Menstruation Practices in Hinduism: What & Why? — A Talk by Nithin Sridhar
So, today’s topic is Menstruation Practices in Hinduism, What & Why? Yes, it is an offbeat topic, but I think nevertheless it is equally a very important topic. Menstruation is one of the, you know, all the adult woman go through it, affects them, influences them at a very deeper level biological, emotional, spiritual, psychological. Yet despite it’s so vital role in a woman’s life, the current narrative you can watch TV, online debates everywhere, the current narrative is highly reductive. It reduce the whole issue of menstruation into two things – one is sanitary napkins and second is, you know, the narrative of oppression and superstition in the context of Hindu practices, specifically.
In fact two weeks back, I came across a documentary video, in twitter wherein, somebody had, about this Hindu practices, they had made a nice video. There was a court scene, the couple was there, the husband stood accused and in front of him the wife was there as the victim. So husband was accused of oppressing his wife every month during her monthly periods. So the video shows how the wife was segregated, separated from her children, not allowed to interact with them and how this husband is superstitious person, who calls (her ) it’s a period of impurity, impurity impurity. But he doesn’t know what impurity means apart from the fact that the video was impute is because it stereotyped South Indians. It is showing typical Tamilian couple, but living that aside, it stereotyped everything, it stereotyped the whole Hindu conception, Hindu practices around menstruation.
It reduces the whole narrative into a single category of impurity and interpreted that category also using, the concepts like oppression and superstition. So in this background, with this context, it becomes very vital especially for the new people, the new generation, the new practicing Hindus and also the parents, everybody becomes vital to understand these practices are. See we can make a judgment, we can may come to a conclusion only after there is an unbiased examination not on the basis of preconceived notions.
So towards this direction, I have designed this presentation – Hindu Menstruation Practices – What and Why.
The very first slide is: What of menstruation practices, I have summarized some of the practices which are common, prevalent across India.
- First is no sexual intercourse that is the one of the most prevalent, not only in India but across the world.
- No running, no exercise, no cooking and other household activities.
- No bathing, no combing, no application of makeup and other body grooming activities.
- Some amount of segregation like not touching others.
- Restrictions related to food.
- Restrictions related to performance of religious and spiritual activities. This is another one huge issue, why should not menstruating woman enter a temples? Why should not she, you know, participate in religious ceremonies etc.
Contrary to these practices, it’s an upper end contradictory, it’s not a contradiction, it’s just appears to be a opposite,
- There is a celebration of menarche, the onset of menstruation across different communities in India and
- We also worship, there are traditions within India, which worship certain goddesses, certain menstruating goddesses.
So how do we understand the whole thing, how do we understand this “What” of menstruation practices of Hinduism? But before going to the ‘how’, it is important to, I have in my interaction with lot of people: young, old, with different strata of society, I have found two extremes how the people react to this issue. On the one hand, what I call there are Traditionalists, who are very faithful towards the tradition. They follow the practices faithfully to the best of their efforts but also mechanically. If you ask them why you practice it, they do not have an answer. They say it is a tradition; we have got this from our ancestors but why? They don’t know because they don’t know, they are not open to questions, they will not entertain questions, you say why this practice, give me a reason that I will not practice, they say shut up and simply practice.
On the other hand we have this other extreme, whom I have called Modernist. They equally reject everything faithfully and also of course mechanically. They say all this is superstition, there is nothing in it. Menstruation is a biological process. Yes! Yes! Nothing is there, it’s all superstition, let us reject everything. They neither have patience to investigate, to look for an answer, to look for the answer for the question why and more importantly they do not even care. They already made their conclusions that this must be a superstition in 21st century rooted in modern science. What’s the use of 2000 year old quotes, right?
Between these two extremes what is suppressing, what is being suppressed, what is being suffocated is the question why, and I’m sure, lot of people including people in this room have this question why. Somewhere deep down the side, but which was never answered, because there is no room for answers, because one does not entertain questions, the other does not entertain answers. So I will start todays, the main part of today’s presentation with a story.
The story is about Indra, the great deity of the Devas. I’m sure everybody must know about Indra. So the story is that the Devas, their main teacher is Brihaspathi, but they had another teacher called Vishwaroopa who was the son of Tvastar. But this Vishwaroopa was also related to Asuras. So Indra was felt, he felt that the oblations that he was supposed to receive, this Vishwaroopa was diverting it to the Asuras. So Indra became angry. He did not think it was necessary to, investigate; he was impulsive. He is Indra, Devendra right? So he became angry and he went straightaway to Vishwaroopa and he cut his head off. He slayed him.
But Vishwaroopa was a Brahmana, Vishwaroopa was a teacher. So there was this Brahmahathya, the slaying of a Brahmana, the Paapam. It’s not a sin. Sin is a very Abrahamic, heavy concept. We do not have that in our Hindu tradition. We have the concept of Paapam, the Karmaphala, the fruit of action, the fruit of Adharma or fruit of Dharma. So this Paapam, the fruit of Adharma, the fruit of the Hathya of Brahmana, Brahmahathya attached to Indra. He tried ten years or so, to get rid of it, but he failed. Wherever he went, people called him killer of Brahmana, murderer, slayer of Brahmana. So he was very sad, he did not know what to do because he also had understanding of Dharma because he is Indra right? So he knew that he did wrong, he knew that he had to get rid of this Paapam somehow.
So he thought what shall I do? How shall I get rid of it? 10 years I have roamed here and there, but I’m still stuck with it. Then he remembered Bhoomidevi, the Earth, Mother Earth. She is compassionate, she is selfless, you can see, we are so much violating her. Still she bears us, she is epitome of forbearance. So he went to her, said “See mother earth, Bhoomidevi! I am very suffering from this very great, the Paapam, the guilt of Brahmahathya. Can you please help me, can you please just take 1/3rd of the guilt, 1/3rd of the Paapam, not the whole thing, just free from the burden of just 1/3rd of it.
