Hindu View of Menstruation- II: Menstruation as Austerity and Self-purification

Second part of the series to present the Hindu view on menstruation.

In the previous article, an examination into the facet of Ashaucha (impurity) associated with Menstruation was undertaken and it was shown how the heightened state of Rajas that a menstruating woman enters, makes her unsuitable to perform certain religious and mundane actions during that period.

In this article, let us take up another facet of how Hinduism views Menstruation: as a period of austerity and self-purification.

Menstruation as a period of austerity

One of the notions that is deeply associated with menstruation in the Hindu scriptures, but is often missed in most discussions, is the notion of menstruation as a process of austerity (Tapas) and self-purification. This notion is very important, because without understanding this, one would most likely end up with a distorted view regarding the Hindu conception of menstruation.

But, first, let us examine the Hindu notion of Tapas. Hindu tradition recognizes that some kind of Tapas is necessary to attain any goal-sacred or secular- in life. In the simplest terms, Tapas refers to austerity or hardship. Without facing hardships, without overcoming obstacles, no work is accomplished. Recognizing this, the Hindu scriptures have charted out how one can use this Tapas to attain material welfare and spiritual emancipation.

At a deeper level, Tapas is defined as restrainment of the body, mind, and the senses. And all austere practices and self-restrictions have been laid out with an aim to achieve this restrainment. The stress on sense-restrainment has been placed owing to the fact that only through such a restrainment of the physical actions and the mental thoughts, would a person be able to attain detachment and dispassion and free oneself from the internal impurities like lust, anger, etc.

Thus, the scriptures declare that through Tapas, one destroys ones impurities (of the body and mind) [1] and attains self-purification. The importance of austerity in the Hindu tradition could be gauged by the fact that, just like Shaucha, Tapas is also listed among the Niyamas of Yoga [2]; among the basic Samanya Dharma; and is considered vital for practicing Vedanta [3].

Various Hindu rituals and practices have been designed with the purpose to act as austerity to help one attain detachment and self-purification. Beginning with Samskaras like Garbadhana (ceremony marking the intention to give birth to a child) and Vivaha (marriage), the daily ritual performances like that of Sandhyopasana, and various kinds of vratas (vows of austerity, usually fasting) and pujas along with their different rules and regulations that are performed periodically, are all aimed to act as Tapas or ‘Austere practices’ that would help individuals to purify themselves and become free from Adharmic (unrighteous) actions that they may have committed through their body, mind, and speech- intentionally or unintentionally.

In other words, tapas not only aims to help an individual to become free from some of the Adharmas committed in the past, but also helps him/her to become detached and gain control over his/her senses and thus helps in preventing him/her from committing more Adharma in future. Hence, Austerity and self-purification play a very vital role in aiding an individual in his journey towards the ultimate Moksha.

It is this notion of austerity and the resulting self-purification that the Hindu scriptures closely associate with the menstruation process experienced by women and thus, it makes menstruation a very beneficial process, which is available only to women. This formulation actually honors the process of menstruation as being a form of Sadhana (spiritual effort).

Yajurveda Taittiriya Samhita (Verse 2.5.1) indirectly suggests that the menstruating woman should not comb her hairs, anoint her eyes, and cut her nails. Further, she should not have any conjugal relationship with her husband during the menstrual period [4]. Vashishta Dharmasutras (5.6) goes further and explicitly states that during monthly periods, women should not apply collyrium to her eyes, not anoint her body, should sleep on the ground, should not sleep in day-time, should not eat meat, should not look at planets, and should not smile.

These regulations and restrictions that have been suggested for menstruating women make it clear that the duration of menstruation should be considered as a period of austerity. For example, take the restriction on the anointment of the eyes and the body. Women have a special inclination to look beautiful and they use various means to enhance their physical beauty, including anointing the body, using ornaments, applying collyrium to the eyes, etc. Since, they have a special inclination towards these activities, they development an attachment to these activities and to their physical body. Thus, adopting this restriction on anointing the body means, a woman will have to restrain her senses from performing those actions and as a result, she will develop a better control over her senses. Similarly, most people sleep on some kind of bed because it is comfortable and many often tend to sleep during day time as well. The former denotes a dependence on material comforts and the latter denotes laziness and an inability to overcome sleep. Adopting the restriction on sleep during monthly periods results in women results in them becoming less attached to material comforts and less addicted to sleep. Similarly, restrictions on meat, etc. is aimed to make a woman free from dependency on food and restriction on intercourse, of course, denotes the practice of Brahmacharya, which is one of the most important aspect of any Tapas and which helps one to overcome lust and attachment to sexual pleasures.

