Menstrual taboos and ancient wisdom

“Why am I not allowed to visit a temple during my period?”A student sharing her experience

“Will the pickle really spoil if I touched it during menstruation?”

“Akka, why do they tell us not to touch anyone, to sit in a separate room and eat from a separate plate when we get our period?

 

Two thoughts play hide and seek in my mind as I try to answer these questions from young girls. One, that I should help them understand that these restrictions are not because they become impure or polluted during menstruation. Two, that I should never, ever, hurt their religious or cultural sentiments beacuse I have neither the knowledge nor the right to make that judgement. The latter makes it difficult to do the former, and so round and round I go in my explanations, at best being able to tell them that these practises have been in place for ages to ensure women get some rest during their period. And leave them with the thought that it is their personal choice to follow these or not.

It is not once or twice that I have come across these questions as an educator on menstrual hygiene for adolescent girls. It is every single time. After having addressed more than 6000 adolescent girls from rural backgrounds over the last 4 years, you’d think that I’d have tried to come up with better explanations by now! The wake up call to find right answers to these questions came when I recently read what a well known educator/organization working on this issue had to say about such questions – the answers were a rude dismissal of such practises calling it superstition and unscientific, having no place in today’s time.

My first thought was – With what right do we dismiss someone else’s belief when we neither know the origin of such practises, nor its significance in the practitioner’s family?

My second, more interesting thought was – What if there was indeed some ancient story of menstrual magic hidden in these rituals, which we would lose out on in our arrogance of rubbishing these questions? Surely, something as natural as menstruation could not always have been looked down upon?

The urge to be able to talk to girls and women, especially from rural backgrounds, in their own language and way of thinking and give them back the meaning of their rituals, started me on this journey.

Please note that I have no scientific way of proving the validity of following content and my intention in this exploration is to understand what might have been the original reasons behind the rituals and taboo on menstruation.

Understanding the power of Menstrual cycles

Today, while most women and young girls in India are being told that menstruation is an impure, inconvenient, sad fate to be put up with, the Western world has gone a step ahead and invented pills that would help women no longer menstruate! Unlike what is now thought by most people, menstruation was originally considered a highly sacred process, equipping women with strong powers which could be life-giving (hence worshipping women) or dangerous (hence secluding menstruating women). Herein lies the beauty and the contradiction. To understand how this came about, we need to know how menstrual cycles are linked to moon cycles, and what changes each phase in the cycle brings.

Menstruation and the moon

To someone hearing this for the first time (like me), it is strange to think that the moon could affect what goes on in my body! Did you know that the menstrual cycle and the lunar (moon cycle) are of 28 days and

Godess Kamakya of Assam during Menstruation
Godess Kamakya of Assam during Menstruation

all women apparantly menstruated at the same time as with the new moon in ancient days? Charting your menstrual period according to the moon is one of the oldest forms of menstrual calendars. In fact, it is believed that the first calendars were based upon women’s charts of their menstrual cycles and the moon cycles.

For those who want a scientific reason, here is what one study explains:
In the days before electricity and living exclusively indoors, women’s cycles were influenced by natural moonlight. The principle is guided by the theory that moonlight provided an important synchronizing signal (scientists call these “zeitgebers”) for menstrual cycles that is now lost in our modern environment. Clinical studies performed by researchers at Harvard University, the U.S. Air Force, and the University of California, San Diego Sleep Center have shown that women’s menstrual cycles can become more regular after the women were exposed to a certain dosage of artificial light while they slept. (Source http://www.regularcycles.com/the-science-of-light-therapy/)

Significance of each phase in the cycle

A woman’s body goes through 4 stages in one menstrual cycle, just as we go through 4 seasons in a year. I found the explanation quiet fascinating and could actually relate to much of what I read, although I was never consciously aware of these changes in my body. (The information presented below is a combination of content I borrowed from different sources mentioned at the end of this blog.)

Week 1: Menstruation (Days 1-7) – Begins with the first day of bleeding (it should ideally be a new moon). Within hours of starting your period, your estrogen levels will slowly begin to rise and you will tend to feel a shift from the heaviness or ‘PMS’ of the days before. This is considered a process of cleansing and removal of all negative thoughts and emotions. Many women, including me, have noticed that on the first few days of our periods, we feel an urge to suddenly clean our homes and remove all the clutter from our closets- and our lives. Our natural biological cleansing is accompanied by a psychological cleansing as well.

This is the time when women feel the need to go inward and be silent and contemplative. The rituals around seclusion during menstruation were partly meant to serve this purpose.

Week 2: Pre-Ovulation (Days 7-14) – This is the phase soon after the period when most women feel at their energetic best. The steady increase in estrogen boosts your brain’s serotonin levels, which leads to an increase in energy, enthusiasm and a more upbeat feeling overall. This phase is considered ideal to kick off new projects or creative work.

