Purity and pollution

June 8, 2011

I’ve already mentioned how impurity or kegare (汚れ or 穢れ) is a major concern in Japanese religion. Even though nowadays the emphasis is placed more on mental or spiritual pollution, kegare originally had no moral meaning, rather being the reaction of natural forces that caused misfortune.  Some scholars interpret it to mean the exhausting of vitality, that is to say a condition in which ke=ki (vitality) has withered (kare). It was thought to be caused by the contact with impure things such as death of humans and domestic animals, childbirth, menstruation, eating meat and sickness. Since kegare is an impediment to religious cerimonies, those who are polluted with it cannot take part to them.

A related concept is imi (忌み or 斎み), which can be translated as “mouring” or “avoidance”; it is a period in which one has to stay pure in order to celebrate ceremonies. The Taihou code (701) imposed a set of rules for the Emperor, in order to keep him protected from kegare. There were imi periods in which the ruler in which he could not: attend a funeral; see sick people; eat meat; sentence someone to death; play a musical instrument – and other supposedly impure activities.

Repulsion for impurity is anything but uncommon among cultures of the world. The concept of tittu, spread among people in southern India, is similar to kegare. Also the repulsion for shoku-e (触穢 touching impurity) are acknowledged in the Bible (e.g., Leviticus 5.2-3).

Kegare was considered contagious as if it were an infective disease: it was believed to be transmitted not only by physical contact but also by handling objects such as food, fire etc. Furthermore, it could be transmitted from person to person up to three times, as stated by Engishiki (905).

The link with childhood and menstruations is also the reason why women were considered impure (again, this fact is common in many primitive cultures, up to superstitions that survive in our civilization as well). However, women were not considered impure in ancient Japanese society: actually, they were considered closer to kami; the concept of impurity stemming from blood became stronger alongside with the exclusion of women from power and reached the top with Buddhism. In the 14th century the sutra Ketsubon-kyoo was introduced in Japan; it stated that women were so impure to deserve being tortured in hell, since they were polluting earth and rivers with their blood. This concept still survives and it’s the reason why women are prevented from taking part in some institutions such as nou theatre, sumo, the pageants of Gion festivals and some shrines and rites.

In order to restore a condition worthy of approaching the gods, one has to undergo ritual ablutions (misogi, 禊) and rites of purification called harae (祓祓) – which is the traditional pronunciation is harae, but today the word is usually pronounced harai. Purification rites are still a core part of Shinto and are performed both for special purposes, and at the beginning of all religious ceremonies. As observed by Ono Sokyou, matsuri has four such elements, including (1) purification (harai); (2) offerings (shinsen); (3) litany (norito); and (4) a communal feast (naorai); the purification must be the first step, representing the separation not only form the pollution, but also from the profane world.