Thus, menstruation provides a unique opportunity for women to practice austerity and attain self-purification by developing detachment and better control over the mind and the senses. Moreover, as we shall see next, it is not just the austere practices adopted during menstruation that are beneficial for women. Instead, the menstrual process itself acts as a kind of austerity, which is self-purifying in nature and which frees women from Adharma.

Menstruation as a self-purifying process

Hindu scriptures do not stop at suggesting that the period of menses should be treated as a period of austerity and women and girls should observe some austere practices during that period. It goes a step further and recognizes the process of menstruation itself as being a process of austerity and self-purification. One of the reasons behind segregation of menstruating women is this notion of menstruation being a Tapas in itself, because any Tapas, be it performed by men or women, is best practiced when practiced in solitude.

Shaucha or Purification as we saw in the section on Ashaucha, is not only related to the physical body, but also to the vital body and the mind. And menstruation removes impurity associated with each of the three layers of Individuality. Thus, it purifies the physical body by removing the menstrual fluid that contains blood, cervical mucus, vaginal secretions, and endometrial tissue, etc.; it purifies the vital body by removing excess Apana vayu; and it purifies the mind by removing mental impurities. Thus, menstruation, though associated with Ashaucha, is also a self-purifying process.

Among all its self-purifying functions, the purification with respect to the mind is most significant. Mind is the root of speech and physical action and hence is intimately connected with Karma. The Hindu scriptures divide Karma into Dharma and Adharma based on whether it is righteous or not, it is one’s duty or not, and it is beneficial to the performer as well as the world or not. All the actions, which are good, righteous, beneficial, and upholds the individual and the world are Dharma and the opposite Adharma. Thus, practice of Dharma is purity and practice of Adharma is impurity and purification is a process by which one becomes free from the fruits of Adharmic actions, through the performance of Tapas or austerity.

To properly understand purification with respect to Adharma, one must first understand Adharma. According to Manu Smriti (12.5-7) Adharma is of three kinds- those committed through body, through speech, and through mind. Adharma through body consists of- taking what has not been given, injuring (others) without the sanction of the scriptures, and holding intercourse with another man’s wife; Adharma through speech consists of- Abusing others and speaking harshly; speaking untruth; gossiping and backbiting, and talking idly and without context; and Adharma of mind consists of- desiring for the property and belongings of others; thinking in one’s heart of what is undesirable (i.e. thinking about committing unrighteous actions that may cause harm to oneself and others); and adherence to falsehoods and false doctrines. Therefore, a person commits Adharma not only through his body, but also through his mind and speech. Hence, purification of Adharma will also involve purification of Adharma committed through body, mind, and speech.

This notion of menstruation as a self-purifying process that frees one from papa (sin) incurred from Adharmic actions can be traced back to the Vedas. Yajurveda Taittiriya Samhita (2.5.1) narrates a story about how Indra killed Vishvaroopa, the second teacher of the Devas, and incurred the sin (Paapa) [5] of Brahmahatya- the slaying of a Brahmana [6]. Indra was able to free himself from this act of Adharma, only when the earth, the trees, and the women agreed to take one-third of the Brahmahatya papa. As a result of this, women began to menstruate once every 28-30 days. In return, Indra gave women the boon that they will be able to give birth to children after their menses. What is the symbolism of this story?

This story symbolically represents the entire gamut of Hindu notions of menstruation, especially the notion of menstruation as a purification process. On the one hand, it relates menstruation to one-third sin (paapa) of Brahmahatya and on the other hand it relates it to the birth of children. Thus, the entire story must be understood with respect to the biological process of menstruation and its relation to child birth.

It is well-known that the menstrual discharge not only contains blood, but also the unfertilized egg. In other words, the monthly discharge represents a failure of conception, a failure to give birth. In the Hindu tradition, giving birth to children is not only considered as an enjoined duty of the householder [7], it is also considered as a very Dharmic action. It is so because, by giving birth, a couple is helping an individual soul (Jivaatma) to enter the physical universe and continue its Karmic journey [8]. On the other hand, one commits Adharma, if he/she prevents the birth of a Jivaatma, intentionally or unintentionally. This is so because, in many ways preventing a child from taking a birth is similar to murdering a person: in both cases a Jivaatma is being robbed of his opportunity to experience physical universe.

If it were to be asked, how a person prevents a Jivatma from taking the birth, the answer would be: a) by abortion and b) by unfertilization of the egg. The former is called as ‘Brunahatya’- killing of embryo, and as the name denotes it is counted as murder. The Hindu scriptures count it among the most heinous paapam[9] and equates it to Brahmahatya [10]. Similarly, even unfertilization of the egg each month results in failure of birth and hence is associated with Adharma. The only difference between abortion and unfertilization of egg is the magnitude of Adharma. The magnitude is severe in the former, because it is an embryo, which is in the process of developing into a child that is killed, whereas in the latter, only the egg, which was formed for the purpose of mating with the semen, became wasted. It is in this context that the Indra’s story about women incurring one-third paapa of Brahmahatya must be understood. The one-third of paapa of Brahmahatya is incurred due to the failure of the egg to fertilize and become fit to host a Jivaatma into the physical universe.

The story does not end with women taking upon themselves one-third paapa from Indra. It further says that as a result of women inheriting this one-third paapa of Brahmahatya, they had to menstruate once every month and after menstruation they would become fertile again.  In other words, menstruation acted as a purification process, which helped women get rid of the paapa they had inherited. Thus, there is a clear indication in the Vedas itself about menstruation being a self-purifying process and among other things, it frees women from the paapam incurred due to unfertilization of their egg.

This notion is further elaborated in the Smritis and the Dharmasutras. Angirasa Smriti (Verse 42) explicitly states that women become purified due to menstruation. Manu Smriti (5.108) similarly states that women whose thoughts have become impure, will be purified by menstruation. Vashishta Dharmasutra (28.2-3) elaborates this further and states:  “A wife, (though) tainted by sin, whether she be quarrelsome, or have left the house, or have suffered criminal force, or have fallen into the hands of thieves, must not be abandoned; to forsake her is not prescribed (by the sacred law). Let him wait for the time of her courses; by her temporary uncleanness she becomes pure.

Thus, when it is said that menstruation purifies women, it refers to the freeing of women from a large range of Adharmic actions committed through body, mind, and speech. It also refers to freeing of women from feelings of guilt and dishonor associated with unfortunate incidents like rape, sexual assault, etc. But, this does not mean that women have been given a free pass from karmic consequences and they could freely commit any Adharma. In fact, Vashishta Dharmasutra (28.7) clarifies that Adharmic actions like killing of husband, of Brahmana, and of the embryo will result in a woman losing her Varna. That is, in those cases, menstruation is not enough to free them from those paapas.

Therefore, menstruation is not a free pass that makes women free from any Adharmic activity, howsoever severe it may be. Instead, its self-purifying ability is limited to a large variety of Adharmas committed through body, mind, and speech, on a day to day basis- mostly unintentionally or under unavoidable circumstances, and does not include intentional Adharmas of serious magnitude committed for selfish purposes, without care for its consequences. But, despite of this limitation, menstruation is extremely useful for self-purification and a privilege available exclusively for women.

Men do not undergo menstruation and hence they do not have access to this self-purifying process. Instead, the scriptures suggest a variety of rules and ritual practices, based on Varna (inherent quality) and Ashrama (station) in life. Activities like Samskaras, Mantra Japa, Sandhopasana, etc. have all been prescribed for men to attain purity and become free from Adharmic actions. But, women need not perform any of these spiritual activities to attain purity. They become pure simply by undergoing menstruation. What comes by special effort to men, comes as part of a natural process to women. This unique aspect of menstruation and the privilege it provides exclusively for women is repeatedly stressed in the Hindu scriptures.

Baudhayana Dharmasutra (2.2.4.4), for example, says: “Women (possess) an unrivalled means of purification; they never become (entirely) impure. For month by month their temporary uncleanness removes their sins.” The same is repeated in Vashishta Dharmasutra (28.4), which further elaborates on this and says that women are in the custody of Soma, Gandharva, and Agni who grant them cleanliness, melodious voice, and purity of all limbs, respectively, and hence women are free from stains and cannot be contaminated [11]. It is well known that Soma is one of the names of the Moon and moon is intimately connected to the monthly menstrual cycle [12]. Similarly, Agni is associated with the mind and is considered as a witness and a purifier of all our actions performed at all levels. Gandharva is clearly associated with the speech in the verses itself. Thus, Soma, Agni, and Gandharva are the presiding deities of the actions performed respectively at physical, verbal, and mental levels. And through these deities, the process of menstruation imparts purity in body, mind, and speech to all women. It is important to note that the verses stress that through these three deities, who are associated with different aspect of the purification process of menstruation, women become “free from stains, and are not contaminated.”

