The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro; source: Brittanica
All of these findings make scholars think the people of Mohenjo-daro practiced a way of life centered around cleanliness, purity, and renewal.3 While the Great Bath is undoubtedly a unique feature for such an ancient city, this reverence for bathing is far from exclusive to the Indus Valley Civilization. Recognition of the bath as a collective, spiritual space may be one of the most universal human qualities of all, right up there with cooking.
Nowadays, nearly every American household has a bath or shower, but the first private bath didn't arrive in the States until 1842.4 Until the 19th century, public bathing was the norm — and a longstanding one at that. Archaeological evidence suggests our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors used natural bodies of water — especially hot springs if they were lucky enough to live near some — to clean and soothe their bodies after the hard work of finding food.5
Perhaps surprisingly, hygiene hasn't always been our primary motivation for taking a dip. To quote sociologist Julia Twigg, "The close association that we make of bathing with getting clean is a relatively recent one."6 In fact, during the early modern period, Europeans thought bathing was bad for you. They weren't necessarily wrong: Waterborne cholera was a common concern in Western nations at the time, thanks to a lack of sophisticated plumbing and sanitation.7
Europeans would wash their faces and hands regularly, and they made sure to change their undergarments often, but neither was a perfect solution. Upon meeting the first Europeans to arrive in America, the Indigenous people were a little surprised by their not-so-pleasant odor. They even tried to convince the Europeans to wash regularly, as was the custom among the Native Americans, to no avail. Yet, had the Europeans listened to Indigenous people's advice, historians believe they may not have spread so much disease around the continent.8
Image of the first public wash house in England; Source: Wikipedia
European attitudes toward bathing didn't change until the 18th century, when doctors began to notice — and write about — the connection between bathing and health. In the 19th century, a concerted campaign against waterborne illness further established bathing as a hygienic practice. During the cholera pandemic of 1826-1837, Liverpool resident Kitty Wilkinson invited neighbors to use her boiler to wash their clothes, an effective countermeasure against the disease. The city government took notice and eventually appointed Wilkinson superintendent of the newly opened, first-of-its-kind public baths and wash house in Liverpool.9
“European attitudes toward bathing didn't change until the 18th century, when doctors began to notice — and write about — the connection between bathing and health.”
Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness
If hygiene hasn't always been the primary purpose of bathing, what has? In many cultures, baths have been heavily associated with ritual purification and religious devotion. Take, for example, the sacred, central role the Ganges River has long held in Hindu life.
There are a few different myths surrounding the origins of the Ganges in the Hindu tradition. According to one promulgated by the Vaishnavites, the largest Hindu sect, the Ganges was made when the god Vishnu punched a hole in the heavens. A holy water, called "Vishnupadi," came flowing from the breach. As it fell, it created the Milky Way galaxy, and upon hitting the earth, the water became the Ganges.10
Descent of Ganga by Raja Ravi Varma, 1910. Source: Wikipedia
This story illustrates a deep connection between the Ganges and the creation of the universe itself, and it dramatizes the river's status as a crossroads between heaven and earth. The descent of the Ganges is celebrated every year by the Ganga Dashahara festival, during which Hindus bathe in the river to rid themselves of sin.11
Likewise, Japan's thriving onsen (Japanese for "hot spring") culture was born, in part, from the role of bathing in Japanese spirituality. Shinto, the country's indigenous religion, centers around the divinity of the natural world, including the holy powers of natural waters. Many Shinto customs require a ritual cleansing of some kind.12 Buddhism, another major religion in Japan, also has a tradition of bathing rituals to protect against disease and bring good luck. When Buddhism arrived in the country during the 6th century, many Buddhist temples established public bathing areas to help more people partake of these rituals.13
Onsen at Nakanoshima; Source: Wikipedia.
Bathing and water imagery are also important to Black American Christianity. As the writer Shamira Ibrahim notes in an article for Allure, "In many traditional Baptist sects, including majority Black congregations in the American South, baptism isn't historically perceived as merely a sprinkling of water on someone's forehead, but a full submersion in a body of water such as a river to cleanse one of their sins." Ibrahim draws a line between this contemporary practice and the spirituals sung by enslaved people in America, which often used water imagery to knit communities together and express a longing for liberation under the harshest conditions.14
A Long Soak and a Good Talk
Aside from being a source of spiritual fulfillment, baths have also historically been an excellent place to hang out. Ancient Rome is widely credited with making "bath time" and "leisure time" synonymous. Thanks to a sophisticated system of aqueducts, many Romans had steady access to fresh, clean water no matter where they lived. Much of that water was used to stock Rome's large public baths, called "thermae."15
While people certainly used these baths to clean off, the thermae also served as cultural and community centers. People from all walks of life — rich and poor; men and women; urban and rural — congregated and conversed in Rome's public baths. It was even common for politicians to camp out in the thermae to mingle with the people and win their support. And there was a lot more to do at the thermae than simply soak: Many bathhouses also contained exercise facilities, food courts, rooms for debate and discussion, and even public libraries.16
The Roman thermae often housed elaborate public artworks. The Farnese Bull, pictured above, was discovered in the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. Source: Wikipedia
Following the fall of the Roman Empire around 476 CE, Muslim political powers like the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires took control of many territories formerly governed by Rome. These empires continued Rome's bath culture in a modified form. Called "hammams," or "Turkish baths" in the West, the bathhouses of the Muslim world had a more expressly spiritual purpose. It is common in Islam to perform ablutions before prayer, and hammams were often located near mosques to facilitate that custom.17
But the hammams weren't purely religious. Like the Roman bathhouses, they served a social function, especially for women. Hammams were generally gender-segregated, which created one of the few female-oriented public spaces for women at the time. Women's hammams provided a place where women of all classes and backgrounds could slip out of their cultural constraints and simply socialize.18
“Women's hammams provided a place where women of all classes and backgrounds could slip out of their cultural constraints and simply socialize.”
