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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290 comments

  1. Thank you so much . For the work you do, for the search you started. The two thoughts which play hide and seek in your mind, and the huge responsibility you have towards the girls, the community you work with. Deeply realising that condemning the rituals, which one could say ‘ are not of this time ‘ anymore, is not an option. At the same time seeing how negative it works on these pure beings you meet. Thats courage !!! I ve many times been in a likewise situation, and only by doing what you did, I learned so much. To start ‘digging’ why a specific ritual came into existence, what it meant in that time, leads one back to the inner essence. In that time still full alive. When now we could connect again with that inner wisdom, something could change, inwardly first. Imagen the essential Vedic wisdom of Pravrtti and Nivrtti.Once i read in an introduction on the Gita ;the twofold Vedic spiritual message , of action and contemplation
    in the words ; pravrtti and nivrtti,
    mundane ,action , distracts
    contemplation ,nivrtti ,unites ,centers again
    when that is in healthy balance ,it is like breathing ,and one manages to live and to give. With a bit of humor, but satya humor…..Imagen what a gift, to be naturally given this essence of Life:soul breathing , breathing out, action in the world, breathing in, action in the soul. Many more thoughts are there… It would have changed my perception, when I could have connected with deeper thoughts around menstruation while being a young girl.

  2. I appreciate you writing something which every (Indian) girl has wondered. I also appreciate you telling up front that these are your own findings and not proven.
    I am not sure about hindu spirituality but, one thing I know for sure that “Blood of Christ” is no symbolism of menstrual blood. During periods, a women is tired and may not be ready for sex. Being known as the weaker gender, she had no say to deny her daily chores or, say no to her husbands needs. Hence, the separation. That is what I think.
    The Bible’s Old Testament speaks about women’s isolation and its reasoning in Leviticus. The New testament, with the coming of Christ breaks this rule of isolation in Luke Chapter 8 (and other places mentioned in various sections of the New testament). Reading the section of Leviticus of the Old Testament might help you understand other areas as to why the rules and the New Testament of The Bible will help you understand why those rules need not be followed anymore. Good luck and kuddos on answering innocent minds.

  3. Please read the book “Her Blood is Gold” which talks about cultures around menstruation throughout the world. It is a must read for everyone and the least it serves to do is help look at women with respect.

  4. Religious Customs and practices have been made with some belief s no doubt. However customs and practices which are made should also undergo suitable change according to the times…eg its exam time and you are keeping a girl secluding her in a house she looses minimum of 5 days of exam and to make it up in this genre of stress is really something again will cause a stress….coping mechanism also to deal with situations is important.

  5. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful insight. It helped me a lot to understand my feminity better. And I first menstruated on tha last day of last month of lunar calendar. So what you are talking about really makes sense and I could relate so well and hope this will help me to manage my PMS better. Thanks once again.

  6. While all the rituals all around the world obviously had some suitable reason, it was based on the environment and situation of that time. Those communities formed rules based on their reality. We need to adjust these rules to suit our lifestyle. Lets keep the super power myth away and talk about reality of today’s life. I totally understand the logic behind these rules in ancient times, but they do not apply today. If a woman is not working in kitchen (to stay away from heat – energy etc..) then should she also stay away from other magnetic and electric fields (think – Smartphones/tablets/ riding vehicles/ watching big screen TVs) Is it practical?? To stop her from cooking or praying is simply stupid in today’s world. If she needs rest, she will take it, if she wants to cook then that is her choice. Today with all these rituals we are only taking that choice away from her. It should be her choice weather she wants to go to temple or not. It would rather make sense for them to go to work and that way reduce the high energy level in 2nd and 3rd week. As for the cranky 4th week, we need to teach our boys to be mellow and understanding. Its not that difficult by the way, its easy to sense those days, we men can certainly keep an eye on our better half’s difficult days and help her through if needed. Religious stories not justified by scientific evidence (doesn’t matter how good the intention is) will be the death bed of this society. The drive and influence a large audience in to a collective adherence but then they become the truth which cannot be changed ever. Such rules eventually become greater than their original purpose.

  7. The seclusion of a woman during menstrual cycle helps her in a way. Practically she gets some much needed rest. She gets a break from all the regular house-hold chores and the tedious day-to-day jobs. Of course it is a personal choice and in these days of nuclear families, it is almost impossible to run the house and take care of kids while being untouchable. Most families have given up this practice though I believe it is still followed in rural parts of the country.

  8. Ms Sinu Joseph
    In ancient times when women didn’t have the convenience of using panties n pads. The blood flowed down everywhere they walked or sat. This was also a reason the women were made to sit in a secluded seperate place/hut where they would sit in one place and wipe the blood that flowed out. I had read this in a book yelling stories from Mahabharata.

  9. I belong to an educated and a rather religious family. I attained menarche bang in the middle of my half-yearly exams, but mother did not mind. She let me go to school. I remember my mom telling me not to go to temples or religious occasions, and also not to exercise (she called it ‘stupid’ things – as in dancing/ jumping around). However, over time I have found that exercising (even during menstruation) really helps with cramps. And eventually, I did find a lot of studies that have found the same thing.
    But, one instance that particularly stands out in my mind is that, my dad and I were once watching some swami ji’s pravachan on TV and he was telling us that true bhakti from the heart is more important than whatever constructs of purity we have built for ourselves and he was urging us to recite the Hanuman chalisa, irrespective of whether one has taken bath or not and irrespective of whether one is menstruating. He also said that God never ‘no’ said to Draupadi because she was ‘impure’ or whatever when she prayed to him for help – and this part was unfamiliar to me and I turn to my dad and he says, yes, Draupadi was menstruating when her infamous ‘Vastraharan’ happened.

