Nudity in religion
Ancient Greek religion
Hesiod the writer of the poem Theogony, which describes the origins and genealogies of the Greek gods in Ancient Greek religion, suggested that farmers should "Sow naked, and plough naked, and harvest naked, if you wish to bring in all Demeter's fruits in due season." Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth.
The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all recount the legend of the Garden of Eden, found in the Hebrew Bible, in which Adam and Eve are unaware of their nakedness until they eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. After this, they feel ashamed and try to cover themselves with fig leaves.Genesis 3:74 Judaism does not share the Christian association of nakedness with original sin, an aspect integral to the doctrine of redemption and salvation. In Islam the garden is in Paradise, not on Earth [a] This is to show that women and men should be covered in clothing, for nudity has the stigma of shame attached to it.[b] Each of these religions has its own unique understanding of what is meant to be taught with the recounting of the story of Adam and Eve.
In Judaism, nudity is an aspect of body modesty which is regarded as very important in most social and familial situations. Attitudes to modesty vary between the different movements within Judaism as well as between communities within each movement. In more strict (orthodox) communities, modesty is an aspect of Tzniut which generally has detailed rules of what is appropriate behaviour. Conservative and Reform Judaism generally promote modesty values but do not regard the strict Tzniut rules as binding, with each person being permitted (at least in principle) to set their own standards. With the exception of the Haredi community, Jewish communities generally tend to dress according to the standards of the society in which they find themselves.
A person who enters a ritual bath (a mikveh) does so without clothing, and with no jewelry or even bandages.
Care needs to be taken when reading the Bible, where some references to nakedness serve as a euphemism for intimate sexual behaviour. For example, in the story of Noah we see the hesitancy of two of Noah's sons when they have to cover their father's nakedness, averting their eyes, after Noah's youngest son "saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside" what he had done to his father.[c][d] Nakedness may also be a metaphor for empty-handedness, specifically in situations where a sacrifice or offering to God is expected.
The early Christian Church reflected contemporary attitudes towards nudity, when it was considered acceptable in some contexts such as working outdoors. For example, in John 21:7 Simon Peter is naked while fishing from a boat, but then gets dressed before meeting Christ. Additionally, in the Old Testament both Isaiah in Isaiah 20:2-3 and King Saul in 1 Samuel 19:23-24 are described as preaching in the nude. But overall the Old Testament is not positive towards nudity.
The first recorded liturgy of baptism, written down by Saint Hippolytus of Rome in his Apostolic Tradition, required men, women and children to remove all clothing, including all foreign objects such as jewellery and hair fastenings. Guy (2003), however argues that complete nudity for baptism candidates (especially women) would not be the norm. He notes that at certain times and in certain places candidates may have been totally naked at the point of baptism, but the Jewish taboo of female nakedness, would have mitigated widespread practice naked baptism.
Later Christian attitudes to nudity became more restrictive, and baptisms were segregated by sex and then later were usually performed with clothed participants. Some of the Eastern Orthodox churches today maintain the early church's liturgical use of baptismal nudity, particularly for infants but also for adults.
Early Christian art included depictions of nudity in baptism. When artistic endeavours revived following the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was a major sponsor of art bearing a religious theme, many of which included subjects in various states of dress and including full nudity. Painters sponsored by the Church included Raphael, Caravaggio and Michelangelo, but there were many others. Many of these paintings and statues were and continue to be displayed in churches, some of which were painted as murals, the most famous of which are at the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo.
Smith (1966), in discussing logion 37[e] of the Gospel of Thomas, notes that early Christian art dipicts, as one would expect, Adam and Eve in Paradise naked. The only other Old Testament figures who are depicted nude are Jonah emerging from the mouth of the Great Fish, Daniel emerging from the Lion's Den, and the resurrected in Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones: these Old Testament scenes containing nude figures are precisely those which were held to be types of the resurrection. Among the New Testament illustrations, apart from baptismal scenes, there are nudes only in one representation of the raising of Lazarus and one representation of the Miracle at Cana.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II expressed the Catholic Church's attitude to the exposure of the human body in Love and Responsibility: "The human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve intact its splendour and its beauty... Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness... Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person... The human body is not in itself shameful... Shamelessness (just like shame and modesty) is a function of the interior of a person."
Sects have arisen within Christianity from time to time that have viewed nudity in a more positive light. For example, to the Adamites and the Doukhobor sect social nudity was an integral part of their practices.
