Snanam in the Hindu Tradition

Water purifies the body and the mind. It rejuvenates the spirit. It liberates the psyche. The waters of the Ganga River can even erase karma from the past and give moksha, or cessation from the cycle of birth and death. From ancient times Hindu texts have extolled the therapeutic, spiritual and erotic power of water. Most religious texts recommend an early bath around 4 o'clock, which is considered the Brahma muhoratham or most auspicious time. The Vedas recommend that bachelors should have a bath once a day, married people twice a day and saints three times a day.

The Garuda Purana extols the virtues of snanam in the following manner,

Water nourishes and sustains the spirit as well as the body. Water is high among the elements, as it purifies and uplifts the individual from the mundane to the transcendental. Mountain water, spring water, and rainwater collected are highly beneficial and considered noble by the wise. 1

Taking a bath in spring water, rainwater or river water can bring benefits to both body and mind. These benefits can be further multiplied if you were to chant a Sanskrit mantra called the snaman mantra before taking a bath. Since the snanam mantra has to do with water, if you were to take some water in your right palm and recite the following verse your mind could be lifted from the mundane into the sublime:

apvithra: pavitrova sarvasthaam gatopivaa,
ya: smaret pudareekaaksham sa: baahyaabhyantara shuchi:
sri harirhari: pundarikakshaaya nama: iti atmanam prokshya

After reciting the mantra you could sprinkle some water in different directions to purify the place.

Hindi Translation of the Snanam Mantra

In Hindi, the mantra can be understood in the following manner;

Hindi mein yeh is prakaar hai:

apvitra: pavitrova sarvasthaam gatopivaa ,
ya: smaret pundareekaaksham sa: baahyaabhyantara shuchi:

iska arth hai - pavitra ya apvitra ... kisi bhee avastha ko praapt (gatopiva) (kaisa bhee vyakti ) yadi pundareekaaksha (pundareek + aksh = kamal + nayan - arthaat vishnu) ka smaran kare to vah baahar aur bheetar (baahya+ aabhyantar) se pavitra (shuchi:) ho jaataa hai . shree harirhari: pundareekaakshay nama: iti aatmaanum prokshya . (pandit ji hatheli par jal daalte hein aur vyakti se peene ke liye kahte hein , aur us samay aisa bolte hein ....)-- is prakaar ( iti ) apne aap ko (aatmaanum) jal se pavitra karke ya jal se ponch kar ya shuddha karke (prokshya) shree hari vishnu ko naman karo.

For those who do not understand Hindi, an English translation follows.

The English Translation of the Snanam Mantra

Whether a person is pure (pavitra) or impure (apvitra) that is, a person might be in any situation or condition, he can still realize his goal. Gatopiva means any kind of person. Vadi pundareekaaksha means the lotus-eyed Vishnu (pundareek plus aksh plus kamal plus nayan  means Lord Vishnu). If one recites the name of the lotus-eyed Vishnu then he will from both inside and outside (baahya plus aabhyantar) become pavitra or pure (shuchi). Panditji or the Hindu priest places Ganga jal or Ganga water on the palm of a person's hand and asks him to drink it and then recite the snanam mantra. In this manner (iti), on one's own accord (aatmaanum), one could purify oneself, or wipe oneself or purify oneself (prokshya) while taking the name of Shree Vishnu.

In the Hindu tradition there are two kinds of bathing - the bathing of the body and the bathing of the mind. The first begins with "Om apo-hish-ta may-o-bhuva" and ends with "Om-apo-jana-yatha cha-na." This is then followed by sprinkling water on the head, chest and feet. The notions of pollution and purification are quite important in daily life, social gatherings and festivals. The Indian festival Deepawali, for instance, is associated with fire which destroys evil, but the daily ritual of snanam also removes iniquity and malevolence. Both fire and water are seen as cleansing agents, literally and symbolically. Deepawali commemorates the victory of Lord Ram over Ravana. Some also see it as a victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narakasura. Deepavali symbolizes the victory of light over darknes - Thamasoma Jyothirgamaya or from darkness to light. Deepawali falls on a new moon or
'amaavasya' in the aasweyuja month of the Hindu (Lunar) calendar. On Naraka Chaturdasi, the day before Deepawali, Lord Krishna took a bath to cleanse the blood and grime from his battle with Narakasura. Hence, it is customary to take an oil bath ('nalugu pindi snanam') before sunrise.

