Suddhi, Purity and Cleanliness in Hinduism


Shiva, the God of Pure Consciousness

by Jayaram V

Summary: This is a comprehensive essay on the ritual and spiritual importance of purity in Hinduism, the various types of impurities that afflict the mind and the body and their purification (suddhi).

Among all the modes of purification, purity in (the acquisition of) wealth is declared to be the best; for he is pure who gains wealth with clean hands, not he who purifies himself with earth and water. Manu Smriti (1.106)

The body is cleansed by water, the internal organ is purified by truthfulness, the individual soul by sacred learning and austerities, and the intellect by (true) knowledge. Manu Smriti (1.109)

Purity is an important aspect of Hindu ritual and spiritual practices. The Vedas extol Brahman as a pure being. His essential state is pure consciousness which is free from modifications and impurities. His manifested aspect, Isvara, is considered to be his pure reflection in the field of Nature, and utmost purity (suddha sattva) is said to be his essential nature.

Cleanliness has great significance in Hinduism. The heaven (svah) is a pure realm. The earth (bhu) and the mid-region (bhuva) are mixed worlds, and the underworld (patala) is an impure place. They only can reach the heaven (svah) who are pure like the heavenly beings. Therefore, Hindu scriptures emphasize the importance of cleanliness and purity in the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of humans upon earth, and prescribe self-purification for salvation.

Light, wisdom, discernment, righteousness, divinity, prosperity, happiness, pure karma (punyam) auspiciousness, cleanliness, health, strength, mental brilliance, intelligence, vigor, name, fame, success, austerity, immortality and morality are considered aspects of purity only. Their basis is the predominance of Sattva, which is one of the triple modes of Nature and which is synonymous with purity.

Impurity is characterized by darkness, delusion, ignorance, egoism, evil conduct, evil desires, selfishness, sickness, death, disease, adversity, suffering, sorrow, conflict, poverty, sin (papam), weakness, lust, pride, envy, anger, cruelty, violence, grossness, sensuality, duality, attachments, bondage, vanity, etc. They manifest in beings due to the predominance of Rajas and Tamas, which are the other two modes of Nature, and which are synonymous with impurity.

Predominance of purity leads to freedom, a higher birth in the next life, enlightenment or liberation, whereas the prevalence of impurities leads to sinful karma, bondage, lower birth, mental darkness and suffering. Hence, Hindu spiritual and ritual practices are essentially purificatory practices. They emphasize the importance of cultivating purity, be it prayer, worship, meditation, righteous conduct, yoga or austerity. Their aim is to purify the person, his environment, the world, family, ancestors or life itself so that he or she can become free from sinful karma, transgressions, bondage and suffering.

Suchi, Subhrata, Subham, Yogam, Pavitrata, Nirmalata, Punyam are some of the common Sanskrit words used to denote purity or cleanliness.  Asuchi, Asubharata, Asubham, Apavitram, Malinyam, Papam are their counterparts which denote impurity or uncleanliness. Shuddhi or Vishuddi refers to the process of purification.

Reason for impurities

Mortal life is an impure life. Mortal world is an impure world. Hence, whoever lives upon earth and suffers from births and deaths is not free from impurities. Impurities arise due to the embodiment of the individual souls (atman) by Nature, which is the source of all impurities and the reason for the bondage of the souls. The body which is a manifestation of Nature is an impurity in itself. So are all the aspects or finite realities of Nature namely the elements (bhutas), the senses, the mind, ego and intelligence.

By nature, the souls are eternally pure. They cannot be tainted even when they are enveloped by the impurities of Nature. However, in the mortal world they become enveloped by the impurities of Nature, whereby their purity becomes concealed and beings come increasingly under the influence of Nature and her Maya. The pure (suddha) souls which are caught in the impurities of Nature are said to be in bondage (baddha).

In the mortal world, beings accumulate impurities for various reasons. They may arise due to one’s own actions, the actions of others or the acts of God. They may arise due to intrinsic or extrinsic factors some of which may be beyond one’s control. Impurities may also arise due to sinful and intentional disregard of the established laws (aparadham) or tradition (apacharam) with varying consequences for the people who indulge in them according to their circumstances. According to the Puranas as creation progresses from epoch (yuga) to epoch, the mortal world becomes increasingly impure. The current epoch, Kaliyuga is considered the most impure of all.

Sources of impurity

The following ones are a few important sources of impurities according to Hinduism.

Due to birth (janma dhosha): They are believed to arise due to past life sins and identified by the natal charts. Children who are born on inauspicious days or at inauspicious time are believed to be a problem to themselves, their parents, family or spouses.

Due to death: A dead body is considered an impurity. Death of a close family member or contact with a dead body or funeral pyre or visiting a funeral ground warrants ritual purification and cleansing. Tradition regards women who have lost their husbands to death as impure.

