Who is a Hindu? Menstrual taboos are not unique to Hinduism
Published on 16th August, 2020, in Mumbai Mirror.
In Kerala, there is the story of a group of boys who found a rock bleeding. Those who touched it died instantly. The rest were told to wear women’s clothes and take it to the village, to be worshipped. For the stone was the goddess. In Odisha, during Raja festival, the earth is said to menstruate and women are asked to not work that day and instead, relax on beds or play on the swing. In Assam, the resident deity of the Kamakhya temple bleeds annually and the temple is shut. In Nepal, the living Kumari goddess loses her power when she starts bleeding and it is time to replace her. Menstruation is part of Hinduism, especially its Tantrik aspects.
Even today, we come across stories of women not being allowed to enter Hindu temples or performing rituals, or even enter the traditional kitchen when they are menstruating. People often assume that these restrictions are the result of Brahminism. However, menstruation has been considered impure and dangerous in almost every religion around the world.
Tribal communities right from Africa to Southeast Asia believe that during menstruation, women have to be segregated. They have to stay away from people and the settlements, in menstrual huts built specifically for this purpose. Such practices have been found in tribes in Indonesia, Africa and Papua New Guinea. Women are advised to stay away from hunting trails and to bathe in special fountains. They are allowed to work in agricultural fields but are told to avoid village streets and family compounds. And, intercourse is strictly forbidden. In Russia, there is the belief that if a hunter touches a menstruating woman, then animals would see him. Thus he would be unable to hunt them down.
In Judaism, there are strict codes about menstruating women. No contact is allowed between men and menstruating women. This holds for the period of menstruation and the week thereafter. During the period, the husband and wife cannot share a bed. Most couples have two separate beds, which are pulled apart during this period.
The British Medical Journal of 1858 claimed that a menstruating woman could cause bacon to putrefy. So much for science. The idea of not touching pickles found in India therefore, is clearly not restricted to India. It is because of menstruation that women have been kept away from positions of authority in the Christian Church and most Christian denominations.
Menstruation is seen as a curse and not a natural, biological function. A curse put on women for the Original Sin. This is when Eve caused Adam to eat the Forbidden Fruit.
In Islam, menstruating women are considered impure and during this time, men have to keep away from them. In the Quran-Chapter 2, Verse 222, it is said, that if one asks about menstruation, say it is an illness. The women should be left alone during that time till they are cleansed. During this time, menstruating women are not allowed to touch the Quran or enter the mosque. If they bleed during the month of Ramadan, they are not allowed to fast or pray during those days.
Buddhist practices vary across countries. In countries like Taiwan, menstruating women are seen as polluted and attracting negative energies. In China, the belief was that ghosts eat menstrual blood. Therefore, menstruating woman are said to attract ghosts. A study of Taiwanese Buddhists reveals that most of them saw menstruation as unclean, dirty and a cause for great shame.
The idea of segregation, avoiding sex, and taking ritual ‘purification’ bath are not uniquely Hindu customs but a universal practice, stemming from patriarchal discomfort. It has more to do with gender, than religion, arguments of atheists notwithstanding. This belief originated before there were sanitary napkins and hygiene products. The sight of blood dripping from a woman’s body, every month, discomforted and startled people. In earlier times, when maternal and infant mortality rate was high, menstruation was a rare event as women indulged in reproductive activity at an early age and were pregnant before they had a chance to menstruate. Over time, various spiritual and occult meanings were given to the physiological act and this gave rise to menstrual taboos.
Now some ‘woke’ people believe that by keeping women away from the workplace during menstruation, we are helping them — giving them much needed physiological rest, and acknowledging their womanhood. Not all women agree.