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Impure Spirits Disappearing Before the Rising Sun

Impure Spirits Disappearing Before the Rising Sun: Cornell University Library via Flickr

Since the late 1960s and 70s, awareness of global environmental pollution has increased dramatically. In the new millennium the so-called ‘Green’ movement has become almost a religion.

Public figures like Al Gore present themselves as objective reporters of scientific fact while promoting their particular agendas on global warming. Meanwhile, the scientific debate on this and other pollution related issues remains far from closed.

Although the media tends to emphasize environmental pollution generated by highly industrialized countries, organic pollution from human and animal waste in densely populated, economically underdeveloped countries is a major contributor to early death and preventable disease.

In addition to its ecological meaning, the idea of pollution takes three main, potentially related forms.

First, we have social movements or trends that an opposing group, usually a ruling group, says ‘pollute’ the existing social body, as in the case of China.

“The same people that are cracking down on issues like democracy and Falun Gong are concerned about things like ‘spiritual pollution,'” Economy said. “And every several years — maybe five to seven years — China is likely to have a ‘spiritual pollution’ campaign and ‘anti-spiritual pollution’ campaign which means that they don’t like what they perceive to be coming from the West: sex, the freedoms, drug use; all of these very sensationalistic television programs.”¹

Second, in religious scripture and practice we find the idea of ritual pollution, as indicated in the Bible‘s Old Testament. According to Leviticus 15: 19-23, women are impure and can even spread this impurity for a certain period during and after the menstrual cycle:

When a woman has a discharge, if her discharge in her body is blood, she shall continue in her menstrual impurity for seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything also on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean, and everything on which she sits shall be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until evening. Whoever touches any thing on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until evening. Whether it be on the bed or on the thing on which she is sitting, when he touches it, he shall be unclean until evening.

Even more dramatically, Eric Lafforgue says the idea of ritual pollution has deadly consequences among the Hamar in southern Ethiopia.

Twins, a child born outside of formal marriages are considered to possess mingi (abnormality, pollution, unclean) and, for this reason, they are abandonned into the bush to die.²

Third, we have notions of spiritual ‘purity’ and ‘impurity,’ not necessarily linked to any particular social or physiological taboo.

As evident from the works of the Indian holy men Sri Ramkrishna and Sri Aurobindo, this distinction is made in Hinduism on an individual basis.

The Hindu guru (Skt. = spiritual teacher) normally must keep a proper distance from his disciples to avoid being overwhelmed by their spiritual impurities. The guru allegedly intercedes for disciples to help purify them of their polluting sins. This process is experienced by the guru as taking on another person’s spiritual heaviness which must be washed away, as it were, through meditation, ritual and prayer.

The poet Kálidása (c. 5th century CE) mentions a similar dynamic involving spiritual pollution and purity in his Shakuntala.

It is natural that the first sight of the King’s capital
should affect you in this manner;
my own sensations are very similar.
As one just bathed beholds the man polluted;
As one late purified, the yet impure:-
As one awake looks on the yet unawakened;
Or as the freeman gazes on the thrall,
So I regard this crowd of pleasure-seekers.³

Likewise, Jainism employs the popular metaphor of iron filings (representing the alleged impurities of non-liberated souls) flying to a magnet (representing the allegedly pure and liberated soul).

We find similar ideas about subtle yet tangible pollution in Christian mysticism with St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Faustina Kowalska.

Most spiritual perspectives differs on some points but all agree that subtle impurities may transfer from one person to another.

Along these lines, Buddhism speaks of karmic weights and skandhas that transfer and cluster over space and time, contributing to, so it’s believed, the illusion of individuality.

In Jungian thought, the notion of a subtle transfer of light and dark qualities is most clearly found in the discussion of alchemy, where Jung and his followers liken human relationships to complex chemical interactions.

Implicit to any discussion of pollution, be it of the social, scriptural or spiritual sort, is the realm of ethics. Here, the scholar of religion Rudolf Otto says that a morally evil action is “self-depreciating” and “pollutes,” leading toward imagery that suggests the need for “washing and cleansing.”4

¹ Nikola Krastev, “China: Report Says Media Control Is Tightening,”Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Thursday, February 23, 2006.

² See commentary for photo at

³ From the Shakuntala by Kálidása, circa 5th century CE, in A Treasury of Asian Literature, ed. John D. Yohannan. New York: Meridian, 1984.

4 The Idea of the Holy, second edition, trans. John W. Harvey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973 [1923], p. 55.

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