Today, Christian naturists maintain that social nudity is a normal part of Christianity and is acceptable. De Clercq (2011) argues that the significance of the human need for clothing by far exceeds its theological meaning.
In Islam the area of the body not meant to be exposed in public is called the awrah, and while referred to in the Qur'an, is addressed in more detail in hadith. In the Sunni tradition, the male awrah is from the navel to knees. Other denominations have differing interpretations. For women, there are different classifications of awrah. In public, many Muslim women wear the hijab and long dresses which covers most of their head and body, with only specific body parts such as hands and face exposed. But in front of direct family (parents, children, siblings), the awrah is relaxed further, allowing them to be uncovered, except between the chest and the thighs. Sharia law in some Islamic countries requires women to observe purdah, covering their entire bodies, including the face (see niqab and burqa), However, the degrees of covering vary according to local custom and/or interpretation of Sharia law.
- For men, the awrah is from the navel (not inclusive) to the knees (not inclusive according to the Shafi'is, Hanbalis and Malikis; inclusive according to the Hanafis). However, in most Islamic cultures, a man is frowned upon should he walk around in public without covering the upper half of his body.
- For women, in front of non-mahram men and non-Muslim women, the awrah is the whole body, apart from the hands and the face (and, solely according to the Hanafis, the feet). In front of Muslim women it is from the navel (not inclusive) to the knees (not inclusive according to the Shafi'is, Hanbalis and Malikis, inclusive according to the Hanafis), and with mahram men there are three opinions:
- It is from the shoulders (inclusive) down to the knees (inclusive). (Hanbali opinion)
- It is from the stomach (inclusive) down to the knees (inclusive according to the Hanafis, but not according to the Shafi'is and Malikis). (Hanafi, Shafi'i, and Maliki opinion)
- It is from the navel (not inclusive) to the knees (inclusive) when with either. (Alternate Hanafi opinion)
- For both genders, it is encouraged to wear loose clothing. Note that the awrah is not necessarily what is preferable to wear but what is the bare minimum. It is reported that Muhammad said, "Modesty is a part of faith."
South Asian religions
In ancient South Asian cultures, there was a tradition of extreme asceticism (obviously minoritarian) that included full nudity. This tradition continued from the gymnosophists (philosophers in antiquity) to certain holy men (who may however cover themselves with ashes) in present-day Hindu devotion and in Jainism.
Among the Hindu religious sects, only the sadhus (monks) of the Nāga sect can be seen nude. They usually wear a loin-cloth around their waist, but not always; and usually remain in their Akhara or deep forest or isolation and come out in public only once every four years during Kumbh Mela. They have a very long history and are warrior monks, who usually also carry a talwar (sword), trishul (trident), bhala (javelin) or such weapons, and in medieval times have fought many wars to protect Hindu temples and shrines.
In the Digambara sect of Jainism, monks are "sky-clad" and the members of this sect also keep their holy statues naked. However, the Shwetambar sect is "white-clad" and their holy statues wear a loin cloth.
New religious movements
In Raëlism, nudity is not problematic. Raëlists in North America have formed GoTopless.org, which organizes demonstrations in support of topfreedom on the basis of the legal and public attitudes to the gender inequality. GoTopless sponsors an annual "Go Topless Day" protest (also known as "National GoTopless Day", "International Go-Topless Day", etc.) in advocacy for women's right to go topless on gender equality grounds.
Notes and references
- when they tasted of the tree, their shame became manifest to them, and they began to sew together the leaves of the garden over their bodies.[Quran 7:22]
- O children of Adam! We have indeed sent down to you clothing to cover your shame, and (clothing) for beauty and clothing that guards (against evil), that is the best.[Quran 7:26]
- [Noah] drank the wine [of his vineyard] and became drunk. He uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid [it] upon both their backs, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces [were] backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And when Noah awoke and learned what [Ham] had done to him, he said "Cursed be Canaan [Ham's son], the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.Genesis 9:21-25
- it has been suggested that this episode involved Ham doing more than just viewing his father's nakedness.
- Jesus' disciples ask, "When will you be revealed to us and when will we see you? Jesus said: When you unclothe yourselves without being ashamed and take off your clothes and put them under your feet as little children and tread on them, then [shall you see] the Son of the Living One and you shall not fear"
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