Bhoomidevi, she was selfless of course, compassionate. So she said Okay, let me take it and this 1/3rd of the guilt of this, Brahmahathya, passed to Bhoomi and it manifested as natural fissures. In return Indra said, Thank You very much, now you can ask me any boon. I am Indra, I can grant you any boon. Tell me now, how can I help you in return because I am very grateful to you. Please tell me how I can return your favor? She said the digging, people keep digging me and it hurts me, let me know how to overcome it. So Indra said, he said okay, I will give you a boon. My boon is that this digging will no longer harm you, with time, all the digging and everything, it will close down on its own, you don’t have to worry. It will not overcome you; it will not harm you from this day.
But still Indra suffered 2/3rd of the guilt and 2/3rd is no less, it’s still huge. Then he thought of whom shall I approach next. He saw a tree, he saw the trees in fact. Like Bhoomi, trees are selfless beings. They give shades, they give fruits, give flowers, they don’t ask anything, right? They don’t even ask us to put water to them, right? So he appealed to them, the same way he did for Bhoomidevi. She said Okay, she agreed and the guilt, the another 1/3rd of the guilt manifested in the trees as the sap, the tree sap. In return again Indra said what boon do you want and the tree said, see the pruning it hurts me, help me there. So Indra said, okay, from now on the pruning will not hurt you, in fact pruning from time to time will help you grow more.
But still he was left with 1/3rd of the guilt. Finally he came to women, the epitome of again compassion, motherhood, selflessness, right? So he came, he said again, please take the remaining 1/3rd of the guilt and free me from this Brahmahathya forever. Women agreed, okay fine, I will do it and this final 1/3rd of Brahmahathya the Paapam transferred to women and it manifested as “stained garment” every month, that is it manifested as menstrual bleeding at the end of each month. In return, they asked, the woman asked a boon, Indra gave the boon. The boon was that , woman will be able to bear children, they will be able to, you know conceive children, after the end of this bleeding and until then until the child is born, they will be able to enjoy sexual bliss. So after saying this story, the way the story appears, this story, this interesting story is from Yajurveda, Taittiriya Samhita. This is from the Shruthi, the Veda itself. After giving this full account of the story, the Yajurveda says, therefore one should not, therefore because women have taken 1/3rd of this guilt, one should not converse with a woman with stained garments, one should not sit with her, one should not eat her food because she emits the color of guilt. One should not have intercourse with menstruating woman because offspring born may be accursed. Other things to avoid while menstruating woman will include bathing, anointing oneself, combing, brushing, nail cutting, weaving, spinning etc. so on and so forth. So this is the whole story that is present in Yajurveda.
Why I started with this story. It may look, you may think what is this? Who is this Indra? How is it even relevant? What is this story? What is this Paapam etc.? I will come to that, the relevance of that story is that, the story acts as you know origin cause, it provides some Hermeneutics principles. The whole account can be divided into two parts – the story narrative, the second is the list of Menstruation restrictions. The story narrative, the purpose of the story, it’s not a historical event or something. The purpose of the story is to provide a Hermeneutics Key, a key for interpretation, a key to understand Menstruation restriction, the Menstruation practices mentioned in the second half of the story.
To the account it acts as a, it provides a basis, in the philosophy, in the Western tradition they have a particular term, I think ideographic myth or something. So that is the purpose of this story, the Indra etc., to provide a basis for interpretation, how should we understand, to answer this question that how should we understand Hindu menstruation practices. So, what is the very first thing, that the story revealed, remember that in the Earth, it manifested as, the guilt manifested as natural fissure, in the trees it manifested as the sap and in women it manifested as menstrual bleeding.
So what is one common element between three of them? It is that all of them are a natural phenomenon, the fissure is a natural phenomenon, the sap is a natural phenomenon and similarly the menstrual bleeding, menstrual cycle is also a natural phenomenon. It’s a biological phenomenon. So the very core of Hindu menstrual practices is, this understanding that menstruation is not a supernatural thing, it is a natural, biological phenomenon, right?
But of course the story does not stop at it. We saw that 1/3rd Brahmahathya, so what does this 1/3rd Brahmahathya mean? What is the reference to this 1/3rd Brahmahathya? To understand it let us see what this menstruation? We know the biology tells us, it is the non-fertilization, it is not the bleeding, the bleeding is not just blood, right? There is the endometrial tissue; there is the unfertilized egg, right? What is that, what is the purpose of that egg? To give life, the purpose of the whole biological process is to help women conceive but when that egg remains unfertilized the non-fertilization means, the life, one chance for giving birth was missed. Why is giving birth important? In our entire Hindu tradition, giving birth is considered very highly sacred, very highly punya, the Dharmic activity which is enormous merit, why? Because, birth is not just making babies as we call it today. It’s not making babies just that. It is a giving chance for a jiva who is waiting, the process; this is not just single time birth. The Hindu tradition believes in the rebirth again and again, until one attains Moksha, but the Moksha is ultimate goal. But they have to travel the many birth to attain it, so each birth is important in the life of a jiva and this jiva, one jiva, some jiva with whom you have a Karmic connection, you have a connection like the son or daughter or something, you are giving an opportunity to that jiva to take birth into this physical universe and then manifest, and then you know travel ahead, to fulfil its Karmic journey, to travel much closer to Moksha .
