The seemingly simple act of cleaning bottoms reveals invaluable insights about the Indian psyche’s fixation with purity and pollution. This is the first of a three-part series.
Understanding how Indians clean their bottoms demands a deeper examination of Indian culture. It requires an analysis of the notion of purity and pollution in the Indian mind. Such an analysis reveals how the culture views cleanliness, how it differs from the West and how it governs daily rituals of hundreds of millions of people.
PURITY AND POLLUTION IN THE INDIAN PSYCHE
The notion, the idea and the conception of purity and pollution forms one of the bedrocks of Indian thinking and psyche. Conceptualized and formulated thousands of years ago, it has been cemented over the centuries. Today, it is almost impossible for most Indians to think, formulate and analyze their worldview without the framework of purity and pollution. It turns out that this notion has nothing to do with scientific ideas of cleanliness, hygiene and health. Even so, it is not uncommon to find even highly-educated Indians justifying their cultural ideas of purity and pollution through pseudo-scientific principles.
The caste system is the most potent example of the application of this idea of purity and pollution. A convoluted hierarchy based on work, livelihood and existence has been present in Indian society for centuries. It has been cemented through caste-endogamy, blood lineage and caste-based occupational specialization. This has made caste an exploitative social structure and a brilliantly-designed stratified hierarchy that has survived centuries of changes.
Notions of purity and pollution have pervaded and seeped the daily activities, actions and interactions of Indians — of all classes and castes, of every region (and even religion) and of every economic strata. In many cases, people who are generally against the concept of caste and other exploitative structures, processes and institutions of Indian society are themselves not aware of their own blind spots. As a result, they unknowingly follow, promote and peddle primitive notions of purity and pollution in daily life.
THE ELABORATE PROCESSES FOR CLEANING BOTTOMS
The cultural obsession of Indians with “notional” purity and pollution can be best illustrated through how they perceive, act and perform the elaborate ritual of going to the toilet for defecation, washing and bathing.
Unlike Westerners, Indians use their hands and water to clean their bottoms. First, they touch the excreta with their fingers and then they clean those fingers subsequently. At one level, this highlights the particular emphasis that the Indian psyche gives to the removal of impure substances from the body. The anal orifice is rinsed thoroughly with water, which not only cleans but also purifies things.
At another level, it raises a key question: Why use fingers to clean the bottom and touch the excreta? Are there better methods? For Europeans or Americans, the use of fingers to directly touch and clean their bottom is a strict no-no. In the Western psyche, the notion of cleanliness is different. Dirty or unhygienic things should not be touched directly by hand or come in contact with the body. Therefore, Westerners use toilet paper for cleaning filth. For Westerners, the Indian insistence on cleaning their bottoms using their fingers is outrageous — how can the consciousness of cleanliness allow Indians to touch the excreta with their bare fingers?
For Indians, the use of toilet paper to clean the bottom is insufficient. It does not and cannot clean properly. Cleaning is not complete in the absence of water. Culturally, the Indian psyche does not make a clear distinction between cleaning, which is hygienic and clinical in its nature, and purifying, which is ritual and religious in its implications. So, Indians must clean their bottoms after defecation using water. To ensure the cleaning process is thorough, they must use their fingers too.
However, this process makes fingers dirty and impure. Therefore, they have to be cleaned and purified too. That is why Indians wash their hands with soap after cleaning their bottoms. Importantly, Indians use their left hand to clean themselves. They do so because the notion of pollution attaches itself to the hand that touches the feces. The fingers that have touched feces are not entirely purified even after they are washed using soap. The left hand is the impure or inauspicious one, while the right hand is the pure or auspicious one, undefiled by contact with feces.
It is this fixation with purity that has led to the innovation of using a bidet shower to clean bottoms, similar to the shattaf hose in the Middle East. This might make using the left hand to clean the anal orifice redundant. However, it is quite likely that a number of people are not satisfied with the water jet alone and still use their fingers to ensure they are appropriately clean.
Indians could avoid all contact with feces by using toilet paper to wipe their bottoms clean. That is what Westerners do. However, as explained above, this neither cleans sufficiently nor purifies appropriately for the Indian mind. The sense of purity and pollution is buried deep into the Indian subconscious, and underpins even the seemingly simple task of cleaning one’s bottom.
THE BAFFLING CASE OF THE DIRTY CLEANING AGENT
It is not only hands and fingers that are unclean but also soaps. In almost all Indian households, there are separate soaps for bathing and washing hands after cleaning bottoms. Why do we see this curious phenomenon in this ancient land?
After all, a soap is a soap. It is a cleaning agent. The same soap can suffice both for bathing and for washing hands after cleaning bottoms. For the Indian psyche, the soap used to clean the unclean fingers has become a touch unclean itself. Its role in the process of purifying the impure fingers has polluted it somewhat. Therefore, it cannot be used to clean the body when taking a shower. Lest we forget, taking a shower or pouring water over one’s body by a village well is not just cleaning the body. It purifies the soul.
There are many contradictions in Indian purification rituals. The impure left hand touches the pure right hand when washing up after defecation. Yet the touch of the left hand does not make the right impure. The impure soap cleans the impure left hand as well as the pure right hand repeatedly. Yet the impure soap cannot purify the rest of the body that needs something purer. These incongruities tell us that Indian toilet habits are based more on mythical, cultural and religious principles and less on scientific or hygienic notions of germs and cleanliness.
Finally, a simple question arises. Why do Indians wash their hands with soap but not their bottoms? Surely, that is the cleanest option not only for Indians, but also for Westerners.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.