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Abortion, a Dharmic Perspective- II: Giving Birth as a Noble Act

In the Part I of this series looking into the issue of Abortion from a Dharmic perspective, we enquired into the question of who a jiva is. We saw how in the Dharmic tradition, a Jiva is not perceived just as a physical entity. Instead, Jiva is recognized as a “complex multi-layered being, which on the one hand is a reflection of Brahman, the supreme divine reality, and on the other hand is endowed with Tri-Shariras (3 bodies) and Pancha Koshas (5 Sheaths), through which the Jiva interacts with the external universe.”

In this Part II of the series, we would now look into the importance attached to the human life and why giving birth to a child is considered a very noble activity in the Dharmic tradition.

Importance of human life

“Among all the living creatures, human birth is very rare,” says Adi Shankaracharya in his phenomenal work “Vivekachoodamani” (Verse 2). But, to truly understand the profound meaning of the statement, let us see what Padma Purana says about the volume and diversity of living beings in existence in the Universe.

The Purana says: “There are 8,400,000 forms of life. There are 900,000 forms of life in water, and 2,000,000 forms of trees and other plants. Then, there are 1,100,000 species of small living beings, insects and reptiles, and 1,000,000 species of birds. Finally, there are 3,000,000 varieties of beasts and 400,000 human species [1].” Similarly, Manu Smriti speaks about various kinds of beings like cattle, deer, carnivorous beasts with two rows of teeth, Rakshasas, Pisakas, and men, who are all born from womb (Verse 1.43); birds, snakes, crocodiles, fishes, tortoises and other similar terrestrial and aquatic animals born from eggs (Verse 1.44); stinging and biting insects, lice, flies, bugs, and all other creatures that are produced by heat (Verse 1.45); plants which bear fruits without flowers, and those which bear both (Verse 1.47); Yakshas, Gandharvas, Apsaras, Asuras, Nagas and Sarpas, Suparnas and the several classes of the manes (1.37).

Though, neither the huge number in the variety of species spoken in the Padma Purana, nor the species of living beings like Yakshas, etc. are verifiable using modern scientific methodologies, the tenets, which are relevant to our present discussion is the fact that humans are not the only species in existence and that there are millions of other living species across the universe and that the Dharmic worldview caters to this cosmic understanding, even while speaking to humans.

So, the question is, what makes human life special among all these millions of life-forms?

In the Dharmic worldview, Jivas take birth as various creatures impelled by the results of previous Karmas, to work out the fruits of past Karmas- happiness and sorrow, and perform newer Karmas, which would determine the direction of Jiva’s future journey. In other words, the purpose of birth as humans or as non-humans, is to facilitate the Jiva in its long journey towards the ultimate goal of Moksha, while the kind of birth itself is determined by the kind of actions previously performed. Thus, Manu Smriti speaks about how a Jiva, who is a Sattvika and whose actions are rooted in Sattva Guna attains godhood (after death); a Rajasika Jiva, whose actions are rooted in Rajas Guna attains human birth again; whereas a Tamasik Jiva, whose actions are rooted in Tamas Guna, attains birth as various non-human creatures like birds, animals, etc. (Verse 12.40). Without going into the details of the mapping of the Karmas based on Gunas, it is suffice to understand that all those actions, which are against inner conscience, one feels shame about, are rooted in greed, cruelty, inertia, ignorance etc. and are Adharmic (prohibited), are considered as Tamasic actions (Verse 12.33,35). Similarly, actions performed only for the sake of name and fame impelled by longing for worldly pleasures are Rajasic actions (Verse 12.32,36), while actions rooted in austerity, knowledge, sense restraint, etc., those which bring inner contentment are considered as Sattvika actions (Verse 12.31,37).

