Menstruation across cultures: A historical perspective

Sanatana Dharma looks at menstruation through a broad lens unlike other cultures across the world.

Menstruation across cultures: A historical perspective

Menstruation is one of the most basic human physiological processes related to the propagation of our species. Every month, a woman’s uterus is prepared by bodily hormones in anticipation of a fertilised egg. The inner lining of the uterus thickens considerably, becoming quite vascular, in preparation for its job to sustain the just formed embryo. When the fertilisation does not occur, the hormonal effect wears off and the thick endometrial lining is shed off in the form of a viscous dark-red fluid lasting for 3-5 days. The age at which this begins is around 11 to 14 years but it may have an earlier or later onset. ‘Menarche’ is the term for the first menstrual period which proclaims the onset of the second phase of the growing female and establishes the fertility potential of the girl transiting into a woman. And it is fascinating that over thousands of years, a perfectly physiological process equivalent to drinking, eating, breathing, or excreting finds itself intricately linked with a whole set of cultural, social, and religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, the modern scientific world and its included medical field view all the practices related to menstruation as useless myths, fallacies, or taboos. The entire discourse of menstruation has now changed to that of hygiene and rights. The scientific narrowed narrative is that of a purely biological phenomenon- nothing sacred, nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing impure about it. It is just one of the natural processes and scientific understanding does away with all the false superstitions and narratives. In the social context, again the western paradigm of rights has taken over the narrative. The dealing of menstruation is a completely private affair with sanitary pads as a tool to declare equality by ‘not missing any action’. Our commercial sphere focusses specifically on the twin issues of menstrual hygiene and independence as the advertisements or films go. And includes theme marathons too. The legal machinery translates these into gender issues in a most thoughtless manner.

The social and cultural practices many times, go far beyond these straightforward modern narratives and it would be useful to understand some of them before condemning them outright. This is important for the practising doctors, especially in the care of women, who are always in the social and cultural scene of their embedded population. And ironically, non-medical professionals like lawyers and judges need to understand this even more. Anthropology is the study of human customs and beliefs; and which finally show us why we are humans.

Nithin Sridhar is a civil engineer by education, who gave up his profession for the cause of Hinduism. He is the editor of IndiaFacts, a popular online magazine for sustaining Sanatana Dharma; and has previously authored a wonderful book called ‘Musings on Hinduism’, a primer for students of all ages wanting to know more about Hinduism. ‘Menstruation Across Cultures – A Historical Perspective’ is his latest book. This voluminous book under review looks daunting, but it is a promise that the first few pages would be enough for the reader to get hooked. The clear and fluid language takes the layperson on an interesting journey across civilizations and religions delving into a difficult topic. The book has come at a correct time too when the Sabarimala issue is dominating our news with misinformed and confused debates all around.

The book compares the different attitudes to menarche, menstruation, pregnancy, and womanhood in different religions and countries. The focus is, of course, mainly on the Hindu or Sanatana Dharma attitudes. Most Hindu communities celebrate menarche as the beginning of womanhood and not an event filled with shame. It announces the arrival of womanhood, and the various cultural practices surrounding menarche across the country makes for some fascinating reading.

In our scriptures, the story of Indra killing Vishvrupa lays down the principles of Hindu attitudes to menstruation. Menstruation is a natural phenomenon. However, the passing of the unfertilised egg implies potential childbirth which attracts the guilt of Adharmic action. This period of ‘Asaucha’ (or uncleanliness in a loose English translation) makes the women unsuitable for Vedic rituals inside or outside the homes. However, menstruation most importantly is a self-purification process at the physical, mental, and spiritual levels. This places certain restrictions and lifestyle modifications which are temporary. This includes physical isolation from the rest of the house, avoidance of physical activities, avoidance of kitchen work, and abstinence from sex. Finally, by associating menstruation with childbirth, the author says that the Indra narrative portrays menstruation as a sacred celebration. This in short sums up the Hindu attitudes towards menstruation in our scriptures.

Asaucha and Saucha: The impurity and the purity

The Asaucha period is a time where the Rajasic energy is pent up in the body and hence the body is in a temporary state of impurity. Purity or Shaucha is a concept more related to competency or qualification to do a particular action, especially in relation to religious activities. The purity aspect of the physical and mental levels is a necessary requirement for religious activities. As the author says,

‘Hindu traditions look at menstruation as Asaucha, austerity, a self-purification process, a period of rest and sacred celebration all at the same time.’