So this birth is a very important thing, giving birth is considered a highly Dharmic activity for this reason, because you are helping jiva-s to continue that Karmic journey. So how can we, what are the circumstances when this is prevented? One is the abortion; when you voluntarily decide that you do not want the baby, the abortion is compared to Brahmahathya in the tradition, why? What is this Brahmahathya? We need to understand, what is this Brahmahathya? Today, you know Brahmins, caste, what is this Brahmnical thing you might think. Brahmahathya must be understood how the traditions defines Brahmana. Brahmana is, one of the Smritis, Manusmriti to be specific, says Brahmana is one who is friend to everybody. He is one from whom nobody has to fear because he will not hurt anybody either in thoughts speech or mind or actions, right? And Brahmana is one who is truthful, who is nonviolent, who is always controlled in his senses, who will never commit a crime, who will never commit any immoral things. So there is a whole lot of descriptions what a Brahmana is? Brahmana is one who has understood Brahma, he is the innocence personified. So when it is said, Brahmahathya is a huge Paapam, it only refers to the fact that slaying such an innocent person is a huge Paapam and the child unborn child is equally innocent in this sense and hence abortion is a huge Paapam and it is equated to Brahmahathya.
But there is one more way you can deny the jiva entrance into the physical world and that is when at the end of the monthly cycle, there is no conception. Of course, it is not the fault of any person as such the cycle starts at 10 years, get married later that is a different issue, the thing is, it is a biological process and intentionally or unintentionally, there was one fact, there was non-fertilization of the egg and hence one opportunity for vasamjiva was denied from taking birth. There is a Paapam but it is not equal to that of magnitude of abortion of course. The magnitude here is just 1/3rd Brahmahathya. The Indra’s story the purpose of Indra’s story is to give out this Hermeneutics principle that this menstruation cycle involves a concept of Ashaucha because, caused by non-fertilization of egg, which the story refers as color of the guilt. The guilt here is the non-fertilization of the egg. Ashaucha is translated as impurity, I will come to that. What it means because that is a very important and highly misunderstood concept.
So this story gives the Hermeneutics principle the interpretation. The concept that Ashaucha is something that is associated with menstruation. Third, but it does not, the story does not stop with saying, No! No! Women have become color of guilt, have attached to them, No, it does not stop there. It says, that the story is all about how this menstruation itself acts as a self-purification process and it acts as austerity because every month they attain that state again and again, it is only possible when at the end of the periods they are able to overcome that state of Ashaucha. If there is no overcoming then what is the meaning of saying, every month they attain Asaucha again and again? So they overcome it, so menstruation itself acts as a process to overcome it, that is the principle of self-purification and there is aspect of rest, no weaving, no sieving. These are all the activities and finally by connecting the fact that women took the guilt in the form of monthly menstrual cycle, the bleeding but in return they were able to give birth to children, after the end of that bleeding. So there is it is showing the biological connection through a story that this menstruation process is connected to child birth, without this menstruation cycle, the whole monthly cycle, women will not be able to give birth. So child birth is intimately connected to menstruation and because child birth is a Dharmic, is a sacred, is a very important activity, menstruation is worth celebrating. So there is Ashaucha, there is Austerity, there is rest, there is self-purification and there is celebration.
Now let us see each of these principles and understand what they actually mean. Menstruation in Sanskrit is called Rajasraava. Raja, srava is flow, flow of raja, what is raja? Raja is usually translated as blood, but raja is also what Rajoguna. You have in Gita and other places the three gunas – Satva, Thamas, Rajas. Satva is equanimity, Thamas is dullness Inertia. Rajas is passion, Rajas is excitement, Rajas is activity. So, Rajas is, Raja srava is flow of blood but it is also flow of Rajas and this, therein lies the key to entire understanding, what menstruation is, how Hindu tradition presume menstruation.
To take up the first concept of Ashaucha, we all know, we all see, Asaucha is impurity, impurity, impurity. They make it people demeaning, demeaning to women, etc. right? But we will, I will show how the Ashaucha have a very technical meaning. It is not very lightly to be used. One of the meaning, one of the implication of Ashaucha is ritual impurity, the ritual is the important term. Second is connected to it, is incompetency for performing Vaidika and Agama Karmas. Vaidika, Agama karmas are… Vaidika is Veda and Agamas are another text similar to Vedas. All the practices, Hindu practices, religious practices that we call Pooja, temple worship everything is derived from these, Vedas and Agamas, so called as Vaidika karma, Agama karma. These are all the duties, right.
So, what is Shaucha? To understand Ashaucha we have to understand shaucha right? To understand impurity, we have to first define what is purity? Today, most of the, all our understanding is based on modern science. We say, we have a physical body and even our mind is denied an independent existence. They say the brain activity makes us think, but this is not how our Hindu tradition understands. This is not how our Rishis, the scientist of the past, this is not how they understood the human body, human individuality. Even Ayurveda does not recognize this. What we recognize instead is five sheaths, the five layers of individualities. I am not just my physical body. I also have a vital Pranic shareera, I also have a mind, the Maanasa, Manomayakosha and there is Vignanamayakosha, there is Anandamayakosha the sheath of intellect, the sheath of, the bliss.
The translation are very, it doesn’t convey the real meaning but just bear with me, what is important for our day to day activity is the three layers – Annamaya Kosha the physical thing, the vital or the Pranamaya Kosha, the layer of energy, the life force, you know what we call the breathing, it’s the Praana. We have a better technical term than just breathing. We just simply don’t breathe air. Even the air goes inside a dead body, but it is not alive, right? Then there is something in that air, there is something behind that air, that makes someone live and someone dead, right? So that is the life energy, that is the Praana, right?
So, this Praanamaya Kosha and there is the Manomaya Kosha, the mind, the thinking, the thought, the whole process. So, these are the three things that manifest day to day life in our lives. So, these are the, that affects us. These three layers of individuality, we have to understand the Shaucha and Ashaucha, purity, impurity in this context. What is shaucha in this context? In the physical you can say hygiene. Yes, of course, hygiene is a thing, but how do we define hygiene? The opposite of hygiene, the excretions, it may be sweat, it may be urine, it may be stool, it may be blood. We consider all these things are unhygienic. We don’t let it lay around everywhere, right? So that is the physical aspect and that is not everything.