Manu Smriti, further says that, as a human, if a Jiva’s actions are predominantly Dharmic in nature, it attains svarga [2], while a Jiva with predominantly Adharmic actions, will face enormous sufferings in its subtle body and returns back to take birth accordingly (Verse 12.20-22). From this it follows that a Jiva takes birth as a human, when the stock of previous Karmas, which are ready to fructify i.e. the Prarabdha Karma contains equal weightage of both Dharmic and Adharmic actions, with a predominance of Rajasic Guna. This was perhaps, why Adi Shankaracharya describe getting human birth as very rare.

While, purely Sattvika existence like the godhood is definitely better than human existence, human life is many times better than birth as various non-human creatures, which undergo serious suffering due to limitations inherent in those species. Returning to Manu Smriti, it speaks about how people who commit Adharma through their body and actions (like committing violence, stealing, adultery, etc.- Verse 12.7), end up taking rebirth as plants and trees, which have inherent limitations placed on their bodily movement and hence, suffer due to this inability (Verse 12.9). Similarly, those who commit Adharma through speech (like speaking falsehood, speaking harshly, abusing, back-biting, etc.- Verse 12.6), end up taking rebirth as various animals (Verse 12.9), which though have freedom to physically move, are unable to speak through mouths. They suffer due to this inherent limitation placed on their speech. Thus, the importance and uniqueness of the human life lies in the fact that, they have neither limitations with respect to bodily movements, nor limitations with respect to speech. More importantly, they can further, through the practice of Yoga, can attain Siddhis [3] like anima, garima, etc., which can then be used to transcend other limitations of human existence (like sorrow, mental suffering, etc.) as well.

But, the most important of all differences between human existence and non-human life-forms on earth is the faculty of intellect (Buddhi) – the ability to discriminate between right and wrong, truth and falsehood (Vivekam) – which is fully developed among the humans and which makes human life unique and most precious. As I had written elsewhere “All organisms except humans are invariably driven by natural instincts. Though these naturally developed instincts help organisms in their survival, they also bound and limit them. Humans alone are not limited by natural instincts and hence can exert their discrimination and free-will. It is to regulate and provide guidance for the exertion of this free will in a righteous and meritorious way that the scriptures have advised the framework of fourfold goal that a human should strive to attain [4].”

Sri Chandrashekara Bharati, one of the past Shankaracharyas of the Sringeri peetham, points out one more vital aspect of why human birth is rare. In his commentary [5] on the verse quoted from vivekachoodamani at the beginning of the section, he points how it is the ability of the humans to choose to be “Astikas” that make human birth unique and rare. He defines an Astika as one who believes “in the existence of the atman apart from the body” and who “believes in the Shastra and acts by it.” He says that Adi Shankara’s very statement that birth as human being is rare and difficult to get is an affirmation of the “fact of the existence of atman apart from the body.” Since, “Astika”, who holds conviction in the truth of Shastras related to both actions and Moksha (liberation), alone acts by it, he alone is qualified to embark upon the study of Vedanta Shastra that ultimately leads to Moksha, says the revered Acharya. He rightly concludes: “Being an Astika is a precondition for engaging in Shastric discussion. As the term Astika can be applied to human being only, it is said that birth as such a human being is difficult to obtain.” In other words, it is the human ability to discriminate between Self and non-Self entities, and their ability to accept “Astikyam” and practice Shastric injunctions on Dharma and Moksha is what makes human birth unique.

Therefore, it is the faculty of Buddhi to think and take decisions, the ability of Vivekam, and the corresponding free-will to perform Dharma and Adharma, is what makes human life very important in a Jiva’s journey towards Moksha. A plant, animal, bird, insect, or a microbe do not have this free will. Since, they live by instincts, they can only experience temporary happiness or sorrow, based on previous Karmas. Humans, on the other hand, not only experience the fruits of previous Karmas, can also choose to speed up their journey towards Moksha by adhering to Dharma in all their activities and material pursuits and by enquiring into the true nature of Self as enunciated by the Shastras. This free will to perform proper beneficial actions, and not just face the results of previous actions, summarizes the importance of human life.

