Notion of Purity and Pollution in Hinduism

In March 1930, Dalit rights activist Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and social reformer B.K. Gaikwad staged a protest outside Kala Ram Temple in Nashik. The gathering of two eminent social activists and numerous other Dalits demanded that the lower-caste members be allowed entry into temples and sanctums.


In 2016, following a Bombay High Court order ruling in their favour, two women stormed the main sanctum of the Shani Shingapur village in Maharashtra. Previously, women were not permitted to enter the temple's main hall.


In 2019, several Dalit women were denied entry into a local Chamad Mandir in Khurja, Uttar Pradesh. In November of the same year, the Supreme Court of India decided to reconsider its order to prohibit entry to all women aged 12 to 50 to the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. This was possibly the most heated debate regarding the question of temple access.

The aforementioned headlines and news clips elucidate that certain members of Indian society, particularly menstruating women and lower-caste members, have traditionally been denied entry to sacred spaces such as temples. While Ambedkar's protest for Dalit entry into temples occurred before India's independence, more than seventy years of democratic governance have not changed people’s attitudes towards this issue. Newspapers continue to report the denial of entry to Dalits and women, which sometimes result in violent conflict and death too.


CASTE AND PURITY

The four-tiered caste hierarchy in Hinduism includes Brahmins, kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.
The four-tiered caste hierarchy in Hinduism (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The issue of untouchability roots from the Hindu belief of purity and pollution. Some caste groups fall outside of the caste system's four-tiered hierarchical classification (brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras)  and were referred to as untouchables. They carried out menial jobs such as cleaning toilets and disposing of the dead. In Hindu tradition, a dead animal or a dead person was believed to be the impurest of all. However, the untouchables were treated equally impure, and therefore, most fit to perform the crudest of tasks. Any higher sub-caste refused to touch or dwell near items that had been touched by them. Consequently, untouchables were denied entry to temples, hospitals, markets, shops, and other public areas. They lived in a separate section of town, far from the common village well and the nearest school.


If any upper caste member were to come in contact with an untouchable, a purification bath would cure them of the impurity and make them pristine again. Upper caste members would not drink water from a Shudra's home or eat food from a member of a caste lower than their own. They were adamant that touching, receiving, or accepting any object from a lower caste member, including food and water, would contaminate it. This idea is based on the assumption that all lower caste individuals are impure and so must not come in contact with eatables or drinks.


Several other caste restrictions are based on this false notion of purity. Endogamy, which involves marrying within one's caste or clan, is an example of the purity factor. Some tribes or caste groups believe that marrying beyond one's caste, particularly to a member of a lower caste, may bring impurities into the tribe.  Given this context, several caste groups have committed hate crimes against clan members who have violated endogamous rules.

Even today, the notion of purity and pollution dictates the lives of countless individuals in India. However, Hinduism is more than just a rigid caste system. Hinduism also emphasises tolerance and acceptance and teaches its followers to be inclusive of all religions. This openness and acceptance must be extended to members of the same religion as well. Manusmriti's purity concept is discriminatory and repulsive. No one should be refused access to public facilities or venues. The Constitution of India lists the freedom to practise one’s religion as a fundamental right. Visiting temples and worshipping deities is a way of practising one’s religion, and therefore, this fundamental right must not be denied to anyone based on a redundant caste practise.

GENDER AND PURITY

A menstruating woman is not allowed in temples and other holy places in Hinduism
Image via Unsplash

The same principle of purity and pollution was extended to menstruating women. In India and around the world, society shares a stigma pertaining to the discussion of menstruation, menstrual cramps, and sanitary napkins. Publicly acknowledging and conducting discourses of periods was considered taboo. To some extent, this taboo exists today as well.


Even though the menstruation cycle is a natural occurrence of a female's sexual and reproductive health, society has labelled its occurrence as an impurity. When women begin their menstrual cycle, they are automatically deemed as dirty or polluted. Hence, many Hindus believe she should not be allowed to enter sacred locations or participate in religious rites. During her menstruation period, a woman's participation in celebrations or ceremonies was also considered sinful on her part. Her blood discharge contaminated the holy atmosphere, tainting both the purity of the tradition and the holy entity to whom it was dedicated.


Due to this reason, many temples disallowed women from entering the sanctum or holy shrine of its compound. While a woman may choose to not attend religious proceedings during her periods, banning her entrance limits her autonomy and taboos menstruation. Advocating for the ban on the entry of women to the Sabarimala temple, a former Education Minister said that menstruating women “desecrate” any place of worship because menstrual blood is polluted and impure. By placing a ban on menstruating women, temples and shrines indicate that this natural process is disgusting, dirty, and deplorable. However, it is critical to understand that menstruation is interconnected to fertility, which is a sacred concept too as many people, especially farmers, pray to female goddesses for fertility and prosperity.

LARGER ISSUE

While worshipping in temples is perhaps one of the biggest manifestations and controversies surrounding the purity notion, there are many other notions of impurity or pollution that are unfounded. Regardless of one’s caste status, they must be provided access to clean drinking water, good food, and bathroom facilities, to name a few. One must not separate and isolate people from society because of their caste status. Efforts must be made to integrate lower castes into the larger society and understand their trials and tribulations. It is unethical and inhumane to use ancient Hindu texts to discriminate against those who are a part of our society.


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AUTHOR

Prerana Thakur

Pratha Content Writer

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