“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”, proclaims a sign at a government office. However, right under it, the floor is unswept and bits of paper lying around. Litter on roads, polluted water bodies, poor sanitation, the visual clutter of urban India and poor personal hygiene is creating untold dissonance in our society. All of us have experienced this–even a brief time spent in quiet sylvan surroundings has the capacity to steady the mind, while ten minutes in chaotic traffic awakens our bestial instincts. Any wonder a clean and uncluttered home lifts your spirits, while a disorganized place depresses you?
Lately, there has been so much debate in the media on what ‘purity’ means and there seems to be half- knowledge on most concepts. To get clarity, a study of Ashtanga Yoga, or the eight-limbed yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras puts this in perspective and gives us a route map for creating harmony in our internal and external lives (see box below). The Niyamas are the second limb amongst the eight, which details personal observances or internal restraints that are necessary for an individual’s progress.
And the first amongst the Niyamas is the observance of Saucha or purity and is synergistic with the other limbs. Looking at the environment around us, it is evident that Saucha is of paramount importance. To observe Saucha means that attention must be given the practitioner to the cleanliness of body, heart, mind, and environment. Thus purity is required at all these levels for man’s sattva samshuddhi or Purity of Being. It involves the choices man makes through all his channels – mouth, ears, eyes and mind.
While purity does mean cleanliness of the body, it does not mean only that, because of the fact that man is not merely a body. He is also the prana inside, the sense organs, mind and intellect, and the various layers of his personality. And every aspect of his being should be kept clean. The Vedanta philosophy mentions that five coats or sheaths cover the soul-namely the Annamaya (physical), Pranamaya (energy), Manomaya (mental), Vijnanamaya (wisdom) and Anandamaya (bliss) Koshas. By systematically purifying each level, we open up our energy channels to reach the Anandamaya kosha and achieve everlasting bliss.
At the individual level, we seek to clean our homes and ourselves. Rituals in prayer like lighting incense sticks, ringing the bell; breathing exercises and meditation all contribute to the purification process at different levels.
Through cleanliness and purity of body and mind, the mind naturally begins moving towards the divine. It purifies the subtle mental essence (sattva) and brings about a feeling of centeredness with a capability for self-realization. Saucha’s benefits are clarity in the intellect, a pleasing mind, focused awareness, control over the senses and the ability to realize the Self. When you are unhappy, the mind is supposed to be in a state of asaucha. For instance, in the event of death in a family, the close members are said to be in a state of asaucha, because of the grief they experience. Scriptures say that after ten days the individuals start accepting the loss and start getting back to the Self and move towards saucha.
While the purity of body, heart and mind are important, it is necessary that external purity must not be neglected. The mind is sullied not only by impure food but also by unholy smells and sights of impure scenes. Living in impure, unhygienic places, regresses the spiritual well being of society. Indeed, cleanliness of our surroundings has become one of the most challenging tasks in modern India. While India conjures up image of ancient wisdom, lofty spirituality, it is also a society gasping for cleanliness and integrity in physical as well in the socio-political environment.
External purity has also gained ecological dimensions. High octane consumerism and scant regard for nature and the environment around us has led to the production of large quantities of wastes which are accumulating and polluting our rivers, land and atmosphere. Thus, the practice of saucha necessitates the practice of non-possessiveness and simplification of one’s lifestyle and making it as free of waste as possible.
According to Vedic ecology, the Earth is not inanimate but a force of consciousness, which helps all creatures to evolve. The Purushasookta says that humans, gods, and nature are integral parts of one ‘organic whole’ and thus humans are subject to same immutable ecological laws as all other species on the planet. All life depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems that ensure the supply of energy and nutrients. Hence, each one of us has ecological responsibilities necessary for the survival and security of the world community.
An ancient prayer in the Upanishads sums up the need for purity: “O Lord, may my body become pure; may I be free from impurity; may I know myself as divine light. O Lord, May my mind become pure, may my self become pure, may I know myself as divine light. O Lord, may I realize You with my purified understanding, may I realize the highest bliss with my purified understanding; may I realize You who is the highest understanding with my purified understanding.”
Steps in Asthanga Yoga
1. Yama : Universal morality
2. Niyama : Personal observances
3. Asanas : Body postures
4. Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
5. Pratyahara : Control of the senses
6. Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
7. Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
8. Samadhi : Union with the Divine
Note: This article was first published in esamskriti.com