Water in Literature and Religion


            The present paper is an attempt to show the importance of water in literature and religion. Water, the driving force in nature, plays a significant role in literature and religion. It gives constant fuel to the fires of imagination and at the same time it is an intrinsic part of most spiritual beliefs and religious traditions.


The holy books of the Hindus explain that all the inhabitants of the earth emerged from the primordial sea. It means the earliest life forms appeared in water and the same is the source of all life. The entire universe is largely composed of water and that’s why it can’t exist without it. Leonardo da Vinci is of the view that ‘Water is the driving force in nature.’ According to Thoreau ‘Life in us is like the water in a river.’

Water has always fascinated humankind. As a result, it plays a very prominent and recurrent role in literature. It gives constant fuel to the fires of imagination. According to Githa Hariharan, ‘Water, the fountainhead of civilization as of life, flows through human expression through the ages.’ Given the importance of water to life, it is not surprising that as a potent symbol it flows through literature.

            Water is often used to symbolize various things in literature. The use of it as a symbol clearly has no set rules. Authors use it in different ways, representing different things, to make different points.

The symbolism of water has a universal undertone of purity, clarity, refreshment, mystery and fertility. As water is essential to our very existence, it is no wonder; the symbolism of water is so far-reaching and profoundly deep. Water is symbolic of motion, emotion, intuition and reflection. Water is, of course, mutable and sublime, sustaining and destructive, and throughout literature water serves as a representation not only of birth but of death, not merely of placidity but of violence. It holds the promise both of freedom and of enslavement, its shimmering surface inviting, and its depths mysterious and daunting. It is a universal symbol of change and is often present at turning points in a piece of art. Fresh water represents good health and polluted water symbolizes bad health.

In literature the river is a sign of ease, grace and fluidity. It is used to represent the calm beauty of nature. Certain types of rivers are often described as auspicious and healthy. A fast-flowing river is often used to symbolize strength; sometimes calamity. To Mark Twain water represents a boy's dreams, and a future of success. According to him ‘High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.’

The Ocean is a sign of power and strength, dominating all other symbols of water, due to its immensity. All life was Ocean-born and life still exists in the Ocean; therefore it represents life. This source of water is known for being unpredictable and uncontrollable, hard to navigate in time of storm and sometimes known for being beautifully calm. Sometimes, it is referred to as being a tear of God or the sorrow; a place where you leave your bad memories and sadness. The ocean is also known to symbolize hope, truth, and in some cases, mystery and magic.

 It is water in the form of the sea that has most captured the imagination of authors. The sea ‘keeps eternal whisperings around / Desolate shores,’ the poet John Keats observed, and those ‘eternal whisperings’ have been deciphered by writers for centuries, from Homer and Daniel Defoe to Walt Whitman and Edgar Alan Poe and Joseph Conrad, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and Stephen Crane's ‘The Open Boat’ to Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and John Barth's The Tidewater Tales. ‘Surely the sea / is the most beautiful face in our universe,’ the poet Mary Oliver declares. ‘The sea is History,’ writes Derek Walcott. In literature, the sea is whatever we dream and desire and fear.

William Shakespeare’s beautiful play The Tempest deals with the sea:

‘Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong 
Hark! now I hear them,—Ding-dong, bell.’

In The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls by H.W. Longfellow, water in the form of the ocean becomes a symbol for time, never ending and never changing, even as the things around it become different due to its existence. This is shown by the constant refrain, ‘The tide rises, the tide falls.’ In a more recent short story, Average Waves in Unprotected Waters, Anne Tyler writes: ‘Everything had been ruled by the sea.’

Using Water as a symbol in Hamlet, William Shakespeare says, “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, And therefore I forbid my tears.”

Sherlock Holmes held that ‘From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.’

In a beautiful composition Margaret Atwood mentions: ‘Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.’

Water is an intrinsic part of most spiritual beliefs and religious traditions. Its uses and symbolism in religion are many and varied; its spiritual and healing properties are seen in rites and rituals; and its representations are as numerous as they are diverse. These different religious and cultural aspects of water reflect the vast array of civilizations that have made water the central element in their practices. The act of providing drinking water is seen by many cultures and religions to be one of the most charitable human acts.

            Water is considered a purifier in most religions. Major faiths that incorporate ritual washing (ablution) include Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Immersion of a person in water is a central sacrament of Christianity. It is called baptism.  It is also a part of the practice of other religions, including Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. In addition, a ritual bath in pure water is performed for the dead in many religions including Islam and Judaism. In Islam, the five daily prayers can be done in most cases after completing washing certain parts of the body using clean water. Water is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, for example: ‘The earth was formed out of water and by water’. In the Koran it is stated that ‘Living things are made of water’ and it is often used to describe paradise.

In the Vedas, water is referred to as the ‘most maternal.’ In India, the sacred River Ganges embodies the water of life for Hindus. Legend has it that the Ganges is the river that flows beyond its earthly bounds to Moksha, the realm of Nirvana. The lotus-stream of the Buddha rises up from the waters of the soul, in the same way the spirit, illumined by knowledge, frees itself from passive existence.

The Koran cites the words ‘We have created every living thing from water’. In ancient Greece, the souls of the dead were ferried to rest across the dark waters of the River Styx. This river separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. In the New Testament, 'living water' or 'water of life' represents the spirit of God, or eternal life. At the beginning of the Judeo-Christian story of creation, the spirit of God is described as ‘stirring above the waters,’ and later, God creates ‘a firmament in the midst of the waters to divide the waters". Here God is called ‘the fountain of living waters’. In Christianity, water is intrinsically linked to baptism, which in itself is a public declaration of faith and a sign of welcome into the church of God. In baptism, water symbolises purification and the cleansing of the original sin. Purity and pollution are central to Zoroastrian belief. Pollution is considered evil, whereas clean water is sacred. It is forbidden to spit, urinate or wash one's hands in rivers for fear of blemishing the water's sacredness.

To conclude, water is part and parcel of literature and religion. The above mentioned examples clearly declare that it really plays a very prominent role in man’s life.


Palgrave F.T., The Golden Treasury, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rickett A.C., A History of English Literature, New Delhi: UBSPD,
Symmons C., ed., The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, London: University Books, 1980.


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