Giving birth as a noble act

Since, human life is very unique and rare, Dharmic tradition holds that giving birth to a human Jiva is a very noble act and prescribes it as a duty for the householder. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, for example, lists studying of scriptures, performances of Karma (Yajna and other duties), and attaining of all the three worlds as the duties of a householder [6] (Verse 1.5.17). It further explains that the three worlds for a householder to attain are the world of men (Manushyaloka), the world of forefathers (Pitrloka) and the world of gods (Devaloka) (Verse 1.5.16). It says that a householder can attain Manushyaloka only through offspring [7], while Pitrloka and Devaloka are to be attained by the practice of Karma and Bhakti, respectively (Verse 1.5.16). Similarly, in the Taittiriya Upanishad, after teaching the Vedas and other knowledge systems, the Guru imparts final instructions to the student just before his completion of Brahmacharya. Among other instructions like speak the truth and practice Dharma, the Guru also reminds the student to “not cut off the line of progeny” (Verse 1.11.1), i.e. to enter Grihastaashrama (householder stage) and start his own family by having sons and daughters. Then, we find within Rigveda Samhita itself, a prayer for the protection of the fetus, which appears in the chapter on Vishedevas and praises Vishnu as the guardian of the fetus. It says: “May this our song of praise reach you, O Maruts, and Viṣṇu guardian of the future infant. May they vouchsafe the singer strength for offspring. Preserve us evermore, ye Gods, with blessings (Rigveda Samhita 7.36.9 [8]).” In another place (Rigveda Samhita 10.184), a prayer is made to various devatas to protect and facilitate each stage of child formation. Vishnu is requested to form the womb, Tvastar to shape the forms, Sinivali to set the germ and likewise other deities like Prajapati, Saraswati and Ashwins are requested to assist in the birth of a child.

But, it is in the Grihyasutras and the Smritis, which describe in detail about various mandatory Samaskaras to be performed for ensuring the safe and wholesome birth of the child that we can truly gauge the importance given to this giving birth in Dharmic traditions.

Samskaras are defined as those acts or rituals, which makes a thing or a person fit for certain purposes [9]. This fitness imparted by the Samskaras are of two kinds: that which arises due to removal of past taints and that which are freshly generated [10]. In other words, Samskaras are the rituals of purification. Manu Smriti says pre-natal Samskaras like Garbhadharana, and post-natal Samaskaras like Jatakarma, Chaula, and Upanayana help to remove faults arising from seed and uterus (Verse 2.27) i.e. inherited from father and mother. A similar view is expressed by Yajnavalkya Smriti as well (Verse 1.13). While Kulluka, the commentator on Manu Smriti explains the faults due to seed as being a reference to those arising from sexual intercourse performed in prohibited manner (i.e. on prohibited days and time), and the faults due to womb, as those arising due to the fetus’s stay in its mother’s womb during her Ashaucha (arisen due to pregnancy) condition; Mitakshara, who has commented upon the Yajnavalkya Smriti, explains the faults due to seed and uterus as the bodily defects that may have been transmitted from the parents. Important pre-natal Samskaras include Garbhadhana, Pumsavana, Garbha-rakshana, and Simantonayana. Garbhadhana is the conception ritual, whose purpose is to ensure proper conception. The ritual among other things involves recitation of the mantras invoking Vishnu, Thvasta, Prajapati and Dhaatri for preparing the womb of the mother, for the proper formation of frame (fetus) of the child upon conception, for the healthy and potent sperm that can cause conception and finally for successfully causing the conception respectively, just before the intercourse (Hiranyakeshin Grihya Sutra Garbharakshana, which as the name denotes is performed for protecting the fetus from miscarriage. Originally it was part of Pumsavana Samskara (whose purpose is to facilitate the quickening of fetus) itself [11]. Later, it appears to have developed into a distinct full-fledged Samskara. According to Sankhayana Grihyasutra, it is performed during the fourth month (Verse 1.21), while other texts like Baijavapa Grihyasutras [12] opine that it could be performed during second or third month. Among other things, the Samskara involves chanting of mantras from the Rigveda for the protection of the mother and the fetus (Sankhayana Grihyasutra 1.21). The ceremony also involves insertion of the sap of a herb (Durvarasa) into the right nostrils of the mother (Ashvalayana Grihyasutra 1.13.5). In fact, PV Kane, the celebrated author of the History of Dharmashastras notes that “the inserting of durvarasa in the woman’s nostril, touching her heart and prayers to the gods for the safety of the fetus are the principal features [13]” of Garbharakshana. Next is the Simantonayana, which is the ceremony of parting the hair of the pregnant mother performed either in the fourth (Apastamba Grihya Sutras 6.14.1), sixth (Gobhila Grihya Sutras 2.7.2) or seventh (Sankhayana Grihya Sutra 1.22.1) month of pregnancy. Among other things, it involves the worship of Goddess Raka using mantras from Rigveda requesting for her protection of the fetus and the Jiva, which is about to take birth (Sankhayana Grihyasutra 1.22.13). Harita Dharmasutra [14] further mentions that Simantonayana removes from the fetus, the faults derived from the parents. This shows that the pre-natal Samskaras, which were often accompanied by various medical and diet regimen for the mothers, were aimed at protecting the fetus by removing any genetic and/or Karmic defects that may get transmitted to it from its parents. The careful and extensive prescriptions regarding lifestyle practices, including food and herbs to be taken by the pregnant mothers given in the Ayurvedic texts, further, attest to the care taken by our ancestors for the protection of the mother and the fetus. Ayurvedic texts call this “Garbhini Paricharya” or the lifestyle practices for a pregnant woman and its prescriptions include: Masanumasika pathya (month wise dietary regimen), Garbhopaghathakara bhavas (activities and substances which are harmful to fetus), and Garbhasthapaka dravyas (substances beneficial for maintenance of pregnancy) [15].