Asaucha is a complex term which refers to an impurity at not only the physical level, but also the ‘pranic’ level with excessive Rajasic energies, and the mental level. The impurity at the pranic and mental level makes the menstruating women incompetent to perform certain spiritual practices and enter temples.

The restrictions placed during the Asaucha period are like the restrictions placed at the time of death of a close relative or a birth in the family. These restrictions neither degrade women nor make them inferior by any stretch of the imagination. Menstruation is simply a state of temporary impurity where the woman cannot perform certain rituals but it also is an opportunity to cleanse themselves. There is no connotation of inferiority, degradation, or subjugation as the author strives to show.

In fact, the scriptures suggest that what comes with special effort for men, comes as part of a natural process for women. For example, Baudhayana Dharmasutra states:

‘Women possess an unrivalled means of purification; they never become impure. For month by month their temporary uncleanliness remove their sins.’

Regarding the status of women, Yajnavalkya Smriti and so does Vashishta Dharmasutra state that all women are ‘pure’. One tantra goes even further to state that:

‘a man should regard every substance discharged from a woman’s body as pure and should be willing to touch it or ingested if requested to do so.’

In tantric practices, menstrual blood becomes highly divine.            

The two concepts of sacredness and impurity are the main issues which make menstrual understanding so interesting. The diverse Hindu traditions and practices are contextual, hence based on different situations, goals, competencies, and needs of the people. Menstruation is mainly associated with ritual Asaucha with abstinence of sexual activities. But at the same time, Tantric tradition places menstruation as a sacred celebration where sexual intercourse or Yoni Puja become ritual Shaucha. Kamakhya is an example of the divine goddess menstruating during some holy periods of the year.

The tantric and yogic rituals place menstrual blood as a divine feature of the goddess. The Tantric practices like Yoni Puja are ritual worship of the woman and her Yoni (vagina) – a symbol of the Cosmic Yoni, from which the entire universe has emerged. In some temples, a menstruating woman is so pure that it is taboo to touch them and for them to even enter the temple. This, because of the risk of spiritual energy transfer from the Murti or the idol to the menstruating women, in a paradoxical reversal of situation! The Murti would hence become lifeless!

Again, in the Hinduism fold, there are many deities and goddesses associated with fertility and menstruation. These deities are the manifestations of the primary Shakti. There are nine forms of Goddess Durga celebrated during the Navratri festival. Of these, the first five forms are specifically associated with different phases of the woman’s life. Many temple practices all over the country are related to a menstruating goddess. Hence, Hindu tradition clearly considers menstruation as a sacred and a positive process worthy of respect, worship, and even celebration.   

The author discusses, sourcing from various scriptures, this aspect of Asaucha. Menstruation, and later marriage in women, fulfill the purpose of Upanayana in boys. Unfortunately, nowadays the practices surrounding menarche and menstruation have strong negative connotations either by blind mechanical restrictions or completely throwing them off as taboos by the ill-informed families combined with a secular discourse in the environment. The sacred aspect and the Asaucha are complementary- two sides of the same coin- according to the author. The Asaucha or temporary impurity differs from, for sure, any concept of sin, punishment, or shame as in other religious beliefs.


Yogic and Ayurvedic ideas on menstruation

Yogic literature looks at menstruation as a physiological process deeply connected with the Vayus or forces in the body and any obstacles in its functioning lead to unpleasant states. Non-performance of Yoga and restrictions on other religious activities during menstruation needs an understanding with respect to the flow of Apana Vayu facilitating menstruation. The impurity aspect or the ‘Asaucha’ aspect of the menstruation has more to do with a temporary state of heightened Rajas energy in the body, which needs countering by a period of physical and mental rest. The physical isolation, the avoidance of physical activities, the abstinence from sexual activities, and the moderation in the diet is more to keep the woman healthy and safe rather than to suppress. The modern narrative regarding this practice has been consistently that of subjugation.

