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Ritual purification is a feature of many religions. The aim of these rituals is to remove specifically defined uncleanliness prior to a particular type of activity, and especially prior to the worship of a deity. This ritual uncleanliness is not identical with ordinary physical impurity, such as dirt stains; nevertheless, body fluids are generally considered ritually unclean.
Most of these rituals existed long before the germ theory of disease, and figure prominently from the earliest known religious systems of the Ancient Near East. Some writers remark that similarities between cleansing actions, engaged in by obsessive compulsive people, and those of religious purification rites point to an ultimate origin of the rituals in the personal grooming behaviour of the primates, but others connect the rituals to primitive taboos.
Some have seen benefits of these practices as a point of health and preventing infections especially in areas where humans come in close contact with each other. While these practices came before the idea of the germ theory was public in areas that use daily cleaning, the destruction of infectious agents seems to be dramatic. Others have described a 'dimension of purity' that is universal in religions that seeks to move us away from disgust, (at one extreme) and to uplift us towards purity and divinity (at the other extreme). Away from uncleanliness to purity, and away from deviant to moral behavior, (within one's cultural context).
In the Bahá'í Faith, ritual ablutions (the washing of the hands and face) should be done before the saying of the obligatory prayers, as well as prior to the recitation of the Greatest Name 95 times. Menstruating women are obliged to pray, but have the (voluntary) alternative of reciting a verse instead; if the latter choice is taken, ablutions are still required before the recital of the special verse. Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, prescribed the ablutions in his book of laws, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
These ablutions have a significance beyond washing, and should be performed even if one has bathed oneself immediately before reciting the obligatory prayer; fresh ablutions should also be performed for each devotion, unless they are being done at the same time. If no water (or clean water) is available or if an illness would be worsened by the use of water, one may instead repeat the verse "In the Name of God, the Most Pure, the Most Pure" five times before the prayer.
Apart from this, Bahá'u'lláh abolished all forms of ritual impurity of people and things and stressed the importance of cleanliness and spiritual purity.
The Bible has many rituals of purification relating to menstruation, childbirth, sexual relations, nocturnal emission, unusual bodily fluids, skin disease, death, and animal sacrifices. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church prescribes several kinds of hand washing for example after leaving the latrine, lavatory or bathhouse, or before prayer, or after eating a meal. The women in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church are prohibited from entering the church temple during menses; and the men do not enter a church the day after they have had intercourse with their wives.
Baptism, as a form of ritual purification, occurs in several religions related to Judaism, and most prominently in Christianity; Christianity also has other forms of ritual purification. In older churches, and modern Roman Catholic churches, there are a number of lavers around the building for the laity to use as ritual symbolism of cleansing themselves, usually by dipping the fingertips in the holy water, and then making the sign of the cross. In traditional liturgical churches a laver, often embedded in the wall, exists for the priest and deacon to wash their hands before celebrating the Eucharist.
Many ancient churches were built with a large fountain in the courtyard. It was the tradition for Christians to wash before entering the church for worship. This usage is also legislated in the Rule of St. Benedict, as a result of which, many medieval monasteries were built with communal lavers for the monks or nuns to wash up before the Daily Office.
Traditionally, Christianity adhered to the biblical regulation requiring the purification of women after childbirth; this practice, was adapted into a special ritual known as the churching of women, for which there exists liturgy in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, but its use is now rare in Western Christianity. The churching of women is still performed in a number of Eastern Christian churches (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches).
Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and High church Anglicans are also traditionally required to regularly attend confession, as a form of ritual purification from sin, especially as preparation before receiving the Eucharist. For Catholics, this is required at least once a year and required for those who are guilty of unconfessed mortal sins.
In Reformed Christianity, ritual purity is achieved though the Confession of Sins, and Assurance of Forgiveness, and Sanctification. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, believers offer their whole being and labor as a 'living sacrifice'; and cleanliness becomes a way of life (See Romans 12:1, and John 13:5-10 (the Washing of the Feet)).