From the above discussion, it is clear that in the Dharmic worldview, giving birth was considered so noble an action that it was not only prescribed as a duty for the householder and as a means for fulfilling one’s life as a human, but many rituals and medical regimens were also designed for facilitating safe birth of the children. In the words of Taittiriya Upanishad “The mother is the first letter. The father is the last letter. The progeny is the focal point and procreation is the link [16].” (Verse 1.3.3)

So, the question is, why does Dharmic traditions consider giving birth as such a noble act?

Let us return to Brhadaranyaka Upanishad’s verse 1.5.17, which was quoted before, for an answer. The complete verse says: “Now therefore follows the entrusting: When a man thinks he is about to die, he says to his son: ‘You are Brahman, you are the sacrifice and you are the world.’ The son replies: ‘I am Brahman, I am the sacrifice, I am the world.’ The Sruti explains the thoughts of the father: ‘Whatever has been studied by me (the father) is all unified in the word Brahman. Whatever sacrifices have been made by me (the father) are all unified in the word sacrifice. And whatever worlds were to be; won by me (the father) are all unified in the word world. All this it indeed this much. He (the son), being all this, will protect me from the ties of this world.’ Therefore they speak of a son who is well instructed as being conducive to the winning of the world; and therefore a father instructs him. When a father who knows this departs from this world, he—along with his own organ of speech, mind and vital breath—penetrates his son. If, through a lapse, any duty has been left undone by him, the son exonerates him from all that; therefore he is called a son. The father remains in this world through the son. The divine and immortal organ of speech, mind and vital breath enter into him [17].”