Similarly, Ayurveda looks at menstruation as a physiological process and talks in terms of the three ‘Doshas’ of the body. Ayurvedic instructions called ‘Rajaswala Paricharya’ as a series of dos and don’ts in menstruation aim to keep the body fit and healthy and to prevent health defects in the future child. Charaka Samhita and other Ayurvedic texts place dietary and other restrictions purely for the purpose of maintaining the health of the woman.

The Rajasic energies and the imbalance of the Doshas need that the woman rests physically and mentally, even avoiding kitchen activities. Cooking is the most Sattvic of activities, and our Yoga and Ayurveda clearly mention these restrictions on menstruating women based on physiological principles. Hence, not religion, but physiological processes is a consideration for some of the menstrual practices. 

Other Indic traditions

A comparison then ensues in detail of the Hindu worldview with the other Hinduism offshoots like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The popular perception is that Buddhism looks at menstruation as a natural process. However, the author says that by examining various traditions, Buddhism places notions of impurity with menstruation. It is a hindrance for women aiming to attain Buddhahood. While Buddhism considers men and women both as impure and in suffering, women have greater suffering and greater impurity because of menstruation. But, some sects like Tibetan Buddhism consider menstruation powerfully equipped with magical powers.

In the Jain view, women have a central role in family, social, and religious life. The householder is engaged in religious worship, but those interested in Moksha enter the ascetic order. The two main sects of Digambaras and Svetambaras allow women as monks; but, in their principle of extreme non-violence, believe that a woman’s anatomical features and menstruation put them in a disadvantaged position. The practice of nudity is also an obstacle for women in the attainment of Moksha. The Digambaras believe that women ascetics can never attain Moksha and need rebirth as males; however, the Svetambaras believe that they can.

In Sikhism, menstruation is importantly related to childbirth but has no specific notions of purity or impurity related to menstruation and childbirth. Instead, purity gets its definition from virtue and vice. Hence, there are absolutely no restrictions on the menstruating women in the performance of religious or cultural festivals in Sikhism.

Buddhism and Jainism arose from Hindu culture and there are some common elements despite the wide divergences of views. The divergences are the outcome of the unique social and historical conditions prevalent in Hindu society, says the author. Buddhism, which spread across Asia absorbed many local traditions indigenous to China, Japan, Tibet, and other places. Buddhists and Jains accept women in the ascetic order, but both consider them to be at a disadvantaged position. Buddhism because of greater suffering and impurity, and Jainism because of the greater state of Himsa or violence. Hinduism allows different routes for spiritual progress for women since it believes that physiologically they are not as suitable as men for the path of renunciation and austerities. But the path of Bhakti or devotion is more open to them. The Tantric and the Bhakti traditions allow women ascetics.          

It was interesting to note that the two main sects of Jainism have differing views on the purity of women and their capability to achieve Nirvana. Similarly, it was surprising to note that Sikhism is perhaps the only religion which does not place any restrictions on menstruating females to enter their temples. The author contemplates whether this is a consequence of the ‘Apad Dharma’- dharma which undergoes modification during times of stress and war. Sikhism had strongly troubled times by way of violent attacks; and hence, there was a modification of its menstrual practices. Also, Sikhism might have a need for defining self-identity by othering the other mainstream community, which was Hinduism. This may be an explanation for an explicitly opposing view of Sikhism with reference to Hindu views on menstruation practices, the author speculates.

Abrahamic Religions

The Hindu view then gets a comparison with the major Abrahamic religions where the concepts of impurity and sin are stronger. Women are associated with Original Sin starting from the Garden of Eden which led to the downfall of Man from grace. Menstruation is almost a permanent curse for women in the Abrahamic faiths, and the ideas of gender discrimination or patriarchy are better defined here. However, some Judaic concepts with regards to temporary impurity and the elevation of women to the divine show resemblance to the Sanatana Dharma worldview. Abrahamic religions have a strong presence in India too and their practices might have undergone some transformation during their interaction with Hinduism.