Purification was required in the nation of Israel during Old Testament times for the ceremonially unclean so that they would not defile God's tabernacle and put themselves in a position to be cut off from Israel. An Israelite could become unclean by handling a dead body. In this situation, the uncleanliness would last for seven days. Part of the cleansing process would be washing the body and clothes, and the unclean person would need to be sprinkled with the water of purification.
Various traditions within Hinduism follow different standards of ritual purity and purification; in Smartism, for example, the attitude to ritual purity is similar to that of Karaite Judaism. Within each tradition the more orthodox groups follow stricter rules, but the strictest rules are generally prescribed for brahmins, especially those engaged in the temple worship.
An important part of ritual purification in Hinduism is the bathing of the entire body, particularly in rivers considered holy such as the Ganges; it is considered auspicious to perform this form of purification before any festival, and it is also practiced after the death of someone, in order to maintain purity. Although water pollution means that in modern times there is a need for care during bathing in such rivers, the physical impurities within the river do not diminish the attributed power they have to bring ritual purity. Lesser aspects of Hindu purification ritual include achamana - the touching and sipping of pure water while reciting specific mantras - and the application of a tilaka on the forehead.
Punyahavachanam is a ritual performed before any ceremony such as Marriage, Homa etc. Mantras are chanted and then water is sprinkled over all the people participating and the items used.
In the ritual known as abhisheka (Sanskrit, "sprinkling; ablution"), the deity's murti or image is ritually bathed with water, curd, milk, honey, ghee, cane sugar, rosewater, etc. Abhisheka is also a special form of puja prescribed by Agamic injunction. The act is also performed in the inauguration of religious and political monarchs and for other special blessings.
There are various kinds of purificatory rituals associated with death ceremonies. After visiting a house where a death has recently occurred, Hindus are expected to take bath.
Women take a head bath after completing their 4-day menstrual period.
Indigenous American religions
In the traditions of many Indigenous peoples of the Americas, one of the forms of ritual purification is the ablutionary use of a sauna, known as a sweatlodge, as preparation for a variety of other ceremonies. The burning of smudge sticks is also believed by some indigenous groups to cleanse an area of any evil presence. Some groups like the southeastern tribe, the Cherokee, practiced and, to a lesser degree, still practice going to water, performed only in bodies of water that move like rivers or streams. Going to water was practiced by some villages daily (around sunrise) while others would go to water primarily for special occasions, including but not limited to naming ceremonies, holidays, and ball games. Many anthropologists that studied with the Cherokees like James Adair tried to connect these groups to the Lost Tribes of Israel based on religious practices including going to water, but this form of historiography is mostly Christian "wish fulfillment" rather than respectable anthropology.
Islamic ritual purification is particularly centred on the preparation for salah, ritual prayer; theoretically ritual purification would remain valid throughout the day, but is treated as invalid on the occurrence of certain acts, flatulence, sleep, contact with the opposite sex (depending on which school of thought), unconsciousness, and the emission of blood, semen, or vomit. Some schools of thought mandate that ritual purity is necessary for holding the Quran.
Ritual purification takes the form of ablution, wudu and ghusl, depending on the circumstance; the greater form is obligatory by a woman after she ceases menstruation, on a corpse that didn't die during battle and after sexual activity, and is optionally used on other occasions, for example just prior to Friday prayers or entering ihram.
An alternative tayammum ("dry ablution"), involving clean sand or earth, is used if clean water is not available or if an illness would be worsened by the use of water; this form is invalidated in the same circumstances as the other forms, and also whenever water becomes available and safe to use. And is also necessary to be repeated (renewed) before every obligatory prayer.
The fard or "obligatory activities" of the lesser form include beginning with the intention to purify oneself, washing of the face, arms, head, and feet. while some mustahabb "recommended activities" also exist such as basmala recitation, oral hygiene, washing the mouth, nose at the beginning, washing of arms to the elbows and washing of the ears at the end; additionally recitation of the Shahada. The greater form (ghusl) is completed by first performing wudu and then ensuring that the entire body is washed. Some minor details of Islamic ritual purification may vary between different madhhabs "schools of thought".
