Hinduism and the body

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Hinduism and the body The name ‘Hinduism’ is a relatively recent term for a pluralistic religion and way of life whose origins lie in South Asia's ancient past. Its most sacred books are the four collections of hymns called Vedas, the oldest sections of which may date from as early as 1500 bc. These hymns, addressed mostly to powerful male deities of nature, are considered by Hindus to have been divinely revealed to seers of the nomadic, fair-skinned Aryan tribes who, entering first the north-west region (now Pakistan) from Central Asia, subjugated the dark-skinned indigenous peoples and eventually spread their culture over the whole of the subcontinent and beyond.

The hymns indicate, not surprisingly, that strength of body was highly regarded in a man. A girl with physical defects found it difficult to get a husband. Upper and lower garments were worn and the body was ornamented with bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and earrings. Dance was enjoyed. Kāma, the love between a man and a woman, who brought about all kinds of physical sensations, was deified, and men and women used charms to make their lovers' bodies burn for them. In one such charm (Atharvaveda 3. 25), Kāma is besought to release an arrow to pierce the object of a young man's desire. At its release her spleen would dry up, it would burn her body and dry her mouth so that she would run to him.

Diseases were believed to have been brought about by the curses of the gods, sin against them, violation of moral law, or possession by evil spirits. Priestly physicians attempted cures using charms, sympathetic magic, amulets, and medicines; the physician tried to bring his patient back to health irrespective of whether he was ill, dying, or had already died. Religious rites were performed before and during pregnancy to try to ensure the birth of a male child. Cremation was the usual means of disposing of the corpse. The god of fire was invoked to carry the body to the other world, keeping it intact and healing any injury caused to it by animal or insect. When the spirit had travelled by the path of the Fathers it was believed to unite with the glorious body and enter a life in highest heaven untroubled by bodily imperfections and frailties.

Philosophic speculation concerning the nature and origin of creation, and the search for a godhead, occurs in the late hymns: ‘Who brought together the two heels of a person; by whom was his flesh assembled, his ankle joints, his clever fingers?’ (Atharvaveda X. 2). A hymn of the ṛgveda (X. 90) describes the world as coming into being through the sacrifice of a primaeval man whose parts, when cut up, became parts of the creation; the sun came from his eye, the moon from his mind, Indra (the war god) and fire came from his mouth, wind from his breath, air from his navel, the sky from his head, earth from his feet. In the early philosophic texts, the older Upanishads (c. sixth century bc), there arises the idea that the bodily parts of the cosmic person are identical to the bodily functions of the individual, and that ‘Fire became speech and entered the mouth (of the individual), wind became breath and entered the nostrils, the sun became sight and entered the eyes’ (Aitareya 2). The single divinity is identified as the self (ātman) of all beings. The individual self is further identified as being the same as the self of the entire creation, Brahman, the Supreme Spirit. The body is known to be mortal, there is speculation that after death the indestructible self enters a new womb, desirable or undesirable according to the person's deeds, and that a perfected soul can escape the cycle of birth and death.

The centuries immediately preceding and following the beginning of the Christian era are notable for the production of an immense body of literature. All learning was collected into books called śāstras. The material in these texts is not dated, instead each branch of knowledge is given a mythical divine origin and, if possible, linked to one of the four Vedas, for in Hinduism there is no clear division between the religious and the secular. By this time the correlation of the macrocosm and microcosm was complete and the doctrine of metempsychosis fully formulated. Worship of a personal deity was believed to bring about the fulfilment of all desires, even emancipation from the cycle of birth and death. These fundamental beliefs have not since changed to any great extent.

The Kāmasūtra, the oldest surviving text of Kāmaśāstra (the science of sexuality), is instruction in how to attain the complete sexual satisfaction considered important for both sexes. Dance is not merely an art form but a means of achieving union of the individual soul with the divine. Its treatise, the Nātyaśāstra, describes gesture and movement so refined as to amount to a complete body language able to express story, thought, and feeling through the movement of the major limbs, the head, hands, chest, buttocks, abdomen, waist, and thighs, and the minor limbs, the eyes, eyebrows, nose, lips, cheeks, and chin. Detailed descriptions of the human body are found in the literature belonging to the classical system of Indian medicine called Āyurveda — ‘knowledge for long life’ (the word ‘veda’ in this context means ‘knowledge’). The earliest of the texts which have come down to us are the compendia of Caraka and Suśruta, which probably date from the second century ad, but which contain some much older material.

Suśruta's compendium, which differs from that of Caraka largely in that it contains surgery, describes dissection, by means of a bamboo blade, of a body left to decompose for a few days in running water. It appears that this practice did not continue after Suśruta's time, probably because of opposition from the priestly caste. As might be expected, the particular weakness of the system is the lack of precision in the descriptions of the vessels and soft tissues of the body, whereas the description of bones is more accurate, although teeth, nails, cartileges, and protuberances were also included — Suśruta counts 300 bones, Caraka 360.

