External and Internal Uncleanliness

By Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji, originally published at the Jiva Institute.

Dharma-sastra gives a detailed description of situations that cause us to be asuca (“unclean”). The death of a relative, birth or miscarriage of a child, menstruation or any bleeding, copulation, clipping the nails or hair, passing urine or stool, sneezing, spitting, and eating are examples of such situations that make us asuca and therefore restricted us from performing our normal duties, until we have regained cleanliness (sauca) somehow.

It is easy to understand why many of these make us unclean, but others—like having a death in the family—are more confusing. Death in a family doesn’t seem to have a direct effect on our hygiene, so what does “clean” really mean?

The word asauca is derived from the root suc which means being free of undesirable contaminants. The physical ramification of this is “cleanliness”, but the emotional ramification is more complex and interesting. To be emotionally free of contaminants, we have to vent those unpleasant emotions through grieving, repenting, and mourning.

The prefix “a” (asuc) simply negates the meaning of the root. So, the physical implication of the word asauca is simply “uncleanliness” but the emotional ramification is, “dejection, depression, moroseness,” because it indicates a mental condition that has not completed the grieving process or some other purification process.

As we all know, the death of a close friend or relative generates unpleasant emotions which need to be purified through the expressive process of mourning. If we try to do something important, like our sacred duties, while our minds are still “unclean” with these painful emotions, we will be very likely to do it poorly, which is highly undesirable for society. This is why Vedic conventions prohibit us from performing important duties while we are emotionally stained with grief.

The more intense the grief, the more time it takes to clean out. The Vedic injunction is that a brahmana is “unclean” for 10 days, a ksatriya for 12, a vaisya for 15, and a sudra for 30. Because a brahmana is expected to be sattvic and thus more detached, we expect brahmanas to recover from grief more quickly than others.

This is also why Vedic culture proscribes recitation of sacred books such as Bhagavad Gita and the Preta-kalpa of Garuda Purana when a family member dies. They can help us see the world through sattvic eyes, like a brahmana, and thus recover from our grief more effectively.

It is also interesting to note that most of the religious activities in the Dharma-sastra are for the family persons (grhasthas) not for renunciates (sannyasis). As with a brahmana, a sannyasi is very sattvic and detached. They do not grieve much, if at all, if they come to know that some family member has expired. The grief happens when one is in bodily consciousness of life and has forgotten one’s true identity as an atma who is beyond birth and death. Therefore sannyasis do not require any restrictions or injunctions to purify their minds. That purity is already their fundamental, unwavering quality.

A doubt may be raised here: It is understandable that one’s mind is disturbed when a relative dies, and this mental disturbance is a type of asauca, but sastra also says that parents are asauca when a child is born. Why? They have no grief.

The physical element of cleanliness should also be considered, as newborn children come with a great deal of blood, and make a great deal of discharge during the first few days or weeks. Also emotional disturbance can be thought of as any emotion that disturbs the placidity of the mind: not just misery but also elation. Therefore, Sri Krsna advises Arjuna to remain balanced both in happiness and distress (BG 2.38).

When our minds are not balanced and placid we are really not fit to act effectively, especially in important duties.

Another doubt can be raised: Most of the time, most of us are not in a balanced and placid state of mind. If we go by the above ideal—that important duties should only be done in a balanced and placid state of mind—then we would not be able to ever do any of our sadhana!

The solution is that we have a “normal” disturbed state and an “abnormal” disturbed state. When we are in an abnormally disturbed state, we should not perform important actions. In our normally disturbed state, we have to try to act as best we can—otherwise we will never progress.

As an aside, I would like to add that in Dharma-sastra, there are a lot of injunctions about when not to study sastra. Some are related to specific days such as the first and eight day of lunar fortnights. Others are related to incidental situations like during storms. The same principle is at work here, for under such situations one’s concentration is disturbed and one cannot pay full attention to the study. Thus one would not learn properly or miss on some important principle.

Finally, let us note that the various actions prescribed for attaining a “clean” state (sauca)—such as doing acamana, taking a shower, doing pranayama, etc.—aim not only for external cleanliness but also hope to make the mind peaceful. Therefore, the benefits of observing principles of cleanliness are clarity in the intellect, a pleasing mind, focused awareness, and control over the senses. In other words, no possibility of grief.

When asauca happens, the mind is disturbed. It is not in a state of yoga. Any action done in such a state of mind would lead to karmic bondage, resulting in suffering. No wonder Dharmasastra made so many rules for remaining in sauca. The modern mind might rush to consider them useless rituals and makes a mockery of them, but upon more thoughtful reflection one can see their usefulness.


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2 Responses to External and Internal Uncleanliness

  1. “When asauca happens, the mind is disturbed. It is not in a state of yoga. Any action done in such a state of mind would lead to karmic bondage, resulting in suffering.”

    Wouldn’t actions performed in a state of sauca also lead to karmic bondage?

    • Kishore Krishna Das

      Not if one stays sauca for Guru and Gauranga’s pleasure. I remember one time I did not wash my hands well before honoring prasad, and Guru Maharaja made a comment. After that, I always tried my best to get out all the dirt traces off my hand before honoring prasad.

      Also sauca is sattvic. Sattva brings clarity. One in a sattvic space will be able to appreciate Bhakti much more than one in a tamasic space. So in that sense it brings freedom, not bondage.

      It is possible to get caught up in the rules and miss the essence. But that is still better than to not follow the rules and also miss the essence.

      Unfortunately, my disposition is not one that tightly follows all the rules. Hopefully Gaura Nitai’s mercy make up for any offenses I have made.

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