aśauca

(‘uncleanness’)

āśauca

Birth and death occurring in a Hindu family were believed to bring about aśauca (also spelt as āśauca) or ceremonial impu-rity not only on all its members but also on the near relatives. Though the dharma-śāstras have dealt with this subject in great detail, the exact reason, why such aśauca is to be observed, has not been clearly indicated.

Aśauca at birth was called ‘janmāśauca’ and that at death, ‘mṛtāśauca.’ ‘Sūtaka’ 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 unani-mity 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 comple-tion 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 obser-vance 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.