In the level of the Praana-s, we have the 5 Praanas – Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana, Samana. You will see, you can see the details online on the yogic text etc. So, this balance of this 5, they all have a particular activity, particular role in our body, it’s not, they all are interconnected. So when they are in balance, it is called Shaucha because balanced Praana also balances the mind, keeps the mind calm. The calmness of the mind is again Shaucha and what is the role of Shaucha? It gives competency, competency for performing religious and spiritual activities why? Shaucha is considered one of the Samanya Dharma common duties for everybody and in all the parts in Sanathana Dharma, be it Bhakthi, be it Vedanta, be it Yoga, Shaucha is one of the basic things. The Yogasuktha, you have the Niyamas the basic rules you have shaucha, in Bhakthi, this Shaucha is important. In all these the Shaucha is important because one of the Smriti text beautifully captures this by says for all activity…… with Shaucha, without Shaucha all your actions become useless, fruitless. So even for medical operation, you need a physical hygiene, right? This is a parallel, so consider this spiritual action, religious activities, spiritual Dharmic activity, it will require Shaucha at all the three levels of physical vital and mind.
The opposite is Ashaucha. In the context of menstruation, what is the one thing that causes physical Ashaucha? It is the blood, the menstrual blood. Of course, the blood does not simply mean blood, menstrual blood include endometrium tissue, the vaginal secretions and all other things, and Ayurveda says the menstrual blood also removes Ama. Ama is the Ayurvedic term for body toxins, it removes the body toxins from the body. So, these are all the impurities of the physical level, that is Ashaucha. At the Praanamaya Kosha, the Pranic level…., I said Rajasrava, flow of Rajas, there is excess Rajasic energy which was built up anticipating conception. The Apana Vayu is very increased anticipating conception and that is being removed. The Rajasic energy which was built up anticipating conception, so that to, as to nourish the baby if conception happens. That energy now it has become excess and it has become no use because fertilization did not happen. So, it has to be thrown out. This throwing out of Rajas, this heightened condition of Rajas, which shows that there is an imbalance of energy at a Praanic level, is a ritual impurity at the Praanic level, and then at manomaya kosha, you, all women yourself have experienced this, there is mood swings, there is anger, there is irritation, many of you might experience it sometimes, many of you may not experience all the time, but all of them experience at one stage or other, that during your periods the mood, it’s not calm, there is always one or the other thing on your mind, you are not calm.
So, these three things when I speak or when the Hindu tradition says that the Menstruation is an Ashaucha, it refers to all the three things, not just hygiene part, but all the three things at three levels, that makes it Ashaucha. So what does it mean to make it Ashaucha? The context here is the competency. What Ashaucha does is, it makes certain actions become unsuitable. Woman become unsuitable for certain actions like Pooja, like you know entering a temple, why? I will come to that later but why? I may as well say it in short now itself, because there is a flow of energy and this flow of energy from the women’s body may interact and may dilute the energy that is arising from the, you know, the Pooja itself, because Pooja is an energetic activity. It’s a transformation of energy, it’s not simply a congregation, right?
And… but, the second point is, it also makes certain people unsuitable for certain actions. There are two things, people become unsuitable for certain actions and certain actions become unsuitable. There is two-way affect. One, there is a unsavory effect on the women themselves which is not good for health, it is not good for their living and another is they were not competent to perform certain actions. That is what the Ashaucha is. Why they were not competent? Because of the blood, because of the Rajasic energy, because of the internal passion. For doing a Pooja, for doing a Bhakthi, Vedanta, Yoga or anything, these three are required, there should be a balance of Praanas, calmness of mind, hygiene. If it’s not there, non-presence of them, means they are not competent for that actions. But if they perform it, it may also have unsavory effect on their body, the inner. I will deal it in the Ayurvedic portion, how the energy, how any spiritual activity… It will tend to rise your Apana upwards. But in menstruation Apana flows downwards and this can play havoc on the biological activity inside a woman.
If you think that this is something unique to women because many people say Ashaucha, impurity associated with women, it makes them, it is very unfair, it is demeaning to them. But as I said, there is nothing demeaning. It is just an understanding of how different process work, different bodies work. But, is Ashaucha unique to woman? Both men and woman enter Ashaucha at different times. A man, he may have an accident and his blood may be flowing from his leg. He is considered as Ashaucha unfit to perform certain actions, unfit to perform certain religious functions. Similarly, at the time of a death of a relative, father, mother, brother, men and women both enter Ashaucha. It’s not just an issue of woman, and all flow of blood whether due to menstruation or injuries is considered Ashaucha. But particularly in the case of menstruating women the Ashaucha, main portion, main part is due to her heightened condition of Rajas, the heightened condition of Rajas, which creates the imbalance is Praana, which makes her incompetent for certain actions. Restriction against cooking, physical touch, sexual intimacy, they have been given due to this consideration of Ashaucha because all these activities cooking etc. involves transmission of Rajasic energy. Ashaucha make them incompetent for the spiritual activity.
Next, come to the self-purification. No understanding of Ashaucha or so-called impurity will be complete, without understanding the other side of the comment, without completing the whole narrative, that menstruation is not just associated with Ashaucha. Though it is associated with Ashaucha, it does not make woman impure, instead menstruation itself is a self-purification process and as you can see in the chart, it purifies woman at a different level. There is a physical level purification, it removes Ama the body toxins, it removes the blood, vaginal secretions, endometrial tissues no longer needed by the body. At Praanic level, it removes the excess Rajasic energy and brings balance to the Praanamaya Kosha inside the body. It brings balance to the Tridoshas- Vatha-Pitha and Kabha and it also brings, it also purifies from the adharmic actions, it purifies woman from adharmic thoughts. We have the authority of one of the Smrithi. It purifies one from impure speech, impure speech bolo to, means, it means the speech wherein you, we speak harsh, we speak lies, we speak falsehood, we speak to hurt somebody, such things and it says at the physical level it removes 1/3rd Brahmahathya due to non-fertilization of egg.
