Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Hindu concept of purity and pollution, although very broad, is very complex. It has been around for hundreds and thousands of years and has been important to India’s religious and economic structure. India is a hierarchical society. Within Indian culture, whether in the north or the south, Hindu or Muslim, urban or village, virtually all things, people, and groups of people are ranked according to various essential qualities (CIA World Factbook). Hinduism places all creatures onto a vertical dimension, running from the gods above, to the demons below. People rise and fall on this vertical dimension based on the degree to which they behave like gods (pure) or demons (impure) in this life. “So one behaves in a pure and godlike way by treating people well, as well as by being careful about one’s eating habits, sexual practices, and other bodily transactions. One behaves like a demon, or (more mildly) like an animal, when one fails to heed rules of conduct and ethics” (Jonathan Haidt, 2001). This vertical dimension of purity vs. pollution is critical for understanding Hindu culture and society. The biggest role play in this purity vs. pollution concept is seen in the Hindu caste system, most things deemed pure and impure come through the viewing of this system.

The Indian caste system is one of the main places in which the Hindu concept of purity and pollution is deeply embedded and stems from. A caste occurs where a society is made up of birth ascribed groups that are hierarchical ordered and culturally distinct. Hierarchy entails differential evaluation, rewards, and association. Castes are not simply ranked social categories, but in Hindu ideology they are related to the idea of a society divided into four classes or varnas; from the highest varna to the lowest there is a priestly class (Brahmans), rulers and warriors (Ksatriya), landholders and merchants (Vaisya), and then cultivators and menial (Sudra). Below the Sudra caste are the Pancama, Puriah, or Untouchables. Much of the work done by the people below the Sudra caste incorporates blood, death, and dirt and therefore they are seen as “pollution” within Hinduism. Although this is the basic division of the Indian caste system, there are truly over three thousand castes. One important principle underlying the caste hierarchy derives from the opposition between ritual purity and pollution (Fuller, 15). The Brahmans are seen as the purest caste, while the Untouchables are seen as the most polluted (even though not really a caste), while the castes in between the two are partially ranked according to their relative purity. Within most villages or towns, everyone knows the relative rankings of each locally represented caste, and people’s behavior toward one another is constantly shaped by this knowledge. The Hindu rules of purity and pollution prohibit eating and sexual contact between higher and lower castes. These castes are hierarchically ordered in a fixed rank order, associated with traditional occupations.

Each person has his own set karma depending on caste. Karma is the acts appropriate to the four great classes, and then action in general, ‘good’ action and ‘bad’ action. The most important law of karma that drives it to be such a strong force is that it is a big determinant in ones future life. “[T]hose whose conduct is ‘delectable’ (ramaniya) will enter the womb of a Brahman, Kshatriya, or Vaisya woman, but those whose conduct is ‘evil-smelling’ will enter the womb of a dog, a pig, or, what is quite as unclean and vile, an outcaste (ChU, 5.10.7)” (Zaehner 59). Every person’s actions therefore create their own “good and evil fruits.” The idea of karma, which is closely related to that of transmigration because it explains the inequalities of birth and endowment and the visitation of suffering upon the innocent, can often be difficult to understand. One could look at karma and see that it seems like a never ending cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It is not until this cycle is broken that one will be able to reach a higher level above earth.

Many status differences in Indian society are expressed in terms of ritual purity and pollution. Notions of purity and pollution are extremely complex and vary greatly among different castes, religious groups, and regions. However, broadly speaking, high status is associated with purity and low status with pollution. Many elements of purity are inherent; for example, gold is purer than copper by its very nature, and similarly, a member of a high ranking Brahman, or priestly, caste is born with more inherent purity than a member of a low-ranking Sweeper (Mehtar, in Hindi) caste (CIA World Factbook). A person is put into the caste that their parents are in, and there is no way of getting out of the caste that they are born into.