In the Jewish tradition, Niddah is a state of ritual impurity which a woman enters when she experiences uterine bleeding and becomes aware of it. One enters the state of Niddah when the bleeding is due to causes other than injury. The practice of Niddah places women with certain restrictions and lifestyle modifications – sexual abstinence being the most important. During early Christianity, Baptism was an alternative to Niddah and used to define Christianity separate from Judaism. However, the perception of menstruation as dangerous has prevailed throughout the history of Christianity. Avoidance of sexual activities and non-eligibility to receive communion during the monthly periods are some of the observances in the Christian faith. During the Middle Ages, the negative attitudes towards menstruation became intensified. It became associated with idolatry and sin. Menstruation became a tool sometimes for othering and persecuting heretics, Jews, and women accused of witchcraft.

In Islam, the notion of purity and impurity are vital elements. It considers menstruating women as ‘vulnerable, weakened, and polluted.’ The Indian Muslim practices restrict menstruating women to touch the holy book or enter the mosque. They do not offer the ritual prayer or have sex with their husbands for seven full days. There are hence religious and dietary restrictions placed on women in Islam during menstruation. Islam inherits the Judeo-Christian view of menstruation and connects it to the Original Sin and the fall of Eve. Menstruating women need a purificatory bath called Ghusl at the end of menstruation. Menarche announces the coming of age of Muslim girls when they become eligible to practice religious duties like praying and fasting. Menstrual periods prohibit these activities, however.

In the Hindu context, menstrual impurity implies heightened Rajas and ineligibility for certain sacred and secular activities, while menstrual impurity in the Jewish tradition implies mainly inability for sexual union. The othering of women based on menstruation is distinctly absent in Hindu view as compared to Christianity and Islam, says the author emphatically. Coming to the celebration, neither Christianity nor Islam associates any sacredness or feminine divinity with menstruation. Menarche is an important event in Islam like in Hinduism which begins the onset of another set of functions in the woman.

All the Abrahamic religions hence subscribe to the categories of purity-impurity and all of them have menstrual restrictions, but the foundational principles are different from that of Hinduism. Menstruation in Hinduism is a state of heightened Rajas; in Abrahamic religions, it connects with Original Sin. Purity-impurity attaches to vitality and competence in Hinduism; whereas it associates with virtue and sin in the Abrahamic religions. These are some clashing elements between the Hindu and the Abrahamic view of menstruation. 

Ancient civilizations

The most fascinating part of the book is the view of menstruation in the ancient world civilizations. Mesopotamian society was aware of the impurity and sacred aspects of menstruation. They perceived menstruation as an illness with polluting powers. But menstruation had its benefits too. The sacred aspect was presided by the goddess Innana/Ishtar. Mesopotamians were aware of the gynaecological problems and their texts dealt exclusively with them.

The Egyptians too had the ‘miasma’ (impure) and the sacred notions regarding menstruation, but only Egyptians and ancient Hindus consider menstruation as a purificatory process. No other civilization or religion has entertained this view of menstruation. Seclusion was important in Egyptian practice and the concept of impurity existed strongly during the construction of the tombs. Contact with menstruating women could harm the sanctity of the tombs. Ancient Egypt had their own deities associated with menstruation like Isis, Hathor, and Sekhmet. 

The comparative analysis of the oldest living tradition Hinduism with that of Greco-Romans, the Mesopotamians, and the Egyptians of ancient times shows many similarities with respect to the sacredness and purity/impurity of menstrual practices. They also mapped into the larger scheme, the place of women in society. Surprisingly, the Egyptian practices have the strongest resemblance to Hindu practices as the author shows. Similarities also existed between the Greco-Roman ideas and of the Hindus leading credence to the theory that there was a deep interaction of ideas between the Indians and the ancient world. The influence may be from India too as some authorities speculate. But, for the present, it suffices to say that the pagan world had much in common regarding menstrual practices and elevating the woman to the sphere of the divine. And Hinduism is the last surviving pagan religion.

Every single indigenous community from North America, Central and South America, Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe has developed notions about menstruation in its purity and sacredness aspect. Menstruation has indeed occupied minds across regions and times. Finally, in a way, they tell us about the status of women in society.

Sabarimala in final thoughts

Mapping all this to the topic of Sabarimala, which the author specifically does not deal in the book, a sprinkling understanding of the menstrual practices makes it clear that gender discrimination is the last of the issues. Probably even non-existent. It is simply a matter of religion and practices. The Sabarimala deity is a ‘Naishtika’ Brahmachari’- a permanent bachelor and the Shastras related to the temple are clear about disallowing women here in their menstruating age. The Rajas energies of women during menstruation interferes with the subtle spiritual energies in the temple. This is precisely the reason menstruating females avoid going to a temple of any sort.