Due to karma: Karmic impurities arise due to desire-ridden actions, sinful karma or evil actions. They are difficult to overcome since they may last for several lives and may remain unresolved even with the best of efforts. They may also affect other people and their destinies.

Due to Nature: Impurities such as ignorance (ajnanam), delusion (moha), desires (asha), attachments (pasas), egoism (aham), evil tendencies (danava pravritti), the triple gunas, modification of the mind and body, etc. are induced by Nature only. Tradition regards menstruating women impure, so also women who are infertile or cannot give birth.

Due to the organs in the body: Hinduism views the body as an impurity in itself. Impurities may arise due to the activities of the bodily organs, due to the presence of impurities (dhosas) in the body or due to the uncleanliness (asuchi) of the body itself. Certain bodily acts are also considered impure and require cleaning or bathing.

Due to the displeasure of gods: Negligence or irregularities in the performance of obligatory duties or sacrificial rituals or offerings may displease the gods and cause them to act adversely or withdraw their help, making the worshippers vulnerable to evil influences and sinful karma.

Due to fate or circumstances: Impurities may also arise due to fate (vidhi), chance or acts of God (daivika). For example, a person may become tainted by accidentally touching an impure object, uttering wrong mantras, visiting impure places  or inadvertently err in performing duties.

Due to time: Time (Kala) in Hinduism is another name for Death, which is an impurity in itself. Hence, to avoid its evil influence, tradition recommends that actions should be initiated or performed when the time is favorable and auspicious (subha ghadia) according to the calendar. 

Due to place or direction: In Hinduism certain places are considered inauspicious or impure because of their location, alignment of directions, nearby structures, past activities or ownership, and presence of snakes, ghosts, evil people, demonic forces, etc. Vastu dhosas (faults in building design) also come under this category.

Due to planetary influence: According to Vedic astrology the alignment of planets exerts both positive and negative influence upon people and their destinies.  Those influences may last for years or for a short time. Some of them can be neutralized by performing specific rituals.

Due to the association with evil people: Because of their deluding and deceptive nature and evil influence, the company of evil people results in the accumulation of sin and impurities (sahavasa dhosas). Hence, according to Hindu ethics one should avoid evil people and cultivate association with virtuous ones (satsanga).

Due to evil conduct: Because of the predominance of rajas and tamas, which are impurities in themselves, people engage in sinful actions and accumulate impurities. Under their influence people succumb to evil desires and temptations. Due to lust, anger, pride, envy, greed, etc., they commit mortal sins and fall down into the lowest worlds.

Types of purification

One of the redeeming feature of mortal life is that impurity is a temporary condition, which can be overcome with effort. Be it sickness, an obstacle or an adversity, impurities are believed to be responsible for the ills of human life. The scriptures suggest several purification methods to overcome them, which can be broadly classified into three namely ritual, spiritual and ethical. They are described below. They may lead to physical purity (deha suddhi or bhuta suddhi), mental purity (mano suddhi) and spiritual purity (atma suddhi).

Ritual practices

They include domestic worship (puja), prayers, invocations and supplications (prarthanas), ritual baths,  bathing in sacred rivers, ritual cleansing with smoke (dhupa), light (dipam) and water (achamanam), sprinkling (abhisheka) of ritual water, ritual purification to remove evil eye, sacraments (Samskaras), sacrificial ceremonies (homas and yajnas), expiation ceremonies (prayascitta), wearing of charms, amulets and sacred objects, abstaining from food or certain foods (upavasa), perming long term and short term penances (vratas), going on pilgrimages, performing special ceremonies such as anga nyasa (invoking the presence of the deity in the body), reading, writing or recitation of scriptures and certain sacred names and chants, obtaining the blessings of pious people, eating ritual food and making offerings of ritual food to gods, animals, and ancestors.

Spiritual practices

They are self-transformative practices such as austerity (tapah), celibacy (brahmacharya), regulated breathing (pranayama), concentration (Dharana), contemplation (dhyana), contemplation of God (nidhi dhyasa) and silence or restraint of  speech  (mauna). Mention may also be made of mental worship (manasa puja), recitation of God’s names (japa), devotional singing (kirtana and bhajana), devotional services (charya) such as sweeping the temple flour, preparing the ritual material and serving the guru. The six yogic practices (kriyas) namely Netī (nostril cleaning), Dhautī (cleaning of the digestive and respiratory tracts), Naulī (cleaning of the abdominal region with circular motion), Basti (cleaning of the lower abdomen), Kapālabhātī (cleansing of the brain), Trāṭaka (a meditative technique to awaken the third eye) are also purificatory practices only.

