Purity of Mind, Body, and Thought
Shaucha or purity is stressed in every religion. As a matter of fact, there cannot be any form of spiritual life without purity in some form or the other. It is the sine qua non of all spiritual endeavors. Swami Vivekananda has said that blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Of the three virtues which Swami Vivekananda considered the most important for success, one is purity. Truth, purity and unselfishness – wherever these are present, there is no power below or above the sun to crush the possessor thereof. Equipped with these, one individual is able to face the whole universe in opposition.
Or again, purity, patience, and perseverance are the three essentials to success, and above all – love. These were not mere words with Swami Vivekananda. He had practised such a high degree of purity that it could move the world. Once he was asked by his western disciples whether he had exercised some yogic power while uttering the now famous words, 'Sisters and Brothers of America', at the inaugural session of the Parliament of Religions which had such a mesmerizing effect upon the seven thousand strong audience. In reply Swami Vivekananda had said that it was the power of purity. He had, in his life, never even once thought an impure thought.
Even such an immaculate saint would feel uncomfortable and unsure of his purity while approaching the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi who was the very embodiment of purity. Once while going to meet her by boat, Swami Vivekananda went on sipping and sprinkling Ganga water over his body in an attempt to make himself pure by that holy water which is supposed to purify everything.
And what about the Holy Mother herself? She was surer of her purity than even Swami Vivekananda. Once a lady of her household, on returning from an errand, complained that she had become impure by treading upon muck on the road and so she wanted to take a bath. It was cold and the Holy Mother advised her not to take a bath lest she should catch cold. Instead, she asked her to simply wash her feet.
But the lady was not satisfied with this simple prescription. Holy Mother then told her to sprinkle Ganga water--the supreme purifier. When even this did not satisfy her, the Holy Mother made a startling remark: 'Then touch me!' Indeed, only people fully established in their divine nature can be so sure of their purity. Rightly has the poet said about her: 'Who has a pure character, whose life is pure, and who is the very embodiment of purity, to Her I offer my salutations.' Nay the Holy Mother, like Ganga, was a supreme purifier.
Shaucha or purity is among the five niyamas or observances, which form one of the eight limbs of yoga. According to the commentator Vyasa, it includes both external and internal purity. While internal purity or the purity of mind is definitely more important, external purity is also recommended in all religious systems. Muslims are instructed to do vuzu--washing hands and feet--before namaz. In Vaishnava schools, external purity has been given so great an importance that, at times, it takes the form of an obsession which is never the purpose of prescribing such practices.
At the same time, external purity must not be neglected. It is important for the general physical health of the spiritual aspirant. Many of the common diseases in India are directly related to polluted food and water and personal uncleanliness. In spite of the great stress laid on purity in all scriptures, the standard of personal, collective and environmental cleanliness in India in general continues to be very low. We drink bottled mineral water or use domestic filters, but hardly bother to clean our water-tanks periodically, or worry about the contaminated water supply. We might possibly keep our clothes and homes clean but do not bother about our surroundings. Some of our largest cities are the dirtiest ones. Large open river-like stinking drains running through the middle of our major cities is not an uncommon sight.
Purity helps in the practice of Brahmacharya. The mind can get excited not only by impure food but also by unholy smells and sights of impure scenes, and touch of impure people. Living in impure, unhygienic places, certainly does not conduce to spiritual well-being, especially in the early stages. The Lord has advised in the Gita that one should spread one's asana in a clean place and sit there for meditation. It goes without saying that one must have a wash and put on clean clothes before meditation or other religious practices. A clean atmosphere goes a long way in making the mind pure and cheerful.
In modern times, external purity has gained added ecological dimensions. A consumeristic affluent life style has led to the production of large quantities of various types of solid, liquid and gaseous wastes which are accumulating and polluting our rivers, land and atmosphere. Practice of shaucha does not merely mean keeping one's body, clothes and dwellings clean, but it also implies that we do not dirty our surroundings. Thus, the practice of shaucha necessitates the practice of non-possessiveness and simplification of one's lifestyle and making it as free of waste as possible.
Next is internal purity or purity of mind, and this is what is truly implied by shaucha. There could be various grades, levels and meanings of mental purity. In the broadest sense, impurity means all worldly thoughts related to love and hatred, likes and dislikes, desires, passions and sense-attraction. Purity of mind means unselfishness and desirelessness.
In a more restrictive sense, purity and impurity are related to absence or presence of lust. Desires, hankering after fruits of actions and lust – all these make the mind restless. Hence they are considered impurities, and such a mind cannot get concentrated. The two gunas, tamas and rajas, are also considered impurities (mala). Tamas makes the mind dull and rajas makes it restless. The process of purification is essentially a process of making it more and more sattvika.
Traditionally, shaucha or purity is closely related to the type of food we take. It is believed, and not wrongly, that food has something to do with our thoughts. Hence the purity of food is considered the first step towards purification of mind:
Acharya Ramanuja takes ahara to mean only the food which we eat and recommends that it should be free from the three impurities: nimitta, ashraya and jati. Some foods like meat are by nature impure since they are obtained by killing living beings. Others like alcohol are exciting; still others are difficult to digest and liable to cause indigestion and illness. Food could be contaminated by extraneous impurities. And finally, its source, the person from whom it has been obtained, may be of an objectionable character. This last category of impurity of food, i.e., nimitta dosha, also includes the way money is earned.
Sri Ramakrishna used to say that he could not eat the food offered by a doctor or a lawyer because they earned money by ethically objectionable means. Earning one's livelihood by fair means is equally important for the purification of the mind. Hence, without being obsessed by the purity or impurity of the source from where food has come, one should purify oneself. Let us remember that there might be some highly pure souls who might not be able to partake of food touched by us!
