A Hindu View of Sanitation: Ardhendu Sen

Guest Post by ARDHENDU SEN

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has many components but the main thrust is on the building of new toilets, both public and private. Why is it that we have so few toilets so many decades after independence? Many would blame the policy paralysis of the UPA II government and there is no denying the truth in that charge. Many others would go back decades and ask if any government before the present one ever paid adequate attention to such important social problems. Looking back into our hoary past, we come across an important ancient cause of our present misfortune.

It is now a well-known fact that India had aircrafts and spacecrafts long before other nations could even conceive of flying. The western educated, liberal (meaning Nehruvian) sceptic has only to visit the official website of the Indian Science Congress to convince herself of this. We know about one of these crafts in some detail because the 1903 edition of an old paper by one Rishi Bhardwaj has survived. The paper describes a fairly large craft, sixty feet by sixty feet that could not only fly in air but was suitable for interplanetary travel. This huge flying machine like that must have carried hundreds of people.

It is logical to assume that these crafts were fitted with chemical toilets. An aeroplane may do without one for a while but a spacecraft cannot because there is no force of gravity to help us get rid of the stuff. Ask Sunita Williams and she would be happy to explain it to you. 

Of course it is inconceivable that a people used to chemical toilets during their travels would not use the ordinary garden variety in their houses and public places.  It is relevant to note that neither Susruta nor Charaka was greatly exercised about gastero-enteric diseases. Unlike today, this was not an issue in emperor Ashoka’s India. We can therefore conclude that the wonder that was India had hundreds of thousands of toilets.

So where did these toilets disappear?

Well, not all of them have disappeared. The Sulabh museum in Delhi has toilets 2500 years old. Some toilets have been found at Harappan sites. Buddhist monks used to fashion their own toilets out of stone; many of these are still visible in monastery ruins. But it is true that most of them have disappeared.

Is it possible that the invaders from Central Asia who sacked the sacred Somnath and hundred other temples also destroyed our toilets? Let us marshall the evidence in support of such a hypothesis.

Several surveys have established that the number of toilets in south India far exceeds that in the north. South Indians also make more use of existing toilets. This strongly supports our hypothesis that the carnage in north and west India turned toilets into liabilities rather than assets. One sees the remnants of that feeling even now, in the form of a deep wound in our collective unconscious. This has shown up in statements like, ‘We need more toilets than temples’ attributed to a former Union Minister. It would have been equally true to say “We need more toilets than PVRs” or “We need more toilets than flyovers”. So what made him think of temples? This association of ideas goes back a long way – it should not be dismissed lightly.

Admittedly, this is speculative but by God’s grace we now have a rejuvenated Council for Historical Research that  has set a new agenda for itself. It is more probable now than ever before that the historical record will be set right.

More than funds or intense supervision, a successful abhiyan needs acceptance by the people. Our Prime Minister never fails to remind us that concepts casually borrowed from the west – such as Marxism – have not done well on Indian soil. Indians will accept toilets wholeheartedly once they know that it’s an ancient Indian concept.

Hindu kings, whenever and wherever they could, strove to revive the toilet and promote its public use. The toilet museum in Delhi has several exhibits testifying to their efforts. There is one called the ‘Rajghat toilet’. This is from Rajghat, Varanasi where Hindu kings ruled before the British came. With such history to back it up, Varanasi can easily serve as a rashtraguru, a margdarshak for the rest of the country in the matters of sanitation and public health.

One of the Tata Trusts has been helping poor weavers in the Rajghat area by building toilets for them. An international philanthropic foundation, almost a household name in India, was also contacted for help in this effort. It showed some interest to begin with but backed out when they found that the area was remote. Did they think that remoteness would increase the cost of building the toilets and make subsequent supervision more difficult? No, that was not the problem. They thought the village was ‘out of the way’ and very few people – people who matter – would ever see what the Foundation had accomplished.

This is a problem that we need to address. The ‘PPP’ model for the swachh bharat abhiyan may be undermined unless we add another ‘P’ to it – namely, publicity. Luckily for us, our government has formidable expertise in this area.

Ardhendu Sen is a retired civil servant.

20 thoughts on “A Hindu View of Sanitation: Ardhendu Sen

  1. Atul Mamtora

    I think this is silly glorification of living in past,We had 70 years of independence self-rule and no interference from outside and such dismal results.Let us concentrate on them,instead of looking to blame for past failures.

  2. Anpadh

    Good post — not the usual India-bashing that I see on Kafila. Personally, I would rather spend some time digging a latrine that someone else can use than complain about the lack of latrines. If 1 in every 10 persons in India were to dig one latrine, once in his/her lifetime, there would be no shortage of latrines. What we need is not publicity but rather public cooperation. I hope it happens.

