Purpose of cleanliness : Rationale behind Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan


Distinguished officers of the Ordnance Factory Board, respected Professor Supriyo Munshi of Gandhi Sangrahalaya, Barrackpore, distinguished officers in the audience, and my dear friends: I am glad to be present here today to participate in your Swachh Bharat Pakhwada. Actually, OFB office contacted Belur Math for sending a monk to speak in this seminar and that is how I came here. As informed to you by Dr Uddipan Mukherjee, I come from Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira, a Diploma College & Skill development Center, right at the gate of Belur Math.

Today, I will speak to you all, very briefly on Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on cleanliness. According to Swamiji, we can consider cleanliness on two levels – on the personal level, and on the collective level. At whatever level we consider this issue of cleanliness, unless we understand the necessity, the purpose of cleanliness, we will never be driven to practice it in our lives actively.

At the individual level, we Indians understand the necessity of purity for our spiritual growth. There is a manual for spiritual growth in our country called ‘Patanjali Yoga Sutras’. This book mentions that of the five sine-qua-nons for spiritual growth, the very first one is ‘Purity’. It mentions that when we get established in cleanliness, we start experiencing a most wonderful dissociation from our own bodies. The psychology is like this: we all try to keep our bodies clean. We all know too well how dirty our bodies can get if this effort stops. Sooner or later, it will dawn on us that no matter how hard we try to keep it clean, it gets dirty very quickly. Ergo, it is indeed a thing that has the nature of dirt! Ergo, it is despicable. Unless we sincerely believe that we are not the body, we will not sincerely seek for something higher than that, will we? Therein lies the purpose of cleanliness from the individual point of view. It serves as a paramount necessity if we truly seek spiritual growth.

This individual aspect of cleanliness has been driven very deep into our minds in India. But that is just one aspect of cleanliness. There is another very important, and very interesting aspect of cleanliness – that is its collective aspect. At the collective level, power, organization & cleanliness are closely connected.

Cleanliness by itself doesn’t serve any purpose in society. Considered per se, you might as well be unclean. Take the case of this body. I clean it today. For what purpose? It gets dirty within a few hours. In Kolkata, within a few minutes! So why bother to clean it at all? Seen from this angle, our attempts at cleanliness look like trying to straighten a dog’s curly tail. It won’t ever become straight! Cleanliness has meaning only if there is some other purpose behind it at the collective level. What is that purpose?

Swami Vivekananda says – that purpose is ‘Power’. If we wish to become powerful, we need cleanliness. What power is he talking of? The connection is not apparent. Let us look at it more closely.

Take any country. You will notice that if that country is capable of producing enormous wealth, it will invariably be clean. Similarly with respect to houses. Rich peoples’ houses tend to be clean. Poor peoples’ houses tend to be dirty. Is this a coincidence? In fact, let us ask if this is a correct generalization or not in the first place. Yes, there are houses which belong to poor people, yet they are pretty clean. Similarly, Mr Yajurvedi was telling us a little while ago that Thailand and Indonesia are countries poorer than us, but are very clean. Taken all in all, however, I am afraid, this generalization does hold water. The examples of poverty associated with cleanliness are indeed much fewer than those of prosperity associated with cleanliness. Now, material prosperity in a nation doesn’t come alone. It invariably brings along prestige & power of influence among other nations. If you study history, this will be quite clear to us. Take the Middle East, for instance. Before oil was discovered there, it was a place nobody wished to go and stay. Once oil money started pouring in, those small nations started wielding enormous power over other nations in the world. Prestige started getting associating with those small nations. Simultaneously, their landscape started becoming hip. The towns and cities became spick and span. So, material prosperity, power, prestige and cleanliness – all these are closely interlinked. What links them together? A particular style of thinking, a particular style of living and working.