In a similar verse found in Yajnavakya Smriti (1.71), where women are said to be “all pure”. Vashishta Dharmasutra (28.9), goes a step further and states: “Pure is the mouth of a goat and of a horse, pure is the back of a cow, pure are the feet of a Brâhmana, but women are pure in all (limbs).” Chandamaharoshana-tantra [13] goes even further and declares: “A man should regard every substance discharged from a woman’s body as pure and should be willing to touch it and ingest it if requested to do so.In other words, menstruation, though it makes women associated with temporary Ashaucha, it does not make them impure. Instead, it facilitates women to remain ever pure (subject to condition that they do not perform any intentional Adharma).

Thus, Hindu scriptures put forward a clear notion about how menstruation is a privilege that facilitates women to remain pure in their body, mind, and speech. But, it is important to note that as with any Tapas or austerity, even menstruation has certain rules and restrictions that practitioners must follow to the best of their ability and without this, one will not get the complete fruits of the practice.

In other words, though menstruation has a capacity to grant purity and free women from demerits, without a proper realization of the austere and purifying nature of menstruation and an adherence to menstruation practices suggested by scriptures, the ability of the menstruation process to purify women and make them free from impurities at all levels would be compromised, and such women will end up gaining only partial benefits from the whole process.

In the next part we will look at the idea of menstruation as a period of rest and sacred celebration.

Footnotes:

  1. Yoga Sutras of Patanjanli 2.43
  2. Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali 2.32
  3. Vivekachoodamani (Verse 22-23) speaks about control of mind and the senses.
  4. The verse actually asks the husband to not have intercourse with a menstruating woman and lists various unsavory results that one acquires when such an intercourse is carried out with a menstruating woman who combs her hairs, anoints her eyes, etc. In other words, a practice of austerity by staying away from activities like anointing eyes etc. is indirectly being suggested.
  5. Here the ‘sin’ is being used to refer to the Hindu concept of ‘Paapa’ that one incurs by performing Adharma. ‘Punya’ and “Paapa’ are pleasant and unpleasant Karmic results one get by performing Dharma (righteous) and Adharma (unrighteous) activities. This should not be confused with the Abrahamic concept of original sin.
  6. A Brahmana is one who has the following qualities: peacefulness, control of mind and senses, austerity, cleanliness, satisfaction, tolerance, simple straightforwardness, devotion to God, mercy, and truthfulness (Bhagavata Purana 11.17.16). Manu Smriti says a Brahmana is one who is friend to everyone. In other words, a Brahmana is one who will harm no one and hence, slaying of such a Brahmana is considered a great Adharma.
  7. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.5. 16-17) says that it is the duty of the householders to strive to attain all the three worlds- the world of men, of forefathers, and of gods. It further says that one can attain the world of men only by having offsprings.
  8. Garbha Upanishad Verse 3
  9. Chandasekhar in his book Abortion in a Crowded World writes: “As for induced abortion, the Hindu scriptures from the Vedic age down to the Smritis (100 B.C. to 100 A.D.) called it bhrunahatya (“foetus murder”) or farbhahatya (“pregnancy destruction”), and condemnedit as a serious sin. According to Vishnu Smriti (c. 100 B.C. to 100 A.D.), ‘The destruction of an embryo is tantamount to killing of holy or learned person.'”[http://www.angelfire.com/mo/baha/hinduism.html]
  10. Yajurveda Taittiriya Samhita 6.5.10
  11. Vashishta Dharmasutra (28.5-6)
  12. The association of menstruation cycle with the moon have been recognized by different cultures across the world. Even recent scientific studies have found that they both share a relation. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3716780]
  13. Though a Buddhist text, it may well serve to point towards Hindu view as well, since Buddhist and Hindu Tantras are intimately connected.
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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 first book “Musings On Hinduism” provided an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. His latest book “Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective” examines menstruation notions and practices prevalent in different cultures & religions from across the world. Tweets at @nkgrock