Soothing the Troubled Soul
Among the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains in North America, steam baths in the form of sweat lodge rituals carry a healing, holy power. While the particular characteristics of sweat lodge ceremonies vary between tribes, they all involve a group of people entering the lodge for an extended period, often singing, praying, and talking together for the duration.19
A sweat lodge is a place of extremity; people gather together nude and bask in the great heat of the steam. The ritual is believed to effect a kind of purification and to bring participants closer to the spiritual realm and one another. Some consider a sweat lodge ceremony to be a kind of rebirth, and in some traditions — such as among the Sioux — it is thought that all who undergo a ceremony together become true relatives.20
Drawing of a Mesoamerican bath, called a “temazcalli.” Source: Wikipedia
In recent times, the transformative power of the sweat lodge has been explored as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among U.S. veterans. Located on the Spokane Veteran Affairs Medical Center campus, the Healing Lodge is a Native American sweat lodge where veterans can participate in ceremonies held by elders of the Spokane people.21
The history of the lodge stretches back to the 1980s. In the wake of the Vietnam War, many returning service members were diagnosed with PTSD. While the standard biomedical model of PTSD, and the attendant psychiatric treatment approach, worked for some, Native American veterans largely found the protocol ineffective. These veterans asked the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to implement a PTSD treatment program based on Indigenous healing practices, and the Healing Lodge was the result.22
PTSD treatment at the Healing Lodge, which is open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous veterans, is expressly spiritual and cultural. Elders who lead Healing Lodge ceremonies see PTSD as not a purely physiological phenomenon but a social and political condition that arises from being in conflict with others, whether in war or in everyday life. Mike Lee, an elder at the Healing Lodge, calls it "sickness as a result of people being in battle with people and self," which translates to "iwáyazaŋ azúyeya" in the Lakota language.23
To heal this sickness, participants are asked to confront head-on the violent undercurrent of traditional Western notions of masculinity. To quote Lee again, the sweat lodge ceremony offers people a place to
“share events, pain, and experiences, whether spoken or not, without explanation, it is understood. Able to refocus, release the toxins, sharing time with those who have similar experiences. … War has drawn us into and away from our center place, and is a way, but it is not the way. Until that changes, we need to cleanse our spirit, understanding we are Spirits having a human experience, and it is unnatural for the spirit to be in battle with other spirits, and we know it, and feel it.”24
As one veteran who participated in the Healing Lodge ceremonies puts it, "A committed group of Indigenous people share their worldview, giving attendees a new set of eyes with which to view and understand their place in the world. … Three and a half years after my first sweat lodge ceremony, the new set of eyes I gained have not only helped me learn to live with myself, but also to live better with the world and all of the spirits and beings who inhabit it."25
Take a Bath
Even if baths are today primarily associated with hygiene, we all know on some level that their ritual power runs much deeper. After all, who hasn't had that classic "shower thought" experience in which some clarifying epiphany suddenly strikes as you soap up? It could be a good idea to consciously reclaim that transcendental side of the bathtub — not only to reap more personal revelations but also as a means of reconnecting with ourselves and the people around us.
Granted, public baths are far less common than they once were — but, if you're comfortable with the notion, it may be worthwhile to seek them out from time to time. There's a reason they've acted as social hubs throughout history and across cultures: As you sink into the waters and your stress melts away, your guard comes down. From that kind of vulnerability springs a sense of communion and camaraderie.
If public baths aren't your scene, there's still plenty to be gained from the quiet time of bathing solo. As the journalist Sophie Bew, writing about a visit to an onsen for Vogue, recounts, "There's another, almost transcendental realization up for grabs while sat, quite literally navel-gazing, on a rock beside the pools to cool off. And that is a closer understanding of your own body." Bew likens it to a kind of meditation, an awareness of and appreciation for each and every body part — even the ones that, in our daily lives, cause us consternation or shame.
Rather than approach the shower as an occasion to wash up before rushing out, consider setting aside some time to simply sit with yourself in the warmth of the water and see where it leads you. You might be surprised just how deep those shower thoughts can get.