Week 3: Ovulation (Days 14 – 21) – This is the phase of Ovulation, where women are apparantly more physically attractive than on other days, and are more attracted to others. This is the time in our cycle when we need to be connecting to people and relaxing in our outside world. It can also be a time of vulnerability, and it is important that we keep ourselves grounded and be mindful about our actions.

Week 4: Pre-menstruation (Days 21 – 28) – On the other side of ovulation, you’ll feel the effects of decreasing estrogen and testosterone and increasing progesterone. Progesterone is the ‘ebb’ to estrogen’s ‘flow’. It will increase your desire to move inward, like the waning moon. Research shows greater activity in the right hemisphere of the brain – the part associated with intuitive knowing – in weeks 3 and 4 of your cycle. Always trust your intuition. But pay especially close attention to it in the second half of your cycle!

Alternative explanation for Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS)

A number of girls and women suffer from aches, pains and mood fluctuations just before their period. Here are some fascinating explanations for this mentioned in different websites

The Pre-Menstrual phase (week 4) consists of the final days before you begin a new cycle. Progesterone continues to rise until just before the end of this phase when estrogen, testosterone and progesterone all plummet to their lowest levels. If you deny the natural need you have to slow down and turn inward, feelings of resentment, frustration and anger find a way to surface. (Source http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/anea-bogue/women-menstruation-_b_3957384.html#slide=more195539)

The crankiness, impatience or annoyance so infamously called Premenstrual Syndrome, that we may experience in the last two weeks of our cycle, is really more about the feelings you have because you are not flowing with what you body really wants you to do – that is slow down, withdraw from the busyness of the outside world and look after yourself, not everybody else. (Sourcehttp://www.moonsong.com.au/spiritualmenstruation.html)

“The premenstrual phase is therefore a time when we have greater access to our magic—our ability to recognize and transform the more difficult and painful areas of our lives. Premenstrually, we are quite naturally more in tune with what is most meaningful in our lives. We’re more apt to cry—but our tears are always related to something that holds meaning for us. Years of personal and clinical experience have taught me that the painful or uncomfortable issues that arise premenstrually are always real and must be addressed.” – Dr. Christiane Northup http://www.drnorthrup.com/about/index.php

So next time, instead of dismissing the depressive or disturbing thoughts that occur to us during the pre-menstrual days, an effort to understand it and address the reason would be much more helpful. Women have all the natural magical tools to deal with life – if only we were more aware of it!

The significance of rituals

I was quite surprised to read that the rituals around menstruation have been the same across the globe, be it Native America, Europe, Africa, Australia or Asia. The same practises of seclusion during menstruation, similar taboos related to touching food, not entering religious place, etc have been documented world over. Perhaps, it is only in parts of Asia such as India, where we still see many women who follow the rituals even now, and therefore most of us wrongly conclude that it is only in developing countries like India that such “superstitions” still exist. I have tried to read up and gather information from as many different sources as possible, to throw light upon how the rituals might have come into being. Here are a few rituals, taboos and thoughts around menstruation I was able to decode to some extent

“Menstruating women have to remain in seclusion until the period is over”

Often, the reason given in today’s time is that menstruating women are impure, unclean or dirty and hence need to be kept aside. In the book Blood, Bread and Roses, by Judy Grahn, she offers fascinating explanations for this..

Menstruating women were considered to be having special powers during menstruation, which if not used properly could cause harm to others. In addition, practical reasons of predatory animals smelling the blood in ancient times and coming for the kill, would have led to these women being kept in separate huts to protect the community. Since most ancestral women menstruated at the same time with the new moon, the seclusion huts (also called moon huts) were filled with women with special powers who together performed sacred rituals for the good of the community. Women who came out of the seclusion hut were revered for their visions and wisdom gained during this time, and often guided the community as to where to go for hunting, etc.

This in fact led to men coming up with similar rituals for adolescent boys, so that they do not feel left out. Thus emerged the ancient rituals (still practiced among some tribals) of young boys beating themselves and cutting their skin so that it bleeds resembling menstruation, and stinging themselves with bees and ants to drive themselves into a hallucination, to resemble the visions women had during menstruation. Poor boys!

“Menstrual blood is impure, bad blood”

All blood, even that in men, has originated from menstrual blood. Menstrual blood in ancient times was considered highly powerful and potent. It was used in many rituals and especially in making magic potions. Even today, any thing that is red in color used in ceremonies is apparently indicative of the ancient ritual of using menstrual blood. One study said that the red mark on the forehead of Hindu women was originally menstrual blood. Similarly, the symbol of Blood of Christ in Christianity is also indicative of menstrual blood. It is also said that the color red which is widely used in women’s lipstick and other cosmetics today, indicative of seduction and power, had its origin in menstrual blood used by our ancestors to make themselves more attractive.

