Clean and Dirty: Cross-cultural Misunderstandings in India

by Paul G. Hiebert

A veteran missionary and scholar challenges westerners to reexamine their beliefs of “clean” and “dirty” as viewed in the Indian context.

(Editor’s Note: Missionaries and mission leaders around the world were deeply saddened to learn of Dr. Paul Hiebert’s death in March 2007. This article was submitted by Dr. Hiebert in 2006 and we are pleased to present it as one of his final publications.)

Few experiences in our first cross-cultural encounters impress us more than our sense of dirtiness and cleanliness. This is certainly true when we go to India. When we walk out of our guest house, we are overwhelmed by a sensory overload: people everywhere, vivid colors, temples and movies, music blaring from loudspeakers and Muslim calls to prayer. Smells—perfumes, incense, foods, cow and human excrement—overwhelm and confuse us. But it is the filth that first attracts our attention.

For many Americans, first impressions of India have to do with dirt: rotting garbage on the roadside, plastic bags draped on shrubs, open festering sewers, excrement on the road and dirt and dust everywhere. The chaos extends to driving in which trucks, buses, steam rollers, tractors, cars, motor rickshaws, cycles, ox carts, people, cows, water buffalo, sheep and stray dogs negotiate their way with little apparent concern for the “rules of the road.” The result is chaos shock—the sense that life has no order to it, that it is out of control and dirty.

Indians have their first impressions of America and Americans as well. They are awed by the public cleanliness. Lawns are manicured, buildings are freshly painted, streets are clean and sewers are hidden underground. People drive in polished, dent-free cars. They observe well-marked lanes, stop at stop lights and wait for oncoming traffic to pass before turning. Indians are shocked, however, at Americans’ personal filthiness. In public schools, stores, movie theaters and buses they wear old, dirty, torn jeans; very short shorts that cover nothing; t-shirts covered with ads; and unpolished, gaudy tennis shoes. These appear to be beggars’ clothes. Women wear the same drab dress as men. They keep their shoes on when they enter their houses, and even in churches when they enter the presence of God. It is clear they can afford more respectful dress, so why do they take better care of their streets, yards and cars than they do themselves?

Americans eat with forks and spoons that have been in other people’s mouths. They do not wash their hands before eating with their fingers. They use their right hands in toilets and use paper to clean themselves. Indians eat with their fingers which have not been in other people’s mouths, and use only the right hand because the left hand is kept for dirty activities. Americans eat meat, even beef, which both defiles them and gives them a strong body odor which vegetarians can smell. They touch each other in greeting and hence are polluted by those more ritually impure than they.

After their initial shock of visiting India, Americans must stop and take a deeper look at what they are experiencing. They encounter a paradox. More than any other culture, Indian culture is based on deep beliefs in purity and pollution, which touch every area of life. India may have a reputation for its public filth, but Indians are obsessive about personal cleanliness. Men come out of small huts wearing their best shirts, ties and trousers, washed and pressed, and freshly polished shoes. Women dress in brightly colored, clean feminine clothes. When they drive motorcycles or ride sidesaddle behind their husbands, their silk scarves and saris blow in the wind. Restaurants have public sinks for people to wash their hands before eating. Houses are swept clean daily, and outside entryways are coated with a fresh layer of earth and cow manure, which keeps them clean. Yards are decorated with flowers and designs are traced with white powder. People brush their teeth and comb their hair almost obsessively. They do so in public and want people to see their concern for cleanliness and public dignity.

India’s concern for purity and its disgust of pollution goes much deeper than surface dirt that can be washed off. The people are concerned about deep, inner pollution, the defilement of the self. Manual work, such as scavenging, tanning, burying the dead and cutting hair involves touching dead objects, and is most defiling. Washing clothes, cleaning the house and sweeping the yard and street are polluting because those involved must handle refuse. This caste-based defilement is permanent and hereditary, handed down from parents to children. The only release from this pollution is the hope that in the next life one is born a pure Brahmin or other high-caste person.

One can also acquire personal pollution by touching things that are polluted. If high-caste individuals touch low-caste persons, they will be defiled. To cleanse themselves from such pollution, these high-caste people must go through an extensive cleansing ritual that cleans their inner beings. Consequently, they have ritual greetings, like our handshakes, which do not involve touching one another. Sexual relationships and marriages between people of different castes are very defiling, particularly for children born from the union.

When Americans go to India, we need to learn to understand how Indians see purity and pollution, and to reexamine our own beliefs of “clean” and “dirty.” Keep in mind that India is known for its personal cleanliness and its public filth, and America for its public cleanliness and its personal filth.

We need, also, to avoid judging Indian beliefs; instead, we must examine both our beliefs and Indian beliefs in light of the gospel. For starters, we need to avoid being culturally insensitive. Here are a few preliminary recommendations.

1. Dress. Men, leave your jeans, old t-shirts and gaudy tennis shoes at home. Women, leave your shorts and short skirts. To wear these in public insults your hosts and shames them among peers. Remember, when you dress for yourself, you dress down for comfort. When you dress to honor others, you dress up. Show respect for your hosts by dressing up when you go out in public. In particular, dress up when you go to church. This is a sign that you are honoring to God.

2. Public acts. Make public displays of your cleanliness. Wash your hands in the sink at the restaurant before you eat, brush your teeth in public after eating and above all, do not touch your food with your left hand—it is considered filthy.

3. Hair. Keep your hair neat and trimmed. Unkempt hair is a sign of unclean personal habits.

4. Food. Avoid eating meat, especially beef, as much as possible in public. Above all, learn from your hosts. At first they may be hesitant to criticize you, but as you build trust, they can help you to be seen as clean and respectable in the villages and cities of India.


Paul G. Hiebert was professor of mission and anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School from 1990 until near his death on March 11, 2007. Before this, he served with the Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services in India and taught anthropology at Kansas State University and at the University of Washington. He also taught anthropology and missions at Fuller Theological Seminary. His areas of expertise included anthropology, missions, South Asia, folk religions, urban ministries, anthropological research methods and Hinduism.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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