Hindu Ethics: Purity, Abortion, and Euthanasia

By Harold G. Coward; Julius J. Lipner et al. | Go to book overview

1. Purity in Hinduism: With Particular Reference to Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras

HAROLD G. COWARD

There are two widespread pictures of Hindu society in the West. One is of the yogi performing great feats of physical and mental gymnastics, wandering through the world with his begging bowl or sitting motionless in the forest, deep in meditation. The other picture is of the Brahmin priest-scholar at the top of a vast hierarchy of hereditary communities that do not intermarry or even eat together outside the caste. The first picture is supported by the Indian philosophies elaborating various paths that re- nounce the world and lead to eternal salvation. The second picture has its scriptural support in a different set of sacred texts, the "law books" ( DharmaŚātras). 1

THE FIRST picture is summed up by the word mokṣa -- release from the seemingly endless round of death and rebirth. Release, in this picture, is realized by purifying oneself of the pollution created by one's previous births. The second picture is of the caste system guided by the law books and is also very concerned with keeping pure. Purity, then, is a fundamental dimension of all Hindu experience: that of the yogi, the re- nouncer, and that of the worldly householder. In this chapter, we will com- ment on how purity functions in both Hindu worlds but will end with our focus on the world of the yogi or renouncer, especially as seen in the fundamental yoga text, The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Throughout the chapter, special attention will be given to the ethical impact of purity practices on Hindu women.

The notion of purity as somehow being closely related to the spiritual has a long history in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. "Cleanliness is next to godliness" was long a motto in the West. Cleanness has a history of being related to holiness. For Christians and Jews to be unclean means to be contaminated by a physical, ritual, or moral impurity. 2 This notion of spir

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