Noted historian Alan Macfarlane[1] wrote: There is a loose link between growing prosperity and cleanliness according to Kames[2]. He could see how clean the English were, and believed this to be a recent development. “A change so extraordinary in the taste and manners of the English, rouses our curiosity.” He thought it was caused by some link with industriousness. Indolence breeds dirt, while “the industrious, on the contrary, are improved in neatness and propriety, by the art or manufacture that constantly employs them: they are never reduced to purge the stable of Augeas; for being prone to action, they suffer not dirt to rest unmolested. Industrious nations accordingly, all the world over are the most cleanly.” His main example was Holland. “Arts and industry had long flourished in Holland, where Erasmus was born and educated: the people were clean above all their neighbors, because they were industrious above all their neighbors; and, upon that account, the dirtiness of England could not fail to strike a Hollander.” Later the English became more industrious and cleaner. The comparison between France and England created something of a problem, for “the French are less cleanly than the English, though not less industrious.” He thought this could be explained by the distribution of wealth, for “the lower classes of people being in England more at their ease than in France, have a greater taste for living well, and in particular for keeping themselves clean…Thus cleanness improves gradually with manners, and makes a figure in every industrious nation.” The idea that if people were busily moving matter from place to place in one aspect of their lives, making and producing, exchanging and behaving in an active way, this would spread into all of their behavior is an intriguing one. ‘The more you do, the more you do’, is a generally observed phenomenon. If dirt containment is largely concerned with keeping matter in its right place, it is very similar to commercial activities. It all comes down to the shifting of atoms to places where they can create useful things for humans, away from places where they can do harm. Both are about creating separations, divisions, new order out of disorder. Some sort of ‘elective affinity’ between industriousness and cleanliness was noted by William Hazlitt[3]; “a people that are remarkable for cleanliness, will be so for industry, for honesty, for avarice, and vice versa.” The same association had a little earlier been noted by a visitor. Writing of London, he was impressed in London by “…the extraordinary neatness of the dwellings, both within and without, by the exertions in point of commerce, and the universal industry which gives animation and spirit to every quarter of the town…” As we shall see, a religion which encourages orderliness of life will usually apply not merely to spiritual but also physical cleanliness. In this respect, Holland, England and Japan were notably ‘industrious’. Yet, as Kames noticed, sheer hard work is not a sufficient cause. In many societies ordinary people work incredibly hard, are very ‘industrious’, and yet live, or are forced to live, in a great deal of dirt. Kames added the dimension of wealth to his model; in England, but not France, the poor had some wealth and hence pride. This takes us on to Westermarck’s factor, namely that “Poverty, also, is for obvious reasons a cause of uncleanliness.” In this respect, as we have noted, it is significant that the English and the Dutch had the most widely spread ‘wealth’ in seventeenth century Europe and Japan, though the wealth was at a lower level, was their nearest equivalent in Asia. Put in another way, getting rid of dirt takes time, effort and often depends on a considerable infrastructure. In particular in crowded societies, it is difficult to keep up high standards if one is living on a knife edge of subsistence. The fact that these three nations had risen well above this level was both a cause, and a consequence, of their increasing wealth.

If we apply these observations to our daily life, we can deduce some interesting ideas. A clean office could mean two things. Either no work is done there! Or the working procedures are extremely well established. Meticulous working procedures involve everyone in the office. Even if one of us works haphazardly, it affects the entire office. Similarly with society. Similarly with the nation. A company which is clean in managing its data will be economically efficient. Hence it has a better chance of survival. Survival is always of the fittest.

Hence, inculcating methodical habits of working, methodical habits of living is what is urgently required. Why do we need that? Else, we will never accumulate power, as a society, as a community, as a nation. If we do not become powerful as a nation, we may keep seeking prestige from the world, but we will never get it.

Donald Trump visited Beijing and Dubai recently. It was in the papers. One of his first observations was that these cities were extremely clean, spick & span! We dream of overtaking China in the near future. That is never going to happen as along as we do not develop this civic sense in ourselves.

Modern world stands on an idea that is very alien to the Indian mind. The idea of the civic society. We understand individuals. We also understand groups, in a limited sense. But we do not understand yet the concept of the civic society. The idea is however not entirely western. This is the same idea that is conveyed by the ancient Hindu word Dharma.