The context of the above verse is the ritual/ceremony called “Sampratti” or “Entrusting”, wherein a father, before he departs from this world, entrusts all his duties and responsibilities as a householder to his son. A householder has three duties, which are actually three kinds of Karmic debts to be paid by a human due to his human birth. The first is debt towards Rishis, who have revealed Veda and all branches of the knowledge to the world. The second debt is towards the Devas, who sustain this universe, provide nourishment to all, maintain the balance, and facilitate human and other life forms to flourish. The third debt is towards the Pitrs, the ancestors of the particular lineage, who have provided the opportunity for the individual to enter the physical realm by taking birth in their lineage. An individual incurs these three Karmic debts because its very birth in physical plane, into a physical body was made possible by these three factors. To the question, how these debts are paid, we find the answer in Taittiriya Samhita ( itself, which says that these three debts can be paid by studying any of the branches of knowledge (and passing it on further), by performance of Yajnas (and other righteous duties/Svadharma), and by begetting children respectively. This is repeated by Bhagavata Purana (10.84.39) as well.

It is the payment of these Karmic debts, which because of their obligatory nature, are considered as the duties of a householder and performance of which ensures happiness, are being entrusted by the father to the son by the ritual of “Sampratti”, saying, after the death of the father, it is the son’s duty to meticulously perform all these duties. From this, it becomes clear that the importance of giving birth to children lies in the fact that they will uphold and carry forward the duties and traditions of one’s family and community. That is, children will ensure continuance of civilization, preserving of knowledge, and flourishing of Dharma.

Now, the father in the verse from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says that the son to whom he has just entrusted all the duties, will protect the father from the ties of this world. That is, the son will ensure a smooth journey of the father from this world to the next (Pitr loka) after death. Such a journey would not be possible for the departed father or would at least be obstructed, if his obligations to this physical realm remains unfulfilled. The son facilitates the smooth journey by exonerating the father from any omissions and commissions in the practice of the duties committed, while he was alive. Since, the son has now taken over all the responsibilities from the father, he, by his sincere adherence to Dharma and performance of his duties, can exonerate his father of all his omissions. Another way, in which the children will help the parent’s in their journey after death, is by their performance of Antyeshti, the last rites. The Samskara of Antyeshti have been designed precisely for facilitating the smooth passage to the other realm.

The Upanishad then, says that when the father discards the physical body, he penetrates the son through his speech, mind, and the vital breath and then lives in this world through his son. First, this is one way of saying how the legacy and the teachings of the parents live through their children. As the Taittiriya Upanishad quoted before says, children are the focal point of the family and hence, through them the parents live even after death. Second, as Adi Shankaracharya in his commentary on the above verse says, it is simply a reference to how once, the body is discarded other elements merge with their universal aspects. Third, it could be understood as a reference to the fact that Pitrs fulfill their hankerings for the physical existence through their progeny, who are alive. In fact, the entire ceremony of Shraddha, which are to be conducted yearly after the death of the parent, was designed to help the Pitrs to satisfy their hankerings for experiencing few pleasures of the physical world. Hence, the parents live through their children, because the children facilitate the departed parents to experience the physical world through them and through ceremonies like Shraddhas.

A point to note here is that though the quoted verse from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad speaks about father and son, the essence of the message is applicable to parents and children as a whole. This is so because, whatever duties that were entrusted by the father to the son can be performed by the son only in conjunction with his wife. The father himself had performed it in conjunction with his wife. Since, the duties by nature are for the married couple and not just for the son, the essence of the Upanishad’s message is applicable to everyone.

To summarize the teachings of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad regarding the importance of begetting children:

  1. They help to carry forward the duties of the family, traditions of the community, and the entire civilization.
  2. They exonerate the parents from any omissions in their performance of the duties with respect to paying the three debts, and facilitate their smooth journey to the next realm after death, through Antyeshti, etc.
  3. The departed parents (and by implication, the Pitrs of the lineage) live through the children and are given a chance to experience the physical world by the children.

