Menstrual restrictions among Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Sikh women – the similarity and the reasons for it

In this week’s #AskMythri series, we answer the following question from a reader:

Reader’s Question: Have you done any research on Christianity and Sikhism that allows menstruating women into the Gurudwaras and Churches? I have close friends who are Christians and Sikhs and I have visited their worshiping place when I was menstruating (after I clarified if it was OK to do that) without any constraints. Isn’t their mantras as powerful as Hinduism’s mantras that menstruating women are allowed into their worshiping place? Why only Hindus/Indians have this issue? Really hope to hear from you.

 

Understanding the depth of any one religion should make it possible for us to understand other religions and their practices. We might even be surprised to find the similarities that exist at the core of religions that seem to be at loggerheads on the surface. Over the years, as we explored the menstrual practices associated with different religious groups, we found that at the core these practices were rooted in the understanding of the subtle sciences. It seems as though our ancestors across the world were far too familiar with the subtleties of how the human body functions and evolved practices around this understanding. Their familiarity was such that they perhaps thought it was unnecessary to explain the “why” behind practices, especially menstrual practices, as it must have seemed obvious to them.

Ancient religions and the practices they evolved have layers of understanding – the ritualistic layer, the symbolic layer, the faith based layers, and underneath it all, lies the scientific layer, from which the rest seemed to have been created. Yes, science. Not science in the external lab-oriented research form as we limit it to today. But science in the direct experience of subtle forces and the understanding of the influence of these forces on the human body. As we explore the various menstrual practices across different religious communities, this scientific knowledge of ancient religions becomes more and more evident.

In our earlier write-up, “Unearthing Menstrual Wisdom: Why we do not visit the temple, and other practices”, we have written about the menstrual practices among Hindu women and the root of it in Ayurveda. The same understanding can be applied to understand the menstrual practices of other religions as well. But first, a bit about how Ayurveda views the menstruating body.

Ayurveda and Menstrual Flow

Ayurveda identifies three biological forces (called Doshas) – the Vata, the Pitta and the Kapha – which influence all the functions of the body. In menstrual language, the release of hormones that lead to menstruation is triggered by the Vata Dosha, which controls all movement. The process of ovulation is the result of the Pitta Dosha, which is responsible for all transformative processes. And the stability that we enjoy post menstruation is due to the dominance of the Kapha Dosha, which maintains the cell structure. Ayurveda views menstrual disorders (and any disease for that matter) as an aggravation of one or more of the doshas and treatment focuses on bringing the doshas back to equilibrium.

Pictorial representation of the Doshas and 5 sub-types of Vata Dosha

To understand how religious rituals impact the menstrual flow, it is necessary to get familiar with the sub-types of Vata Dosha, since it is the dominant dosha at the time of menstruation. Vata Dosha has 5 sub-types which control movement in various parts of the body. Each sub-type has a specific direction of movement (ex. upward, circular, downward, etc.) to facilitate specific activities. We will elaborate a bit on just 2 sub-types for our understanding of the topic at hand – Samana Vayu & Apana Vayu. Samana Vayu, whose direction is circular, manages digestive activities in the stomach region. When food enters the stomach, the Samana Vayu releases necessary acids to help in digestion of food. Apana Vayu is present in the region below the abdomen. Its direction is vertically downward as it manages the discharge of bodily wastes, birth of a child and menstrual flow out of the body. Any change in the direction of Apana Vayu will impact the menstrual flow (and other activities managed by Apana Vayu).

Note: We have used Ayurveda as a basis for understanding religious menstrual practices, owing to our familiarity with Ayurveda. However, we can also explore other ancient sciences such as Siddha, Unani, Homeopathy and Chinese Medicine to understand the religious restrictions in different regions, since they too function at the subtle levels.

Impact of Religious practices on Menstrual Flow

Ancient religions understood the presence of the biological forces within the body and accordingly altered their movement through religious spaces and/or religious practices. Consecration of religious spaces and uttering of specific verses were found to influence the movement of doshas and align them upwards. Why upwards?

Pictorial representation of the Chakras

In the study of Chakras, we find that the uppermost Chakra located slightly above the head is called the Sahasrara Chakra, which is considered as the seat of spiritual realization. The aim of religious rituals and practices is to cause the movement of bodily forces upwards and towards the Sahasrara Chakra. It was understood that specific rituals could result in changing the circular movement of the Samana Vayu, thereby affecting digestion. Similarly, certain rituals could impact the downward movement of the Apana Vayu, thereby impacting menstruation. And accordingly, menstrual restrictions evolved. Let’s explore them one by one.

Menstrual restrictions among Hindu women

In ancient Hindu temples, the entire temple was consecrated1 to allow the upward movement of bodily forces when one enters this space. Hence there is a general rule to visit a temple on an empty stomach, to avoid an impaired Samana Vayu from causing indigestion. For menstruating women, the Apana Vayu is continuously meant to move downwards to facilitate menstrual flow. But if a menstruating woman enters a consecrated temple, the direction of her Apana Vayu is likely to alter and cause menstrual cramps (in the short term). Continued Apana inversion over long periods of time could even result in menstrual disorders, when the flow of menstrual blood is altered. (Note that Apana alteration and resulting disorders is also possible among women who frequently practice inversions at the time of menstruation, such as during gymnastics, inverted yoga postures, or other activities that alter the direction of Apana Vayu). An altered Apana Vayu causes severe pain and is not easy to treat, such as in the case of Endometriosis. Our ancestors understood this well enough to impose strict discipline (and fear) among menstruating women to ensure that they do not enter consecrated spaces.

Menstrual restrictions among Christian women

We first encountered menstrual restrictions among Christian women, during one of our field visits in a village in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. The woman we interviewed said that while it is okay for menstruating women in their community to visit the church, the priest has told them not to receive the Holy Communion, during menstruation. We later found that among Orthodox Christians, it is widely practiced that menstruating women refrain from receiving the Holy Communion (a consecrated bread which is considered as the Body of Christ).

Consecration of the Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, during the Holy Eucharist celebration.

Unlike a Hindu Temple, the building of a Church is not what is consecrated. Instead, it is through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist2, that the spiritual possibility is made accessible to individuals. In fact, even the language used during the ritual is Aramaic4 or Syriac (which is derived from Aramaic), the language that Jesus is believed to have spoken. The primal sounds of ancient languages were known to invoke subtler energy systems that could impact the physical body as well. Just as Sanskrit verses produces sound vibrations that can alter the biological forces in the human body, Aramaic too must have had the similar effect and hence it was used while consecrating the bread to become the Body of Christ. In South India’s Orthodox Churches, we find that the ancient Aramaic or Syriac language (called Suryani5 in Kerala) is still used during the Holy Eucharist, even though the rest of the sermon is in an Indian language. Therefore, the portion of the Christian ritual which is likely to impact the bodily forces is the Holy Eucharist, not the Church itself. In this light, the restriction on menstruating women from accepting the Holy Communion can be understood.

Also, just as Hindus visit the temple on an empty stomach, so also Christians are required to be on an empty stomach before receiving the Holy Communion. Thus we see the same understanding of how religious practices can affect the digestive forces (Samana Vayu) and hence the restrictions.

(Note: In many Catholic Churches of India, the entire sermon including the Holy Eucharist celebration is translated into the local language. While this exercise makes it possible for the worshipper to understand the words, some amount of the effect of the ritual has perhaps been altered, due to the omission of the ancient sounds. In general, Catholic Churches have no restrictions on menstruating women.)

Menstrual restrictions among Muslim women

For Muslim women, religion based menstrual restrictions require them to not perform the Namaz/ Salaat or read the Quran during menstruation.

Prayer positions during Namaz/Salaat

Those who are familiar with Yoga Asanas3, will recognize the postures taken during Namaz to include semi-Paschimottanasana (Ruku pose), Shashankasana (Sujud pose) and Vajrasana (Julus pose). Paschimottanasana and Shashankasana direct the flow of blood towards the upper body parts, which might negatively impact menstruating women. Vajrasana activates the Samana and Apana Vayu, thereby regulating digestion and movement of wastes out of the body. Vajrasana is sometimes recommended for those suffering from menstrual cramps to release the excess Vayu (gas). However, for menstruating women, the Apana Vayu is already active and when further stimulated, especially 5 times as it is repeated during Namaz, could increase the menstrual flow. Hence these asanas (and Namaz) is not encouraged for menstruating women.

Like Sanskrit and Aramaic, the Quran’s language is Arabic. Arabic is also an ancient language which produces the sound vibrations capable of impacting the bodily forces. Reciting of verses from Quran in Arabic could cause the biological forces to alter their typical movements. So it is not a surprise that during Ramadan, the focus is on fasting and reading the Quran, for maximum impact on bodily forces and hence attaining spiritual realization. Notice again that fasting before the practice is present here as well.

Why the Gurudwara has no menstrual restriction

When we closely look at menstrual practices across different religions, we find that menstrual restrictions are imposed on entering spaces that are consecrated or on partaking in rituals that cause the bodily forces to alter their direction. So to understand the absence of menstrual restrictions in religions such as Sikhism, the questions to be explored are

  • Whether or not the religious space is ritually consecrated?
  • Do they follow rituals involving ancient languages?

Exploring these questions with respect to a Gurudwara should lead us to the answers we are looking for. As we know, Sikhism evolved as a reformist movement, and is one of the youngest religions. At its core, it strove to move away from ritualistic practices and convey the essence of religion in the common language of the masses. The focus here is not on consecrated spaces or primal sounds, and therefore the lack of menstrual restrictions in a Gurudwara is obvious.

Concluding remarks

Lastly, when we explore religion and science in an unbiased fashion, we will realize that ancient religions have more in common than what we like to admit. The impact of a Hindu temple on a menstruating woman is similar to receiving the Holy Communion for a Christian woman or performing the Namaz/Salaat for a Muslim woman. Religion was considered as an effective tool to imbibe the scientific understanding among the masses, and rituals/religious practices evolved in this background. Has it been misused? Perhaps yes. But calling all of it as superstition is actually a new level of superstition, since it comes without the curiosity and exploration that religion might have wanted us to cultivate.


Further Reading:

  1. The Phenomenon of Consecration – https://isha.sadhguru.org/in/en/wisdom/article/the-phenomenon-of-consecration
  2. All about The Eucharist – https://www.kwl.com.au/blog/sacraments/all-about-the-eucharist-questions-answers/
  3. Synthesis of Yoga and Namaz – http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1982/ajan82/namaz.shtml
  4. Aramaic Language – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aramaic_language
  5. Suriyani – A Sacred Language is vanishing from the State – https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-kerala/A-sacred-language-is-vanishing-from-State/article15278959.ece

6. The feature photo used in this blog is a copy of Raja Ravi Varma’s painting, from Wikimedia Commons

7. The image of Islamic prayer positions has been taken from Wikimedia Commons

 

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