Swami Vivekananda made some very interesting comparisons and observations regarding cleanliness in his various writings. I will present here some excerpts from ‘East & the West’[4]: The grace of both Lakshmi (goddess of fortune) and Sarasvati (goddess of learning) now shines on the peoples of the Western countries. They do not stop at the mere acquisition of the objects of enjoyment, but in all their actions they seek for a sort of beauty and grace. In eating and drinking, in their homes and surroundings, in everything, they want to see an all-round elegance. We also had that trait once — when there was wealth and prosperity in the land. We have now too much poverty, but, to make matters worse, we are courting our ruin in two ways — namely, we are throwing away what we have as our own, and laboring in vain to make others’ ideals and habits ours. Those national virtues that we had are gradually disappearing, and we are not acquiring any of the Western ones either? In sitting, walking, talking, etc., there was in the olden days a traditional, specific trait of our own; that is now gone, and withal we have not the ability to take in the Western modes of etiquette. Those ancient religious rites, practices, studies, etc., that were left to us, you are consigning to the tide-waters to be swept away — and yet something new and suitable to the exigencies of the time, to make up for them, is not striking its roots and becoming stable with us. In oscillating between these two lines, all our present distress lies. The Nation that is to be has not as yet got a stable footing. Of course new things have to be learnt, have to be introduced and worked out; but are those to be done by sweeping away all that is old, just because it is old? What new things have you learnt? Not any — save and except a jumble of words! What really useful science or art have you acquired? Go, and see, even now in the distant villages, the old woodwork and brickwork. The carpenters of your towns cannot even turn out a decent pair of doors. Whether they are made for a hut or a mansion is hard to make out! They are only good at buying foreign tools, as if that is all of carpentry! Alas! That state of things has come upon all matters in our country. What we possessed as our own is all passing away, and yet, all that we have learnt from foreigners is the art of speechifying. Merely reading and talking! In the West, they have a habit of keeping everything about themselves neat and clean, and even the poorest have an eye towards it. And this regard for cleanliness has to be observed; for, unless the people have clean suits of clothes, none will employ them in their service. Their servants, maids, cooks, etc., are all dressed in spotlessly clean clothes. Their houses are kept trim and tidy by being daily brushed, washed and dusted. A part of good breeding consists in not throwing things about, but keeping them in their proper places. Their kitchens look clean and bright — vegetable peelings and such other refuse are placed, for the time being in a separate receptacle, and taken, later on, by a scavenger to a distance and thrown away in a proper place set apart for the purpose. They do not throw such things about in their yards or on the roads. The houses and other buildings of those who are wealthy are really a sight worth seeing — these are, night and day, a marvel of orderliness and cleanliness!

Before the II World War, Germany instituted a confidential study of Japan. They wanted to understand the causes of the enormous rise in Japan’s influence in Asia. The report mentions: Today Japan’s rising sun waves from the frozen northern sea to the coast of India. Today the once strongest powers tremble under the blows of Japan’s mighty power. Today the island nation of a hundred million Japanese leads with unbreakable will the millions of East Asia who make up a third of the world’s population. Today a huge kingdom has risen with a powerful heart where just 80 years ago an unknown people lived on their isolated island, satisfied with themselves and with no need or desire to leave the bounds of their islands. A powerful center of power has developed where only 80 years ago the conquerors and economic pioneers of Europe and America believed there was a colony that could easily be taken over. That is the amazing and unique miracle of Japan’s meteoric rise. The world today looks in amazement. Amazed, astonished, and also terrified that they had not earlier recognized the mysterious causes, but also the compelling logic that led to this fabulous ascent. Japan’s industrial structure is remarkable. Japanese experts followed the industrialization of Europe and America carefully. Japan succeeded in avoiding the atomizing tendencies of European industrialization and the growth of a rootless proletariat. Despite manifestations of capitalism, Japanese industrial capitalism never gave rise to class struggle. The common goal of both workers and owners — to build a strong Japanese fatherland — overcame all disputes about wages or other matters….Even today swords are made by the same families that have forged them for centuries. Sword-making even today in Japan is more an act of worship than one of craftsmanship. The smith who passes on the secrets of his father to his sons fasts the day before he begins to forge a sword and undergoes purifying ceremonies, since the Shinto religion views physical cleanliness as a prerequisite to spiritual cleanliness. Clothed in ceremonial white priestly robes, the apprentices hammer the steel in unison. The master follows carefully the slow development of the blade, which at exactly the right moment he plunges into cold water. The holy process results not only in a strong blade; It also reflects the deep significance of what a Japanese person sees in his sword.