According to Hindu thought, the entire physical world is made of combinations of five great elements; ether, air, fire, water, and earth. The body is the sum of the modifications and combinations of the elements which have produced it. The elements are intimately connected with the five senses of the individual; ether with hearing, air with touch, fire with sight, water with taste, and earth with smell. At death the body returns to the elements, what is of ether to ether, air to air, and so on. The medical texts explain that modifications of the elements produce the seven essential constituents of the body, called dhātus, which are chyle, blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow, and semen. (No particular mention is made of the woman's body, but some texts seem to propose breast milk as an equivalent for semen.) Each of these constituents arises from the previous one, the whole being dependent on the intake of food, or in the case of the fetus, the mother's chyle. The quintessence of all is ojas, a word which can be roughly translated as ‘vitality’, although ojas is said to be a substance, which is distributed around the body by the heart, the most important of the body's organs. Maintenance of the equilibrium of the dhātus is of vital importance for health, for when one or more is depleted or in excess, the body will exhibit symptoms of disease.

When healthy food and drink are taken into the stomach, they are digested by being ‘cooked’ by internal fire. Those parts which cannot be assimilated into the chain of production of the dhâtus produce faeces, urine, ear wax, the secretions of the eye, nose, and mouth, sweat, hair, nails, etc., as well as the three humours of the body, wind, bile, and phlegm. The theory is that, in their right proportions, these are also maintainers of the body, and as such are also considered to be dhātus, but when they exceed or become less than their proper measure they become impurities, which pollute the body and may destroy it. By far the most important of them are the three humours.

Wind holds the dominant position as leader of the humours. It is dry, cold, light, subtle, mobile, and rough, and scatters everything in different directions. It carries the sensations of sound, touch, etc.; is the producer of speech; stimulates the body fire to promote appetite; and is the cause of the evacuation of urine, faeces, and other waste products, and of parturition. Bile is greasy, hot, sharp, fluid, and acrid. Its functions are to bring about coloration, digestion, heat, sight, hunger, and thirst, and the softness and radiance of the body. Phlegm is motionless, viscid, sticky, heavy, inert, cold, soft, and white. Its functions are viscidity, nourishment, the binding of joints, the solidarity of the body, and the maintenance of sexual vigour. Caraka says that from the time of the formation of the fetus these three are working, either in equal quantities or with different degrees of predominance. People with a predominance of phlegm are generally healthy, whereas those with predominance of bile or wind are always of indifferent health. The balance of the three in a person is his bodily nature. When the balance of one, two, or all three of the humours is disturbed they cause havoc in the body by invading each other's domain: this is the root of disease.

The semen of the father, the blood of the mother, and the past deeds of the individual determine the bodily features of the child. The behaviour, diet, and inclinations of the mother during pregnancy also have their effect. Equilibrium of the proper measure of the dhātus keeps the body in good health, therefore a person should take care that his behaviour, regimen, and personal hygiene are such that this balance may be maintained. Failure to do so, Caraka says, is an offence against wisdom.

Although speculation and debate concerning the details of anatomy and the working of the body continued, as is evident from the vast literature of Āyurveda produced during succeeding centuries, the fundamental scheme laid out in the early texts has not changed. Even today writers and commentators on Āyurvedic texts tend to absorb modern concepts into the system rather than discard the traditional scheme.

In general, the ideal male body is that of the hero; muscular, with broad shoulders, long arms, a neck shaped like a conch shell, a noble head with large eyes and a prominent chin, well-proportioned limbs, and a deep chest. The ideal female form emphasizes fertility: heavy breasts, narrow waist, large hips, tapering thighs — as well as a face as lovely as a lotus, fair skin, and dark hair — are features much admired.

Hinduism holds that for the ordinary person there are three aims of life: virtue, wealth, and fulfilment of desire. The ultimate aim, though, is mokṣa, liberation from the wheel of birth and death. The person who has this aim, which, it is believed, may take many embodiments to achieve, must undertake ascetic discipline to free himself from the notion that the world he has been born into is reality. The body is regarded by him as a temple or a city in which the Supreme Spirit dwells. Meticulous cleanliness is important. Special postures, regulation of breath, sexual continence, and restraint of the senses are practised in order to subdue the body, so that it will not disturb the mind in meditation. When all the bonds of phenomenal existence have been loosed, and there is union of the individual self with the Supreme Spirit, then for that soul, it is said, there is no further embodiment.

A. Glazier


Dasgupta, S. (1932). A history of Indian philosophy, Vol. 2, Chapter XIII. Cambridge University Press.
Hume, R. E. (2nd edn, revised 1931). The thirteen principal Upanishads. Oxford University Press.
Sharma, R. K. and and Dash, B. (1977). The Caraka Saṃhitā Vol. 2, Sr̄īrāsthāna. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, Varanasi.

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