restricted access CHAPTER NINE: Purity and Merit: The Twin Concerns of Karmamārga
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136 CH APTER NINE Purity and Merit The Twin Concerns of Karmamārga Pure, Maruts, pure yourselves, are your oblations; to you, the pure, pure sacrifice I offer. By Law they came to truth, the Law’s observers, bright by their birth, and pure, and sanctifying. —Ṛgveda VI, 56, 12 Although certain aspects of purity in Hinduism certainly have to do with bodily fluids and their discharge—menstruating women are considered ritually impure, to mention the most obvious of such instances—it would be wrong to identify the issue of purity in Hinduism totally with this, as some, under the influence of a recent school of anthropology, seem to do. In addition to the materially conditioned purity there is a very sophisticated notion of a higher purity, partly ethical, partly spiritual. Thus the central theme of the teaching of the present Śaṅkarācāryas—the jagad-gurus, or “world teachers,” who are listened to with great seriousness by a great many Hindus and whose words carry authority—is purity of mind. “Purity of mind is thought to bring the mind to greater understanding. Purity of mind, requisite for devotion and meditation, leads on to religious knowledge. Two classic qualifications for selfknowledge are freedom from desires and purity of mind.”1 To some extent the notion of auspicious-inauspicious, which is central to Hinduism runs parallel to that of purity-impurity. Here, as in most other cases, Hindu practice and belief do not simply follow from a logical extension of one basic idea: there is a plurality of basic notions from which—quite logically, but not always in mutually compatible fashion specific beliefs and practices flow. The Hindu notion of merit is also multidimensional. Besides the Vedic idea of apūrva—the merit accruing from a sacrifice that can be stored up for later use in heaven, we find Purāṇic notions of gaining merit by either reciting the names of a deity or by PUR IT Y A ND M ER IT 137 performing pūjā. Quite different, but not unrelated, is the idea, very widespread too among Hindus, that tapas, self-mortification, self-imposed and voluntary, both purifies and confers merit. Equally, the idea of gaining purity and merit not only for oneself but also for ancestors and others, by going on pilgrimage and bathing in a tīrtha is fairly universally acceptable to Hindus.2 It is not really a Vedic idea but it combines with Vedic ideas in the practical life of Hindus. More will be said in a later chapter that explains how gaining of purity and merit is tied to specific times and places. The inextricable conjunction of the rather impersonal Vedic and the highly personal Purāṇic traditions make it impossible to clearly differentiate in the activities of traditional Hindus between acts done to obtain ritual purity, to gain merit, or to win the grace of God—which, in a certain sense, obviates everything else. Hinduism certainly did preserve archaic and magical elements, but it integrated those with ethical reflection and theological thought. It will be good if besides observing what can be observed by way of ritual action one also reads, or listens to, reflections on ethical issues by learned and thoughtful Hindus, past and present. The Upaniṣads already throw doubt on the efficacy of Vedic ritual—they recommend asceticism and introspection as means to gain purity and earn merit. Throughout the history of Hinduism there is on the one hand an insistence of performing the prescribed ritual for reasons of achieving and maintaining one’s status within the varṇāśramadharma, and there is on the other hand the clearly expressed conviction that rituals alone are not sufficient and that the purity that they effect is not enough to reach the ultimate aim of life, mokṣa. Numerous Hindu saints and singers denounced ritualism and ridiculed the belief that ritual purity would win a person entry to the realm of God. Personal virtues as well as social engagement, genuine devotion, and service of God are stressed as means to reach purity and to gain merit. The majority of today’s Hindus would agree. The equivocal nature of the Hindu notions of purity and merit is underscored by the fact that most Hindus make use of all available means offered to earn merit and to purify themselves, regardless from which source they come. Devout Hindus will accept the blessing of a Christian priest as well as the aśīrvāda of a...