From Swami Vivekananda’s observations and from this last quoted report of the Nazi study of Japan, it is clear that cleanliness has to emanate from a sense of sacredness. Cleanliness has always been associated with religion. All the major world religions lay down meticulous details concerning cleanliness. When we bring in this sense of sacredness to our daily work-a-day world, then cleanliness will be naturally incorporated in our work habits. That is the main strain along which Swami Vivekananda seems to be speaking.[5] He says that everything associated with our daily life in ancient India was sacred. Then, for various reasons, we have lost touch of those traditions. Today, we are attempting to adopt a totally new mode of life, something that is obtained from the West. In this period of transition from the old to the new, we will have to develop certain new modes of thought. Else, we will not have our old traditions to support us, nor can we ever completely adopt a western world-view. That is the reason why we are poor, why we are dirty, why we are corrupt, why we are strangely developed with a good number of high net worth individuals (HNI) and millions of abjectly poor people (BPL) living in the same economy! This confusion in our present society reflects the transition we are making as a nation. The most important thing required now by India is this wonderful idea of Swami Vivekananda. Learn to look upon this world as divine. Learn to look upon yourself as divine. Learn to look upon all people as divine. This spiritualizing of our work-a-day world is the one idea that will usher in a grand nation in India, a nation whose grandeur Swami Vivekananda literally sings poetry about as follows: The longest night seems to be passing away, the sorest trouble seems to be coming to an end at last, the seeming corpse appears to be awaking and a voice is coming to us — away back where history and even tradition fails to peep into the gloom of the past, coming down from there, reflected as it were from peak to peak of the infinite Himalaya of knowledge, and of love, and of work, India, this motherland of ours — a voice is coming unto us, gentle, firm, and yet unmistakable in its utterances, and is gaining volume as days pass by, and behold, the sleeper is awakening! Like a breeze from the Himalayas, it is bringing life into the almost dead bones and muscles, the lethargy is passing away, and only the blind cannot see, or the perverted will not see, that she is awakening, this motherland of ours, from her deep long sleep. None can desist her anymore; never is she going to sleep anymore; no outward powers can hold her back any more; for the infinite giant is rising to her feet….Therefore, whether you believe in spirituality or not, for the sake of the national life, you have to get a hold on spirituality and keep to it. Then stretch the other hand out and gain all you can from other races, but everything must be subordinated to that one ideal of life; and out of that a wonderful, glorious, future India will come — I am sure it is coming — a greater India than ever was. Sages will spring up greater than all the ancient sages; and your ancestors will not only be satisfied, but I am sure, they will be proud from their positions in other worlds to look down upon their descendants, so glorious, and so great.

This therefore is the main idea I wanted to convey to you all today. Let us understand the rationale behind this wonderful movement that our Prime Minister has initiated under the name ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’.

I am grateful to the authorities of Ordnance Factory Board for having invited me from Ramakrishna Mission to participate in this programme. Thank you all.


[1] Alan Donald Macfarlane was born in Shillong, Meghalaya in 1941. He is an anthropologist and historian. He is the Professor Emeritus of King’s College-Cambridge, Fellow of the British Academy and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of over 20 books on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan & China. He has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world.

[2] Lord Henry Kames was a Scottish philosopher of great influence. He was the central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a founding member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh. His disciples included David Hume, Adam Smith and James Boswell.

[3] William Hazlitt was an influential social commentator & philosopher. He lived between 1778 & 1830.

[4] Please see Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol-V

[5] “There are two great obstacles on our path in India, the Scylla of old orthodoxy and the Charybdis of modern European civilization. Of these two, I vote for the old orthodoxy, and not for the Europeanized system; for the old orthodox man may be ignorant, he may be crude, but he is a man, he has a faith, he has strength, he stands on his own feet; while the Europeanized man has no backbone, he is a mass of heterogeneous ideas picked up at random from every source — and these ideas are unassimilated, undigested, unharmonized. He does not stand on his own feet, and his head is turning round and round. Where is the motive power of his work? — in a few patronizing pats from the English people. His schemes of reforms, his vehement vituperations against the evils of certain social customs, have, as the mainspring, some European patronage. Why are some of our customs called evils? Because the Europeans say so. That is about the reason he gives. I would not submit to that. Stand and die in your own strength, if there is any sin in the world, it is weakness; avoid all weakness, for weakness is sin, weakness is death. These unbalanced creatures are not yet formed into distinct personalities; what are we to call them – men, women, or animals? While those old orthodox people were staunch and were men.”


Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

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