Acharya Shankara, of course, explains the word ahara in a much broader sense to include the inputs one receives from all the senses. Whatever we taste, see, hear, touch and smell must be pure. Unfortunately, we are extremely careful about eating pure food but utterly careless about what we see, hear or read! With all our pretensions of leading a pure life, we go on accumulating a lot of mental impurity by our carelessness, consciously or unconsciously. We are very scrupulous about keeping our body, clothes and dwellings clean, but most unscrupulous about the way we earn money, obtain articles, meet people and deal with society at large. The practice of shaucha cannot go hand in hand with such actions.
Various techniques have been advocated in various spiritual paths for the purification of mind. Karma yoga is, of course, the standard method of chitta shuddhi or purification of mind. It involves doing prescribed duties without hankering for their fruits, or by surrendering the fruits and even actions to the Supreme Spirit. Chitta shuddhi here essentially means unselfishness and egolessness. Bhakti yoga aims at purification of our love and attachment.
We become pure or impure according to the object we love. Since God is supremely pure, to love Him is to become truly pure. But this cannot come about all at once. One has to pass through what is called vaidhi bhakti, preparatory disciplines of bhakti, which need not be elaborated here. We may however discuss some general means which are applicable to all paths.
First of all, we must stop leading a careless, unguarded life. The whole atmosphere around us is polluted, not merely physically with dust, dirt, fumes and smoke, but also by vicious sounds and sights, and by deleterious thoughts and mental vibrations. Unfortunately, we are so impure that we cannot detect these unholy thought-currents and thus, we allow ourselves to be affected by them. The already accumulated dirt within our subconscious mind gets stirred up by such evil associations. The first step therefore, is to be aware of the internal and external evil environment, without condemning ourselves or others.
The second step is to stop all evil inputs from the senses. If it requires one to stop seeing TV, reading newspapers and magazines, meeting with objectionable people, gossiping and talking ill of others--it must be done, and done with courage and determination. If impure inputs and unholy company pollute the mind, pure sounds, sights and holy company positively purify it. The company of saints and sages, ashramas, temples and places of pilgrimage have a beneficial effect on the mind.
Thirdly, brooding over the past, which in most part was lived carelessly and consisted of follies and moral slips and failures, must be given up. This may not be easy. We must therefore pray to God for help in forgetting the past evil deeds. Brooding over the past never helps. None of the great men have ever recommended it. Jesus Christ told a fallen woman to forget her past and not to commit sin anymore.
Indeed, one act of true confession, followed by forgetting the past, could purify us immediately. Habib was an extreme miser. People used to run away from him lest the dust of his feet fall on them and make them impure. However, one day he confessed his sins and so sincere was his confession, and so radically purifying its effect, that people ran away from him lest the dust of their feet fall on such a holy person and they incur sin! He soon became a great saint.
Purification, thus, in its true sense, is not something to be attained by a gradual process but an attitude of mind which asserts one's true, pure, divine nature – either in relation to God or as the pure Atman. Sri Ramakrishna has highly recommended this technique. He says that even though a room might be dark for thousands of years, it does not get lighted gradually. It gets lighted the moment a lamp is lighted. Similarly, one does not become pure bit by bit. Again, he would advise us to assert: 'I have taken the name of God, how can there be impurity in me?'
One of the surest signs of mental purity is that one does not see others' faults. No better example can we have than that of the Holy Mother. But how did she achieve this? By praying to God. At Vrindavan, she used to intensely pray to Sri Krishna to bless her so that she might never find fault with others. Indeed, she could never see the defects of even convicted thieves and robbers, drunkards and debauchers. She has by her life shown us the way: to pray to God for purity and for the elimination of the tendency of faultfinding.
It will be worthwhile concluding by briefly reviewing the seven results accruing from the practice of shaucha, as described by Patanjali, although some of them have already been discussed.
Practice of shaucha leads to disgust for one's own physical body and physical interaction with others. We hardly realize that our physical body is one of the dirtiest objects. What will happen if we don't take bath for a week? The body will start stinking – it must be cleaned every day. Besides, such dirty secretions like saliva, tears, perspiration etc. constantly flow out of it, not to talk of urine and faeces.
While we, in our infatuation for the body, may not accept or recognize this fact and go on doting on it, the fact becomes evident the moment the body dies. After that, it is considered the most impure of all objects! Hence a person who truly practices shaucha develops an extreme disgust for his own physical body. He might still mix with people, but would never like to touch, hug or kiss the body of others for this very reason.
The third effect of the practice of shaucha is the purification of mind, which we have already discussed. This leads to inner joy and a blissful mental state, which is one of the characteristics of a sattvika mind. The next two benefits of purity are directly related to yoga. They are concentration of mind and control over the senses. A pure mind gets easily concentrated and does not run after sense objects. Finally, the purified mind gains the ability to realize the Atman, to directly experience the Supreme Reality.
Thus, shaucha or purity has various levels and dimensions: physical, mental and spiritual. As a physical practice, it conduces to physical health, and detachment from, and disgust and dispassion towards the physical body. Physical purity is also important for the practice of Yoga. Shaucha as mental purity is the very essence of all spiritual endeavors. It is the means as well as the goal, and conduces to joyfulness, concentration of mind, control of senses, and makes one competent to realize the Atman.
The Atman is pure, immortal, ever blissful consciousness. The best way to attain purity is to assert one's eternally pure nature, and to be established in it is the goal of life.
– Courtesy Sri Ramakrishna Math