Additionally, menstruation also can be understood as a process, which provides a mechanism to help woman to overcome the feeling of violation, overcome the feeling of dishonor that they may undergo, when they have to face the unfortunate incidents like rape, sexual assaults etc. Now you may say how is this? Because it is a process, it is a natural process, and these are the results of this process. At best, the modern science can speak about this physical proportion. But since the tools, they are limited to materials, physical in use. They cannot speak about other things. How do we know other things then? From Ayurveda, from our texts like Sruthi-Smriti, from the accounts of our Rishis, who have had intimate knowledge on all these things.
What is interesting is well today, society including Indian society at large, it treats, it stigmatizes the rape victims. We often, whenever rape happens, some politicians or others asks, was she wearing a short skirt? As if wearing the short skirts means, she asked for it, right? On the other hand, Dharma sastra author say, look that woman has suffered a lot, we need to help her overcome that suffering, overcome that depression, overcome that stigma, overcome that feeling of violation. How to do that? Here she has a natural process of menstruation, she could perceive, she should perceive it as a self-purification process because it is already self-purification process, when she puts herself into that state. Consider it as an austerity and spends the three days as an austerity, then she can come out of it. You may say that it is all nonsense, but it is not, why? Because action of rape is also an action which had deep impact on psychology, similarly this menstruation, the austerities, the practices associated with it are also actions and you perform it with a particular intention, particular mindset and that reinforces, that action reinforces that mindset. The action works at the level of the body, the mind and speech. So, this menstruation is the monthly whole cycle is a self-purification activity, which purifies at different levels.
But, of course, that does not mean it is a free pass for woman to commit any crimes, any adharma and say I’ve become purified. Of course, it does not mean that. There is no prayaschita for something like abortion or murdering of a husband, or murdering somebody. What it means is on the day to day basis, all of us men women, everybody commit very intentionally and unintentionally lot of adharmas, small and large, at our physical, mental and speech level and these small things can be purified because even these small things can play havoc later when it comes out as a Karmabhala because we are living for say 50 years 60 years. Multiply that into 360 days and multiply that into hours and minutes and seconds. So, there is a huge bundle of karma we are committing and how many percentage it is adharma, we don’t know. We are not always capable to live dharmically 100%, it is not possible.
So, to help us, it is a solution, nature provided a solution to overcome all this. Interestingly this Baudhayana Dharmasutra is one of the text, what it says is, woman possess an unrivalled means of purification, they never become impure. For month to month their temporary uncleanliness removes their sins, that is Paapam. So, what it means is contrary to our present narrative and understanding that saying women enters a period of impurity or ashaucha makes them impure or demeaning to them. What the Sastra or Hindu tradition is saying that, this entering temporary ashaucha does not make you impure. In fact, on the contrary, it makes them ever pure. One of the text says woman are pure in all the limbs, they are ever pure. Another text, I have quoted here, you can see how the Soma, Gandharva, Agni all associated with menstruation. Soma means moon and menstruation is deeply connected with all the cultures not just Sanatana Dharma. They say they purify them in physical speech and mental level. So, the gist is what comes by special effort to men, comes as part of natural process to woman. What is this special effort? Men don’t have menstruation, we don’t have a readymade available thing monthly were we, all our small small Paapams we commit, can be purified. We have to do other activities, we may have to do Sandhya vandana, we may have to perform Samskaras, we may have to do Japa, Tapa and number of activities we may have to do, to achieve that. Women just have to bleed once a month.
That menstruation itself is an austerity, is itself a self-purification process and the impact of that self-purification process is multiplied many number of times, if you also adopt a life style which is austere. Austerity means Tapas, Tapasya. Tapasya means basically, Tapa means heat, what it means is hard work. In a spiritual context, tapasya, Tapas refers to indriyanigraha. Indriyanigraha means control of the mind and the senses. You like some food, you control your mind, you like ice-cream, whenever you have, you are a shopaholic but you control yourself from purchasing, you control yourself from eating something that is Indriyanigraha, it does not mean suppression, it means restrainment. There is a difference. So similarly, many upasanasvrathas… all these are you know, different aspects of different types of austerity.
If you consider menstruation as austerity and self-purification, adopt this lifestyle. How to adopt this lifestyle? The practices like sexual abstinence that is, Brahmacharya, that is one of the greatest aspect of Tapasya. Not make upping, not anointing oneself. Women like to make up, that is a given right? May be there may be exceptions, but not doing that, not doing what you love, that is restrainment, that is Indriyanigraha. Not sleeping on the bed, we all like our bed, we all like our comfortable sleeping on the bed, but not sleeping on it, sleeping on the mat or the floor or on something, that is control of your senses, control of your mind. Not sleeping during day time, not combing etc. These are the lifestyle practices which further assists the menstruation as a purification process, it helps to control one’s desire, develop detachment. So, this is the aspect of austerity,
Then, there is the rest aspect, which I had already said, many of the practices like no cooking, no physical exertion through sports, these all. The basis is the desire that menstruating woman should take rest, they should not exert themselves, why? Because, Ayurveda suggest a, in Ayurveda they speak about how this imbalance doshas become imbalanced, when menstruating woman indulge in lot of physical exertion. It plays havoc on the biological health of the person.