Within each caste, there is yet another hierarchical order in which the people are ranked. There is a difference between young and old, male and female, high and low economic status, as well as contrasting ceremonial traditions. People within the same caste are by no means equal to each other. Differences are clearly apparent in the status distinction between older and younger people, which are maintained and expressed through pollution characteristics. “What is clean in relation to one thing may be unclean in relation to another” (Douglas, 1966: 19). For example, the Hindu greeting “namaste” can be seen as a gesture of respect. It “expresses an inherent asymmetry in rank, because it is made by an inferior to a superior. In other words, the gesture symbolizes in a condensed form the principle of hierarchical inequality that is so fundamental in Hindu religion and society” (Fuller, 4). If two people are of the same status, both will raise their hands together and greet each other by saying “namaste,” showing respect for each other and a sense of equality. But if the two people are of two different ranks, “then only the inferior is likely to perform the gesture, and may even fall down in prostration at the superior’s feet.” Throughout the Indian culture hierarchical division plays a large role in the structuring of society. For example by just observing the actions one is able to tell who is of a higher rank (associated with purity) and who is of a lower rank (impure); a wife makes the gesture to her husband, children to their parents, a low-caste person to a high-caste person, an employee to an employer, a student to a teacher, and so on. Even men of nearly equal status who might share a string cot to sit on take their places carefully – the higher-ranking man at the head of the cot, the lower-ranking man at the foot (The Library of Congress Country Studies). Throughout India people are not only ranked through which caste they belong to, but also through what role, gender, and age they play in that caste. Higher ranked members of a caste will be respected by lower-ranking members and will be seen as pure, while lower-ranking members harm the pure by their presence and touch and are seen as pollutants.

In America and most westernized countries there is a belief of social mobility. Social mobility is the ability of individuals or groups to move within a social hierarchy with changes in income, education, occupation, etc. When a child is born it is believed that through hard work and dedication they can become anyone they want – a fire fighter, a brain surgeon, even the president of the United States (Beyond Books, Caste System). This idea of social mobility does not work within the Hindu caste system. People are born into strict social positions, and their children belong to the same social class. In fact, under the caste system, parents knew the jobs their kids would hold even before the kids were born (Beyond Books, Caste System).

Although the Hindu caste system is broken down into four varnas, each varna is actually divided into many little subsections called “jatis.” Jatis are very similar to varnas in the way they are broken down. A person is born into the same jati as his or her parents and remains within that jati for their entire life. It is also usual to have different jatis for every kind of job, such as blacksmith, farmer, shoemaker, and accountant, all ranked according to the purity and economic status of the specific jati. Although this may seem like a cruel and unfair system to many westerners, Hinduism teaches that in order to be assured of a good life in one’s next reincarnation, a person must do everything he or she can to live up to the expectations of his or her varna and jati (Beyond Books, Caste System). For example, a Sudra should work hard in order to meet the expectations and to move up in his next life, while a Brahmin should study religious texts and pray hard. Although the tasks of the Brahmin are obviously seen purer then that of the Sudra caste, it is important for members within a caste to perform the traditional functions of their caste because the Hindu caste system is important in order to keep a structured culture and society.

Through the caste system also comes the idea of purity and pollution dealing with such essentials of life such as food. Taken from the Ramayana, one of the two principal Indian epics, this follwing story of Laxmana’s reaction illustrates the typical Indian attitudes of yore towards food and its consumption and is very relevant the to the Hindu concept of purity and pollution:

Exiled from the kingdom for 14 years by his father, Lord Rama lives in the forest with his wife Sita and younger brother Laxmana, who both chose to accompany him into exile. One day, hungry and tired, Rama and Laxmana are stopped by Shabri, a tribal, low caste woman who is ecstatic to meet the Lord in person. She looks around for something to offer the visitors. With great joy, she solicitously gathers wild berries to offer to the two brothers. Determined to give the Lord only the very ripe and sweet ones, Shabri first tastes each berry and then offers it. Laxmana is deeply offended and throws the berry down. How dare this bhil (tribal) woman taste the berry rendering it jhoota and then dare offer it! Jhoota literally signifies something that has been tasted or used and is thereafter polluted and unfit for consumption. Rama then pacifies his brother explaining that Shabri’s gesture is not to humiliate them but is born out of total devotion. As the story goes, the berry that is thrown by Laxmana goes on to become, the Sanjeevani buti, a plant with medicinal qualities, that can infuse life into the dead. Later in the epic, Laxmana who is injured, will himself be saved by this herb.

