By the time Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea, by envious Jewish priests accusing him of treason and blasphemy, the Jewish high priest Joseph Caiaphas had already pronounced his death sentence. Jesus was produced before the governor only to get a formal administrative approval. They merely wanted Pilate to uphold the judgment of the Jewish high priest. That Jesus had to be awarded capital punishment was a foregone conclusion. When Jesus was tried before Pilate, the mass of priests started pressing for a death sentence by producing fabricated evidence and ascribing malicious motives. In spite of all this, Pilate’s conscience not only held that Jesus was innocent but also began to realize his divine magnanimity during the course of the trial proceedings. The cumulative cacophony of the popular sentiment, the palpable threat in the surroundings, and the standing caution given to him about the Jewish priests drowned his inner voice. Jesus was pronounced guilty and the death sentence was upheld. Before he announced the punishment—deeply pained and heavy-hearted as he was—while ‘washing his hands off’ in a basin of water he proclaimed that he wasn’t responsible for the death of this innocent man. The frenzied mob responded by saying that not only them but also their descendents would happily claim the responsibility for this act. The utterance of Pilate, which disowned the onus of this evil deed, was beautifully translated into action by literally washing his hands in a basin full of water; this has crystallized into an idiom in many western languages. The English idiom ‘washing the hands off’ traces its descent back to this particular incident.
The same idiom is also in circulation in many Indian languages. It is interesting but not surprising that it does not owe its origin to the aforementioned Biblical episode but to a more sublime and introspective Vedic ritual called ‘Sankalpa’ (literally means ‘resolution’ or ‘affirmation’), notwithstanding the slightly dubious connotation the idiom has acquired in current times. Sankalpa forms an inevitable ceremonial injunction in many of the Vedic rituals and requires the performer of the rite to gesture a gentle contact of hands resting on each other and spell out the noble undertaking: “I am venturing into this work for the good of the self and of others.” Consequent to the completion of this rite, the performer is ordained to water his palms and wipe it off. It might intrigue those who don’t understand the philosophy behind this action. Simply put, an individual’s indulgence in any deed—be it virtuous or otherwise—is dominated by his ahankara (‘I’-ness, Ego). As a consequence of this, he has to bear the burden of both doership and enjoyership. The only way to work around this burden is to maintain a majestic neutrality, which, put in the words of Krishna is to practice the yoga (path) of ‘Karma-phala-tyaga’ (detachment from the rewards of action). The hand-washing ritual during sankalpa is a gesture that expresses this idea of detachment. Hence the symbolic ‘washing the hands off’ indicates selfless work, self-restraint, and moksha (liberation, release, lasting Joy).
This is the translation of a Kannada essay by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh titled ಕರ್ಮಫಲತ್ಯಾಗ from his anthology ಮಥನ-ಕಥನ. Edited by Hari Ravikumar.