Ethical practices

By ethical practices we mean practices which promote righteous conduct, predominance of sattva, religiosity, morality, physical and mental discipline and wellbeing, upholding of Dharma, order and regularity of the world, adherence to the prevailing social and moral laws, peace, happiness, truthfulness, equanimity, detachment, renunciation and liberation. Ethical practice constitutes good karma. Hence, it is purifying in itself. The scriptures suggest several ethical practices to cleanse the mind and body, which are summarized in the Yoga Sutras as Yamas (restraints or abstentions) and Niyamas (rules or observances). Important restraints are nonviolence, non-stealing, truthfulness, celibacy and non-covetousness. The common observances are cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-study and devotion. Apart from these, Hindu tradition also recommends righteous practices such as charity (dana), compassion, selfless service, respect to parents, elders, guests, teachers and seers, the practice of right speech, right thoughts and right attitude.

Purifiers or Cleansers

Purifiers possess the power to prevent, cleanse, remove or neutralize the impurities or make things and people pure and auspicious. Hinduism recognizes certain objects, places, events, actions, people, beings and phenomena as purifiers or cleansers, having the power to cleanse sins, cure diseases, remove adversity, bring good fortune or exorcise evil spirits. They are listed below.

Prayers and rituals: Hinduism contains many auspicious mantras, prayers and rituals which have the power to remove impurities and ensure peace, prosperity, happiness and wellbeing.

Sacrifice: Giving up a favorite object, food, addiction, habit, temptation, attachment, weakness, vulnerability or bodily part such as hair to a preferred deity as an offering has a purifying effect.

Scriptures: Scriptures such as the Bhagavadgita, Bhagavatam or the Ramayana are purifiers in themselves. The general belief is that by carrying them or keeping them in the house one can drive away evil powers or sanctify it.

Good deeds: Sin (papam) is the cumulative effect of all the impurities that are present in a person and their consequence. The antidote to sinful karma is meritorious karma (punya) or virtuous actions.

Auspicious speech: The Upanishads recognize speech as a purifier and compare it to Brahman. The purifying power of the Vedic mantras comes from the power of righteous speech only.

Breath: Of all the organs in the body, only breath is impervious to desires and evil temptations. Hence, the Upanishads extol it as a great purifier and the lord of all the organs in the body.

The Sun and the moon: In Hinduism they represent the immortal world and the world of ancestors respectively. They are also regarded as divinities and ritually worshipped to overcome impurities.

Sacred rivers: They have great significance in Hinduism as divinities and purifiers. They are also worshipped on specific occasions to overcome sins. River Ganga is considered the best purifier.

The Sacred mountains: In Hinduism mount Meru represents the whole creation. Many mountains such as Kailash are venerated. To overcome sins, devotees visit them or circumambulate them.

Sacred trees: Hindus scriptures identify certain trees such as the Asvattha, Banyan tree, Jammi, etc., as sacred or abode of gods. They are worshipped to overcome defects and evil influences.

Sacred places: Places associated with the lives of gods, incarnations, seers and sages, or great historical events such as Mahabharata war are traditionally revered as purifiers or sanctifiers. 

Sacred animals: Hindus revere many animals such as the bulls, cows, horses, elephants, etc. Cows are the most venerated. Cow milk, dung and urine are used in rituals as purifiers.

Sacred food: In Hinduism food has both medicinal and spiritual value. Food offered to gods or blessed by holy men is considered beneficial. Sattvic food leads to the predominance of sattva.

Auspicious time: As stated before, actions performed during auspicious time or on auspicious days such as festivals are conducive to purity since they are meritorious acts and free from evil.

Temples: Visiting temples, sleeping in the temple premises, worshipping or serving the gods in the temples, temple building, etc., said to have the power to neutralize even the gravest sins.  

Gods and goddesses: The scriptures suggest that the divinities have the power to remove defects and impurities to free the souls from bondage and suffering. Hence, they emphasize bhakti yoga.

Sacred syllables: Bijaksharas such as Aum, Hrim, Aim, etc., are regarded as purifiers in Hinduism. By chanting them, one can cleanse the mind and body and progress on the spiritual path.

Sacred symbols: Aum and Swastika are well-known purifying symbols which can lead to peace and prosperity. Other purifying symbols are Shivaling, conch shell, Sri Chakra, Yantras, Saligram, etc.

Blessings: Holy men such as yogis, sadhus, renunciants, great devotees, ascetics and wandering monks may have the power to remove sins and purify. Hence, people seek their blessings.

Divine grace: Certain sectarian traditions in Hinduism believe that no one can achieve liberation without the grace of God or guru. Hence, they recommend surrender and devotion for liberation.

Virtuous conduct: The conduct which is induced by the predominance of Sattva and the ideals of Dharma lead to the purification of the mind and body and the suppression of rajas and tamas. 

Penance: Tradition holds that austerities (tapah) increase heat (tapa) in the body and burn away the impurities. Ritual penance (vratam) is a well-known purification method in Hinduism.

