Ancient Hindu menstruation traditions(?taboos) and scientific explanation :
As a girl brought up in Hindu Baniyas family, there were many practices instilled in me and I followed some religiously and for some I became repulsive but over the time, stopped complaining to my parents as I slowly engrossed in my own medical life. One particular thing which I really disliked from my heart was my monthly cycles and the practice of seclusion from rest of the family which causes embarrassment as whole family used to come to know regarding my cycles. Around forty years back, families were not open as they are now. Now, society has changed tremendously and we are free to speak on lot of subjects. Menstruation is one of them and today, I will try to understand and explore the science behind such Hindu traditions. My dislike for monthly cycles persisted for long time as there were tremendous body changes in premenstrual phase and I was unable to cope with emotional stress and physical work due to medical profession. As I grew old and started understanding the science behind our traditions, I was awed by the fact that in South India, menarche is celebrated in big way. I could not comprehend that it could be occasion of festivity. As I delved deeper into the facts behind such traditions, I was astonished to understand how logical, deeply connected to our life these systems are. I now feel sorry for myself that I have lost so much of opportunity to understand nature and gateway to spiritual advancement. And that is the reason, I am writing this article so that females can understand the significance of monthly cycles and use them for their own and their daughter’s development. But first, let us know the myths/traditions prevalent in our society and then come to logical and scientific explanation and how over the time meaning of traditions have lost its purpose and sanctity.
1.Foremost taboo is to consider woman dirty/impure/polluted during bleeding days.
2.Women are not allowed to enter kitchen and places of worship.
3.Women are not allowed to attend religious functions
4.Women are secluded from the rest of the family.
5.During periods, one should not touch pickle or holy basil.
6.During periods, one should not touch other girls.
7.Swimming is prohibited during cycles.
8.Certain foods are to be avoided.
There may be some more, unique to the particular region but most common and important are the one which I mentioned above. In different parts of world, some different rituals are followed but I am going to restrict my explanation to above mentioned points.
Idea of dirtiness/ impurity arises in Indian mind basically from the fact that uterus is an organ sandwiched between bladder and rectum which are organs of eliminations. Indian mindset has some particular traditions pertaining to daily rituals. Process of passing motion particularly is an act of elimination of waste material and is also considered to be dirty as compared to passing of urine. Our traditions lay great stress on cleaning the mouth, washing feet and taking bath after passing stools. Elimination itself means removal of waste material and menstruation is also considered waste material peculiar to woman only. In scientific way mensuration is removal of the layer of endometrium which was to support the embryo. Since fertilization has not taken place, redundant tissue is removed as waste material. And waste material of human body is perceived as dirty in general now-a-days. At physical level purity constitutes cleanliness and hygiene of the body and surroundings. But this perception was not present in ancient India.
Ancient wisdom says that female Cycles are bodies compass or barometer. Its rhythmicity reminds us of our feminine nature and gives us chance to be in sync with nature as it correlates with cycles of moon. Everything on this cosmos is in rhythm. Earth rotates around its own axis in 24 hours. Moon completes one circle around earth in approximately 28 days. Earth rotates around sun in 365 days. Sun too rotates i.e it forms a sort of mandalas. Basic mandala is circle formed by repetition. Thus, the word ‘rtu’ stands for both seasons and the menstrual cycle. Similarly, the word for the woman’s menstrual cycle and the moon’s cycle is the same, showing that the rhythms of the body and the rhythms of the cosmos are in harmony.
1. Further, Vedas (our ancient text) says that we are born to liberate ourselves as consciousness of cosmos goes through human experience and it becomes imperative that we lift ourselves from delusion so as to achieve greater heights of awareness. At the same time, male and female principles are essential part of same coin as without feminine principle, creation could not continue. Whole Hindu traditions are based on certain scientific concepts which requires elaborate knowledge of Ayurveda along with circumstances prevailing at that times. Ayurveda is Indian system of medicine so as to balance, maintain and prolong life. Ayurveda is a way of life, a way of cooperating with Nature and living in harmony with her. Ayurveda is based on concept of constitution of body which in turn depends on three doshas named Vata, Pitta, Kapha which again are divided into different types. Ayurveda aims at balancing these doshas through diet, exercises, restrictions so that body remain stabilised. Body is chemical vessel having millions of reactions going inside at any one point of time and Ayurveda guides how to keep individual vessel clean at any point of time. Menstruation is one such period during which certain doshas predominate which needs balancing.
