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Purification

Purification

IMPLICATIONS

ANALYSIS

SELECT INSTANCES

CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The concept of purification, or the ritual cleansing of persons and objects, is found across cultures and religions. It is present in urban and rural settings, in sectarian and secularized societies, and in tribal and multiethnic communities. It has been a sociological feature of human existence from antiquity to modernity, one with an array of behavioral guidelines and consequences.

Purification is associated with two other socioreligious notions: purity and pollution. Purity is linked to sanctity, devotion, and safety; pollution is associated with impurity, irreligion, and danger. Purification is regarded as a means of transitioning from a polluted to a pure state. Personal and group activities are carefully regulated by rules and rites designed to protect and purify individuals, communities, the deity or deities venerated by those groups, and even the world itself from the impurity supposedly caused by pollution. These notions arise from within the context of religious worldviews, and they often have transgressions and demonology as causative factors and penitence and exorcism as resolutionary mechanisms. Modern notions of hygiene, disease, waste products, and environmental contaminants that appear to be reflected in the codes and practices of purity, pollution, and purification bear only an inadvertent correspondence to purification. Purity and pollution are usually not based on physical cleanness and uncleanness, but on holiness and the loss of that state through inadvertent and deliberate violations of socioreligious tenets that renders a believer devotionally impure or polluted, thereby excluding him or her from partaking in the activities of a confessional community.

IMPLICATIONS

The ideal of purity, the fear of pollution, and the quest for purification arose from the systemic ordering of the religious world. The problem of pollution became a subcategory of evil because ritual impurity was equated with moral disorder caused by the forces of evil. Thus, the holy had to be protected from defilement. As a result, purity and impurity came to be regarded as opposites within religious settings. There was a rejection of spiritual and physiological conditions regarded as inappropriate. These conditions came to be prohibited completely, and they were to be resolved via purification whenever present. In some religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam, prohibitions became codes whose breach, whether intentional or unintentional, causes pollution, which is to be corrected by purification and atonement. In other devotional systems, such as in Polynesian societies, items and actions that were holy became taboo, and any violation of the connection between what is tabu and the deities with which these items and actions are associated is believed to bring divine wrath upon the violator, and possibly upon his or her community. In each case, however, the shared notion is that of separation of the pure from the impure, based on a religious dichotomy between the holy and the profane (representing good and evil, respectively).

Also central to understanding purification is a widespread belief that pollution can cross physical and spiritual boundaries through transfer between individuals and objects, all of which would in turn become impure and capable of spreading the pollutant. The human body is one such domain where transition across a physical boundary creates pollution and requires acts of purification. Hair and nails, while attached to the body, are considered to be pure, as are blood, saliva, semen, and vaginal fluid when inside the body. But all these items are viewed as open to pollution by evil spiritual forces once separated from the bodys protection, and they are all capable of causing impurity in any persons and objects with which contact occurs. Ultimately, therefore, it is not just a single person or item that is involved in the system of purity, pollution, and purification, but rather the entire society and environment in which the believers live.

ANALYSIS

Methodological dilemmas exist in the interpretation of purification rituals. Among the issues involved are cultural relativity, the notion that beliefs and rituals are personal and social phenomena having values and meanings assigned by practitioners, the necessity for interpretations to be based on particular contexts, and attention to the historical contexts in which beliefs and practices developed. For instance, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, preserves an apparent distinction in belief, terminology, and praxes between ritual purity and moral purity. Israelites who were not tahor (pure) because of a deliberate or accidental transgression that had rendered them tameh (impure) could not enter the temple nor have contact with believers, activities, and items relating to the communitys religious life. Purification with water, followed by isolation or at least refraining from contact with other persons and items was one prescribed means by which purity could be reestablished. In other situations, such as the purification of men after skin diseases and women after childbirth, sacrifices of burnt offerings (olah ) and sin offerings (hatta ) necessary for the atonement of sins were associated with the process of regaining purity. So a nexus took place between ritual and moral purity in Judaism. Another historically-based intertwining of concepts is seen in Roman praxis, where lustrare (lustration), which may have originated around the second century BCE as a propitiatory rite, came to involve sprinkling with pure water, and so was categorized by Greeks and then Romans as a purification ritual, or katharmon.

