Monday, December 29, 2014

The Concept of Swacchata in Hindu Dharma

Nithin Sridhar

(An edited version of the article was published in Swarajya Magazine on December 9th, 2014 under the title- "Is Swacchata part of our culture?")

With India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching Swacch Bharat Abhiyan to clean up the streets of India on October 2nd, 2014, the concept of “Swacchata” or “Cleanliness” has taken a centre stage in the national discourse. As a result of this initiatives, many people are voluntarily coming forward and participating in efforts to clean up the surroundings. Many celebrities have also pledged their support for such initiatives. There is a large-scale awareness among the masses about the importance of keeping the surroundings clean.

But, this sudden enthusiasm among the people towards cleanliness should not be misconstrued to mean that the concept of “Swacchata” is alien to Indian culture and that the present enthusiasm is only due to modern day outside influences. The stereotype that India is a country of filth, garbage and pollution with no concept of cleanliness and hygiene has been propagated for long enough that people have come to associate uncleanliness with Indian-ness. Though it is true that, the streets of India indeed needs a thorough clean-up and the people should be made aware about the importance of cleanliness and hygiene. But, to even suggest that “Uncleanliness” is inherent among Indians and by implication it is rooted in Hindu Dharma is derogatory to say the least (1). In the face of such baseless criticisms, it becomes vital to understand the concept of cleanliness or “Shaucha” (as it is called in Sanskrit) that is propounded by Hindu Dharma.

Shaucha as a basic duty of all people:

“Shaucha” is considered as one of the vital elements in leading a Dharmic life. The Hindu scriptures time and again stress the importance of Shaucha. Daksha Smriti (2) states that a person should ever try maintain Shaucha in whatever work he engages in and without such an adherence to purity, all actions and works becomes fruitless. “Shaucha” literally means both cleanliness and purity. The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali describe Shaucha as-

शौचात्स्वाङ्गजुगुप्सा परैरसंसर्गः || (2.41)
सत्त्वशुद्धिसौमनस्यैकाग्र्येन्द्रियजयात्मदर्शनयोग्यत्वानि च|| (2.41)
Shaucha is that from which there arises dislike i.e. dispassion towards one’s body and detachment towards contact with others. Shaucha gives rise to purity of mind, contentment, one-pointedness, conquest of the senses and competency to attain Atma-Darshana (Self-Realization).

Hence, Shaucha not only refers to the cleanliness of the surroundings but also to the purity of body and mind. In fact, Shaucha refers to those qualities (with respect to purity) that make an object or a person competent for a specific use or a specific task as the case may be. For example, Shaucha of a utensil may refer to whether its clean or dirty that will decide whether it is suitable or not for kitchen use. Similarly, Shaucha in context of a Brahmachari (a student learning Vedas etc.) refers to all those actions like bathing daily (3), abstaining from liquor, meat, sex etc. (4) that are prescribed for him. It is practice of these tenets of purity and cleanliness in thoughts, speech and action that will lead a person to purify his mind and attain Self-Realization. It is for this reason, the Yoga-Sutras prescribe Shaucha as one of the four Niyamas (5) or duties that is to be practiced every practitioner of Yoga. The same sentiment has been expressed in Manu Smriti that declares-

अहिंसा सत्यम् अस्तेयं शौचम् इन्द्रियनिग्रहः |
एतं सामासिकं धर्मं चातुर्वर्ण्ये अब्रवीन् मनुः || (10.63)
Non-Violence, Truth, Non-Stealing, Cleanliness/Purity and Sense-Control are the duties that are common for all four classes, so declares Manu.

Hence, Cleanliness or Purity- whether it is cleanliness of the surroundings or the hygiene of the body or the purity of speech and mind, they are all considered as an obligation, a basic duty of all human beings. And if any person is violating this tenet of Shaucha through his thoughts, speech or action, then he is violating Dharma (Righteousness and Obligatory Duty). Such an adharmic action is termed as Paapam-a sin that would result in sorrow for that individual.

External and Internal Shaucha:

The Hindu philosophy divides the concept of Shaucha into two types- External Cleanliness and Internal Purity. Veda Vyasa in his commentary on Yoga-Sutra (6) describes External Shaucha as removing the impurities of objects using clay and water and Internal Shaucha as removing the impurities of mind. Hence, External Shaucha refers to cleanliness with respect to a person’s body, various objects a person comes into contact with and cleanliness with respect to the surrounding environment. On the other hand, Internal Shaucha refers to the purity of actions, speech and thoughts of a person.

Shaucha regarding Environment:

The environment is given utmost importance in Hindu philosophy. This becomes clear if one goes through the Bhoomi Sukta of Atharva Veda that considers the Earth as a Mother, a Living force and praises her beauty and existence. It describes her as having many slopes and plains and bearing various plants with healing powers (7). It even calls the Earth as a Mistress of four quarters (8) who is all-sustaining, treasure bearing mother who is home to all moving life (9) The Sukta also expresses concern about over-digging of the earth when it says “Whatever I dig from thee, may that have quick growth again. Oh purifier, may we not injure thy vitals or thy heart” (10). This verse clearly speaks against indiscriminate mining and other such activities that are done with no regard for environmental consequences.

