Menstruation – During a significant part of their lives, the natural biological process that women undergo is known as womens periods. Due to its relationship with motherhood and fertility, Period is very strongly associated with the motherhood and depicts how women, at various levels, are different from men. Hence, the role of it is highly significant in how cultures and societies around the globe has perceived man-woman, women relationships, and as a whole, the role of women in the society. Hindu View of it in particularly targets many unusual rituals associated.
Menstruation has been in the middle of controversy nowadays that is going around gender equality, temple entry etc. Due to these controversies many people question the various accepted practices, traditions and notions that are surrounding womens Periods.
Restrictions during Menstruation
In India and especially in the Hindu Society, people may usually observe menstruating women practicing different kinds of restrictions and some notion of impurity being attached to the periods. But in contrast to the Abrahamic religions and various other cultures and religions worldwide, you can witness Hindu people celebrating it in different forms that range from the celebration of the inception of it among the young girls, to the festival in Assam that is celebrated every year marking the menstruation of Kamakhya goddess.
To these Hindu periods practices, we may find different responses of the people. On one end, we have numerous traditional families who blindly and strictly cling to these periods restrictions mechanically without understanding their essence or examining them ever. On the other hand, we have the modern ‘liberals’ and ‘feminists’ who mechanically and blindly reject these Periods practices based on modern or often western notions without attempting seriously to understand these practices and the essence of these periods practices on their own terms.
In between these two extremes, we do have a large number of people who stick to few of the womens periods practices to some degree depending on their convenience and personal beliefs; a small group of people who, to truly understand their essence, questions these practices; and even other small group of people who actually practice almost all of these womens Periods practices after knowing about their worth and essence.
It is obvious for women, young girls especially, to strongly question some of these practices and restrictions that are associated with it as they who are supposed to follow it ultimately. The questions like: Why the restrictions on performing pujas or entering temples during this time? Why segregation? Why it, which is a simple biological process is regarded a notion of ritual impurity? These kind of questions should not be suppressed and need to be encouraged. These questions are being partly suppressed today resulting in many women nowadays either out rightly reject these practices as blind-beliefs and taboos or mechanically implement those practices.
Sanatana Dharma about Menstruation
Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) is the very foundation of India, its identity and culture. Hence, the entire range of religious and socio-cultural practices that have flourished in India have their roots in Dharma. So, being rooted in dharma ( which upholds: the entire universe, the society and the individuals), there is some value, some wisdom in numerous practices and traditions, including the Periods practices. Although some of the practices have become contorted over time, it is equally unquestionable that most of the traditions also continue to hold their essence. It takes a sophisticated mind (Viveka) to segregate the wheat from the chaff.
Thus, the ideal approach to handle different questions that are raised by women is to allow them to raise as many questions as they want and then, as an answer to all those questions raised, place before them, the correct account of the Hindu view of menstruation as visualized in the Hindu scriptures, and allow them to decide what practices are beneficial and good and what are outdated; what practices are a result of the corruptions that are picked up over time and what kind of practices are in sync with the essence presented by the scriptures. An attempt at presenting such a Hindu view is being made here.
We will deal with the Hindu view of menstruation in the headings given below
- Menstruation as Ashaucha
- It as a Period of Austerity and Self – Purification
- It as a “Period of Rest” and Sacred Celebration
- It as Yogic perspective
- It’s Restrictions and Attitudes
- Womens Period cycle in Ayurveda
Menstruation as Ashaucha
The consideration of womens periods as ‘Ashaucha’ (ritual impurity) emerges from a careful reading of the Hindu scriptures. The starting stage (temporary period; 3 days to be specific) of it for women is considered as ‘Ashaucha’ and is said that women have entered a period of ritual impurity. What does the association of it with Ashaucha indicate?
Angirasa Smriti (verse 35) state that after the period cycle stops( usually during the 4th day), women become pure (shuddha) by means of a purification bath. Vashishta Dharma Sutra states explicitly that in her courses, a women will be impure (Ashuchi) during these 3 days (and nights). So, the Hindu scriptures are extremely clear in their perception that the 3 days (and nights) during which women undergo it, they have entered into a phase of Ashaucha which is a temporary phase.
