|Menstrual Taboos for Indian Women|
There are certain Menstrual Taboos for Indian women based on an age old belief system or cultural practices which has come from age old superstitious beliefs which needs to be uprooted.
Women across India follow menstrual rituals in reverence to an age old belief system that they want to be keepers of. Many of them get stuck in trying to prove whether or not these practices are scientific. Yet, they follow these menstrual rituals because that’s been imposed on them that this cycle is impure or unholy and thus they should abstain from certain religious practices. Now, there is an educated women of India, who question this belief system and finds no scientific reason to support the idea and rather they feel this is just reasons to suppress women.
Our Age Old Menstrual Practices arise from a common ground – Ancient Indian Science, which includes Ayurveda, Yoga, Meditation, Mantra and Astrology. The science of Mudras, a part of Yoga, is also important in this understanding.
Many a time, it seemed that each culture has a whole new explanation of the same menstrual practice such as not going to the temple, avoiding cooking and eating with others, avoiding sex during menstruation, avoid eating certain types of food during menstruation, believing that menstrual blood is impure, taking time off during menstruation, not touching pickles during menstruation etc…
We need to accept that each culture has its unique “menstrual history” and generalizing the origin of these practices should be avoided. However, as I tried to consolidate all, The ancient Vedic seers, recognized a principle of “energy” that gives movement, velocity, direction, animation and motivation. This energy of life is called Prana, meaning primal breath or life-force. Western allopathic medicine which is a few centuries old is based on external medication and intervention. Whereas Ayurveda which is at least 7000 years old, is a science of life and a natural healing system, with a deep understanding of the human body and its relation to nature.
Ayurveda is based on the principles of three primary life-forces in the body, called the three doshas. Doshas are the bio-energies that make up every individual, and help in performing different physiological functions in the body. The three types of Doshas are Vata, Pitta and Kapha, which correspond to the elements of air, fire and water respectively. Each dosha has a primary function in the body. Vata (element, air) is the moving force responsible for communication, perception and cognition; Pitta (element, fire) is the force of assimilation and is responsible for metabolism; and Kapha (element, water) is the force of stability.
According to Ayurveda, menstruation is closely linked to the functions of the doshas. Menstruation is regarded in Ayurveda as a special opportunity enjoyed by women for monthly cleansing of excess doshas; it is this monthly cleansing that accounts for female longevity. There is a build up of energy in the days leading to menstruation as the body prepares for pregnancy. If pregnancy does not take place and menstruation starts, this built up energy gets dissipated from the body during menstruation. During menstruation, Vata is the predominant dosha. Apana vayu, one of the elemental air functions of the Vata Dosha, is responsible for the downward flow of menstruation. Therefore, any activity that interferes with this necessary downward flow of energy during menstruation should be avoided. During menstruation, women are more likely to absorb other energies in their environment. This forms the basis of most of the cultural practices around menstruation in India.
- Not attending religious functions, visiting temples and not touching menstruating women
As per Ayurveda- “The energy during menstruation goes downwards into the earth, (at the puja table, offerings, altar), the energy is going upwards. This can bring discomfort in the body”. There is nothing impure about Menstruation. Women who is menstruating is a living Goddess at that time. The energy of the God or Goddess which is there in the murthi (idol) will move over to her, and that (the idol) becomes lifeless, while this (the menstruating woman) is life. So that’s why they were prevented from entering the temple. So it is exactly the opposite of what we think”.
- Avoiding cooking and eating with others during menstruation
As per Ayurveda- Eating was considered as a spiritual activity. Many orthodox Brahmins even today chant as they cook to ensure that the food has higher and positive energy in it. During the process of eating food, the lower chakras of our body are highly active. It is to change this, that Buddhist monasteries have a practice of reciting the scriptures during meal hours, so that the monks are focused on higher chakras. So while eating, people expel negative energy all around. In the normal course of things, we would not feel it. But if a menstruating woman who is sensitive to absorb all types of energies around her is in the middle of a group that is eating, she can get affected by the lower energies (as opposed to higher or spiritual energies, which are beneficial). This is probably the reason why menstruating women were told to stay away from others and eat separately.Note: Chakras are energy centres in the spinal column. There are seven chakras in the human body. The lower chakras are involved in bodily functions while the higher chakras are connected to the higher centres in the brain.