And why celebrate menstruation? That is another important thing. I already said menstruation is connected to childbirth without menstruation, birth, the capacity to birth, would not have existed. So, this birth is very Dharmic activity, that is worth celebrating. So, menarche rituals called in Sanskrit is Ritukala Samsakara. It celebrated different ways in different places. In Karnataka, they call it Aarthi. The girl, the married woman from the neighborhood is called, they are asked to do the Mangalarathi to the woman as if she is a goddess, and then some food is given to her, new dress is given to her. So, different places do it in different way.
So, what this menarche rituals denote is, transition of a girl from Kumari to Kanya, and this is runs parallel with the process of Upanayana, for the men, the boys from child to Brahmachari. People say why don’t woman do Upanayana? They did it in a very old age. But, I think, somewhere down the line, it was felt they already have menstruation to attain purification. What Upanayana does? There are different purposes of Upanayana, but one of them is purification. The Sandhyavandhana, Trikala Sandhyavandhana, what they say? They have to worship their Sandhyavandhana because, it gives purification, the first half of the Sandhyavandhana is all about purification. But women are already achieving it through menstruation. So that is being celebrated, that is the transition phase.
Menstruation makes them eligible to enter Grihasthashrama and facilitate themselves to perform the Stree Dharma, including entering to motherhood which are unique to them. So just as men, what is Grihastha? Means house holder life, what is the life of house holder? Men become fathers, husbands, these are our duties in the context of household. Women’s role is becoming mothers, wives etc., this is a counterpart. So menstruation makes women eligible for this Grihasthashrama. So that is why celebration is important, but more important than all this, is the fact that celebration imparts a very positive perception about menstruation to a young girl. She is new to that, she doesn’t know why she suddenly started bleeding, she may be confused, she may be afraid. How to make her cope with that? You make her center of attention, you treat her like a special person, you treat her like a deity, you welcome her, the girl, into womanhood with open hands. It helps her to appreciate various menstrual practices and their importance as well.
Of course, you may say that this is not how it is being practiced today. In many families, they simply speak about impurity etc. and they say that you have to stay in that room, no explanation, nothing. But that is a degradation, that is a giving up of what the ideal, you know, is imparted in the tradition. Tradition says, you know it is a very purification, it is a very celebrating thing, it is very positive thing. But you have forgotten that. That is why you are doing it wrongly, doing it wrongly. You do not cut the head off for a fever, right? You rectify the fever, you do not cut the head off.
So, these practices give a positive perception and add to this the fact that the Hindus consider their goddesses as menstruation and celebrate festivals in honor of them. There is a festival Kamakhya, well known festival in Assam. The Kamakhya festival, I think Ambubachi, it is called where the goddess undergo yearly menstruation for three days and she is given a rest. In Odisha you have a festival for Harichandi called as Raja. The name itself is Raja, menstruation, in Odisha. And we have certain festivals occurs India for Bhoomidevi. Aarthi is considered going menstruation process for you know few days a year. It happens in Karnataka also. The Karnataka festival is called Kedassa in Tulu community. But who is the…, Is there a deity who presides our menstruation in Hindu Dharma? Yes, it is Parvathy or Durga. In fact, during the Ritukala Samskara that I spoke about the Dharma Sindhu, the guidelines piece about doing a Pooja for Gowri, goddess Gowri and then we have Parvathi or Durga who is intimately connected to it. We just saw this Navaratri, the 9 days there are 9 deities, 9 forms of Durga right? Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, the first five forms are connected to 5 phases of a girl’s life.
- Shailaputri – the child, the daughter of the Mountain.
- Brahmacharini – Brahmacharya, the Kanya, she is the deity of menstruation. The menarche, she presides over it.
- Chandraghanta – is the marriage, she takes on the Chandra like her husband, Shiva because she marries him, becomes one with him, her Ardhangi the half. Then
- Kushmanda– Anda refers to the pregnancy, the Brahmanda, Kushmanda and the
- Skandamata – after the pregnancy comes motherhood.
So, this whole thing, there is a, the whole thing is a sacred process. It is a biological process. Yes, but it is also a sacred process. This is governed by various deities.
But before wrapping up what is important to understand is, the Ayurveda, this one of the things that is most less highlighted in any discussion, in fact even the people who practice this menstruation practices, they have forgotten there is an Ayurvedic rationale, Ayurvedic element to most of the menstruation practices that is mentioned in Vedas, Dharmashathra-s or any other texts. Ayurveda recognizes menstruation as a physiological process governed by the Tridosha-s. I spoke about Tridosha-s – Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Vata refers to all the activities inside us, movement, the Prana, Apana all these activities are Vata. Pitta is related to digestion and other related activities. Kapha is related to cumulation. These are different activities, biological activities and these are governed by different forces inside our body, different biological and such forces.
So, Ayurveda defines health in terms of balance of Tridosha-s and illness in terms of imbalance of Tridosha-s. So, it divides the whole monthly cycle into three phases – Ritu kala, Rituvyateeta Kala, Rajasrava Kala. Rajasrava Kala is the actual menstruation wherein it is dominated by Vata. Vata means Apana Vayu, the force, the Vayu the energy that is pushing of the things downwards. Ritu kala prepares the body for ovulation. It is predominated by Kapha. Rituvyateeta Kala refers to secretory phase, where nutrients are secreted in anticipation of the ovulation. When the ovulation does not happen then comes this Rajasrava kala.
So today we feel, the modern narrative is that, having pain during menstruation, cramps, pains etc. is a normal thing. But Ayurveda says that is not a normal thing, normal menstruation is one which is painless, which is without any burning sensation, which is neither scanty, the blood flow is neither scanty nor very excessive. But today, we have somewhat forgotten, there is something called normal menstruation. We feel that having pain itself is normal. The reason is that our lifestyle has caused so much imbalance to the dosha-s, that most woman experience pain more or less always.