Although this is an excerpt from a very long time ago and rules about purity and pollution have been modified in some ways over the past thousands of years, the basic logic is still very much in place in traditional Hindu culture. Even now Hindus will not be found using a spoon or a plate already used by somebody of a lower caste. It is common to go to a tea shop in India and find different cups for those of different castes. Some are even careful enough to never let their lips touch a glass, since it is likely to have been polluted by the use of a lower caste. From the way an Indian eats and from what he eats, you can not only determine his religion, his caste or community, but also his background – which part of the country he comes from, his level of education and the economic class he belongs to (Rajesh Sharma). There are so many rules regulating the common practice of pure and impure that it is important to see what a Hindu does not eat as well as what he does eat, with whom he eats as well as with whom he does not eat. Food restrictions and habits are highly developed and indicate caste affiliation. Ingredients vary from caste to caste in their cooking, and the concept of purity remains fundamental to Hindu cooking.

In India an unwritten code of conduct traditionally covers the preparation of food and the rituals accompanying its consumption (Rajesh Sharma). These rituals are passed down from word of mouth from each generation to the next, for cooking and eating are the “nodal” points of basic daily rituals and practices. It is important that strict rules are followed in order to keep the maximum purity. The idea of keeping all pollutants away can be seen by the location of the kitchen in Indian houses. The kitchen is normally a separate room located at a slight distance from the main house in which shoes or any other leather items were not allowed near this space. Anything that was potentially a pollutant is to be kept away. Even low caste people were to be kept away from a higher castes food for the low caste member would pollute the food by his/her touch. Only a Brahmins cooking was acceptable to all, high and low castes. A woman is seen as pollutant and contagious of pollution during her period. During a woman’s period she would be banned from cooking or serving food because her impurity is very contagious during that time of the month. It’s not only what one did to keep the impurities away, but also what they eat to keep a pure diet. The greatest sign of purity within India is vegetarianism, and the higher the caste the purer it would have been. A Brahman, of the highest caste, had to protect his purity at all times and does not eat meat.

By taking an example of a specific town in India called Gopalpur, it may be easier to see how the ranks within this town are broken up. On the following page there is a table with two columns; ceremonial rank and economic status. Under ceremonial rank is the type of diet that each ranked group has. As shown on the table, the purest and highest ranked of the fifteen groups are the ones with the purest diets, or who are vegetarian. Under the economic status there are three sub groups; landlords, middle class, and landless. Economic status plays a big role in how the groups are ranked just like ceremonial rank. As discussed earlier in the paper, those of higher status will be pure, while those of lower economic status, such as a leather worker, will be seen as impure and affiliated with as pollution in the Hindu concept.

Table of Gopalpur Caste Rankings


Ceremonial Rank Economic Status


Middle Class



1. Brahmin­

2. Lingayat Priest

4. Carpenter

5. Blacksmith

3. Lingayat Farmer

Mutton, No Beef

6. Salt makers

Mutton & Beef

7. Farmers


9. Barbers

Beef, No Pork

10. Muslim Priest

11. Muslim Butcher

12. Muslim Weaver

Pork, No Beef

13. Stoneworkers

14. Basketry

Beef & Pork

15.Leather Worker

These rules that have defined purity and pollution through the caste system have been a constant wall between different castes and ranks of people. But although the concept of purity vs. pollution may seem quite ridiculous to westerners who have grown up with social mobility, this concept is accepted among most Indians because it is so deeply embedded into their religion. With the rules of purity and pollution people must continuously keep in mind status differences among the people around them. “With every drink of water, with every meal, and with every contact with another person, people must ratify the social hierarchy of which they are a part and within which their every act is carried out” (The Library of Congress and Country Studies).


John said...

dear sir,

I have published on the Indian Community in Trinidad and Tobago and I am in the process of completing a book on the Indian Community in Trinidad and Tobago. I would be grateful if you could furnish me wit any data / work that you might have written on Indian Culture in India, particularly in regions such as Bhojpuri, Patna, Bareli, Gorakhpur, Azamgarh, areas from which most of the immigrants to Trinidad came.
I was stimulated by this piece and would be grateful to have any others along those lines.

Professor La Guerre

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Izzy D said...

I'm not sure you will see this as it is an old post but just incase I wanted to say thank you for posting this, I found it very interesting and informative!