Menstruation has been surrounded by myths and taboos for ages and across various cultures. Menstruation happens when an ovary releases an egg and the uterus prepares itself for pregnancy during the ovulation period. An unfertilized egg causes the lining of the uterus to break down and bleed out of vagina. This cycle happens once in every month for people having ovaries. There are various menstrual taboos in Hinduism we’ll be discussing in this article.
Till today, women from various parts of the worlds faces discrimination and considered impure and dirty. They often restricted to perform various ‘sacred’ activities, such as worshipping and cooking food.
As per studies, women* who practice these restrictions during their periods have chosen cultural and religious reasons to do so.
Vedas, Samhitas and Smritis have restricted women to do various activities during menstruation. Especially menstrual taboos in Hinduism is huge. Not because scriptures say so, but because some patriarchal norms force people to believe in them. Activities like sexual intercourse, exercising, household chores like cooking, cleaning, self-pampering (bathing, combing, applying make-up etc), segregation, and of course to enter temples and perform spiritual/religious activities.
Let’s concentrate on each restriction separately.
Although period sex can help decrease the menstrual cramps, women are advised to not have sexual intercourse while menstruating is simply because it’s messy and it can transmit diseases carried by infected blood (STI). The regular pH level of vagina is between 3.8 – 4.5. During periods, due to blood’s basic nature, it can rise and may cause vaginal yeast infection.
Also, women are prone to suffer from urinary tract infection right after intercourse. It is because bacteria are more likely to get transferred to the urethra and infect their bladder during this time. So, it is all about hygiene rather than impurity of menstruating women. It is just that there might be chances of infection while you have sex. And if there are infections, they can play as risk factors in your baby’s birth defects. Would you rather take the risk or play it safe? – is completely up to you.
Menstruating women are restricted from household chores like cooking and cleaning, simply because during menstruation women’s bodies are weak and cannot perform heavy activities like cleaning, cooking, running and other work. Due to a higher level of hormonal secretion during these days, girls tend to have physical weaknesses and mood swings. So, it is advisable to not indulge in excessive working, heavy exercising etc. to not disturb the body.
One of the menstrual taboos in Hinduism was women cannot take bath during their periods. In ancient times, people used to take baths in rivers (and similar water bodies). Also, they used the same water for drinking purposes. Perhaps this was the reason why women didn’t take baths during bleeding. Nowadays, things have changed. Women can access sanitation and hygiene easily. So, there’s no point in that.
Still, in many parts of the world, women have to stay separate during this period. So, a better logical thinking can explain this as females tend to have mood swings, cramps, headaches etc, so it is better to leave them in a separate room, where they wouldn’t feel disturbed. Another reason might be the management of blood loss. Today we have hygienic products like menstrual cups, sanitary pads, tampons, etc. But in earlier days, this might not have been the case always. So, to provide them an external-disturbance free environment, they kept women inside and separately. In this way, they wouldn’t have to face any embarrassing situations in public.
The belief is, during monthly period, women go through Rajasic state and this time is considered as self-purification process, and it sounds ridiculous. Rather, it can be called a self-cleaning process. Women’s vagina cleanses itself. This is a rather known-but-overlooked factor. Period blood is basically a combination of blood, unfertilized egg, uterine tissues, mucus lining, healthful bacteria, etc. During menstruation, this blood leaves our body. So, it is better not to rupture the ideal environment that may affect the health. That is the only reason why girls are advised to stay separate and take rest during periods.
So, basically, it is about rest and austerity so that they wouldn’t face any external disturbances.
Most burning menstrual taboo in Hinduism is that women cannot visit temples or do puja during their periods.
Why are women advised (restricted in most cases) not to participate in worshipping/sacred ceremonies?
The concept of ‘women are contaminated’ during menstruation was there before the discovery of sanitary napkins or other menstrual products. A hypothesis of this situation could be because women in the ancient times didn’t have access to period products, the blood could have fallen on the floor, and thus they were restricted to leave their rooms. The menstrual taboos in Hinduism was that fallen menstrual fluid would be contaminated. Not just the menstrual fluid, according to Devdutt Pattanaik, in Vedic traditions, they considered any kind of fluid as contaminated, be it saliva, blood or sweat. However, in tantric traditions, the same was a subject of worship. [Ref. 1] However, as time has changed and hygiene is in hand’s reach, these rules don’t apply anymore.
