Wash your hands and sing! Purification via Water and Word
28 March 2020
Sacred water can be anywhere. That is what seems to emerge from the flow of information currently circulating on handwashing and purification tips. Against the current dramatic global sanitary crisis, this information is symptomatic of a desire of (re) appropriating the sacred and the sanctification process.
Washing hands has become one of the essential “weapons” against the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. While our pragmatic modern societies are working on quick and efficient medical answers to the contamination, lots of voices are also rising to advocate the use of prayers and/or inspirational songs while washing hands. For this large panel of religious and non-religious agents, the action of washing hands advised by medical professionals is not sufficient to answer comprehensively the current crisis. Backed up by unprecedented means of communication (IT and social media), these “upgraded” handwashing initiatives spread not only via the agency of religious authorities, but also through personal initiatives.
Wash and Sing
Following the craze of tweeted singing suggestions, some sites started listing the best songs to sing while washing hands – for instance, “Songs to sing while washing hands: Coronavirus hand-washing songs”. Singing has an obvious entertainment purpose and it forces the practitioner to keep washing for an appropriate amount of time, 20 seconds according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also helps the singer to assimilate the washing steps and to cheer up during an anxiety-inducing situation. In the process, the gesture is ritualized, which represents, for new forms of spirituality, an individual appropriation of a purification process.
Wash and Pray
Religious authorities and spiritual practitioners are not to be outdone: The net is flourishing with posts suggesting to accompany handwashing with prayers and recitations. The poster below, for instance, was circulated by Catholic authorities (here a diocese in Vendée, France). It copies the pictograms currently circulated by the French government about how to wash hands, and it adds a prayer to be recited alongside. The poster is entitled “How to wash hands ‘the Catholic way’ ”.
The poster ascribes a part of the Pater Noster (or alternatively the Salve Regina) to each basic gesture of hand hygiene. This association could be read as a mnemonic method to remember the different steps of the handwashing. It also has spiritual virtue since the poster ends with the following sentence: “Clean hands save lives… and prayers saves souls!”
If reciting a prayer while washing hands is not a daily practice in Christianity, it remains an essential step for the celebrant before and during Mass (especially before beginning the Eucharistic prayer). During the celebration, a liturgical bowl and ewer are used. Many churches have also preserved their “lavabo” (or “piscina” or “sacrarium”), a stone basin that was constructed in the sacristy for the priest to wash his hands before starting the Mass (lavabo-s are also found in monasteries’ cloisters and refectories).
For purification purposes, the lavabo rite includes the pronunciation of a psalm (Psalm 25). It brings the priest into a state of ritual purity, necessary for him to accomplish his duty of intermediary and divine agent.
Comparative overview: Islam and Judaism
In Judaism and Islam, ritual hand washing is not reserved for religious authorities, but is prescribed to everyone on several occasions. The Wudū, or ritual ablution of Islam, is an essential purification process in the context of the religious practice, either the formal prayer (salat) or before handling and reading the Qur’an. The gesture and recitations that go along are prescribed with details by the respective religious traditions. Wudū fountains and tanks are pivotal architectural elements of the Islamic prayer place, the masjid.
It is noteworthy that, in the urban context, an important part of the religious landscape developed around the need for creating a sacred space for codified ablution rituals: ablution tanks attached to mosques in the Islamic context, Jewish mikveh-s, Brahmanic kund-s (temple tank), Buddhist chōzuya-s (water ablution pavilion), etc.
In Judaism, ritual handwashing, or netilat yadayim, is a daily practice extended to several occasions and not restricted to worship and religious activities. It is for instance prescribed to everyone upon arising, before/after eating bread, after leaving a cemetery, upon leaving a bathhouse/room, or after touching part of the body which is dirty. Water has to be poured abundantly and a blessing is pronounced.
As an essential corner stone of Jewish spirituality, the idea of purity (ṭaharah) is accompanied by detailed precepts on the different grades of cleanliness and methods of purifying unclean objects or body parts. Recent discussions on the significance of purity in the study of Judaism associate pure/impure classifications with a cosmology proposing a social arrangement of the world (see, for example, Douglas, Mary. 1973. Natural Symbols. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Pelican Books. Neusner, Jacob. 1973. The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism. The Haskell Lectures, 1972-1973. Leiden: Brill). Just as physical distancing is prescribed to avoid the contact with the unclean, “the social body draws lines, restricts admission, expels undesirables and guards its entrance.” (Frimpong 2011: 89)
In South Asia
We recognize here strong similarities with the South Asian experience of purity, though Douglas insisted on the universality of these anthropological concepts. Impurity and pollution are indeed strong spiritual and social markers of South Asian cultures, which is particularly prominent in Hinduism. Here, water plays a crucial role as ultimate purification element (and potential agent of inclusion or exclusion). In Hinduism, water is necessary to answer ritual and moral impurities and is thus present in all the rituals, may they be daily routine rituals, rituals linking to particular stages of life or exceptional rituals. Here also the water gets its purification properties from its association with the recitation of appropriate mantra-s. The highly codified Brahmanic tradition gives detailed prescriptions about the gestures, positions, visualizations, mantra-s, intonation and coordination of these parameters. The smallest inaccuracy invalidates the rite.
The ritual called Āchamanam (आचमनं) is about consecrating water and consuming it. It aims at eliminating physical and mental pollution. Its performance is an essential part of the Sandhyavandana (संध्यावन्दन), a set of rituals to be performed three times a day by Hindus that have been initiated through the sacred thread ceremony. Vaishnavist and śhaktit Purāna-s like the Bhāgavata Purāna or the Devi Bhāgavata Purāna describe how to perform the Āchamanam. Interestingly, Āchamanam practices are closely linked with the so-called “Narayana-kavaca Shield”, a Vaishnavist protection against fear and revealed by the Vedic deity Indra.
This crucial Hindu rite show affinities with Vedic material and Zoroastrian practices (that also emphasize ablutions). Both these traditions foregrounded questions of hygiene and physical, mental and spiritual purification.
This brief overview of some of the important rituals present in the big religious Indo-European traditions shows how much Water and Word are tied together for spiritual purification objectives. Today, singing while washing hands can be understood as a (only partly conscious) revival.
— Sara Keller
Sara Keller is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in medieval Indian history, especially water works in western India.
 Frimpong, A.D. 2011. Purity and Impurity: Menstruation and its Impact on the Role of Akan Women in the Church. PhD thesis.