According to the Hindu scriptures, the womens period cycle is defined as a complex physio – psychological process that discloses women to surplus Rajasic (Raja is referred to as blood and it is one of the 3 Gunas which imparts dynamic nature to a person) condition of mental, vital and physical levels. The concept of purity or shaucha is closely related to the concept of qualification or competency to carry out a specific action.
From all the religious and spiritual activities, the calmness of mind, balance in the vital force and cleanliness of body are extremely important. Both women and men become associated with Ashaucha in various occasions like death of relatives etc, and this is not common to women only. Thus, stating it as ashaucha does not make women inferior or degrade them.
Menstruation as a Period of Austerity and Self – Purification
Menstruation as a Period of Austerity
Period cycle as a process of Austerity (Tapas) and self purification is the notion that is closely related to it in the Hindu scriptures. It is also the notion that is missed in most of the discussions. This notion is extremely vital as one would mostly end up with a distorted view without understanding this notion. According to the Hindu tradition, Tapas is defined as restrainment of the senses, body and mind.
Tapas helps a person to become free from few of Adharmas that are committed by him/her in the past. Tapas also helps her/him to obtain control over her/his senses and become detached. Thus, the tapas helps in preventing her/him from committing more Adharma in the future. Thus, the womens Periods gives a special opportunity for women to attain self-purification and practice austerity by building detachment and much better control over the senses and the mind.
Menstruation as a Self – Purifying process
The Hindu scriptures don’t stop at stating that the menstruation period must be treated as a period of austerity and girls and women should observe few practices of austerity during that period. It goes a step ahead and identifies the womens periods process as being a process of self-purification and austerity. As we saw in the Ashaucha section that it removes the physical and mental impurities, the womens periods which is associated with Ashaucha is a self-purifying process as well.
Menstruation as a Period of Rest and Sacred Celebration
Menstruation as a Period of Rest
The notion of it as a period of rest is prevalent widely throughout India. Menstruating women often face abdominal cramps, mood swings and discomfort. It is stated that 3 out of 4 women and girls experience the menstrual pain of different intensities and 1 out of 10 women experience severe pain and they will be unable to carry out their daily activities. So, the notion of rest is prevalent among women nowadays. But, the interesting fact behind this is that this notion of rest is highly recognized not only in the Hindu scriptures, but it is also a highly dominant notion that is attached to the traditional menstrual practices and beliefs among different communities.
Angirasa Smriti (Verse 37) suggests women to continue their household work only after their monthly period cycle stops. Vashishta Dharmasutra (5.6) states that the women who are menstruating should not indulge in physical exertion, be the activities like running or doing household work.Owing to physical discomfort and stress, the notion of it as a period of rest that women require is recognized clearly by Hinduism and few menstrual practices such as preventing ladies from doing the household work are aimed to serve that purpose.
Menstruation as a Sacred Celebration
The every element of the life of an individual is perceived by the Hindu way of life as sacred and worthy of celebration and worship. Thus, from the birth of an individual, events like marriage etc, are associated with celebration, worship and sacredness. The attachment of these various life events to the sacredness of a notion of celebration and worship can be perceived with respect to menstruating women and Periods.
For example, ‘Ritu kala Samskara’ is the ceremony that marks the menstruation of young girls. Ceremonies like this are aimed at presenting an extremely positive notion about it in the girls’ minds and presenting knowledge that enables the young girl to adjust well to her oncoming emotional and physical transformations during puberty.
Menstruation from Yogic perspective
Yoga forms a significant branch of the Hindu worldview. Yoga is a largely practical, diverse and a very vast system which aims to free a person from the bondage of worldly life. The functioning of Prana (functions of the body) within the human body and the Yogic analysis of the human physiology can serve as a useful guide in interpreting it as a physiological process. The relationship of it to the life-force functioning can also be understood.
The Yogic literature describes how one must cultivate his/her vital force (Prana), mind and body so that they facilitate her/him to achieve the highest state of Samadhi. Being a downward process of elimination, it is predominated by the Apana Vayu. Hence, the Apana Vayu is in an exalted state during the monthly period cycle.