The usefulness of the mode of life prescribed by the Ayurvedic Rajaswala Paricharya in protecting the health of the menstruating women and in ensuring that they undergo normal menstruation, without any pain and other unpleasant symptoms, has been scientifically established by at least one study conducted by Dr. Pallavi Pai, Dr. Sarita Bhutada, and Dr. Prasad Pandkar. Their study titled: ‘Rajaswala Paricharya: Effect on Menstrual Cycle and Its Associated Symptoms’ was published in IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences in February 2015 (Volume 14, Issue 2 Ver. II).
2. Over the times, this practice of maintaining health through balancing doshas got degenerated and people started taking this thing as dirty. Forgetting these principles has caused havoc on females which can be clearly seen in terms of menstrual diseases. PMS has become major problem and women has started disliking their cycles so much that pills/injections are developed to completely destroy the cycles. Menstruation which could have been time to advance in terms of spirituality and personal development has become a dirty taboo which is really unfortunate.
Second taboo is regarding restriction to temples and kitchen.
The energy and the environment in the properly consecrated temple will facilitate meditation and stillness of the mind by moving the Apana Vayu upwards. But, Apana Vayu being a downward moving force by its very nature, any attempt at making it move upwards during menstruation, will interfere with the menstruation process and hence will create an imbalance. Rajarshi Nandy, a spiritualist writes in his article “Sabarimala Discreet, Not Discriminatory” thus: All successful worship is finally a matter of applied concentration. Therefore, as a precautionary measure, it is traditionally and, if I may add, wisely regarded that entering a shrine during the ‘periods’ is a bad idea.” Further, Temples in India are consecrated spaces with different type of energies. It is not the matter of taboo or dirtiness but matter that energies of temples can be disturbing to females, and that is why restriction was placed in certain temples in ancient India from yogic perspective. Further, according to yogic perspective, not only physically but mentally as well as emotionally stable person should go to temples as these are the places for attaining higher levels of spirituality. As earlier mentioned, Rajaswala is period of intense activity which can cause imbalance in female at emotional or mental level. If such female goes to temples, this can further derange her energies. That’s why such restrictions were placed. This is quite similar to ritual of not doing puja at home when some close relative dies in the family or when child is born in the family. Death causes intense sense of grief thereby causing disturbance at the physical and mental level, and hence spiritual practices at such times will not only be difficult in terms of concentration(mental) but also in terms of surroundings as it is said that spirit of the dead person hovers around the close family till fourteen days.
Association of menstruation with sacredness is further reinforced in the Tantric practices like Yoni Puja (worship of the female Yoni), wherein a ritual worship is carried out not only of a woman, but also of her Yoni, which is perceived as a symbol for Cosmic Yoni from which the entire universe has emerged. The Yoni Tantra, in facts, says that the Yoni puja must be carried out only in the Yoni, which has started menstruating. More insight is thrown by Sinu Joseph of Mythri Speaks. In Punjab it was believed that Mother Earth (‘Dharti Ma’) ‘slept’ for a week each month. In some parts of the Deccan after the ‘navaratra’ goddess temples were closed from the tenth to the full moon day while she rests and refreshes herself. In Malabar region, Mother Earth was believed to rest during the hot weather until she got the first shower of rain.3 Both the fertile earth and woman must rest and occasion be celebrated. Bhattarcharyya notes that the auspiciousness of menstruation, representing potential fertility, is symbolized by blood or the colour of blood and is regarded as sacred. Sindur applied in the part of the married woman’s hair symbolizes the sacredness of her fertile potential (when exercised within the confines of patriarchal marriage!) Deities and sacred objects are adornedwith red colouring as a part of ritual worship. Within Indian culture, red signifies auspiciousness and potential growth – these ancient religious ideas and symbols are definitely linked to the blood of menstruation. For the Hindus, it is the regular periodicity of menstruation that is the guarantee of the regularity of nature. Thus, the word ‘rtu’ stands for both seasons and the menstrual cycle. Similarly, the word for the woman’s menstrual cycle and the moon’s cycle is the same, showing that the rhythms of the body and the rhythms of the cosmos are in harmony.3
Kitchen restrictions are felt irrational by the modern society but again, if principles of Ayurveda in terms of apana vayu is applied, it will be clear that food is having energies which are rising type i.e food is mainly derived from plant kingdom which converts solar energy into plant energy and during cooking this energy is converted to heat energy in vapor forms which rises above in atmosphere and goes to sky. Menstrual blood is forced out by apana vayu and further pulled down by magnetic force of earth whereas food is having positive prana vayu which rises up opposing this magnetic pull of earth.. Further food is kapha in nature which strengthen the tissue of body whereas menstrual blood is pitta and vata dominated. As earlier mentioned every aspect of life in India is sacred and considered to be sacred and for Ayurveda, eating is sacrificial ritual and sadhana in terms of putting food into the digestive fire of body and hence very sacred. So, again, these rituals i.e cooking and menstruation does not go hand in hand. More can be read in Book “Women’s Power to heal: Through inner Medicine.” written by spiritual and Ayurveda teacher Maya Tiwari.
Some interesting traditional recipes for periods(taken from : http://www.womensweb.in/2016/09/puberty-rituals-in-india/)
1.Amaranth seeds in a cup of raw milk is offered on the first day of period.
2.Parupu urundai are savoury balls of Toor Dal and Rice / Ragi, cooked separately, mixed and seasoned with garlic, onion, tomato and cumin seeds. Three balls for three meals of the day!
3.Balls of raw rice flour mixed in jaggery, spiked with the flavour of cardamom and ghee, is another recipe for the pubescent.
4.Ground Urad dal or fenugreek seed, cooked in sesame oil in slow simmering heat and served with jaggery or palm sugar syrup is another puberty meal.
5.Black sesame seed powdered and mixed with cane sugar is offered frequently in this period, this is particularly considered rich in vitamin E. (Modern Science also recommends giving Vit E for PMS and breast tenderness.
6.Dosa is also part of the ritualistic food, as it contains urad dal and rice.
7.For non-vegetarians, raw egg yolk is offered to the girl, which is gulped down full, without breaking the yolk, with half a cup of sesame oil, daily, for fifteen days! I can’t even imagine how horrible this might taste – it is health that matter
So, menstruation is very specialized procedure for women with lot of associated spirituality and cleanliness. Menstrual fluid is highly sacred and had been offered in temples for different tantric rituals. Even in certain tribes, women were asked to taste their first menstrual blood as it gives longevity. What has been sacred and associated with growth of women in terms of spirituality got degenerated in modern times. It is period of balancing doshas and attaining spiritual heights. More can be read by reading blogs written by Nithin Shridhar on India facts.
1.H.A Rose, ICS, Rites and Ceremonies of Hindus and Muslim (based on the Census Reports for the Punjab, 1882 and 1883) (Harnam Publications, New Delhi) 1983, corroborate the existence of this little documented practice. “In Rohtak, a month or so after the birth of boy a rite called doghar puja is observed. Women visit the nearest well singing songs… the well is worshipped, rice and dubh grass being offered to it. In Ferozepur the mother goes on the twenty-first day, to a well and there distributes boiled barley to the children” p.23.
2. Shweta V. Dabhade, A.A.Hawale, A conceptual study of rutuchakra, Ayurlog: National Journal of Research in Ayurved Science, Vol3, Special issue (16th Feb. 2015). [http://ayurlog.com/Archive/january_march/ssac/201502S060.pdf]. Also see: Jain Nishi, Joshi Anil Kumar, Analysis of Artava (Menstruation) in Context of Sharira Rachana, Ayushdhara, Vol 2, Issue 3 (May-June 2015)
3.N. N. Bhattacharyya. The Indian Mother Goddess, Manohar, New Delhi, 1977. p 8.