers support the foregoing, though Sir Williams is too high an authority to need confirmation. Alabaster says:

“Baptism was a religious rite from very ancient times, the Brahmins holding that if any one who had sinned went to the banks of the Ganges and saying: ‘I will not sin again,’ plunged into the stream, he would rise to the surface free of sin, all his sins floating away with the water; hence it is called baptism, or the rite of washing off offences, so that they floated away. Sometimes where any one was sick unto death, his relatives would place him by the river, and give him water to drink, and pour water over him till he died, believing that he would thus die holy and go to heaven.”[84]


Mr. Wilkins says:

“Dasahara: this festival commemorates the descent of the Ganges from heaven to earth, and is called Dasahara, because bathing at this season is said to remove all the sins committed in ten births, i. e., during ten different lives. This is a most interesting ceremony. Thousands upon thousands of the people bring their offerings of flowers, fruits and grain to the river-side, and then enter the sacred stream. It is a thing worthy of note that although in many places men and women bathe together, the men having simply a cloth around their loins, and the women often having the upper part of their bodies exposed, I have never seen the slightest impropriety of gestures on these occasions. In some festivals, as previously noticed, the grossest impropriety of language and gesture are freely indulged in: but at bathing festivals I have never noticed anything indecent. It is proper to bathe in the Ganges, for those who live near enough; but other rivers may take the place of the Ganges, and legends have been manufactured to show that their virtues are even greater than those of the Ganges; if there is no river convenient, then a tank can be substituted.”[85]
Modern Buddhistic Baptism.

The modern water-worship connected with Buddhism is described by Sir Monier-Williams in his latest book[86] as follows:


“In Burmah, where a good type of southern Buddhism is still to be found, the New Year’s festival might suitably be called a ‘water festival.’ It has there so little connection with the increase of the New Year’s light that it often takes place as late as the early half of April.[87] It is, however, a movable feast, the date of which is regularly fixed by the astrologers of Mandalay, who ‘make intricate calculations based on the position of various constellations.’ The object is to determine on what precise day the king of the Naths will descend upon the earth and inaugurate the new year. When the day arrives all are on the watch, and just at the right moment, which invariably occurs at midnight, a cannon is fired off, announcing the descendant of the Nath king upon earth. Forthwith (according to Mr. Scott) men and women sally out of their houses, carrying pots full of water, consecrated by fresh leaves and twigs of a sacred tree, repeat a formal prayer, and pour out the water on the ground. At the same time all who have guns of any kind discharge them, so as to greet the new year with as much noise as possible.

“Then, ‘with the first glimmer of light’ all take jars full of fresh water and carry them off to the nearest monastery. First they present them to the monks, and then proceed to bathe the images. This work is usually done by the women of the party, ‘who reverently clamber up’ and empty their goblets of water over the placid features of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Then begins the Saturnalia. All along the road are urchins with squirts and syringes, with which they have been furtively practising for the last few days. The skill thus acquired is exhibited by the accuracy of their aim. Cold streams of water catch[96] the ears of the passers-by. Young men and girls salute one another with the contents of jars and goblets. Shouts of merriment are heard in every quarter. Before breakfast every one is soaked, but no one thinks of changing his garments, for the weather is warm and ‘water is everywhere.’ The girls are the most enthusiastic, as they generally go in bands and carry copious reservoirs along with them; ‘unprotected males’ are soon routed. Then a number of ‘zealous people’ go down to the river, wade into the water knee-deep, splash about, and drench one another till they are tired. No one escapes. For three days no one likes to be seen with dry clothes. The wetting is a compliment.”[88]

“In Tibet there is a water festival in the seventh or eighth month (about our August and September). At this festival the Lamas go in procession to rivers and lakes and consecrate the waters by benediction or by throwing in offerings. Huts and tents are erected on the banks, and people bathe and drink to wash away their sins. It concludes with dancing, buffoonery, and masquerading.”[89]

Lydia Maria Child thus describes
Baptism among the Hindus:

“Water is supposed to cleanse the soul and guard from evil. When a child is born priests sprinkle it, and sprinkle the dwelling, and all the inmates of the house bathe. They do this from an idea that it keeps off evil spirits. People perform ablutions before they eat; and priests purify themselves with water, accompanied with prayers, on innumerable occasions. When a man is dying, Brahmins hasten to plunge him into a river, believing that the departing soul may be thus freed from impurities before it quits the body. Some rivers are deemed more peculiarly[97] holy and efficacious than others, such as the Ganges, the Indus, and the Chrishna; the water of the Ganges is used on all the most solemn occasions. Images of the deities are washed with it, and Brahmins are sprinkled with it, when inducted into the priestly office. Happy above other men is he who is drowned in that sacred stream. Once in twelve years the waters of Lake Cumbhacum are supposed to be gifted with power to cleanse from all sin. As this period approaches, Brahmins send messengers in every direction to announce when the great day of ablution will take place. The shores are crowded with a vast multitude of men, women, and children from far and near. They plunge, at a signal from the officiating Brahmin, and in the universal rush many a one is suffocated or has his limbs broken. Water from the Ganges is kept in the temples, and when the people are dying they often send from a great distance to obtain some of it. Before devotees put their feet into a river they wash their hands and utter a prayer.”[90]

These witnesses show us that water-worship and baptism, the water being variously employed, by immersion, sprinkling, pouring, etc., has formed a prominent feature in Oriental paganism from the earliest time until now. It passed from the Orient to Greece and Rome. Perhaps the stream from Egypt was an independent one, which came from the south. Before considering the immediate contact of pagan water-worship with early Christianity, it is necessary to note its existence outside of the Orient and Egypt.

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