So normal menstruation occurs when dosha-s are in proper balance. Sushrutha samhitha says abnormal menstruation is when there is disturbed Vayu i.e. Vata, Pittam, Kapham. They are all in disturbed condition and this disturbing in dosha-s affects the health, the biological, physical health of the woman and it also affects the, hampers the ability to conceive, to give birth. To remedy this Ayurveda prescribes a series of Do’s and DON’T’s during menstruation called as Rajasvala Paricharya. Paricharya is the lifestyle.
What lifestyle should women adopt during their three days of monthly periods? Charaka Samhitha summarizes this and says, on the onset of menstruation for 3 days and nights the woman should observe celibacy, should sleep on the ground, take food with the hands from an unbroken utensil and should not cleanse her body in any way. This have been elaborated, I have prepared this chart, this chart have been given in one of the papers, academic paper, I have given the reference at the bottom. These are the list of the Do’s and Don’t’s.
I spoke about celibacy, no celibacy. Sleeping on Kusha mattress, or sleeping on the mat or something not on the bed. Should eat meal very light meal, preferably made of ghee, shali rice milk or something very light, which is easy to digest, and which should be in very light amount and the food should be directly eaten over palms, not to use metal utensils and concentrate on auspicious things. This thing is a very interesting, the eating prescription. The basis of this eating prescription is take light food and take very small quantity. It is because during menstruation the body is in such a condition, it is, it cannot digest heavy foods. This condition Ayurveda is called as Agnimandya, i.e. the digestive fire of the body is very weak, mandya is weak. So, you should not give it heavy food, not give it junk food, not give it meat and such things. You take very light food like, shali rice, the havishya anna, they say. Havishya anna is the light food you give in yanja, the fire and you take it less amount.
There are other things, celibacy etc. All these things have been mentioned to control, to prevent imbalance of your dosha-s. The whole table, the only reason is to protect the health of the woman by preventing imbalance of the dosha-s. You sleep during the day time, you use, adorn yourself, take bath, anointment, massage, all these affects the agnimandhya. Further it affects the health practices, no long conversations, combing etc.
But how does this affect, manifest? When your whole biological cycle is upset, later, whenever you conceive children, if you keep practice…, not just a onetime event, if you keep doing this again and again every cycle by cycle, imbalance keeps happening again and again. Then the extreme result of it would be such that when you conceive, the children born, would may have abnormalities. Not that in every case these listed abnormalities have happened, these are documentations observed over large period and written down. These are, the most likely, happens in the extreme case. But even apart from that, there will be other kind of health effects, if there is an imbalance of dosha-s. So, this Ayurvedic factor is something which is not at all taken into account.
Apart from agnimandya, there also the factor of shodhana. The shodhana is procedure in Ayurveda, which cleanses the body. So even Ayurveda is clearly recognizing menstruation as a shodhana because it prescribes the same kind of daily practices for menstruation, Rajasvala Paricharya, i.e. prescribe for a shodhana procedure. 8 practices there are same. The details, you can refer to my articles that are written. So, this is a purification process even recognized by Ayurveda, and then there is also aspect of injury, there is endometrial tissues are removed from your body. So, it is considered as a state of injury, that needs healing and these restrictions. The table, it also takes care of, it also take care of it because there are parallels with the practices mentioned there and the practices mentioned for a person who is injured, who has been operated and how he should take rest etc.
So finally, after understanding this principle of Ashaucha, self-purification process, austerity, celebration, Ayurvedic consideration etc, let us relook it the first chart in the first slide I gave, and really relook at each of these points. The first point was no sexual intercourse. This has been suggested in Yajurveda, in Smritis like Angirasa, in Ayurvedic texts like Susruta samhita and the governing principles are ashaucha, austerity, health concerns as per Ayurveda. May be Ashaucha and austerity may not appeal to you. But can we really ignore the health concerns that is intimate, so immediate, that is perceivable. The concept of Ashaucha I already explained, the sexual activity it involves exchange of energy. There is excess of Rajas and this result, it says that because Ashaucha can be transferred, excess of Rajas can be transmitted to each other. It is from the Ashaucha point of view, sexual intimacy is prohibited. It is advised against but similarly even from austerity point of view, any Tapasya means sexual abstinence. There is a basic Indriyanigraha because we are all too much attached to sex. Health concerns, if you, I already said, there will be an imbalance in doshas, if you have sexual intercourse during menstruation. So these imbalance of doshas can manifest in N number of ways by hurting your health.
The second point listed was no running, no exercise, no kitchen and household activities again mentioned in various Smriti, Ayurvedic texts. The main principle is rest. If you do not take rest means you are indulging in physical exertion, this physical exertion causes the imbalance of doshas, you run too much, you do too much exercise, the pain, the Vata, the principle Apana Vayu, it may get blocked there, will be imbalance. Resulting from that, there will be huge pain, there will be other effects as well.
The second principle about kitchen thing, not cooking, is the Ashaucha again, because…, what is food? Food is a carrier of energy and menstruation is a heightened state of Rajas. So, you will simply transmit that energy to the food and that food is again eaten by anybody. Who eats, it will be taking on that energy because what is a food? Food is carrier of energy. No bathing and other self-adorning mentioned in various Ayurvedic texts, Vasista Dharmasutra, Yajurveda. Why have listed these things are, these activities, they have a long tradition from the Sruti, the Smriti, Ayurveda. There is medical aspect, there is a Dharmic aspect and there is the Sruti, the pramana as well, because for everything in Hindu tradition, the Sruti is the ultimate pramana. Sruti, the Vedas are the ultimate pramana. The governing principle is again austerity and imbalance of doshas, the Ayurvedic.
