An assumption is often made that India’s open defecation problem was rooted in a lack of hygiene that sprang from a general backwardness emanating from Hindu texts. Nothing can be more preposterous than this.
Indians inferred the linkage between personal hygiene and health thousands of years ago, long before the Germ Theory began to be understood in Europe in the 18th century. A plethora of ancient Sanskrit treatises such as Sushruta Samhita, Charaka Samhita, Manusmriti, Vayu Purana, Vaastu Shastra, Kamasutra and Arthashastra emphasize the importance of personal hygiene and clean surroundings in order to keep diseases at bay. What’s more, the Sanskrit term Shaucha used for hygiene is a holistic one and implies not just external cleanliness but also internal purity in terms of thoughts and attitude. The Grihyasutra, an ancient Indian collection of aphorisms prescribed at least three baths a day.
One of the most ancient medical texts in the world, Charaka Samhita speaks about water pollution caused by different kinds of contaminants including faeces and how it would lead to disease. The text is dated by some to the fourth century BCE. However, recent research points to a much older antiquity.
The river having water polluted with soil and feces, insects, snakes and rats and carrying rainwater will aggravate all doshas. Slimy, having insects, impure, full of leaves, moss and mud, having abnormal color and taste, viscous and foul-smelling water is not wholesome.
— Charaka Samhita, Sutrasthanam 27.213, 214
There was a clear understanding that disease-causing pathogens in faeces needed to be isolated from human settlements and nutrients in wastes had to be safely recycled back to nature. Under no circumstances were human wastes, blood or hazardous substances to be allowed to contaminate water. Both Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita contain references to microorganisms that circulate in the blood, mucus and phlegm. These organisms found in the blood which cause disease have been described as invisible.
What’s more admirable is how an ancient text Manusmriti lists out the impure substances produced by human bodies and advises that one has to cleanse oneself after touching any of them. All this when even…