Devotional service: Hinduism prescribes many devotional activities (charya) for self-purification and removal of sin such as serving in the temples, serving the deities, worshipping, teaching, etc.

Charity: Traditionally the gifting of cows, land, gold, food, clothes, knowledge, etc., to Brahmanas, pious and needy people, is prescribed for self-purification and removal of suffering.

Knowledge (Vidya): The antidote to the impurities of ignorance (avidya) and delusion (moha) is knowledge only. Knowledge means the knowledge of the Self and liberation.

The Yoga Philosophy on purity and cleanliness

Yoga in itself is a purification process. Its essential purpose is removing the impurities and the obstacles which arise from them and facilitate the absorption of the mind. The Yoga Philosophy recognizes the importance of purity in achieving peace and equanimity. When the mind is pure it reflects the object with clarity, thereby improving its ability to see things as they are and discern truth. When it is impure it remains distracted and deluded. A pure mind or pure consciousness can easily absorb itself into any object and experience oneness with its essence. Therefore, it sees things not only objectively as they appear but also subjectively as they are. We experience a very diluted version of that seeing as empathy because our minds lack that penetrating power.

Patanjali attributes the obstructions or the disturbances (citta viksepas) and afflictions (klesas) which prevent the mind from being stable and peaceful to the impurities in the mind and body. The Yoga Sutras (1.30) lists several of the disturbances such as disease, apathy skepticism, negligence or carelessness, laziness, attachments, misunderstanding (bhranti), misapprehension, instability, lack of concentration, which in turn lead to pain, suffering, negativity, weakness in the limbs and breathing problems. They keep the mind in a state of flux and distracted. The scripture states that with devotion to God (Isvara Paridhana) by concentrating upon the symbol of Aum as his representation, one can overcome them and stabilize the mind.

It further states that the lucidity of the mind (citta prasadanam) arises by cultivating the virtues of friendship (maitri) towards cheerful people, compassion(karnuna) for the suffering ones, happiness towards virtuous ones, and indifference (upeksha) towards evil doers. When the impurities are fully removed, including the latent impressions (samskaras), one attains unlimited knowledge (ananta jnana). The afflictions (viksepas) are ignorance, egoism, desires, aversion (dvesha) and clinging to life (abhinivesa). They are obstacles to Samadhi or oneness of the mind and can be overcome through meditation. By the destruction of these impurities through the practice of yoga one attains discerning wisdom (viveka khyati).

Physical cleanliness

Hinduism also emphasizes the importance of physical cleanliness. It is an essential aspect of Vedic Dharma and the order and regularity of the world. In Hinduism, cleanliness is the pathway to holiness. Spiritual purity cannot be attained without physical and mental purity. The Dharma Shastras prescribe several rules for observing cleanliness in personal life and impose penalties and observances for transgressions. Ensuring personal hygiene, clean living conditions and a clean way of life form part of the practice of the Hindu Dharma and way of life.

The law books urge householders and students to observe cleanliness as an obligatory practice. In ancient India every day upper caste people had to perform morning ablations, brush their teeth, take a bath in a river or stream, wear clean clothes and apply collyrium to their eyes before offering prayers to gods. They had to clean themselves whenever they stepped upon impure objects, passed through impure places, entertained impure thoughts or encountered impure conditions. Earth, water and ashes were the usual means to remove physical impurities. People were obligated to wash their hands and feet before entering any home, temple, ritual place or a sacred place or before performing any sacred duty or eating food. The rules of cleanliness ordained for householders became “double for students, treble for hermits and quadruple for ascetics.

The law books also prescribe several rules regarding how one may drink drinking water and ritual water or eat sacrificial food, or where one may sit and study, perform a ritual, respond to natural calls or eat food. They also prescribe norms regarding the clipping of hair, wearing clothes, where and how to sleep, how to engage in sexual union without incurring physical or spiritual impurity, etc. According to Manusmriti, a teacher must begin his instruction by teaching his pupils about personal cleanliness, purity, code of conduct, fire sacrifice and evening prayers.

A twice born Brahmana should not step intentionally on certain objects such as things used for cleansing the body, the water used for a bath, urine, blood, mucus, etc., and anything that has been spat or regurgitated. It also suggests that the students of the Vedas may interrupt their study or recitation if the place where they do it is impure or when they themselves are impure.

Manu also prescribed specific rules and methods to clean vessels, metal objects, utensils, liquids, Soma cups, sacrificial vessels, spoons, ladles, wooden objects, skins, woolen clothes, vegetables and so on. He suggested that land or the earth should be cleaned by five modes namely sweeping, smearing with cow dung, sprinkling with cow urine or milk, scraping and by letting cows stay there for a day and a night. Food that has been pecked by birds or smelled by cows or defiled by sneezing, hair or insects can be purified by scattering earth over it. He also prescribed rules of cleanliness for women.

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