Purifying life through snanam is not just for divine beings. Ordinary beings too can clean themselves with a bath. During the Kumbh mela at Prayag Raj (Allahabad) millions of Hindus from all parts of India take a dip in the Ganga River believing that this act will bring them untold merit. Some say that on festival days the water of the Ganga River transforms itself into nectar and anyone who bathes in it will erase all his sins. Recently biologists are talking about the contamination of river water from industrial effluents and the unhygienic condition of such waters, but this has not undermined the belief of people in the magical properties of Ganga water.

Most physical exercises in India require a bath before their commencement. Yoga recommends that before doing the Hatha Yoga2, or Pranayam3 it is important to take a bath. A ritual cleansing begins with washing the head and then moving down to the feet. Through snanam we not only control the body but also purify the mind. Water functions both as a physical phenomenon and a symbol.

The corporeal body is mostly composed of water. When we practice the yogic matsyasana (fish posture) and meditate with the intention of becoming one with water we can control the water in our body. The Tantric tradition associates water with the sense of taste. It believes that washing our bodies can sharpen our chemoreception. Tantra teaches us that a bath before sex can enhance pleasure. At times, taking a bath can also be associated with the joy of freedom, privacy and understanding the passage of time. A cold bath releases negative ions, refreshes the body and strengthens psychic forces. Once it was customary for Indians to wash their hands and feet before entering their homes, but modernization has made such rituals rather difficult to sustain.

Not only in the Hindu but also in the Buddhist tradition bathing has great significance. Rules for using public bathing facilities were clearly laid down for bhikkus or Buddhist students. The bhikkus were not allowed to sport in water, nor allowed to rub their bodies against wood or against each other. They were allowed to shampoo their hair, but not to use wooden objects or string of beads to rub their bodies while taking a bath. If a bhikku suffered from skin scabs he was permitted the use of a mallaka or back scratcher made of slit crocodile teeth. Even entry into a jantaghara or hot bathrooms had established norms. A bhikku who entered the hot bath had to first remove the ash from the place, pound chunam (quick lime), moisten clay and fill the jar with water. Junior Bhikkus were expected to allow freedom of movement to senior bhikkus by not crowding the bathing space. If a bhikku was getting out of the bathing area etiquette demanded that he give way to the one entering it. The one who came out last had to do the cleaning. Bhikkus were prohibited from combing their hair or using a mirror after a bath.

In the Hindu tradition water stands for rejuvenation, prosperity and the male-female principle. Lord Vishnu is the lord of the water and his consort Lakshmi the mistress of prosperity. Therefore bathing in a river can activate the forces of Vishnu and Lakshmi in our life. When we recite the mantra "Eh-vang" we exhort the water of the river to carry our spirit to Vishnu, the source of rejuvenation. Eh-vang also stands for the male and female principles and the fusion of fire and water. The Lakshmi Tantra has the following advice for bathers,

One should bathe the body with running water; then apply perfumes and ointments. This type of bathing should be combined with breath control. The effect is to destroy both inner and outer dirt and make a person fit for spirituality.

The efficacious power of bathing cannot be overstated.

A story in the Hindu scriptures highlights the illusory character of water - the Maya -  that encompasses life and death. Narada Muni once asked Lord Vishnu to explain the meaning of Maya or the illusive creative power of the gods. Vishnu said that it cannot be explained but only experienced.

Narada Muni argued with Lord Vishnu that If you cannot explain the power you use to create then I will not believe in you.

Vishnu realized that if humans like Narad did not believe in the concept of Maya that gods employed, then the fate of the gods will become uncertain. So Lord Vishnu left his serpent conch and took Narad Muni for a walk. When they entered a desert Vishnu felt thirsty and sat under a tree. He asked Narad Muni to take a pitcher and get some water from an oasis and when he will return Vishnu will explain the mystery of Maya to him.