According to Ayurveda shastra–
Menstrual Cycle is a physiological process, associated with three Doshas. Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Dis-balances among these three causes unnatural periods (abdominal pain, burning, back pain, cramps, depression etc), which in extreme cases affect the health of women, including their fertility.
There are various dos and don’ts prescribed in Ayurveda, known as Rajashala Paricharya, that help keep the balance of these three doshas. This again asks women not to participate in excessive walking, talking in a loud voice, travelling that can affect health adversely, taking food rich in oil and spices, sexual intercourse, etc.
If we try to break it down, we can find a logical explanation.
Generally, in ancient ages, temples happened to be situated in high hills. So, the most strenuous task to reach the temple was travelling. People had to hike uphill and cover a moderate distance to reach those temples based on high hills. So, it explains why they prevented menstruating women to enter the temples. Excessive walking and travelling would have harmed their health.
Another reason, a very astounding one if I may add, is that studies have proven women who reside on higher altitudes are less fertile than the women who live in lower altitudes. So, there were restrictions on women to stay in the temples, most of which used to be situated uphill. So it explains why. [Ref. 2]
According to Medical Science–
Because of the odor period blood generates. Menstrual blood has the presence of many kinds of healthful bacteria to fight off the bad bacteria and keep the pH level of vagina between 3.8 – 4.5 which is healthy. Due to the reactions caused by these bacteria, often menstrual blood releases odor like tangy, coppery, sweet, etc. Many times, an infection called Bacterial vaginosis can cause the period blood to smell abnormally like a foul decaying odor, fishy or skunky odor due to sweat.
So, the point is, an ideal temple must have a divine ambience for practising spirituality. All the human senses must be in balance to experience that essence for which we go to worship. Any external disturbance might cause a dis-balance. So, this might explain why in ancient times they didn’t allow females entering temples during that time.
According to Spiritual Masters–
According to the founder of International Society for Krishna Consciousness, His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada, menstruating women can do seva (worshipping) according to goswami vidhi, but better not to. She cannot do seva according to smarta vidhi. As bhakti (devotion) is above everything, one must not stop worshipping of Lord Krishna in any situation. Purity of consciousness is more important than physical contamination. If there are no other options available to do the seva, she can do it. Otherwise, her family members can offer dry foods to the deity instead of cooked food. She can ask some other family members to do it. Menstruating women may visit the temples but should refrain herself from any kind of temple activities. She must avoid physical contact with the devotees who are directly involved in activities of deity worship (e.g., stitching clothes, garland making, cooking prasadam etc.). After three days, she must take a proper bath before returning to her services.
According to Sadhguru, in spiritualism, there is no mention of menstrual cycle anywhere as spiritually it’s not possible to have menstruation. If women didn’t have periods, life wasn’t possible. If that (menstruation) is impure, then our birth is also impure. Our whole creation is impure. It is absolutely ridiculous when someone, at a certain point of time, made this a discriminatory process. Seclusion for menstruating women is needed for physiological-psychological reason, but considering women as impure when they are bleeding is an awfully rudimentary approach.
Some hypothetical and scriptural reference–
Since, in Hinduism, we worship almost everything that’s natural. A famous temple in North East India is Kamakhya Temple, Assam where people worship Devi Yoni (vagina). An annual festival named Ambubachi happens when Devi goes through her menstrual phase. It is a very famous festival among Indians who consider this the most auspicious time of the year. Now isn’t this an irony? When a man asked a priest this question he answered, we do not touch what is pure, and what we cannot touch, we call it taboo. Pretty much explains why women are considered impure during menstruation.
Now if we look into scriptures, Srimad Bhagvatam 6.9.6, states why and how women got periods in the first place. Once, Indra the King of the Heaven, out of great anger killed Vishwarupa who had been offering oblation to the demons. However, as Vishwarupa was a Brahmana from his father’s side, Indra was contaminated with the sin of killing a Brahmana. Although Indra held such power to neutralize the sinful reactions, he chose to repent. After suffering for one year, to decontaminate himself, he distributed his sinful burden among earth, trees, water and women.
Women accepted one-fourth of the sinful reaction along with the benediction of enjoying lusty desires continuously and more than men. As a result, women began to manifest signs of menstruation every month.
In conclusion, impurity of menstruating women in Hinduism can only be explainable if we consider it as a matter of hygiene. There is only one logical explanation as to why women must stay separated while having ‘that time of month’, and it is purely based on physiological comfort and hygiene.
- A Manual of Vaishnava Etiquette and Lifestyle
- