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Hindu View of Menstruation- VI: Menstruation Restrictions and Attitudes

In this concluding part, let us briefly look into various menstruation restrictions prescribed in various Hindu texts and also examine the contrast in traditional Hindu attitudes and modern attitudes towards menstruation.

In the previous articles, we successively saw how Hinduism associates menstruation with Ashaucha, austerity, self-purification, rest, and sacred celebration. We also saw about how Yoga philosophy and Ayurveda perceives menstruation. In this concluding part, let us briefly look into various menstruation restrictions prescribed in various Hindu texts and also examine the contrast in traditional Hindu attitudes and modern attitudes towards menstruation.

Menstruation Restrictions

We have already seen various menstrual practices, along with many restrictions suggested in different Hindu scriptures. Many of these restrictions are found in the Vedas itself, which are then restated and elaborated in the various Smritis and scientifically explained in the Ayurvedic texts.

Here is a summary of important menstruation restrictions that have been suggested for the menstruating women:

1.No sexual intercourse: This is one of the most important advice given by Hindu scriptures to menstruating women. This advice is found in a large number of texts: Yajurveda Taittiriya Samhita (Verse 2.5.1), Angirasa Smrithi (Verse 37), Manu Smriti (4.40), Sushruta Samhita (Sharirasthana 2.31), and Kashyapa Samhita (Sharirasthana 5.5), to name a few.

First, Sexual intercourse during menstruation, if it leads to conception, may result in inter-uterine death, or death within few days of birth, or some form of deformity in the child. This reason is indicated in the Vedas and explicitly stated in the Ayurvedic texts. Second, even if one were to use contraceptives and hence prevent conception, there is no way to prevent the imbalance in the Doshas that results from sexual intercourse during menstruation. Hence, the avoidance of sexual intercourse has been suggested. Other minor reasons include the fact that menstruation is a process of austerity and self-purification and hence, Brahmacharya (celibacy) must be practiced, the way it is practiced in other austerity practices; menstruating women being in a heightened state of Rajas, sexual activity will not be good for either of the partners, especially the male partner [1], since sex by its very nature is an intimate process that involves union and exchange of energies at many levels; and since during menstruation any activity involving physical exertion should be avoided for preventing the imbalance of Prakriti Doshas and the resulting adverse effects on health.

2. No running, exercises, and household activities: This advice can be found in texts like Angirasa smrithi (Verse 37), Vashishta Dharma Sutras (5.6), and Sushruta Samhita (Sharirasthana 2.24).

The principle reason behind this prescription is the fact that menstruation should be considered as a period of rest. Menstruating women being in a critical state of heightened Rajas and extremely sensitive physiological condition, avoidance of all physically tiring activities has been suggested. The Ayurvedic texts indicate, how excess physical activity may lead to imbalance in the Doshas, which may have adverse effect on the health of the woman. Further, if these Doshas persist, due to repeated physical activities during menstruation over a long period of time, then it may also negatively impact the children conceived by such women. Add to this the fact that many women face physical weakness and mood swings during menstruation. Taking all these actions, various texts have suggested menstruating women to avoid all household works, running, excessive walking, excessive talking, loud music, etc. Since, household activities include cooking food, an additional reason for the advice appears to be the fact that foods are carriers of energy and hence, menstruating women in heightened Rajasic condition, should avoid cooking as much as possible.

3. No bathing, combing, application of collyrium, body anointment and other self-adorning activities

These advices occur in texts like Yajurveda Taittiriya Samhita (Verse 2.5.1), Vashishta Dharma Sutras (5.6), and in Ayurvedic texts like Sushruta Samhita (Sharirasthana 2.24).

The principles guiding these prescriptions are again two-fold: One, austerity by its very nature demands that all sense-engaging activities like combing, application of collyrium, body anointment and massage, make-up, etc. are given up during the period of austerity; Two, these activities, including bathing, may result in imbalance of Doshas, and repeated practice during long term will adversely affect the health of the woman as well as the children she may conceive.

4. Segregation

Although no Hindu text explicitly speaks about any segregation of women, we find some form of segregation, including having separate huts for menstruating women in villages, being practiced. Further, certain tenets of menstruation practices prescribed in texts like Yajurveda Taittiriya Samhita (Verse 2.5.1), Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.4.13), Vashishta Dharma Sutras (5.6), and Charaka Samhita (Sharirasthana 8.4), requires a certain degree of segregation to implement.

Apart from the obvious fact that menstruating women often experience pain and mood swings and hence may prefer to be left undisturbed, another aspect to consider is the fact menstruation involves management of a lot of blood. Today, with the coming of sanitary pads, this blood management has certainly become easy (though not necessarily the best and eco-friendly option), and women can easily go out in public. This may not have been always the case. Thus, some form of segregation was implemented to allow menstruating women to peacefully spend their time without any external disturbances and without any obligation to go in public and hence may become susceptible to embarrassing situations.

Prescriptions like not cooking, not using normal utensils, not touching people, especially the husband, sleeping on ground, etc., also involve forms of segregation. Since, menstruating women will be in a heightened Rajasic condition (and the associated Ashaucha) and coming in direct physical contact, or eating food cooked by them, will result in Rajasic energy being transferred to others. Such a transfer may not have an immediate, perceptible effect on the receiver, but if such exposure continues over a long period, it may lead to imbalances in the physiological and subtle processes (for example, an imbalance in Prakriti Doshas).

Add to this, the notions of menstruation as being a period of rest, austerity and self-purification. Every person wants to be left undisturbed, while he is taking a rest or sleeping. Similarly, austerity by its very definition is a solitary effort, where the practitioner prefers to be alone and undisturbed. Thus, menstruation being both a period of rest and of austerity, menstruating women are advised some degree of segregation during her monthly periods.

5. Restrictions related to food

The Ayurvedic texts like Susruta Samhita (Sharirasthana 2.25) suggest that menstruating women should eat ‘Havishya Anna’. Similarly, texts like Vashishta Dharma Sutras (5.6) advice menstruating women to avoid eating meat.

‘Havishya Anna’ refers to the food that is ideal for offering in the Yajna (fire ritual), which flares up the fire slowly and steadily. During menstruation, the women’s digestive fire called as Jathara-Agni is very weak, and the condition is called as ‘Agni-mandya’. Hence, Ayurveda suggests that one should consume that food, which is fit to be used in Yajna, so that the digestive fire is also flared up. Havishya Anna is basically a combination of ghee, Shali rice, and milk. Another dish that is ideal diet during menstruation is called as ‘Yawaka’- made from barley and milk. Apart from this, substances like Hing (Asafetida), Black Salt, etc., which are good for igniting the digestive fire should be consumed. More importantly, menstruating women should eat such foods, which are easy to digest, and take them in less quantity.

The purpose of these restrictions regarding food is to protect the health of menstruating women. Since, the digestive fire is very weak and Doshas are more susceptible to become vitiated during menstruation, only such food must be consumed, which do not harm the digestive fire and which do not cause an imbalance to the Doshas. A simple sattvik food consumed in less quantity is the ideal diet for menstruating women.

6. Restrictions related to performance of religious and spiritual activities, including visiting temples

This is another important advice given to menstruating women. Though, widely prevalent even today, many women do not understand the principle behind this. Restriction on the performance of religious and spiritual activities has been explicitly mentioned in the Angirasa Smriti (Verse 37), which asks menstruating women to “not engage in holy/sacred activities.“ Similarly, Vashishta Dharma Sutras (5.6) asks menstruating women to “not touch fire”, which is a reference to not cooking food, as well as not performing fire-ritual-worship during menstruation.

The principle reason behind this injunction is the fact that menstruating women, due to their heightened state of Rajas, have entered a temporary phase of ritual Ashaucha, which makes them ineligible to perform religious rituals. For performing any ritual, an individual should be physically clean, as well as mentally pure and calm and more importantly, should have Sattvik disposition at physical, vital, and mental levels. But, since, menstruating women have heightened level of Rajas at all the three levels, they become ineligible to perform or participate in any religious activities. Menstrual blood is also considered as emitting a specific kind of subtle odor, which can potentially disturb the spiritual environment within the temple or at a religious ceremony.

Elaborating on this topic, Rajarshi Nandy writes:

Hindu tradition as followed in various sampradayas and matas, from Smritis to Agamas and other generic localised customs, and specially those that claim to have been derived from the Vaidika traditions are unequivocal in stating that a woman, while menstruating, should not be present during the performance of religious rituals and/or enter temples where deities have been consecrated into the vigrahas. One of the reasons for this is because menstrual blood was/is considered unclean, with a specific kind of subtle odour that emanates from it, which can potentially disturb the environment inside the temple. In any worship, a most basic step is offering of the panchatattwa to the deity. The simplest of this process is the panchopachara puja, which includes making offerings flowers and dhoopas. Gandha, or smell, especially of the variety that has an uplifting effect on the human consciousness, is considered vital for most rituals. Hence, while chandan (sandal) remains one of the favourite ingredients for ritualistic worship across India, women during periods are strongly discouraged from entering into shrines.”

Yet another reason is the fact that performing or attending such religious ceremonies and rituals, or entering temples during menstruation over a long period of time may have an adverse effect on the health of the menstruating woman. As explained before, the energy present at a properly consecrated temple, or the energy generated in a properly performed religious ritual, will facilitate spiritual upliftment and calmness of the mind in those who participate, by causing the Apana vayu to move upwards. This upward movement will interfere with the downward movement of Apana vayu that is facilitating menstruation. This interference will result in imbalance of the Prakriti Doshas, which in-turn will affect the health of the menstruating woman over a long duration.

Thus, menstruating women have been advised not to take part in any religious activity, including visiting temples, so as to fulfil the dual purpose of: facilitating maintenance of the spiritual atmosphere at the temples and during the religious ceremonies, without any disturbance to its energy and spiritual environment; and protecting the menstruating woman from any adverse effects on her health due to interference with her physiological functioning of Doshas.

At this point, it is important to highlight that the practice of most of these menstrual restrictions have been given up by the current generation, though many of them still practice few of the restrictions, especially those related to religious practices. According to a study by Dr. Jasmine Gujarathi, Dr. Dilip Jani and Dr. ARV Murthy [2], which interviewed girls from urban and rural background, noted that out of 798 girls interviewed, only 14.16% followed restriction on cooking. Similarly, restriction on touching others, sleeping on same bed, and on applying turmeric and kajal were followed by 10.90%, 5.89%, and just 2.38% of girls respectively. Adherence to menstrual restrictions was highest with respect to religious practices like not participating in religious activity (41.60%) and not visiting temple (47.62%). Only 25 girls (3.13%) said that they did not follow any restriction.

The study is very insightful, because it reveals that almost half of the interviewed girls followed menstrual restrictions with respect to religious practice, but mostly ignored others, especially those given in Ayurvedic Paricharya. This is significant, because it denotes that somewhere down the line, people forgot the health principles, which are as important a guiding principle behind various tenets of menstrual Do’s and Don’ts, as the religious and spiritual principles are. This is further reinforced by the fact that out of 676 girls, who answered the question about why they followed some of the restrictions, 39.50% girls selected ‘culture’ as the reason and 44.53% selected ‘religion’ as the reason.

The study also revealed that out of 583 girls, who answered the question why they no longer follow restrictions all the time, 24.70% of them said it was due to exposure to new modern culture, whereas 38.25% said it was because these restrictions are no longer practical in today’s time. The current generation has become disconnected from Indian traditions, and as “ritual observance” is disparaged, the guiding principles behind menstrual practices–be it the religious principles of Ashaucha, austerity, self-purification, and celebration, or the health principles enunciated in the Ayurvedic texts—need to be articulated. Unfortunately, the elder generation itself is often ignorant about the Hindu notion of menstruation and the principles that guide various menstruation practices.

Are these restrictions is practical in today’s fast moving society? The present globalized society with its fast life pose serious obstacles to the traditional way of life. Women may find it very difficult to strictly follow all the restrictions all the time. But, contemporary women also struggle with menstrual difficulties. The practices need to be seen not as “oppressive restrictions” being imposed on them, but rather as therapeutic prescriptions. As the study [3] by Dr. Pallavi Pai, Dr. Sarita Bhutada, and Dr. Prasad Pandkar, shows, with little effort, women naturally increased observance of the restrictions as they practiced them and experienced the benefits. The study, which was earlier quoted in the article on “Menstruation in Ayurveda”, shows that the compliancy to various menstruation restrictions among the 30 unmarried woman, who were monitored, increased from an average of 76.10% at the beginning to 86.66% towards the end of the study period. This clearly shows that, when seen as natural, alternative therapy and part of a spiritual practice, women may choose to practice many, if not all, of the menstrual restrictions during their monthly periods. This practice of even few tenets of the menstruation Do’s and Don’ts can be highly beneficial. As Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita (2.40) says “Even a little practice of Dharma saves one from great fear.”

What was followed as ritual in the past, needs to be grounded in scientific reason and experience in this age. The Western lens of “religion” and “superstition” distorts our understanding of the scientific basis for these rituals. More important than strict adherence to each and every prescription is the inner awareness that menstruation is an austerity, a self-purifying process and the recognition that menstruation practices have been designed for the overall welfare of women. Thus, developing a correct and a positive outlook towards menstruation is as important as practicing them. With the proper understanding, practice will arise more naturally in our times.

Menstruation attitudes: Tradition vs. Modern

The modern narrative on menstruation, has de-rooted menstruation from its sacred dimensions by terming non-physical aspects as ‘taboo’ and has reduced menstruation to negative notions like pain, cramps, unavoidable physical condition, and an annoyance to be overcome.  In modernity, menstruation is presented as annoying, unavoidable physiological process accompanied with physical uneasiness and mood swings.

Contrary to this, Hindu tradition promotes a positive notion and asks women to perceive menstruation as a period of rest, austerity and self-purification, and as a privilege available only to women. It considers pain, depression, etc. as symptoms of abnormal menstruation and has designed a mode of life to be adopted by menstruating women, which will help them to have normal menstruation by overcoming these symptoms. It does recognize the Ashaucha that becomes associated with menstruation, but at the same time, it also recognizes the fact that this Ashaucha facilitates freeing of women from impurities of the body, mind, and actions, in a manner similar to yoga or meditation. More importantly, Hinduism celebrates menstruation as sacred festival and promotes a holistic view by aligning menstruation with various ecological and cosmic principles.

It is an irony that this positive sacred view of menstruation that honors the sacred feminine energies gets dubbed as “misogynistic” by a modernity that mocks and trivializes this sacred process as “women on the rag”, perhaps building on Christian attitudes of menstruation as dirty.  Ironically, Hindus are ignorantly attacking their own sacred feminine traditions and aping misogynistic pop-culture as “progressive.” This is the ultimate triumph of patriarchy.

The Urban Dictionary gives some examples of the usage of the term “on the rag”:

“Damn, b**ch! Are you always on the rag?!?

“Gee guys… i have cramps, im on the rag. It’s been a couple days. no sex for me”

She’s really in a mood, she’s on the rag and complaining about everything.

When i am on the rag, i get cranky and bitchy and scream at assh**es.

In contrast, the Hindu traditions view menstruation as a period of ritual impurity and the associated ritual restriction is part of honoring this feminine process as a tapas, like the austerity of yogis, a sacred cleansing uniquely available to women. It also recognized their unique physical, emotional and energetic state in this process. The cultural practices are designed to free her from the obligation of routine work and chores and allow seclusion as a form of spiritual retreat. Modernity either mocks the process, or pretends it doesn’t exist, by expecting women to “show up with a work face” regardless of what is going on with their physical or emotional state. When that manifests as emotional disturbance, women are patronized as being “on the rag.”

The Hindu tradition, one of the last surviving planetary traditions that honor the sacred feminine, can help women recover the sacred aspect of the menstrual process. Menstrual practices based on Yoga and Ayurveda and an understanding of both bodily and spiritual health will allow women to best manage this process for bodily comfort, emotional support and spiritual growth.

References:

1. Manu Smriti (4.40-41) states: “Let him, though mad with desire, not approach his wife when her courses appear; nor let him sleep with her in the same bed. For the wisdom, the energy, the strength, the sight, and the vitality of a man who approaches a woman covered with menstrual excretions, utterly perish.” The reason for this injunction appears to be two fold. One, if sexual intercourse with menstruating woman leads to conception and subsequent death of the child, then the Karmic fruits equivalent to ‘Brunahatya’- which is among the greatest Adharmic actions, will come to the father, since it was he who initiated the sexual activity (as clear from verse 40); Two, since, menstruating woman is in a heightened condition of Rajas, the interaction and energy exchange during sexual activity may have adverse effect on the male partner, thus weakening his energy, strength, and vitality.

2. Dr. Jasmine Gujarathi,Dr. Dilip Jani and Dr. ARV Murthy, ‘Prevalence of Menstrual Related Taboos in Special Context with Ayurvedic Rajaswala Paricharya in Young Girls’, Rasamruta, 6:4, February 2014 [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260267973_Prevalence_of_Menstrual_Related_Taboos_in_Special_Context_with_Ayurvedic_Rajaswala_Paricharya_in_Young_Girls]

3. Dr. Pallavi Pai, Dr. Sarita Bhutada, Dr. Prasad Pandkar, ‘Rajaswala Paricharya: Effect on Menstrual Cycle and Its Associated Symptoms’, IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences, Volume 14, Issue 2 Ver. II (Feb. 2015). [http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jdms/papers/Vol14-issue2/Version-2/R014228287.pdf]

[The author wants to thank Nagaraja Gundappa and Dr. Sammod Acharya for their help in fetching textual evidences. The author would also like to thank Sankrant Sanu for proofreading the entire series and giving insightful inputs, especially with respect to the section on Menstruation attitudes.]

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
With a degree in civil engineering, and having worked in construction field, Nithin Sridhar passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality and ecology. He is based in Mysore, India. His latest book “Musings On Hinduism” is provides an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. Tweets at @nkgrock