By Swami Harshananda
Aśauca, āśauca literally means ‘uncleanness’.
Birth and death occurring in a family were believed to bring about aśauca (also spelt as āśauca) or ceremonial impurity not only on all its members but also on the near relatives. Though the dharmaśāstras have dealt with this subject in great detail, the exact reason, why such aśauca is to be observed, has not been clearly indicated.
Two types of aśauca are as follows :
- At birth it was called as ‘janmāśauca’
- At death it was called as ‘mṛtāśauca’
‘Sutaka’ was another general term applied to both, but more for the latter than for the former. The period of aśauca varied from one month to one day, there being no unanimity among the writers. Ten days, three days or one day seem to be more common. During these days of aśauca, the members of the family were practically treated as untouchables, and they temporarily lost their religious privileges. After the completion of the period they were to bathe, change clothes and perform certain śāntis or propitiatory religious rites.
People occupying important places in society, whose duties and works were essential for the general welfare of the community, were exempted from the observance of aśauca : for instance, the doctor, the craftsman and so on. The king had the power to grant such exemptions to anyone, using his discretion.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore