What do Hindu scriptures says about abortion ("a deliberate termination of pregnancy")?
Was it a sin at some point in the past? If so, why?
Have any modern Hindu gurus, like Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Prabhupada, etc., commented on it?
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Abortion is strictly forbidden. Here is what this chapter of the Gautama Dharma Sutras says:
A woman becomes an outcast by procuring abortion, by connection with a (man of) lower (caste) and (the like heinous crimes).
And here is what this chapter of the Manu Smriti says:
Libations of water shall not be offered to those who (neglect the prescribed rites and may be said to) have been born in vain, to those born in consequence of an illegal mixture of the castes, to those who are ascetics (of heretical sects), and to those who have committed suicide, To women who have joined a heretical sect, who through lust live (with many men), who have caused an abortion, have killed their husbands, or drink spirituous liquor.
There is also punishment for men who cause abortion, as described in this chapter of the Vishnu Purana:
He who causes abortion, plunders a town, kills a cow, or strangles a man, goes to the Rodha hell[.]
And here is what this chapter of the Apastamba Dharma Sutras says:
Now (follows the enumeration of) the actions which cause loss of caste (Patanîya). (These are) stealing (gold), crimes whereby one becomes an Abhisasta, homicide, neglect of the Vedas, causing abortion, incestuous connection with relations born from the same womb as one's mother or father, and with the offspring of such persons, drinking spirituous liquor, and intercourse with persons the intercourse with whom is forbidden.
And for good measure here is what Vidura says in this chapter of the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata:
One that setteth fire to a dwelling house, an administerer of poison, a pander, a vendor of the Soma-juice, a maker of arrows, an astrologer, one that injureth friends, an adulterer, one that causeth abortion, a violater of his preceptor's bed, a Brahmana addicted to drink, one that is sharp-speeched, a raker of old sores, an atheist, a reviler of the Vedas, and taker of bribes, one whose investiture with the sacred thread has been delayed beyond the prescribed age, one that secretly slayeth cattle, and one that slayeth him who prayeth for protection,--these all are reckoned as equal in moral turpitude as the slayers of Brahmanas
And to show how serious killing a foetus is, here is what Bhishma describes as the repentance for it in this chapter of the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata:
One guilty of foeticide becomes cleansed if he dies of wounds received in battle fought for the sake of kine and Brahmanas. He may also be cleansed by casting his person on a blazing fire.
On the other hand, this chapter Devi Bhagavatam prescribes an easier expiation:
In this way if the Gâyatrî be repeated one thousand times, the sins arising from killing a cow, father, mother, from causing abortions, going to the wife of one’s Guru, stealing a Brâhmana’s property, a Brâhman’s field, drinking wine, etc., all are destroyed.
But if that's the case it just goes to show the extreme power of the Gayatri mantra, not the lack of severity of the sin.
Also, you asked about what modern-day figures have said. Here is what ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada says about abortion:
They are killing the baby in the womb. How cruel! In this age of unwanted population, man is losing his compassion. When you kill a living entity, even an ant, you are interfering with its spiritual evolution, its progress. That living entity must again take on that same life form to complete its designated life term in that body. And the killer must return to pay for damages.
On the other hand, Osho Rajneesh says abortion is a virtue in this chapter of one of his books:
Abortion is not a sin - in this overpopulated world, abortion is a virtue. And if abortion is a sin then the Polack Pope and Mother Teresa and company are responsible for it, because they are against contraceptives, they are against birth control methods, they are against the pill. These are the people who are the cause of all the abortions, they are responsible. To me they are great criminals.
But Osho Rajneesh is known for his unorthodox views. Finally, here is what Sathya Sai Baba said:
When asked the question, “When does the soul enter the body?”, Swami replied, “The soul enters the body on or after the fifth month.” When asked about abortion after the fifth month, He answered: “No abortion!”. When asked about abortion before the fifth month, Swami said, “No! No! Even before - abortion is bad... Mind control... Use mind control."
I think that means restrain your mind and practice abstinence, but perhaps he's talking about psychic abortion!
Here is my partial answer.
Abortion is a grave sin.The Parashara Smriti says that the sin is even greater than in the case of killing a Brahmin.And killing a Brahmin is considered as one of the 5 mortal sins in Sanatana Dharma.
Manu Smriti also declares it as a sin.It says no libations of water for those women who committed abortions during their lifetimes.
Manu Smriti 5.89. Libations of water shall not be offered to those who..... To women who have joined a heretical sect, who through lust live (with many men), who have caused an abortion, have killed their husbands, or drink spirituous liquor.
If the husband meets not his wife on the day that her monthly courses cease, and she be near at hand, he incurs the awful sin of having killed a foetus. There is not the slightest doubt herein.(Parashara Smriti)
The Parashara Smriti even says that the sin is so grave that there is no atonement for it.
Yatpapam Brahmahatyayam Dwigunam Garvapatane|| Prayaschittam Na Tasyah Swatta Swastyaago Vidhiyate||
What sin is incurred in killing a Brahman, abortion causes a sin twice as great ; there is no atonement for that sin. The abandonment of such a woman has been ordained by law.
Views of Yajnavalkya Smriti,which are given below, are also identical:
Wilful abortion and hatred of the husband are great sins in women without any expiation. Hence, she shall be shunned from a distance(Yajnavalkya)
If a woman subjects herself to abortion, except in the case of adultery and for purposes of expiation, she becomes guilty of two great sins the murder of the foetus and the murder of her husband(Yajnavalkya).
The sage Vyasa gives the following reasons for having written the Mahabharata.
- As the full-moon by its mild light expandeth the buds of the water-lily, so this Purana, by exposing the light of the Sruti hath expanded the human intellect.
(Mahabharata Adi Parva I)
- In former days, having placed the four Vedas on one side and the Bharata on the other, these were weighed in the balance by the celestials assembled for the purpose. And as the later weighed heavier than the four Vedas with their mysteries, from that period it hath been called in the world Mahabharata.
(Mahabharata Adi Parva I)
- This Bharata consists of a hundred thousand sacred slokas composed by the son of Satyavati, of immeasurable mental power. He that reads it to others, and they that hear it read, attain the world of Brahman and become equal to the very gods. This Bharata is equal unto the Vedas, is holy and excellent; is the worthiest of all to be listened to, and is a Purana worshipped by the Rishis. It contains much useful instruction on Artha and Kama. This sacred history maketh the heart desire for salvation. Learned persons by reciting this Veda of Krishna-Dwaipayana to those that are liberal, truthful, and believing, earn much wealth. Sins such as killing the embryo in the womb, are destroyed assuredly by this.
(Mahabharata Adi Parva LXII)
Killing the embryo in the womb is specifically mentioned as a sin.
Abortion did exist in the ancient days.
At least people living at the time of Ramayana had knowledge about it. Abortion here means not killing an embryo with life but removing a lifeless fetus from mother's womb. The below are the verses from Valmiki Ramayana Sundara Kanda Chapter 28.
नूनं ममाङ्गान्यचिरादनार्यः |
शस्त्रैः शितै श्छेत्स्यति राक्षसेन्द्रः |
तस्मिन्ननागच्छति लोकनाथे |
गर्भस्थजन्तोरिव शल्यकृन्तः || ५-२८-६
"If Rama the Ruler of the world does not come here, the evil Ravana, the king of Demons will cut off my limbs with his sharpened weapons, even as a surgeon would cut the limbs of a lifeless foetus."
This is exactly the same process of surgical abortion of these modern days. By this shloka, we know that people had knowledge about advanced medical techniques like surgical abortion.
Here Sita says about a surgeon removing a lifeless foetus but not an embryo with life. If the child is dead or unhealthy it is suggested to take him out by surgery. AFAIK, killing a healthy child inside a mother's womb is not supported in our religion. Besides there are some samskaras like pumsavana, seemaantham, jatakarma to be performed to the mother for the good health of the mother and the baby.
This can be a context driven Qn. In past people used to do "voluntary miscarriage" which is equivalent to "surgical abortion" of today. If we consider "sinful" as "faulty/defective act" then, Abortion or No abortion, both can be sins from certain POV.
- By killing feutus, one is taking away the life. Hence it's a sin.
- By giving birth to unwanted child, one is creating lifelong misery for child & society. May be a bigger sin!
Not only abortion, but all initiations are faulty:
BG 18.48 — O son of Kunti, trivial(natural) Karma should never be given up, even though [it is] faulty; All initiations [of Karma] are faulty, like how smoke covers the fire.
All our life, we just make choices among 'sins'. That's why Gita predominantly talks about overcoming 'sins' by emphasising on Swadharma.
BG 18.47 — Faulty Swa-Dharma (self tendency) is better than well performed Para-Dharma (other's tendency); Naturally prescribed performance of Karma never achieves sinful reactions.
In today's time the "law of land" or the "country's constitution" is the ShAstra. According to that if abortion is prohibited then it's not do-able without a doubt. If it's a choice then one should decide from own nature as explained above.