Perhaps most important to the study of purification is the variety of functions served. For example, purification and penance are viewed by Zoroastrians as necessary to counter evil, which is believed to function as a pollutant external to the holy. In Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist belief as well, purification can be used to negate impurity and defilement. But Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain penances, or tapas, do not negate impurity caused by contact with an external pollutant. Instead, they are undergone as a form of repentance. Self-flagellation, a practice among European Christians during the Middle Ages and still performed by Shia during the Muslim month of Muharram, involve acts of suffering intended to provide an expiation of sin and spiritual pollution. Despite the differences, however, all such acts of purification are connected by the intent of ensuring physical and, even more importantly, spiritual purity. Therefore, rites of passage or important transitory stages in the life cyclesuch as birth, puberty, marriage, initiation into confessional communities and clerical organizations, and deathcame to be associated with purificatory rites, as did individual physiological acts, whether voluntary or involuntary, such as urination, defection, sexual intercourse, childbirth, menstruation, and sickness.

In certain communities, such as among the ancient Israelites, medieval Jews, and ancient and medieval Zoroastrians, participation in purification was obligatory. Among other groups, such as the ancient and classical Greeks, participation in the system of purity and purification, or miasma, appears to have been at least technically a voluntary one. Yet whether obligatory or voluntary, such systems operated on consensus and coercion, and being regarded as impure often resulted in exclusion from communal life.

SELECT INSTANCES

Often, but not always, purification involves an external cleansing of the person or object, an internal expiation of the person, a period of isolation, and atonement for having become impure. The sequence of events varies, as do the items utilized during the process. The Zoroastrian ritual of barashnum i no shab, or purification of the nine (days and) nights, which is now used only before induction as a magus, or priest, is emblematic of such cleansing. A variety of items have been utilized by different cultures as purificatory agents. Earth (dust), urine, and blood are some purificatory agents utilized by specific communities. Dust has often been employed among Zoroastrians and Muslims as a substitute for water. The blood of a sacrificial bull served to purify Roman men undergoing initiation into the mysteries of Mithras during late antiquity. Smoke via fumigation would be used to purify household items among Jews and Zoroastrians.

Water is the most widely used substance for purification. The Christian practice of dipping fingers into a water basin upon entering a church (now quite infrequent) is a remnant of the custom of purification before prayer. All Muslims, irrespective of gender and age, perform wudu (or vuzu ), a washing of the face, hands, and feet prior to entering a mosque. Zoroastrians perform a padyab, or rite of protection by water, by washing all uncovered parts of the body and face before praying at a fire temple. Water, because it symbolizes life and fertility, is also the purificatory agent used prior to initiation in many religious communitiesthe Christian baptism is the most widely known example, continuing a Jewish and Gnostic tradition that was followed later by Mandeans and Manicheans. The Zoroastrian sade nahn (simple bath) and the Hindu upanayana (washing) serve similar purposes.

Purification rites using water are performed by orthodox male and female Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists after sexual intercourse to purify themselves from contact with semen and vaginal fluid. Because water is associated with fertility, such purification may also occur prior to marriage to ensure that the new couple begins life together in ritual and moral purity. A Roman counterpart, the lustration, can also be mentioned in the context of purification before marriage. In Africa, washing a Yoruba brides feet before entering the bridegrooms home is another such purification.

Menstruation and childbirth are two situations in which purification is widespread across cultures. The seclusion of menstruating women and the prohibition of sexual intercourse during menses and for a certain period of time thereafter (the time of menses plus one day for Zoroastrians, menses plus four days among Hindus, between three and ten days for Muslims, and seven days for Jews) has been practiced in order to ensure that the husband or male partner does not become polluted by the womans ritual impurity. After childbirth, a period of separation or isolation of the mother is prescribed by many confessional groupsit would last for forty days among Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists. After menses and childbirth, Jewish women are required to undergo a ritual immersion, or mikvah, to regain purity, Zoroastrian women have to perform a sade nahn, and a ritual bath, or ghusl, is undergone by Muslim women. Only orthodox or orthopractic women follow the stipulations completely now. Most other Jewish, Muslim, and Zoroastrian women now regard menses, childbirth, and the blood associated with these conditions as merely physiological processes that have no moral connection, and so they simply bathe or shower in water as they would to routinely clean themselves. The Christian practice of churchingor reintroducing a new mother to the community after childbirth, isolation, and purificationhas fallen into disuse.