The cosmic memory of food – that which is derived only from plant life according to the Vedas – is imbued with prana, a rising energy flowing up from the earth towards the sun and the sky. Conversely, our menstrual blood is instilled with apana vayu, the downward flowing, bodily air pulled down from the body by the magnetic forces of the earth. These two powerful sadhanas do not go hand in hand.
Plant-derived food is also kaphain nature, full of youth giving energy that nourishes the body; menstrual blood is dominated by Pitta and Vata, which fosters the cleansing of the spirit. It is most unwise to introduce the rising, energizing nature of our food into our blood, or to mix the downward flowing, cleansing energy of
blood into our sustenance, either by preparing food during menstruation, or by slaughtering animals and eating them.”
- Avoiding sex during menstruationOne of the cultural practices surrounding menstruation is the restriction on sexual activity. On one hand, the conversation in the west is shifting to talking about “period sex” as being more pleasurable due to the extra lubrication that blood offers, and also because women are more sensitive during menstruation. However, the Indian thought process behind saying that sex during menstruation should be avoided has to do with the way in which the energy flow affects menstruating women during sex.During sexual intercourse, women absorb the male energy and men release energy into the woman during ejaculation. So imagine a menstruating woman who is meant to release her own energy, and is instead having to absorb her partner’s energy. Also, if she has sex with multiple partners or with partners having negative energy, it would affect her adversely. Therefore, sex during menstruation was believed to affect a woman’s natural energy flow, and was thus prohibited for her own good.
- Avoid eating certain type of food during menstruationAyurveda clearly mentions certain types of food that affect women during menstruation. Any food that generates heat such as animal and dairy products should be avoided. Some women also have stomach upsets or loose motions during menstruation. Therefore, food that is easy to digest, and food that is rich in iron and calcium such as ragi, drumstick leaf, etc help menstruating girls and reduce cramps. The influence of food on menstruation is something that any menstruating woman who has severe menstrual cramps can try and experience herself.Note: Each person has a different constituency and accordingly each one will have variation in the three doshas. Therefore, not every person is affected similarly by specific types of food. Ideally, getting yourself checked by a qualified Ayurvedic practioner and then following specific diet for menstrual pain should be preferred.
- Believing that menstrual blood is impurePerhaps, the most common notion of all is that menstrual blood is impure and that it makes women impure. Interestingly, in some Indian cultures, the menstrual blood itself is revered and thought of as having potent power. What is pure, we don’t touch. And what we don’t touch, we call it a Taboo. She (a menstruating woman) was so pure, that she was worshiped as a Goddess.Note: The temple of the Bhagwathi in Chengannur (Kerala) and the temple of Kamakhya Devi (Assam) where the Goddess too was believed to menstruate and followed similar rituals of menstrual seclusion, closing the temple for 3 days and then celebrating the end of her menstruation. In both these temples, the menstrual cloth is considered highly auspicious and is distributed among devotees. If these menstrual rituals were meant to suppress women, surely we would not be doing the same with the Goddess.
- Taking time off during menstruationThe idea of resting and not disturbing menstruating women, including a Goddess, does not arise from any superstitious belief. It is because of the thought that menstruation and the release of downward flow energy during this time should not be interrupted in any way. It is a natural cleansing process which helps women remain healthy, and should not be affected by external influences.
Cultural practices believed that it is necessary for a woman to align her cycles with that of the moon in order to ensure that her menstrual cycle and overall health is in balance. For women with menstrual problems, one of the corrective measures offered by traditional healers is to help them align their cycles with the moon cycle.
To Conclude: The theory of menstruating women losing their energy and absorbing everyone and everything else’s energy can be applied to all the menstrual restrictions we know of. Whether it is the withering of a Tulsi plant (Indian Basil, considered as a holy plant), the spoiling of curd, pickle or other sensitive processes like silk worm rearing, it can be explained when we consider that menstruating women have a tendency to absorb energies around them. This affects the menstruating women as it interferes with her natural process of having to dissipate energy, and it also impacts the person or thing (plant or other biological process) by depleting it of its vital energy. This also explains the reason behind practicing untouchability and menstrual seclusion.
However, not all menstruating women can affect living processes. The reason I am assuming is because not all women have their cycles in sync with nature and therefore, their energies are not as pronounced. So while some women swear that the Tulsi plant they touched withered away, other women rubbish it saying it is superstition. Whereas, in the ancient times, it was said that all women menstruated with the moon’s cycle, and so the menstrual practices would have become a general rule for all women.