Understanding Menstrual Taboos
Originally posted on The Modern Hindu
A recurring theme in Hindu philosophy is the trifold essence of dharma, namely dharma’s dependence on desa (place), kala (time), and patra (identity). What is dharma at one time and place is adharma at another.
Sadly, much of modern society has turned a blind eye to the significance and dharma behind many ancient practices. We blindly follow these ancient practices in the name of tradition, and in doing so we forget that what was appropriate at one time and one place is likely obsolete at a different time and place. Maintaining tradition is ever-so important, but tradition loses its meaning if the reasons behind its practices are not understood.
During her period, a woman is told to sit alone, away from the rest of the family, until her bleeding stops. She is not allowed to enter the kitchen or touch any cooking utensils. She is not allowed to touch the laundry. She is not allowed to certain foods. She is not allowed to leave the house. And above all, she is not allowed to enter the puja room or go to the temple. If she asks why, she is simply told that she must respect “age-old tradition” and that breaking this tradition would bring “taboo.”
The reason for these practices in ancient times was not patriarchy or female impurity. Rather, it was out of incredible respect and appreciation for women. Just as a farmer depended on Mother Earth to grow crops and sustain life, a grihasta (householder) depended on his wife to birth children and sustain his lineage. Just as Mother Earth nurtures seed in her soil to grow healthy crops, a sthree (woman) nurtures seed in her womb for nine months to give birth to a beautiful child.
That being said, for every process of creation, there must be an equal and opposite process of destruction. This is the law of prakriti (nature). If the womb is nourished in preparation for pregnancy that doesn’t occur, then it must undergo menstruation, the process of destruction and cleansing. If this process of destruction does not occur, then toxic substances in the womb cannot escape and the womb cannot be fit to hold a baby. Menstruation is not an act of impurity; it is but a part of prakriti.
The pain and joy that a woman undergoes when giving birth is unimaginable and unknown to man. In the same sense, the pain and misery that a woman goes through during menses each month is unlike anything man has experienced before. Our rishis knew well of this fact, so they set this custom to ensure that during these four days, the sthree was fully relaxed. For these four days, she was freed from any responsibilities. She did not have to cook, she did not have to clean, she did not have to do any chores. Back in the day, household chores were nowhere near as easy as they are today. To cook a meal for her family, the sthree would have to walk long distances to fetch water for boiling the rice and vegetables. To clean the house, she would have to move heavy items out of the way. To do the laundry, she would have to beat clothes on a rock and scrub them clean by hand. All of these chores strained the womb and put any future possibility of pregnancy at risk. As a result, during these four days the sthree’s husband would take over the responsibilities and look after his wife’s well-being.
Our rishis knew about PMS too. They knew that the more time we had to ourselves to introspect and meditate, the more relaxed and in control of our emotions we would be. This is why the practice of staying in a separate room emerged. With the imbalance of hormones and shortening of temper during PMS, women ran the risk of losing their temper and saying hurtful things to others. To prevent this from happening, our rishis suggested that women stay indoors to themselves so that they would have time to relax and sort out their thoughts instead of possibly lashing out on others.
During menses, a woman did not even have to do puja or visit temple to serve God. As devotional as puja was, it was a lot of stress and work. God does not want us to perform any duty without our mind and soul wholeheartedly dedicated to the task at hand. A woman on her period would never quite be able to serve God wholeheartedly because her mind is cluttered and she is distracted by the pain of her cleansing womb. So instead, samskara dictated that the woman herself was to be treated as the Divine during her period.By looking after herself during those four days and ensuring the purity of her womb and health of her future child, she would fulfill her dharma as a mother. Because this is the period during which she cleanses her womb to prepare a future pregnancy, she is greater than Lord Brahma himself. The Taittiriya Upanishad says Matrudevobhava pitrudevobhava acharyadevobhava atidhidevobhava, meaning “Mother, father, teacher, and guest are all forms of God. Each deserves our highest respect.” This is why it was more important that she serve herself and her womb than serving God. By looking after herself during those four days and ensuring the purity of her womb and health of her future child, she would fulfill her dharma as a mother.
Contrary to popular belief, a woman on her period is not impure, nor was she ever considered to be impure. In fact, she is so pure that she is considered a Devi, or a Goddess. Sri Amritananda Natha Saraswati (Guruji), founder of Devipuram temple in Andhra Pradesh, said: ”What is pure, we don’t touch. And what we don’t touch, we call it a taboo.” Contrary to popular belief, it is not the woman that is impure and “taboo”, but rather the outside world. The woman, or Living Goddess Devi, undergoes sensitive changes in energies that, if disturbed by outsiders, could put her womb and fertility in danger. Moreover, it was believed that during this time, the Divine Energy in the idol at the temple is transferred to the Living Goddess, and the idol becomes lifeless. This was why a woman on her period would not enter a temple — not because of her impurity but because of her expurity and her sensitivity to the Divine Energy.
A woman’s period is one of several rituals of prakriti that are her opportunity to relax her mind and restore her health and purity. Sadly over time, society has taken this ritual of prakriti and turned it into a shameful act. A woman’s rest from chores and responsibility was turned into banishment from the household. Her divine status during her period was turned into a lowly rank of impurity and inferiority.
One can respect tradition and custom without adhering to every single ancient practice. A woman need not avoid touching cooking utensils or touching laundry in present day. With dishwashers and washing machines and technology that makes household chores incredibly easy for us, there is not as much stress and physical activity to prevent us from abandoning these household responsibilities. She can do her chores without worry of ”contaminating” the household. That being said, relaxation and rest is still important. If doing chores is what helps her relax, she should not refrain from her chores out of fear of taboo. If doing puja is what helps her feel better, she should not refrain from doing puja out of fear of offending God. Here, tradition is not the act of avoiding chores or puja, but rather the respect and care for the woman’s mental and physical health.