Hence, Hindu scriptures have always given utmost importance to the health and cleanliness of environment. The Yajnavalkya Smriti (11) says that the (unclean) ground can be cleaned by sweeping, by burning, by digging, by the lapse of time, by the walking of cow and by the sprinkling of water. Similarly, the flowing waters like a river gets purified by the current of its own flow and unclean objects can be cleaned by mud and water (12).

The Manu Smriti dictates that one should not throw filthy substances like urine, faeces, saliva, cloths defiled by impure substances, blood, poisonous things and any other impure substances into water (13). Such, unclean substances should not be thrown into fire as well (14). A person should not urinate on roads, on ashes, in a cow pan, on ploughed land, in water, in fire, in a ruined temple, in ant hill, in holes inhabited by living creatures or on a hill top (15). It further suggests that, one should void urine or faeces by covering the ground with sticks, grass, leaves, clod etc. (16). This is suggested because, faeces are organic matter and when covered by mud, grass etc. they naturally decompose without causing any pollution. And for this reason, the Manu-Smriti says that one must dispose of urine (and faeces as well), remnants of food and the water used for bathing far away from dwelling place (17). Another verse (18) advices the disposal of food made impure by birds, insects or hairs falling into it by putting mud over it. That is, such food must be buried in ground so as to allow for natural decomposition.

These assertions present in the Hindu scriptures makes it clear that, a person is obliged to keep his surroundings clean. And all such activities that cause pollution of water, air, earth or fire are considered as Adharma and hence must be avoided.

Shaucha regarding various Objects:

In everyday life we make use of various objects for various purposes. We use many utensils for cooking and eating, we use clothes to cover over body, we use house to live in etc. As people are in constant contact with various objects, it makes essential to keep the objects in a clean and hygienic condition. The Smriti’s suggest that unclean objects can be cleaned by water and mud (19). They give a long list of various objects and methods of their purification (20).

The golden and silver vessels can be cleaned with water. For the oil-vessels, the cleaning is effective with warm water. Silken or camlet clothes can be cleaned using salt-earth, water and cow-urine, whereas the sack-clothes can be cleaned using bilva-fruit. The linin cloth is cleaned using mustard seeds and an earthen vessel that is stained with liquor, blood, urine etc. can be purified by baking it again in fire. Similarly, various vegetables can be cleaned by washing them with water. By adopting these measures, a person can ensure the purity of the objects that he is using.

Shaucha regarding the body:

The human body cannot be considered clean and pure as it not only becomes dirty due to dust etc. from the surroundings but also due to secretion of various impure substances like sweat, urine etc. The scriptures speak about twelve impure substances that are secreted by the human body (21). They are: Oily exudes, Semen, Blood, Bone marrow, Urine, Faeces, Nasal mucus secretions, Ear wax, Phlegm, Tears, Rheum of the eyes and Sweat. These secretions, if not cleaned may cause various infections and allergies. Hence, a person who wishes to keep his body clean must wash his body thoroughly with water and mud (22). The water that is used for bathing and drinking should be clean and pure. A water is considered pure if it possesses proper smell, colour, and taste and is free from any other impurities (23). It is for this reason, the scriptures advice people to bath daily in waters of rivers, ponds, lakes etc. (24)

Further, texts like Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika prescribes Shat-Kriyas or Six activities (25)- dhauti, basti, neti, nauli, trataka and kapalabhati that help one to purify one’s body especially for those who are fat and phlegmatic (26). These purification exercises will help in cleaning the throat, oesophagus, lungs, stomach and bowels and getting them rid of all their impure secretions.

Another aspect of bodily hygiene is the kind of food that is consumed. The scriptures suggest that the food that has been touched by feet, smelt by cow, touched by dog, in which hairs or insects are found, which has turned sour or has been kept over-night, which has been sneezed over by another person etc. should not be consumed as they have been contaminated (27). By implementing the above mentioned exercises and food habits, a person can maintain bodily purity and hygiene.

Shaucha regarding the mind, speech and actions:

Internal Purity refers to purity with respect to thoughts, speech and actions. A person may be clean externally, but if his thoughts and deeds are impure then he cannot be considered as adhering to Shaucha Dharma. Manu Smriti declares that among all the kinds of purity, the purity in the wealth attained is the highest (28). It further adds that, the cleanliness obtained from mud and water is not real purity at all. That is, only a person with clean character who earns wealth through honesty and hard-work can be considered as being “pure” because only the purity of mind is the real Shaucha. A person who is pure in his mind, will invariably be pure in his body, speech and actions.

But, it is not very easy to purify the mind. The mind is afflicted with various impurities. The scriptures classify these impurities into six types collectively referred as “Arishad-Vargas/Internal Passions” or “Shad Ripus/Six enemies”. They are kama (lust), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (attachment), mada (pride) and matsarya (jealousy). In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna describes Kama, Krodha and Lobha as three gates of hell (29). People who cave in for these mental passions commit various sins (paapam/adharma) through their thoughts, speech and actions.

The scriptures speak about three kinds of sins that a person who is in control of his passions commit through his mind. They are- desiring for wealth and objects that belongs to others, desiring to cause hurt or injury to others and adherence to falsehood (30). Similarly, the four kinds of sins committed through speech harshly and vulgarly, speaking falsehood, speaking ill about others and speaking incoherently and idly (31). The three kinds of sins that a person commits through his body are taking forcefully or stealthily the wealth and objects that belong to others, committing violence and having sexual intercourse with another person’s wife (32). A person can prevent himself from committing these sins, only by purifying his mind by getting rid of his internal passions. He can do so by practising Dharmic tenets in his thoughts, speech and action. For example, by speaking truth in a pleasant manner always, a person will be able to keep his mind and speech in a check. Similarly, by destroying any unpleasant thoughts (be it due to lust or due to anger) by a process of self-examination and discrimination (vivekna), one can prevent oneself from committing these sins. A practice of charity can likewise prevent one from lusting after others wealth.

On the other hand, a person becomes impure by committing various sins intentionally or unintentionally. Hence, in such a situation, the scriptures prescribes various methods of repentances/prayaschita, by which he can attain purity. A person who has done prohibited actions can become pure by Charity (33). A person who has committed some sin secretly (i.e. in his mind) can become pure by the practice of Japa (34). A learned person becomes purified by forgiveness (35), a knower of Vedas by austerities (36), women who have committed mental sins are purified by their menses (37) and a twice-born by taking renunciation (38). The scriptures further state that, the intellect is purified by knowledge, the mind is purified by Truth and the Atma is purified by Tapas/Austerity and Jnana/Self-Realization (39). Hence, it is only by the practice of Dharmic tenets like Satya, Asteya, Tapas etc. that a person is able overcome the lust and other internal passions and attain Chitta-Shuddhi (Purification of the mind) that is necessary to attain Self-Realization. And this Self-Realization is the ultimate goal of the practice of Shaucha.


Therefore, a thorough reading of Hindu scriptures will not only make it clear that Shaucha or Swacchata constitutes an important tenet of Dharma, but it also expands the concept of cleanliness from being just limited to defecation practices of people to a broadened concept of purity that addresses purity at all levels of human existence- ecological, physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual.

  1. “Poor Sanitation in India May Afflict Well-Fed Children With Malnutrition” by Gardiner Harris, The New York Times (Jul 13, 2014) -
The final frontier, The Economist (Jul 19, 2014) -
  1. Daksha Smriti 5.2
  2. Manu Smriti 2.176
  3. Manu Smriti 2.177
  4. Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali 2.32
  5. Vyasa Commentary on verse 2.32 of Patanjali Yoga-Sutra, also refer Vadhula Smriti Verse 19, Daksha Smriti 5.3 “Purification is of two types- external and internal. External purification is achieved through water and clay. Internal purification results from cleansing of ones inner thoughts (and emotions)”
  6. Atharva Veda 12.1.2
  7. Atharva Veda 12.1.4
  8. Atharva Veda 12.1.6
  9. Atharva Veda 12.1.35
  10. Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.188
  11. Yajnavalkya Smriti 3.32
  12. Manu Smriti 4.56
  13. Manu Smriti 4.53
  14. Manu Smriti 4.45-48
  15. Manu Smriti 4.49
  16. Manu Smriti 4.151
  17. Manu Smriti 5.124
  18. Manu Smrti 5.108 Yajnavalkya Smriti 3.32
  19. For details regarding the cleaning of various objects refer- Manu Smriti 5.110-125, Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.182-188
  20. Manu Smriti 5.135
  21. Manu Smriti 5.134
  22. Manu Smriti 5.128
  23. Manu Smriti 4.203
  24. Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2.22
  25. Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2.21
  26. Manu Smriti 4.207.209,211
  27. Manu Smriti 5.106
  28. Bhagavad Gita 16.21
  29. Manu Smriti 12.5
  30. Manu Smriti 12.6
  31. Manu Smriti 12.7
  32. Yajnavalkya Smriti 3.32, Manu Smriti 5.107
  33. Yajnavalkya Smriti 3.33, Manu Smriti 5.107
  34. Yajnavalkya Smriti 3.33, Manu Smriti 5.107
  35. Manu Smriti 5.107
  36. Manu Smriti 5.108
  37. Manu Smriti 5.108
  38. Yajnavalkya Smriti 3.34, Manu Smriti 5.109

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