Pollution and purity have been important social and religious concepts in Hinduism from ancient times. Pollution often entails substances related to birth, death, blood, bodily processes, and leftover food.
   The concepts of purity and pollution are cen-tral to the notion of caste in India. People whose traditional occupations put them in contact with leather, dead animals, toilets and sewers, and sweeping (leftover substances) are usually con-sidered outcastes or UNTOUCHABLES (Dalit). At the other social extreme are BRAHMINS, who never have contact with such substances and, ide-ally, deal only with learning, books, or temple rituals. They are considered pure. Middle castes, which sometimes have contact with polluting substances in their traditional work, have an intermediate purity status. For example, barbers, who have contact with bodily substances as they cut people’s hair, are seen as lower caste, though not untouchable.
   For Brahmins, purity is maintained by tradi-tion and occupation and reinforced by vegetari-anism. In Vedic times Brahmins were avid meat eaters and even ate beef. As the traditional spe-cialists in ritual sacrifice, they were entitled to the leftover meat from each animal offering.
   As new ideas of purity began to develop, Brahmins became the strictest vegetarians, even eschewing eggs in most regions of India. When they became the measure of purity, those who did eat meat were given lower status. Because of their purity, Brahmins may offer cooked food to anyone; thus, they are often hired as cooks in restaurants. Conversely, Brahmins can accept food from and eat together with only a very limited group of people, their own subcaste of Brahmins. Commensality—eating food together—is a sign of an equal level of purity. People who by tradition have different levels of purity traditionally would not eat in the same place or from the same source. Furthermore, any food that has been eaten by anyone else is highly polluting, unless that person is one’s infant child or husband; beef is always considered the most impure and reviled of foods. In villages, different castes still draw water from different wells.
   In social contexts feet are considered the most polluting body part and must never touch some-one else. However, people do touch the feet of a mother, father, elder brother, GURU, or god out of honor, respect, or worship. Any association with blood or death is considered polluting.
   Further reading: G. Morris Carstairs, The Twice-Born (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967); Brian K. Smith, Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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