Shaucha literally means purity or cleanliness. This word can be traced back to the early roots of Hinduism in the early Upanishads (Taitiriya Aranyaka) and has taken many forms through the ages. Before the advent of Hatha Yoga in the 10th century, shaucha was predominantly ritual purification.
Vedic Brahmanism (the precursor to Hinduism) created rituals to communicate with their gods. If these rituals were not performed correctly, the gods would not hear. Vedic hymns were prayers offered to the gods, and these hymns had to be spoken perfectly. Later on, the hymns were sung and then sung while offerings were made into a fire. At the height of complexity, a ritual required several priests: one to sing the hymns, one to attend the fire, another to prepare the offerings and a fourth to keep watch on the others. Many Vedic rituals involved animal sacrifice, and the animal and its killing had to meet prescriptions for cleanliness.
Because the performance of these rituals required mental concentration (the hymns were recited from memory until around the 2nd century BCE), mental purification was part of the ritual. The priest would clean his mind with meditation on AUM and other mantras. Limits were placed on the activities of the priest leading up to the performance of rituals. These involved foods that could be eaten and activities to be restricted such as sex and the elimination of body waste. A Brahmin was considered polluted if he saw poop!
With the development of Hindu sectarianism around the 5th century, the major gods arose and temples were built for the first time. With this increase in complexity came a parallel increase in purification rituals. One must bathe before entering the temple. Priests were available outside some temples to chant purification mantras before a sinner could enter the temple. Menstruating women and men who had sex with them were considered ritually impure and could not participate in temple rituals.
Patanjali gives us a few words on the topic of purification that match what we have seen so far:
Internal and external purification produces aversion for form, both one’s own and all forms. PYS 2.40
Purification here is separating atman, which Patanjali, a follower of Sankhya, calls purusha. This happens when we recognize the distinction between purusha and everything else. Everything else is seen as lesser than purusha.
Through purification comes also a quiet spirit, concentration, conquest of the organs, and ability to see the Self. PYS 2.40
This verse speaks of the mental purification that leads to deep meditation and the lifestyle disciplines that support it.
As a result of contentment bliss is achieved. Through fiery aspiration and through the removal of all impurity, comes the perfecting of the bodily powers and of the senses. PYS 2.42-43
These verses reveal a way of understanding purification that became prominent in the budding Buddhist and Hindu Tantra movement. When our understanding is purified, we can see what cannot be seen any other way. Purification became removing any obstacles that reveal a hidden science behind the body and the universe around us. Purification comes from gathering wisdom but also by strengthening the body, sharpening the senses and purifying ourselves of social conditioning.
With the development of Hatha Yoga, the tantric concept of purity became very focused on physical disciplines that purified both body and mind. The body and mind were considered a network of channels called nadis. These nadis need to be purified of concepts and conditioning as well as lethargy and restlessness (tamo and rajo guna). Then the physical body changes, developing supernatural powers such as the ability to live forever.
In his writings on Shaucha, Swami Kripalu criticized practitioners who focused only on ritual purification. He spoke of yogis who perform the ritual of bathing 3 times/day by dunking quickly 3 times and then leaving the water. He said their skin was covered with grime and purification was not complete.
His focus on purity was mental and physical. He occasionally recited a mantra: ahara shuddi, chitti shuddi and brahmacharya, meaning purify the diet, the mind and practice brahmacharya. Mental purification involved a great variety of uplifting practices and meditation and devotional techniques. Ahara shuddi involved eating wholesome food in limited quantities and brahmacharya was sensual restraint on all levels.
As students in Kripalu Ashram, we learned to apply Shaucha on a variety of levels:
- Keep your environment clean – our mind is more clear and we are more productive when the space around us is organized and clean.
- Keep your body clean – how we maintain our body affects our self-esteem. Others will respond to us based on how we show that we respect/value ourselves.
- Keep your digestive system clean – eat food that digests and passes quickly and smoothly.
- Keep your nervous system clean – don’t worry about things that you can’t control.
- Keep your mind clean – cultivate wholesome, uplifting thoughts about yourself and others.
- Keep your relationship with spirit clean – avoid actions that make you feel guilty or separate from spirit.