Agama Shastras, in the hands of competent authorities, are also varied, guiding the construction and the practices of the temples. Shastras, Niyamas, and practices may vary from place to place and from temple to temple. Sabarimala temple does not allow women of the menstruating age. There are many temples of Ayappa Swami where there are no such restrictions on women in the menstruating age group. Also, there are temples, not of Ayappa Swami, where only female devotees have permission to enter. Surprisingly, the males cannot enter those temples at all!

In this context, the customs and rules of the temples have nothing to do with gender discrimination and women’s rights. It is a poor argument coming from a weak understanding of the religion, its scriptures, and its traditions. In fact, throughout the book, the author shows that when it comes to elevating women to the status of the divine, no other religion or civilization comes close to Hinduism. However, the discourse rages abnormally, completely taken over by the secularists, left-liberals, and the feminists.

Menstrual practices across cultures have been an interesting phenomenon, but to understand them fully is the need of the hour. The author has done a fantastic job in bringing this difficult subject into the public arena, and it would do well indeed for every single person to read this book. A suggestion would be to translate this book into several Indian languages. A lot of debate is going on, unfortunately, without understanding it holistically. Who needs reading of the book? Everyone. The modern confused Hindu women pulled in opposite directions by the sacred traditions on the one hand and the contemporary scientific narrative on the other; the Hindu men who do not understand many cultural backgrounds and physiological basis of the so-called ‘useless taboos’; the doctors important in the care of the women to understand their cultural practices; and the lawyers and judges before delivering judgements related to religious issues. Unfortunately, the non-physical aspects have become ‘taboos’, reducing menstruation to negative notions of pains, cramps, and a hindrance in the way of progress. Now, the whole conversation of menstruation is hygiene and independence. Anything else is discrimination or a sadly superstition, as the author points out meticulously in this superbly written book.

A reading of this book would make one realise how wrong our courts are in their judgement of Sabarimala when they thoughtlessly brought it down to the narrowest idea of gender discrimination. The assessment of religious practices and customs is highly nuanced with multiple layers of narratives in the physiological, cultural, traditional, and social spheres. Every religion has its own understanding and narrative on menstruation. Unfortunately, Hinduism has the most complex ideas, and it was far beyond the understanding of the judges as they stripped the whole issue to the most basic, but highly inappropriate, level. The political machinery then malignantly used this judgement to the hilt, hitting at the very essence of Hinduism. The agenda-driven and poorly informed media ably stood by as support.

The book is widely sourced and referenced for anyone who wants to explore further on the subject. Madhu Kishwar says in the last chapter that it would have been interesting to know what our female sages and seers said about menstrual practices. The whole agenda has been set by only males in almost all traditions. Hindu tradition has many important female seers and is unlikely that they wouldn’t have said something on this subject. But many seers and rishis who have written our scriptures rarely declared their names. Possibly, some may have been women. However, the author could have mentioned specifically the thoughts of women thinkers on menstruation. That is perhaps the only point of criticism I can offer for this beautiful book which I would like to see on the shelves of every right-thinking Indian.

Buy the book here: The Sabarimala Confusion – Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective

About Author: Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Neonatal and Paediatric Surgeon practising in Warangal for the last twenty years. He graduated from medical school and later post-graduated in surgery from Ahmedabad. He further specialised in Paediatric Surgery from Mumbai. After his studies, he spent a couple of years at Birmingham Children's Hospital, UK and returned to India after obtaining his FRCS. He started his practice in Warangal where he hopes to stay for the rest of his life. He loves books and his subjects of passion are Indian culture, Physics, Vedanta, Evolution, and Paediatric Surgery- in descending order. After years of ignorance in a flawed education system, he has rediscovered his roots, paths, and goals and is extremely proud of Sanatana Dharma, which he believes belongs to all Indians irrespective of religion, region, and language. Dr. Gopal is a huge admirer of all the present and past stalwarts of India and abroad correcting past discourses and putting India back on the pedestal which it so truly deserves.

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