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Abortion is the intentional, voluntary, and conscious termination of the fetus. To understand the view toward abortion in Hinduism, we will refer to the two main forms of Hindu texts: Shruti and Smriti. Shruti refers to the canonical Hindu texts like Vedas and Upanishads, whereas Smriti refers to Dharamsastras, puranas, and texts like Mahabharata. In Hinduism absence of one single canonical and authoritative text makes us look at a varied range of texts with differing philosophical perspectives. Also, this ensures that the idea of right and wrong, sacred and profane, and acts permitted and banned has to be identified through readings of multiple texts.
Defining Abortion in Hinduism
Like many religions of the world, in Hinduism too abortion is morally and ethically a wrong act, drawing sharp criticism and in many instances repressive or restitutive acts as the consequences of the act of abortion.
Sanskrit, which is the language of the Shruti-based texts, has different words to highlight the difference between involuntary miscarriage and voluntary act of termination of pregnancy. Several words of Hindi, another language commonly used for Smriti texts, have roots in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit as well as Hindi, garbhahatya and bhrunahatya are used as terms for voluntary act of abortion. Hatya implies murder, indicating the willfulness and voluntary nature of the act. It also highlights the moral judgment attached to the voluntary act of termination of pregnancy. Whereas for involuntary miscarriages, sramsana is the term used in the texts. This term is used in Gautamadharmasastra (Smriti text) as well as Manusmriti (, p. 52). Both these scriptures have given different terms to the involuntary miscarriage depending on the time of the miscarriage. The term srava (flow) is used for the miscarriage that happens till the fourth month of pregnancy. Pata (fall) is used to denote the miscarriage that happens in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy. In colloquial as well as legal texts in Hindi in contemporary India, the term Garbha Pata is used to denote the voluntary abortion as well as the involuntary miscarriage. This highlights the continuity and change aspect of the meaning of the term used to label an act and the attitude toward abortion which has changed and the difference between the religion as prescribed through texts and that in practice. Miscarriage after the sixth month is termed as prasuti, another term which in contemporary times is used to denote delivery. In medical institutions, prasuti graha is the term for child delivery/labor ward. Sutaka is the term used for miscarriage after ninth or tenth moth, possibly indicating the event of stillbirth. Again, the word Sutaka in contemporary times is used for the restrictive rules and regulations and practices and rituals that need to be observed post pregnancy, when the body of the new mother is treated as polluted. The division of the event and separate terms used for the miscarriage in the Hindu scriptures and texts is again indicating the moral perspective (, pp. 50–56).
Scriptures and the Status of Fetus/Embryo
In RgSamhita, Lord Vishnu, one of the trinity, is termed as the protector of the embryo or the fetus. These texts help us in alluding to the idea that in Hinduism, fetus or embryo is designated a separate category and that the need for protection and care is emphasized.
In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, while exemplifying the state of awareness which a soul attains after being free from the cycle of birth and death, the specific mention of embryo killer (bhrunaha) along with other acts equated as sinful goes on to exemplify the unacceptance of abortion as a morally correct act. In Kausitaki Upanishad and Mahanarayana Upanishad, an abortionist is one among the highest offender, and this offence is equivalent to the act of betraying Guru.
In the Law Book of Visnu, it has been advised that the pregnant woman needs protection and care; killing of pregnant woman is akin to killing of a Brahmin, which is one of the evilest sin. In several other texts, advice has been given to ensure protection of pregnant woman, and the priority that needs to be given during pregnancy lest any harm is done to the fetus. There are texts where we find direct condemnation of the act of voluntary termination of pregnancy. In Gautamadharmasastra, a woman stands to lose her caste status if she commits the act of abortion. Losing caste status in a Hindu society is a severe punishment as this will not only impact the access to resources and positioning of the woman in the society, but it will impede the journey to salvation (, p. 58).
In Manusmriti, ancestral liberation of water is forbidden for the women who have harmed an embryo. In the same text, though there is a distinction being made between a pregnant female slave and a pregnant Brahmin woman, resonating the caste hierarchy and the social structure, yet there is a fine imposed or announced for those who destroy the embryo even that of a female slave (, p. 62).
In Mahabharata, several incidences highlight the perspective toward abortion as unethical. When Gandhari is fed up of her long pregnancy and pushes the fetus out of her womb violently leading to birth of a fleshy mass, the sage comes to the rescue and divides the lump into 100 pieces which are kept in separate earthen pot full of Ghee. This is the story of the birth of 100 Kauravas. The sage denounces the act of Gandhari and terms it as nothing less than a sin. Another event during the war days of Mahabharata which propounds the attitude toward pregnant woman and importance given to protection of embryo is when as a last measure to win the war, Aswatthama used a weapon which kills the fetus of Uttara who is the wife of slain Abhimanyu. Krishna, who is treated as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, curses Aswatthama for the unethical and hideous act.
Garuda Purana, which is recited in several Hindu households while observing the ritual of 13-day mourning, talks in detail about the conception and the development of the fetus in the womb. It highlights the way in which a soul enters the womb around seventh month of pregnancy. The purana talks about the law of Karma and its relevance in the determination of the womb in which the soul will enter. The cycle of birth and death is determined by the law of Karma, and it is believed that the act of abortion hinders the natural progression and the cycle of a soul.
There are several interpretations to the cycle of birth and death being hindered by the act of abortion. A few spiritual leaders in the contemporary Hindu society argue that if everything is predetermined and if a soul is denied a chance to take birth due to abortion, the karma of the abortionist increases, and she must pay for the karma. None escapes the law of karma, and the cycle will keep moving as the laws are fixed and beyond the control of mortal beings. Indeed, the same set of spiritual and religious leaders emphasize on moving away from the desire of cohabitation to manifest the energy for higher purposes. Abstinence is better than abortion once the duty of starting a family has been fulfilled. Spiritual leader Rajneesh Osho has clearly agreed to the act of abortion. He declared abortion not as an act of sin but as an act of virtue in the overpopulated world.
Unlike Christianity and several other religions and cults across the world, studied by anthropologist, the distinction between a biological being and a social being is not made in Hinduism (, p. 23). Hinduism has the concept of Dwij, which literally means twice born. This implies that the child is treated as a social being from the time of birth, and no specific ritual is required to give them personhood status; for instance, baptism is necessary for a child to become a social being and not just biological being. Several stories in Mahabharata like that of Abhimanyu, learning the art of warfare in the womb, highlight the ways in which the fetus after a particular time gains the personhood.
The heinousness attached to the act of abortion is brought down with the changes in time though the law of karma is still applicable. Due to continued sex-selective abortion leading to skewed sex ration in India, several religious leaders and gurus appealed to the masses to not resort to sex-selective abortion, though no popular leader has explicitly declared abortion as a heinous crime.
Abortion in Hinduism, from the perspective of the texts and scriptures, is a sin that invites severe penalties and repercussion which have a long-lasting impact on the status of the person committing abortion not only in this world but also in the word beyond and for next births. The distance between the scriptures and practice is visible, but it will be wrong to conclude that there is a glaring discrepancy. In fact, the Dharamsastras, which can be loosely equated to the constitution that the modern societies have, have highlighted the act of abortion as a crime and emphasized the importance of protecting the fetus and caring for the pregnant woman. There is a difference between socially acceptable and morally/religiously acceptable act. Abortion in current times is acceptable from legal perspectives in certain circumstances in India, where the rate of abortion is high among the Hindus. Though from the religious perspective, the law of Karma is applicable, the social sanctions might not be as stringent as suggested in the Dharamsastras; but the fruit of the action of committing abortion invites negative repercussions.
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