These reasons make begetting children a very noble and Dharmic action. But, perhaps, the most important reason for giving birth being such a noble act, which is not listed in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, since, its primary purpose was to enunciate on Sampratti ritual and not on the importance of begetting children, is that by this a couple would be facilitating the entry of a Jiva into the physical world and hence help it make great progress in the spiritual journey. The magnitude of goodness of this one action is so high that the Jiva, who takes such a birth will have to pay a debt to the parents and the pitrs throughout his life. The texts like Taittiriya Upanishad (1.11.2) compare the parents to the Devas for this reason. Manu Smriti speaks about how a householder who does not neglect his parents (and his Guru) will attain all the three worlds and enters heaven (Verse 2.232); and how a person who honors his parents (and his Guru), all duties become fulfilled, while he who does not honor his parents, all his actions remain unfulfilled for this reason (2.234). These show how meritorious is the act of begetting children and why in the Dharmic traditions, the householders are duty bound perform this noble act.

In the next article, we will examine the stages in pregnancy and will try to find answer to a question very crucial to abortion debate: when does the fetus actually become endowed with jivahood?


  1. Cited from T. D. Singh, “Hinduism and Science” []
  2. Though, “Svarga” is often translated as Heaven, this is not a reference to Abrahamic concept of Heaven. In Hinduism, Svarga, like physical universe, is just a realm of existence, to which a Jiva enters for a temporary period. A Jiva enters Svarga by performing Dharma and Upasana.
  3. Yogasutras of Patanjali speaks about six major Siddhis: Aṇima, Mahima, Garima, Laghima, Prapti, Prakamya, Iṣiṭva, Vashitva. Other texts like Bhagavada Purana speak about many other Siddhis as well.
  4. Nithin Sridhar, “Samanya Dharma and Spirituality”, Prabuddha Bharata, September 2015 []
  5. Sri Chandrashekara Bharati of Sringeri, “Sri Shankara’s Vivekachudamani with an English translation of the Sanskrit commentary”, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Page- 4-6
  6. Though, the context of the verse may appear to be a teaching with respect to Brahmana householder, it is really a teaching applicable to everyone. The verse uses the terms- Brahma, Yajna, and Loka as the three duties of householders and states that consider whatever studied as “Brahma”, whatever sacrifices are there i.e. all the duties and actions as “Yajna” and whatever realms are there to attain as “Loka”. By this, it is clear that the reference to Brahma is not just to Veda as in Chatur-Veda, but to Veda as in all knowledge. Similarly, the reference to Yajna is not only to ritual sacrifice, but to all action, especially the performance of Dharma. Hence, the duties prescribed are for all householders.
  7. Though, the Verse 1.5.16 uses the term “Putra”, which means son, from the next verse, which gives the meaning of Putra as one who exonerates the father after his death from any omissions committed while living, it is clear that it could well be a reference to daughter as well. After all the daughter is called “Putri” and will have a same meaning. Etymologically, both Putra and Putri mean one, who prevents his/her parents from going to a Naraka called “Put”. Hence, though the Verse 1.5.16 specifically mentions “son”, it should be understood as a reference to offsprings in general.
  8. Ralph T.H. Griffith, “Hymns of the Rigveda” []
  9. Shabara Bhasya on Verse 3.1.3 of Jaimini Mimamsa Sutra. Cited from PV Kane, “History of Dharmaśāstra”, Vol 2, Part 1, Chapter 6, page 190
  10. Tantravartika on Verse 3.8.9 of Jaimini Mimamsa Sutra, Cited from ibid, Page 191
  11. PV Kane, “History of Dharmaśāstra”, Vol 2, Part 1, Chapter 6, Page 220
  12. Cited from ibid.
  13. ibid. Page 221
  14. ibid. Page 192
  15. Vijayalakshmi and Sarika Srivastawa, “Garbhini Paricharya: Antenatal Care in Ayurveda”, Journal of Ayurveda and Holistic Medicine, November, 2013, Vol 1, Issue 8
  16. Though, the context of the verse is meditation, the verse does express the essence of Vedic view that children complete a family, they give a meaning to a householder’s life, and they are central to a marriage and family.
  17. Swami Nikhilananda, “The Upanishads- A New Translation” []

(This article was first published by IndiaFacts in 2017)

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