Fears that sex, procreation, and menstruation were linked to evil and sin reinforced the concepts of impurity associated with them, generated gender-specific misogyny in beliefs and practices directed at women, and contributed to patriarchy in many ancient and medieval societies. Traditionalist communities in both Western and Eastern countries continue some of those dichotomies. One result, among orthodox Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, is the exclusion of women from the priesthoods.

Class and caste hierarchies were shaped in part by issues of purity, pollution, and purification as well. One example among Hindus, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians pertains to families that wash and transport corpses, and thus are often shunned as ritually impure due to their occupation. For Hindus, in particular, the varnashrama dharma, or system of endogamous classes, excludes persons who deal with corpses, bodily fluids, and bodily excrements in their work. Those individualscalled dalit (downtrodden), and more paternalistically harijans (children of the god Hari Vishnu)have traditionally been social outcastes living apart from the other classes and unable to worship at temples. Any member of the three upper socioreligious classesthe Brahmins (priests and scholars), the Kshatriyas (warriors and politicians), and the Vaishyas (merchants, artisans, and landowners), all of whom are regarded as twice born and therefore permitted to study scripturewho has direct or indirect contact with an untouchable person, through touch, food, water, objects, or even the outcastes shadow, becomes polluted. He or she is technically required to undergo a ritual bath for religious purity to be regained. Only in modern India (after 19491950) and Pakistan (after 1953) have secular national constitutions deemed the still fairly widespread practice of untouchability illegal.

CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS

Vitiation of the efficacy of purification is thought to occur if the prescribed rites are not performed exactingly or if contact occurs again with impure persons and objects. Consequently, during antiquity and medieval times, the proper performance of purification rituals, specialization of individuals as purifiers, and an extensive literature on purification developed, as evidenced by the biblical Leviticus and the Iranian Videvdad. The violation of divine commandments and contact with evil spirits were said to be the ultimate sources of pollution. As a part of religion, purification was an important, widespread, socioreligious factor linked to good, evil, demonology, and even differential gender and class relations. Its sway began to attenuate slowly in Europe with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age. From the eighteenth century onward, colonialism spread Western science, especially in connection with medicine, to other societies via secular education. As result, practices of purification have attenuated in the daily lives of many secularized women and men.

SEE ALSO Buddhism; Caste; Christianity; Cultural Relativism; Hinduism; Humiliation; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Judaism; Magic; Purgatory; Religion; Rites of Passage; Rituals; Sanitation; Shame; Sin; Stigma; Vodou

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Choksy, Jamsheed K. 1989. Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin: University of Texas Press.

De Silva, David A. 2000. Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1969. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. 2nd ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Dumont, Louis. 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Rev. English ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Gennep, Arnold van. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Katz, Marion Holmes. 2002. Body of Text: The Emergence of the Sunni Law of Ritual Purity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Maccoby, Hyam. 1999. Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and Its Place in Judaism. Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge Press.

Parker, Robert. 1983. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jamsheed K. Choksy

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purification

purification, in religion, the ceremonial removal of what the religion deems unclean. The usual agents of purification are water (as in baptism), bodily alteration (as in circumcision), and fire. The origin of purification rites is a matter of dispute, but frequently the necessity for purification may result from violation of taboo or from defilement incurred while participating in critical events of life, such as childbirth, puberty, marriage, bloodshed or war, and death. The ancient Hebrew rites are described in the Bible, as in chapter 19 of the Book of Numbers. Candlemas commemorates the purification of the Virgin Mary after the birth of Jesus.

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Purification (of the Virgin Mary)

Purification (of the Virgin Mary) the purification of the Virgin Mary after the birth of Jesus, culminating in her presentation of Jesus in the temple; the feast (2 February, also called Candlemas) commemorating this.

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Purification

536. Purification

  1. Circe purified Jason and Medea after their murder of Apsyrtus. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 201]

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