“Menstruating women should not enter temples or participate in religious ceremonies”

This is one taboo which perhaps hurts the sentiments of most religious women and young girls. The thought keeps cropping up – “Am I so dirty during my period that even God would want me to stay away?”

Unfortunately, no one, including the elite women who practice this, had thus far been able to give me any explanation for this restriction, which was not negative. After much digging and research, I have found few explanations which are actually meant to protect women, rather than distance them.

It is believed that during menstruation, women are constantly dissipating energy from their bodies. Most religious chants are meant to balance out the energies in our body. However, this would interfere with the natural losing of energy that must happen in menstruating women to prevent excessive energy build-up. Hence, menstruating women are told to keep away during such occasions, so that their natural processes are not tampered with.

The other reason I came across was that menstruating women become open to receiving and absorbing energy during this time. This means, they can easily absorb other’s energies, including negative energies. Hence, they are asked to stay away from crowds and gatherings.

Another document said that menstruating women are so powerful, that their offering to God drowns out the offerings of everyone else present in the room. Hence, they are told to stay away from places of worship during menstruation.

These explanations might also be valid for the taboos around touching others and touching certain types of food during menstruation, since touching involves transfer of energy.

The website of Maya Tiwari, a spiritual practitioner, had a good explanation http://mayatiwari.org/womenpower.php

Gifting the stories to the next generation

As someone who has taken the responsibility of educating young girls on menstruation, I take it upon myself to share these explanations of the rituals and taboos with them, so that they can appreciate the spirit behind the ancient wisdom, whether or not they chose to follow it.

But even otherwise, I think there are important messages in these ancient traditions for all of us. These traditions have their roots at a time were women were worshiped and considered as beings capable of divinity; where the wisdom of women was relied upon by the whole community. Today, when we talk of increasing crimes on women, we often talk and think in terms of feminism or the newer concept of gender equality. But, let us not forget that we are largely a religious country and majority of us do not speak the elite language of feminism and gender equality. Perhaps, it will be these stories that would plant a seed of change in men and women about their attitudes and treatment of women.

Lastly, following any of the above rituals or practices is a personal choice. There is a tendency to dismiss these rituals as superstitions without investigating enough the knowledge or wisdom behind these practices. As educators, we have the responsibility to make an extra effort to understand the knowledge behind these rituals and the way they were conceived. Let us act responsibly about what we tell the next generation.

– Sinu Joseph

If you found this article interesting, you will find my next blog even more informative – Unearthing Menstrual Wisdom: Why we don’t go to the temple, and other practices. This new blog was written a year after researching such practices across rural India, following the article you just read.

P.S. My exploration on this front will be an ongoing one. I request you to please share with me any such positive stories or explanations around menstruation that you have heard, and help me connect with people who might know more about such stories.

Sources:

http://naturalshaman.blogspot.in/2012/06/magic-of-menstrual-cycle.html

http://www.moonsong.com.au/spiritualmenstruation.html

http://www.drnorthrup.com/womenshealth/healthcenter/topic_details.php?topic_id=138

http://swordandflute.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/three-days-of-impurity-menstruation-and-inauspiciousness/

http://metaformia.org/

http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/wstudies/grahn/01toc.htm

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/anea-bogue/women-menstruation-_b_3957384.html#slide=more195539

 

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289 comments

  1. I simply would like to salute , appreciate , encourage and ofcourse thank for trying to atleast think on your own definately resisting so called intellectual bias n may be wrong influence .

  2. Firstly, I would like to thank you for sharing these informations. I liked the way of connecting menstrual cycle with moon cycle. I don’t have much idea on the taboos and beliefs regarding menstruation. Here, I would like to share a video that says, ‘Menstruation has nothing to do with Religion’. I hope it will help you in finding something more! 😊 Thank You!

  3. Brilliant articles. ..
    Thank you very much for a sharing good information. ….
    Bus meri ek hi wish hai ki logo se bhagwan kauf dar dil se nikal jaye…unke mann me ye darr khud purane pidiyone bhara hai..
    Use unhe tod na hoga…..

  4. This was really good… best was the possible reasons behind the seclusions and the taboos… seriously a good work… cheers…!!!!!!

