Beyond Occident – an opinion column by Avatans Kumar that explores a native perspective on the Indian diaspora

In the debate over abortion, Hinduism is unambiguously pro-life. 

Abortion is the medical termination of pregnancy. It is an act of intentionally terminating the life of an unborn fetus. There is no evidence to suggest that Hinduism justifies or encourages abortion except when the mother’s life is in peril. 

How World Religions View Abortion

Abortion as a topic has dominated the study of bioethics since ancient times. It is an emotive and divisive issue in individual health, personal choice, bodily autonomy, and human rights. Most world religions do not accept abortion. For example, in Zoroastrianism, abortion is considered “evil” for two reasons: “killing an innocent and intrinsically good person, and the contamination caused by the dead body (Nashu)” (Perspective of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism on abortion…, Kiarash Aramesh). 

Hinduism being a non-dogmatic ‘religion,’ does not explicitly proscribe abortion. However, it considers abortion ‘himsa’ (violence) and ‘hatya‘ (murder). The only time Hinduism finds abortion acceptable is when it concerns the mother’s health or life. When required for the pregnant woman’s health, says Prof. Nagaraj Paturi of Indic Academy, “abortion was carried out in Ayurveda and other Hindu indigenous medical systems.”

Linguistically, the Sanskrit terminology regarding abortion makes the Hindu view on this matter abundantly clear. The Sanskrit terms for abortion, also used in most Indian languages, are garbhahatya (pregnancy killing) and bhroonhatya (fetus murder). These words indicate an agency in the act. The non-volitional term for termination of pregnancy, on the other hand, is garbhasrava and samsrana

The Karmic Cycle & Rebirth

The killing of a fetus not only interferes with Karma and the cycle of rebirth, but it also hampers the ultimate goal of a Hindu – Moksha. “Because soul enters the body along with his past karma… every embryo has a unique identity, it is not only flesh from the mother’s flesh but a distinct life, with all his attributes, although yet un-manifested” (Sandhya Jain, Right to Family Planning, Contraception, and Abortion). 

The critical concepts of Ahimsa, Karma, rebirth, and the overarching principle of Dharma determine the intellectual debate on abortion in Hinduism. Hindu Dharma, or simply Dharma, is often mislabeled and mistranslated as “religion.”

It is a much more complex concept. 

The Role of Dharma, Karma & Moksha

Dharma is the Universal Truth that holds the entire cosmos together. It illuminates the responsibilities of human beings in all possible situations. The Dharmic society is organized on “duties” rather than “rights.” According to the Mahabharata (Karna Parva, 69.58), Dharma is propounded to secure the good of all living beings. While engaging in abortion, one must seriously consider what (greater) good comes from this act. When one performs abortion wantonly, says Paturi, “its supernatural consequences were considered to be not pacifiable through even […] praayashchitta karma kaanda.” 

The Hindu doctrine of ‘Karma and rebirth‘ and the idea of Moksha are closely tied to Dharma. Together, Dharma and Karma form the core of Hindu philosophy. The doctrine of Karma is defined as an individual’s intentional action through body, speech, or mind. Whatever happens to an individual is a predictable outcome of their choices over time. 

Rebirth, on the other hand, assumes that life does not end at the death of the physical body, and the result of one’s action can be felt in the next lives to come. Samsara is the natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The freedom from this cycle is Moksha, one of the four purusharthas – humanly pursuit of the Hindus. 

The Hindu notion of “ahimsa” is not as strict as the Buddhist or Jain notion. However, killing vulnerable beings that serves no personal or societal benefit is considered an infringement of the principle of non-violence in Hinduism.

Hindus believe the self or soul (atman) repeatedly takes on a physical body, until moksha.

What Hindu Scholars Say About Conception

Hindu scholars – Rishis and Acharyas – have deliberated on the issues that have plagued our society for ages. Part of that literature also forms the source of our study in Hindu bioethics. 

The Rigveda, a Hindu text composed over 5,000 years ago, is one of the earliest texts in human history. It indirectly references the unborn human when it depicts Bhagwan Vishnu as “the guardian of the future infant” (Rigveda VII, 36.9). As part of the Trimurti, the Hindu trinity, Bhagwan Vishnu is considered the world’s protector.

Hindus believe that the “fetus is not developing into a person but, rather, is already a person in the moment of conception” (Harold Coward and Tejinder Sidhu, Hindu and Sikh Bioethics).

The Rigveda prescribes several pregnancy rituals – Garbhadhan (conception), Pumsavana (end of the first trimester), Garbharakshana (4th month), and Jatakarma (at the time of delivery). These rituals are still part of Hindu society. They emphasized the special status and care required for and accorded to the human fetus/embryo right from conception. 

The Atharvaveda makes a specific reference to abortion. It suggests (VII, 113.3; VII 112.3) that a greater sinner does not exist than the one who practices abortion. The Satapatha Brahmana (III, 1.2.21) compares those who facilitate abortion – one who has “expelled the embryo from a woman” – to those who eat the flesh of a cow.

While the stance of earlier Shruti texts against abortion is suggestive or inferential, the later Hindu dharmashastras and the Smriti texts make a direct interdiction of abortion. They also lay out socio-religious sanctions for those involved in abortion. The Gautamadharmshastra (XX, 9) and Apasthambdharmsutra indicate that abortionists become an “outcaste” (I, 7.21.7-8). In this sense, the dharmshastras consider abortion equivalent to killing one’s husband and slaying a learned scholar – a Brahmin. The Manavdharmashastra goes as far as forbidding the water libation to those “[…] who have caused an abortion…” (V,89-90).

Ayurvedic Medicine On The Embryo

The Ayurvedic medicine treatises (the distinction between “religious” and “secular” does not exist in the traditional Hindu texts), such as Charak and Sushrut Samhitas, hold the view that the biological elements alone aren’t enough for human conception. According to Charak Samhita, quoted in Sandhya Jain, the embryo is “the product of akasha (ether), vayu (air), tejas (fire), ap (water), and prithvi (earth), is the seat of consciousness. Thus, an embryo is an aggregate of five mahabhutas (elements) being the seat of consciousness.

Hinduism does not fit the parameters of a “religion” as understood by the West. Hence, understanding a Hindu perspective on any issue requires a nuanced approach. One of the problems with defining Hinduism is that there is no Indic notion of “religion.” However, even the native insider’s understanding of Hinduism has been somewhat altered due to a long history of colonization. At the same time, defining Hinduism as anything but a “religion” also has consequences – it exposes Hindus and Hinduism to contempt and predatory and coercive evangelization.

Hindu view of abortion is as balanced and nuanced as all others. Hindu Dharma accepts and may even advise the termination of pregnancy when required for the pregnant woman’s health. However, such an exception is reserved for extreme emergencies and other circumstances. Barring that, Hindu Dharma considers abortion both moral and social transgression. 

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of India Currents. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, individual or anyone or anything.

Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient...