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Can holy water wash away our sins?

In the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s conscience awakens after she murders Duncan traitorously. She begins to hallucinate and sees bloodstains on her hands. In a state of panic, she wrings her hands, trying to remove the stains. “Out, damn spot! Out I say!” she cries, as guilt engulfs her. The reader sees a connection between sin, salvation and physical cleanliness in this scene. Today, four centuries after the famous play was written, researchers Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist have concluded on the basis of a social experiment that this connection is a scientific fact.

The researchers are among the first to explain sin and its psychological impact on people theoretically. In their experiment, Zhong and Liljenquist asked volunteers to recall good or bad deeds from their past. Then, they told them to place the missing letters in the following words: W_ _H, SH_ _ER, and S_ _P. The results were astonishing as well as intriguing. Participants who recalled unethical acts wrote WASH, SHOWER, and SOAP, while individuals who thought about good memories formed random words like WISH, SHAKER, and STEP. This led the researchers to put forth a theory that when people think about their immoral actions, they mostly also think about salvation. They believe they have a grimy conscience that they want to ‘clean’ somehow, with water or through other means.

According to some religions and beliefs, yes. In the eastern part of the world, the practice of taking ceremonial dips in water is quite common, where an individual immerses himself in a water body that they believe is holy.


This is well known as the ‘Macbeth Effect’. This theory poses a serious question: Can people earn forgiveness and redemption by washing their sins off with water or any other substance?

According to some religions and beliefs, yes. In the eastern part of the world, the practice of taking ceremonial dips in water is quite common, where an individual immerses himself in a water body that they believe is holy. For instance, in Hinduism, scores of devotees take spiritual dips in the holy river of Ganges to attain salvation for their sins. Islam, on the other hand, recommends a ceremonial purification called Wudu to attain purity, which involves washing one’s hands, face and feet. In Christianity, people are baptised by sprinkling holy water on their forehead for the purification of the soul. In Japanese Buddhism, it is Tsukubai; whereas in Judaism, bathing in Mikveh is seen as the way to achieve purification.

The practice of seeking moral purity through bodily cleanliness has been around for ages. Escorting believers to the shore of salvation, these ceremonies seem to offer people an easy way out of the consequences of their negative actions. Indeed, some of us may find it difficult to wrap our heads around this concept. Is ‘holy water’ all one needs to clean his conscience, one might ask. As Zhong and Liljenquist themselves say, “There are surely limits to the absolution afforded by a bar of soap.”

According to the Bhagavad Gita, one can avoid the need for ritual purification by having a clear conscience. According to the Hindu scripture: “If you are desirous of quickly cleansing your heart, cultivate the company of a critic. When you tolerate his acrimonious words, your heart will be cleansed without water and soap.” Here, the critic could also mean a figurative situation that compels a person to commit a sin. In such circumstances, if individuals can just stand their ground and let the adversarial moment pass, they can avoid the burden of immorality on their souls.

In short, instead of taking a shower at home after committing an immoral deed, people should learn to analyse their actions. By practising self-reflection, they can figure out who they are from the inside. This would show them the line between right and wrong, and teach them why committing an immoral act is an attack on their own spirit. Self-realisation, therefore, is the best way to cleanse one’s soul.

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