A few thoughts on Shaucha

Source: A view of Kashmir, Bishan Singh, 1872.

Shaucha (Sanskrit: शौच ) means cleanliness or purity. It is one of the most important prerequisites every Hindu must meet before starting the day, or any religious activity. The focus is not only on external purification, but also on internal. There are many texts that detail the importance of Shaucha. The various Dharmashastras elaborate on ritual cleansing before performing one’s daily duties. Even Yoga elaborates on Shaucha – Maharshi Patanjali, while describing the Niyamas, or the observances for a Yogi, says

शौचसन्तोषतपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः॥

Cleanliness, Contentment, Austerity or Penance, Study and Recitation of Sacred Scriptures, and Devotion to the Supreme Lord are the five Niyamas or Observances. -Patanjali Yoga Sutras, 2.32

External purification, or purification of the body, is typically achieved with snana or bathing. There are many types of snana described in scriptures, notably in the Garuda Purana. However, we will only deal with the ones that are frequently performed in modern times. The purpose of snana is classified into 3 categories:

  1. Nitya snana: performed as part of daily duties.
  2. Naimittika (Obligatory) snana: performed on special occasions such as the birth or passing of a relative.
  3. Kamya snana: bath performed for fulfilling ones desires, such as bathing in a holy river.

It is important to differentiate between contemporary bathing and snana. Whereas the objective of bathing is to clean the body, snana is obligatory to every Hindu, especially because daily duties performed without snana become futile. One has to follow certain rules during snana, such as:

  1. It must be performed facing the north or east.
  2. It must not be performed after the sun has set.
  3. It must be performed wearing at least one piece of vastra (clean cloth), else it is disrespectful to the Devatas.
  4. Apasthamba says one must not frolic in the water or disturb others when performing snana (in a river).
  5. On special occasions such as births, deaths, eclipses etc. snana must not be performed using hot water.

There are many methods of snana, the most common ones being:

  1. Varuna snana: This is the daily default. In ancient times, this involved plunging in the river. Some scriptures say that a bath is incomplete unless the head is washed too. However, the Shiva Purana says that “No man shall take bath against the conventions of locality or the convenience of the season”.
  2. Mantra snana : If one is unable to take a bath due to extraneous circumstances such as illness, one can purify oneself with mantras. Mantra snana (sometimes called Brahma snana) is also part of the daily ritual, Sandhyavandana, which is performed by a section of the Hindus.
  3. Agneya snana: This refers to cleansing one’s body by applying vibhuti or bhasma (sacred ash) all over.
  4. Divya snana: Bathing under the rain water (equivalent of Ganga descending from the heavens), when the Sun is shining, during Uttarayana is considered very auspicious. This is usually done by Sanyasis.

There are other types of Snana described in our scriptures, but we’ve not covered them in this post as they are no longer practiced.

Internal purification, or purification of the mind, is also a prerequisite before one embarks on Hindu rituals such as daily worship or Sandhyavandana. The objective of internal purification is to stop the mind from wandering and prime it to focus on the ritual and the deity being worshipped. This is typically done by mentally reciting the name of one’s Ishta Devata or shlokas such as “Apavitra pavitro va”.

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