Narad found a well beside a hut. He knocked at the door and a beautiful girl opened the door. She looked at him and then disappeared inside. Her eyes reminded him of the compelling eyes of Vishnu. The girl's parents requested Narad Muni to eat and rest for a while before he took the pitcher of water back. Narad agreed, thinking about the beautiful girl. Night fell and her parents again urged him to stay on and leave in the morning. When Narad awoke in the morning he saw the girl bathing by the well. Looking at her he forgot the pitcher of water he had promised for Lord Vishnu. When the girl's parents offered her hand in marriage Narad Muni readily accepted. Nearly twelve years went by.

During this time the couple had children, Narad Muni's parents-in-laws died and he inherited property. Then floods came in the desert washing away his house. He waded through the water with his children on his shoulders and his wife by his side. He tried to grab hold of his wife who was getting swept away by the current when he lost hold of his children. He and his entire family disappeared in the flash flood.

Narad lost consciousness and awakened in the lap of Vishnu sitting under a tree. Narad Muni noticed that Vishnu's eyes reminded him of his wife. "Narad, where is the pitcher of water you were supposed to bring for me?" inquired Lord Vishnu.

"You mean everything that happened to me did not happen?" inquired Narad Muni aghast.

Lord Vishnu only smiled enigmatically. Probably Lord Vishnu was teaching Narad Muni the illusory character of life and death knit together by the central symbol of water.

Most parts of India are hot and dusty. Bathing becomes an important activity to remove the grime and dirt from the body. Therefore many ancient Indian texts often highlight the therapeutic and symbolic significance of snanam. Over the centuries the notion of snanam has entered daily life, social gatherings and festivals of most Indian communities. Some people prepare themselves for twelve years to go to Allahabad to have a bath in the Ganga River called kamya snanam, while others are satisfied with an ordinary bath or nitya snanam. There are yet others who have a bath in rain when the sun is shining; this is called the dhivya snanam. There are so many different kinds of snanam each bringing its own benefits.

Today snanam has become the sine qua non of good health, serenity and hygiene.

1. Garuda Purana: The word purana means antiquity and garuda or eagle symbolizes detachment and knowledge. Garuda was the son of Vinita who was the daughter of Dakshaprajapati. Garuda's father was the sage Kashyapa. Free from worldly attachment, he was able to acquire all human knowledge. Since he was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, he became Lord Vishnu's vehicle. In the Hindu scriptures garuda is also described as a friend of Lord Vishnu and as a Sarva Veda Mya Vigraha or a detached person possessing knowledge of all the Vedas. The Garuda Purana is translated into English by J.L. Shastri and available in three volumes.

2. Hatha Yoga: There are seven basic types of Yoga - Hatha, Laya, Mantra, Bhakti, Karma, Jnana, and Raja Yoga. Hatha Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word ha which means the sun and tha, which means the moon. As such Hatha Yoga is the yoga of establishing a balance between the physical and mental aspects of life. It is a yoga that combines the ability to act and the ability to reflect upon the universe. Hatha yoga aims at regulating breathing and harmonizing its positive (sun) and negative (moon) currents in the body. Today hatha yoga is practiced for both health and vitality. Kundalini yoga stimulates the spiritual life force, which lies at the base of the spine or kundalini and is a combination of raja, hatha, tantra laya and mantra yogas. Kriya yoga means to do something or make effort in order to transform. This is a combination of jnana and bhakti yogas.

3. Pranayam: Kundalini Pranayam is the yogic process of consciously creating and sustaining a definite ascending and descending flow of Cosmic Prana through the cerebral-spinal channel. Pranayam is a breathing practice in Yoga. It helps tremendously to control one's breathing, and through that, one's mind, and then body.


More by :  Mukesh Williams

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Views: 3933      Comments: 2

Comment most informative. Thanks

Maya Putos
06-Jan-2013 02:11 AM

Comment Very informative. Thanks.

anil prasad
16-Sep-2012 13:07 PM

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