The Hebrew Bible has many rituals of purification relating to menstruation, childbirth, sexual relations, nocturnal emission, unusual bodily fluids, skin disease, death, and animal sacrifices. Modern mainstream Judaism is based on a combination of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish oral law, which includes the Mishnah and Gemarrah (together comprising the Talmud) in addition to other rabbinic commentaries; this oral law further specifies regulations for ritual purity, including obligations relating to excretory functions, meals, and waking. The regulations of biblical and oral law generally prescribe a form of water-based ritual washing in Judaism for removal of any ritual impurity, sometimes requiring just washing of the hands, and at other times requiring full immersion; the oral law requires the use of un-drawn water for any ritual full immersion - either a natural river/stream/spring, or a special bath (a Mikvah) which contains rain-water.
These regulations were variously observed by the ancient Israelites; contemporary Orthodox Jews and (with some modifications and additional leniencies) some Conservative Jews continue to observe the regulations, except for those tied to sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Temple no longer fully exists. These groups continue to observe many of the hand washing rituals. Of those connected with full ritual immersion; perhaps the quintessential immersion rituals still carried out are those related to nidda, according to which a menstruating woman must avoid contact with her husband, especially avoiding sexual contact, and may only resume contact after she has first immersed herself fully in a mikvah of living water seven days after her menstruation has ceased.
In December 2006 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of Conservative Judaism re-affirmed the traditional requirement that Conservative women ritually immerse following menstruation. In doing so, it adopted multiple opinions regarding details, including an opinion reaffirming traditional (Orthodox) practices and concepts, an opinion adapting certain leniencies including counting seven days from start of menstruation rather than its end, and an opinion reformulating the theological basis of the practice, basing it on concepts other than ritual purity. See the Niddah article for details. Classical ritual immersion and associated requirements are generally not observed by Reform Judaism or Reconstructionist Judaism, with the exception that both generally include immersion as part of the ritual for Conversion to Judaism, although Reform Judaism does not require it.
Tumat HaMet ("The impurity of death"), coming into contact with a human corpse, is considered the ultimate impurity, one which cannot be purified through the waters of the mikvah. Tumat HaMet required purification through sprinkling of the ashes of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. However the law is inactive, since neither the Temple in Jerusalem nor the red heifer is currently in existence, though without the latter a Jew is forbidden to ascend to the site of the former. All are currently assumed to possess the impurity of death. However, someone who is a Kohen, one of the priestly class, is not allowed to intentionally come into contact with a dead body, nor approach too closely to graves within a Jewish cemetery.
Among Karaite Jews, the text of the Torah is the only acceptable source for Jewish law. Its regulations regarding ritual purity thus remain in effect to the greatest degree that possible without the Temple.
Kalash (Iranic Tribe)
Kalash theology has very strong notions of purity and impurity. Menstruation is confirmation of women's impurity and when their periods begin they must leave their homes and enter the village menstrual building or "bashaleni". Only after undergoing a purification ceremony restoring their purity can they return home and rejoin village life. The husband is an active participant in this ritual.
In ceremonial magic, banishing refers to one or more rituals intended to remove non-physical influences ranging from spirits to negative influences. Although banishing rituals are often used as components of more complex ceremonies, they can also be performed by themselves.
In Wicca and various forms of neopaganism, banishing is performed before casting a Circle in order to purify the area where the ritual or magick is about to take place. In his books on Nocturnal Witchcraft, for example, Konstantinos recommends performing banishings regularly, in order to keep the magical workspace free of negativity, and to become proficient in banishing before attempting acts that are much more spiritually taxing on the body, such as magical spellworking. Banishing can be viewed as one of several techniques of magick, closely related to ritual purification and a typical prerequisite for consecration and invocation.
- Greater Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram
- Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Hexagram
- Greater Banishing Ritual of the Hexagram
- The Star Ruby, a version of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram that was modified by Aleister Crowley for the use of adherents to Thelema.
- The Opening by Watchtower
In Shinto, a common form of ritual purification is misogi, which involves natural running water, and especially waterfalls. Rather than being entirely naked, men usually wear Japanese loincloths and women wear kimonos, both additionally wearing headbands.
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