Austerity, I have already explained many things, you are attached, we are attached, we like to groom ourselves. So you don’t groom yourself as a means of self restrainment, and these austerity, grooming bathing, having massage etc. it seriously affect the weakened Agni, the digestive fire, it further weakens it. So there will be serious digestive issues may happen.
Then there is the segregation, the fourth point was not touching others. See we do not have any specific prescription saying that, woman should be segregated anywhere, in any of our texts. But what we do have are certain advices related to certain activities to be avoided, like don’t touch anybody because touching is again a transmission of energy, and not cooking, not working etc., that when we, you know. implement into the ground, some amount of segregation will happen. You know in Nepal and even in rural area, the menstruation huts were constructed where woman use to spend there, during their periods. So as an aside this menstruation huts have been considered as oppressive towards woman, in all the academic and media literature.
On the other hand, in the West, in the US there is something called red tint movement, which has come up in last few years I think, wherein woman go apart from the…, they separate from their families and go there, spend their 3 days of periods and they call it liberating. The same thing which is done in a native tradition is oppressive when the same thing is done by the so called liberated feminists in the West, it becomes even more liberating. Keeping that aside, the fact is, this, not touching etc., the elements of segregation, the governing principle is basically rest. You take rest, you sit in a room, take rest, don’t indulge in too much activity, do whatever, read a book, right, read a book, you may watch the movie, but keep the volume down because high volume will again cause imbalance in Dosha etc. The second principle is Austerity.
The third is Ashaucha, the restriction regarding the food. I have already explained. The Ayurveda is the main thing. Your body is not ready to digest huge amount of quantity, it is not ready to digest heavy foods, it is not ready to digest junk foods. So, you have to avoid it, you have to take very light food, as much light as possible, and as little amount as possible, because since your body is weak, it can be digested easily. You can also take substances like hing, black salt etc. which are good for igniting the digestive fire, making it strong, little bit better for digesting, says the Ayurvedic texts. I am not saying, Ayurveda says, and this is the most important. I think of all the things in current times, restrictions related to performance of religious and spiritual activities, including visiting temples. There is a mention in Angirasa Smriti, Vasishta Dharmasutra etc., this a purely religious and spiritual tenant. Ayurveda does not mention it because its concern is health. But Ayurvedic principles will be used here also, why? Because menstruation as I said is a heightened state of Rajas. I explained what is this heightened state of Rajas. Means, let us understand the principle of a Pooja or a yoga or any spiritual process. That is very important. People do not having understanding this, people think temple is like a synagogue or a church or a mosque, where people simply gather together. No, the temple is not a, it’s not a place of congregation. It is a kshetra. Kshetra means a place of energy, energy center. So the murthy there, there is a pranaprathishta have happened, the deity, the energy, the essence of the deity have been invoked in the temple.
So there is one aspect of essence, there is one aspect of energy, deity of the energy is there and in any other spiritual process, it may be yoga, it may be Pooja, it may be yagnya, any spiritual process, what happens is, it causes the Apana Vayu to rise upwards. There is upwards of the Apana Vayu because the spiritual process, the purpose is to raise the Apana Vayu upwards and make it merge with the Prana Vayu, which will then arouse the Kundalini and makes it rise towards your head, ultimately resulting in Samadhi and etc., you know, in the so called enlightment etc.
So…, but what is menstruation? Completely reverse, it is throwing put the impurities blood etc. and the Apana Vayu is very strong, it is acting downwards. So, there is a downwards movement of Apana Vayu and in this condition, if you perform a ritual, if you participate in a ceremony, if you enter a temple, the energy in the temple, the energy in the ritual, will try to push it upwards. So, the Apana Vayu wants to flow downwards, but energy in the temple etc. will try to push it upwards. So, this will cause huge imbalance to the dosha-s because Apana Vayu is nothing but the Vata dosha. They are connected there.
So, this will cause huge imbalance to the Doshas, this imbalance can play havoc in the biological process. You may say, no I attended this Pooja, I did not feel anything. Of course, it may not happen in a single visit, right? What will happen if you keep doing it again and again. It will, it keeps happening at a very subtle level, the effects of which may not be easily, you know, not immediately available. In fact, the thing is, even if the effect become immediately manifest, you will not actually not connect at all to the same because today we feel that all periods we have pain, right? So that’s a normal thing. So, if you enter a temple and suddenly the pain starts, you will simply say, ‘oh! the pain, it’s a coincidence, it’s not related’. So, even if it manifest, you may not connect to it because our current understanding, it’s all skewed, it’s all distorted. But Ayurveda is a medical system which has been active for more than 2 3 thousand years, and it has cured thousands of people, and just like, we have faith in Allopathy system. All our people, still today, people are taking Ayurvedic systems of therapy. Right? +
So, it will be foolish to say that Ayurvedic system is, whatever it says it has no value. So that is the basic reason you know for you know, avoiding any entering temples, entering religious activity. One is the Ashaucha concept make one incompetent for those activities, but more importantly, it is also the concept of health which may be damaged in the process. If one enters over a long period of time, nothing happens in a one visit or two visits, right?
So, these are the last thing, the last slide. The most important question I feel, are they practical today? All what I said, all the practices, like no sexual, sexual abstinence, no entering temples, no cooking, no bathing, no anointing etc., is this even practical? In a fact moving life people work, people don’t have time but I think the answer is ‘Yes’. Of course, this ‘Yes’ must be clarified. The clarification is that, not everybody may be able to do everything. They may not need to also, but they may not even be able to, but what Gita says, I will end with it – that even a little practice of Dharma saves one from great fear.
So even little practice, even some of the practices mentioned in the Hindu tradition, in the Ayurvedic text, in the Smriti and Sruti text, it will be great benefit to woman themselves. Even a, so why not practice a little? Whatever is possible for each body, so I think it is a practical thing, but it is left to each one to decide, how much of it is practical and when it is practical and it’s for them to decide.