  5. I like to appreciate your effort in researching and bringing out some important valid reasons of practicing these things.
    I am happy that your article have very nicely answered my questions

  6. I read the article and a few comments….i don’t knw how many would agree but i would still like to share my views…..i come from a broad minded family who does not believe in following the regular rituals regarding menstrual cycles like not touching, eating after everyone has eaten, being secluded in a room….our ancestors have come up with convenient solutions to what they thout was a problem….as rightly said humans are born from this same menstrual blood….i recently visited my in laws village in Kerala to realise there are many more rituals which are followed under the name of giving rest to women….removing a woman from her comfort zone and placing her in a hut with not healthy sanitation, not letting her eat what she wants and when she wants, not letting her touch her children, etc and not letting her visit temples i don’t understand in what way is it relaxing the woman…..if you can worship goddesses then menstruation is something created by them something like our natural bowel movement or pissing….if men can visit temples after shitting and pissing…menstruation is a normal body action y not can v attend rituals then??? I don’t blame people coz v r used to follow the herd and the people who question are considered uncultured or unsensible…if,anyone can help me understand these beliefs a little better i would be happy……..

    • You just covered all the things I was going to comment so thnx and I m really sorry that the ‘more cultured’ people don’t understand anything about what they do to us women. You can call me a feminist alright but I just hate how this world treats women and their problems. If we look carefully, a woman is the only one who is dragging the other woman down….even if she knows how it’s like to be treated like a……slave? Yes that’s the right word.

  7. I had read the scientific explanation in a local newspaper once. Do not remember the source. But it explained it very scientifically. The theory said that there are 6 types of air motions in our body to perform different functions. 3 types of air flow upwards and 3 of them flow downwards. When we urinate, menstruate and pass stool, the downwards airs help us in these activities. This is the same reason we feel depressed and low during menses which is due to loss of harmones which is created to facilitate the proper blood flow at that time. On the contrary, when we pray, love and express our feelings, our upwards airs are in action. So if during periods, girls visit temples and experience spiritual connection with God and themselves, their upwards airs activate and they interfere with the proper flow of the menses.

  8. I went through this article its a very nice one. One time my ex also asked me the same question, out of the blue. I was unanswered for sometime but eventually i gave her some clarification on this. May be in ancient time there were no such thing called like inner wear and like the pad which can hold the menstruation blood for long time. And the concept of wash room in common places were not so widely introduced. So to make it not very embarrasing for women that can be one of the reason that women were asked to stay in certain areas. And not allowing women in cooking places can be that not to let the food get mixed with the menstruation blood. That was just my opinion. We don’t practice the ancient theory for restriction during menstruation any more in our family.

  9. A good one! thanks for sharing 🙂

    The ‘open-ness’ to energy (both inflow and outflow) is definitely something that deserves both awareness and attention… while it’s never the impurity but the heightened energy that is the primary cause of all the special guidelines… makes sense… of course when forced seems offensive…

    (except 1. sanitation… which is almost irrelevant today, and 2. weight lifting is hardly a part of todays kitchen/domestic work thanks to the modern machines, except for any such specific exercise/sport done…)

    The call of the hour is not equality (why would a woman wanna be like a man, thats just silly!!!!) but to embrace femininity wholeheartedly, responsibly (with great power comes great responsibility, right :), and proudly)
    lets love the goddess within us all !

  10. I find these restrictions imposed on women highly derogatory. my parents were very liberal and i didnt have to face these things during my earlier years.. however my in- laws are very orthodox and i am having a tough time convincing them.. i want some solution out of this problem so as not to hurt their sentiments too..

  11. Ancient taboos and wisdom is now treated as superstition. Ancient rituals perhaps were powerful but now they have lost power because we dont know how to perform them or treat them as just rituals without the reason behind them. Your efforts to decipher the reason behind such ‘superstition’ and rituals are laudable. Coming back to this article on menstrual taboos, there could be another reason which I can think of.

  12. Thank You so much for such a detailed researched article…Now I can answer my daughters never ending queries with more logic & in a scientific manner

  13. Sinu Joseph,
    I’m so impressed with your work that I have been speaking about it to every single female I know. I was vaguely aware of these things but you have created a concrete base for my beliefs.
    I went through all your sources and I really appreciate your hard work. I never considered my periods as sad fate rather was indifferent towards it. But after reading your article I feel happy about it.
    Thank you.

  14. lolmax. Give Indians a spoon full of religion, culture, practices, ancient wisdom and they will digest anything. No wonder my wife can beat the shit out of me when she is menstruating. I think I am convinced about your magical theory.

  15. I did really like this article .
    I was in search of articles or I should say reasons like this from a long time.
    This article really clears all the question I had in my mind.
    Really wonderful I really appreciate the writer of this blog.
    My hearty thanks to you.

  16. I really liked this article.
    It really cleared all the questions I had in my mind.
    Congratulations Mythri you really did a good job.
    It really gives all the reasons for every rituals followed during this time.
    I really found it very humorous that in ancient times boys used to give themselves pain just to obtain the power that the women possessed during menstruation.
    Hats Off Mythri.

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