On the other hand, any spiritual and religious activity, be it visiting temples, fire ritual, puja, meditation or yoga causes some degree of upward movement of the Apana Vayu. But, the Apana Vayu, being a force that is moving downwards by its very true nature, any effort to make it move upwards during the womens periods process, will meddle with the period cycle process and thus creates an imbalance.
Thus, the yogic literature recognizes it as a physiological process that is closely related to Apana Vayu and any obstacles occuring during the functioning of Apana Vayu will result in physiological conditions that are quite unpleasant. The advice concerning non-performance of Yoga and various other religious activities which include visiting temples during womens periods process have to be interpreted with reference to influence of these activities on Apana Vayu, which facilitates period cycle process.
Menstruation Restrictions and Attitudes
In this, we will brief into the different menstruation restrictions that are prescribed in different Hindu texts and also inspect the disparity in modern and traditional Hindu attitudes towards period cycle process.
The major periods restrictions that are recommended for menstruating women are no sexual intercourse, no household activities, exercises and running, no combing, bathing, application of body anointment, collyrium, segregation, restrictions that are related to food (women should avoid eating meat. This is for protecting the health of women), restrictions concerning to the performance of spiritual and religious activities (including visiting temples).
The more significant than stern adherence to every prescription is the awareness from inside that period cycle is a self-purifying process and the identification that periods practices are designed for the well-being of women.
Menstruation Attitudes: Modern vs. Tradition
The way we look at womens periods process today has completely de-rooted periods from the sacred dimension by designating the non-physical facets as ‘taboo’ and has degraded the womens periods to negative notions like unavoidable physical condition, cramps and pain. Today, it is regarded as unavoidable, annoying physiological process followed with mood swings and uneasiness.
Contrary to the perspective towards it today, the Hindu tradition encourages a positive notion and suggests women to recognize it as a period of self-purification, austerity, rest and as a woman’s privilege. It is an irony that this perspective of it as sacred and respects the sacred energies of women gets labelled as “misogynistic” by the modern society that trivializes and mocks this sacred process as “women on the rag”.
Menstruation in Ayurveda
Ayurveda is a medicine and health system, which is wide-spread across India for many thousands of years. The roots of Ayurveda is in Sanatana Dharma. It is connected intrinsically to Hindu culture, religion and philosophy.
Ayurveda perceives it as a physiological process. Like any other physiological process, it is also controlled by the actions of Doshas. Ayurveda defines illness and health of a person depending on whether there is an imbalance or balance in the working of Doshas and in an individual, the working of Doshas at any time are synchronizing with this Prakriti or not.
Ayurvedic texts perceive the normal womens periods as one that is not having association with burning sensation or pain, the excreted blood is not very scanty or excessive in amount or not unctuous and the blood’s color appears similar to the red juice of lac, the blood of rabbit.
When the 3 doshas exist in a correct balanced state, this normal womens periods occurs. Any imbalance in these 3 doshas will cause abnormal womens periods which affects the woman’s health, including her ability to conceive.
The Ayurvedic texts strongly recommend that during menses, the intercourse should be avoided as from such an intercourse, if a child is conceived, then that child may suffer death within very few days of birth or if alive, suffer from some form of deformity. Ayurveda states the Do’s and Don’ts that should be strictly followed during it. Below here are the Do’s and Don’ts during womens periods process. They are called as “Rajaswala Paricharya”.
These Do’s and Don’ts are used to protect the menstruating women (who are susceptible to many diseases) by reviving the internal digestive fire, by healing the internal injury and by blocking the vitiation of different doshas. The greatest amount of reduction was observed regarding the pain in lower abdomen, pimples, weakness, depression, cramps in calf muscles and lower back ache.
When we discuss about the life of women today, it is entirely different when compared with the previous generations. All I can say is, during this process, visiting the temples or avoiding visiting them is a woman’s personal choice entirely.
Nowadays, the sanitary napkins of high quality and with high absorbance enable women to stay very comfortable for very long hours. The taboo related to menstruation seems to be fading away slowly these days.