    1. Ivian

      Nice. Also, one in every ten Indians should pick up a piece of trash once a week, should clean one toilet every month, Sweep one street every second month, clean up sewage waste likewise and so on. We wont need a municipal waste management, no swatch Bharat, and most importantly, we wont have to complain about other people not doing their jobs. Oh and we wont have a caste based exploitation problem in this department either. Wonderful world. Hope it happens.

      1. Nivedita Menon

        How our hearts fill with delight that we have drawn anpadh and sureshmandan into our anti-national camp through Ardhendu’s sneaky prose…

  3. Quite a distorted and nonsensical view of the problem of toilets in India. The need to invoke the image of interstellar spacecraft of ancient India is unwarranted and also reckless glorification! Second, the absence of toilets in India, in general, and especially in rural India is a huge problem that the writer literally glosses over. Perhaps, true to his breeding (as an Indian Civil Servant) he is most likely unaware of the social and health problems that lower caste women face in the villages – even in as economically advanced a state like Punjab, lower caste women suffer the ignominy of being hounded and pelted with stones by the upper caste boys and men in the early hours of dawn simply because there are no toilets for almost all women in rural Punjab.
    The plight of women in urban slums has already been well documented!
    “We need more toilets than temples” is a symbolic statement that has lost its meaning on the authoer. Perhaps, by saying ‘We need more toilets than Indian civil servants’ may invoke more sensibility.

  4. Nivedita Menon

    Statutory Warning:
    Some posts on Kafila use a form of writing called satire, in which the words are not to be read literally. Satire involves the use of “irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding” the object being ridiculed.

    Here is a link to how to write satire, showing through two student efforts, a “good” example and a “not-so-good” example.


    The explanation offered for why one example is “not-so-good” is this:
    “because the author needs to be more satirical throughout the essay – for example, using more sarcasm, more exaggeration, more irony, etc. The topic choice is good, but the use of satirical techniques needs improvement. The first “good” example does a better job of capturing the satirical tone desired for this assignment.”

    NB This comment could be read as an effort at satire.

    1. Aditya G

      Well done on commissioning such a piece! We need many more. Who knows maybe Hindu fascists will learn to love kafila.

  5. Zafar

    What a lovely piece! I am sure I am not alone in wondering what the chemical toilets in our ancient vimaanas were called. Anybody?

    1. Byasa Moharana

      The chemical toilet was called “rasayana-sauchalaya” that used a special chemical made from cow and horse urine, and ghee from the milk of white-cow. The process of making of the chemical also involved a liberal invocation of a mantra taken from an ancient text called Saucha-Shastra. This mantra is written in most scientific language of the world, that is Sanskrit, and it has to be invoked by seven fair skinned North Indian Brahmins who belong to Bharadwaja gotra. When this mantra is chanted, the molecules of cow and horse urine vibrate at a certain speed that combines with the aldehyde-compound molecules of ghee to produce a unique chemical that would help the excreta disappear from the body the moment the astronaut desires and sprinkles (sprays) at the back. This technology was transferred to the inhabitants of other planets where the space-crafts travelled. Some of these habitations in those planets have become extinct as they failed to maintain the dharma based on the ancient Hindu norms of purity and pollution. However, I am sure the new found Historical Research Council is capable enough to discover the exact nature of these toilets and the pattern of usage.

  6. M. Vijaya KUmar

    Why not? Instead of how the spacecrafts in the hoary past were flying and what technology was used to fly them, the author seemed to be more interested in toilets in the glorious spacecraft. May be as somebody claimed, they were being run with urine as fuel, possibly the urine from the toilets. Let us now start reviving the hindutva spirit in us by undertaking scientific research on how to use urine (human, elephant, cow, dog etc.) and possibly dung and sh** might be having more calorific value. I think this is a very useful research which can be undertaken by our CSIR under the able guidance and supervision of saffron clad sadhus. It can solve the high fuel cost of our airplanes. may be we can use all the sh** to export valuable fuel to the whole world – after all, we are 1.3 billion.

  7. M. Vijaya KUmar

    Anyway, Modi’s ‘Make in India’ is a non-starter anyway. Instead, the government can invest in decoding the technological secrets of millions of years old sacred vedic texts and produce unique products, which no one else can produce, so that we will have the full patent rights. Then we need not complain that all the ideas were there in the vedas and the Westerners have stolen them. May be the sadhus and sadhvis, instead of giving crazy statements on all things sundry, can devote themselves in decoding these texts, and also indulge in inventing ideas wherever there are gaps. They can head the research teams, by supplying the source material from the vedic texts to our scientists, who are blinded by Western scientific ideas.

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