  10. Nice article
    I just told my daughter any thing coming out of our body has bacteria which may even spread so we even for bathing we use haldi water.Good to know the facts.

  11. Excellent writing and very informative. Has a balance of science and nature and that is most lovely part of this research.

  12. On the contrary I feel, being close to someone you like to spend your time with, relieves the pain, aches or nuances associated with premenstrual or during the menstrual cycle….The research provided, especially about seaming with moon cycle is interesting. However, many females’ cycles are not in sync with moon cycle.. I fee, more than accepting any theory regarding this subject as a religious, scientific, astrological, or personal choice.. etc there is a need to adapt with changing times..because we are not ancient anymore! thus, many of such explanations/theories needs to be visited from 21st century point of view..

  13. Interesting article … one reason that women were asked to be secluded and not touch anything was that it was a well planned relaxation time for them considering their continuous hard work in the house for everyone but themselves…

  14. Beautiful article! Also learnt quite a bit from the comments….
    Our ancestors were certainly more thoughtful and conscious of body cycles than we are today. We are lost in the outward world of gadgets and gizmos.

  15. Interesting article…..liked it a lot. One must do thorough research on what such rituals are meant for …and also need to think is it relevant even today…..

  16. Its a very informative writing. Must to circulated around and specially among females. Most of them are very confused about this religious taboos. Today we are living in the modern world with lots of facilities which were not present in the primitive time. Personally I find no reason to believe in the primitive thought and we must perform our duties as casually as ever even during those days.

  17. Hi Mythri,

    I read your article on Menstrual Taboos yesterday and found it very logical. To my surprise I came across this blog by Anisha (18 year old from Mumbai)
    http://edition.cnn.com/2015/02/06/living/india-menstruation-irpt/index.html and I am quite shocked that such stories are being publicized by CNN! I have written an e-mail sharing your website link and also the link to the article on taboos and asked her to bring down the blog and the report.
    I would request that your team contacts CNN (London) and helps bring this post down and your work is spread across the world. The blog by ANisha is not just spreading wrong myths but also demeaning our country.

    Thanks!

    Regards,
    Bhakti

  18. Hello, firstly I must say I have tremendous respect for what you are doing (based on reading this one blog post). I really like what you say about not contradicting their religious beliefs as that could land them into trouble with their families (Given most adults are not willing to change their beliefs).

    That said, trying to find some reason to justify the current practices is a slippery slope. One must work the other way round, and see that none of these reasons hold, there are no magical powers, no radiating energies or anything like that. That sort of stuff is for when we did not know better. Now we do.

    Those ancient rituals, beliefs and customs were made up by people just like you and me, perhaps for a just cause, but they have outlived their utility. Time to kill those nonsensical customs.

    I just don’t know what’s the best thing to be told to rural girls who are feeling impure due to the customs – perhaps what you are telling them is correct. But to present this as justification to current practices is misleading and wishful thinking.

    Apologies, and with full respect,
    Bye.

  19. Refreshing change!! Finally a blog that tries to reason out things rather than blindly ignoring any ancient practice as “Superstition” without trying to understand the essence of the practice. People like you are the real feminists whom the world should follow but alas!! your words get lost in the din of other self-declared feminists who dish out non-sense.

  20. loved your article and the explanations. I truly believe our ancient customs and traditions were not created out of superstitions but pure logic and science. My mother told me that women are not allowed to enter the kitchen or do household chores so that they could rest during menstruation days. In ancient times, families used to be big with more appetite due to more physical labor and every single task was done manually adding a lot of cooking and household work. Moreover there were no sanitary napkins. Women used clothes to make pads which were obviously not leak proof hence not that much hygienic esp for being in kitchen around food. Maintaining cleanliness was the best way for our ancestors to avoid any diseases. Pooja was not allowed for the same reason so that the women get total rest in absence of any household responsibilities.

  21. Broadly speaking I have noticed that all the old customs have scientific reasons,some of them we have been able to find and some are still not very clear. So the best thing is ,not to discard anything straight away and follow, not blindly,but adapting them to the present situations.

  22. About not entering the temples, I once heard a south indian friend’s explanation and it sounded convincing. He said that according to some holy books women were supposed to rest during menstruation and thus they were free from doing pujas or any rituals etc. They could just stay in their rooms and relax. I believe that this also suggests why they were stopped from entering kitchens, cooking and thus seclusion.

  23. Surely your article has given certain amount of information to dig more and of course share to our young generation. thanks for the lovely collation of work, and i really appreciate your sincere wanting to find and sharing. Thanks!

  24. I would like to share my thoughts. My mom was born in a village. From what she told us about the practises of her times, I came to these conclusions.
    There were no bathrooms/toilets in homes those days. Women have to go to rivers/ponds/public water bodies for all their needs. The menstrual blood may contaminate the water bodies, so women were made to remain home. They have to walk long distance too to bring water, use the heavy manual gadgets. That may make the flow heavy. So women were banned from working too. Temples were huge ones and the same reason that women dont need to walk such distances and go around large temples during that time.

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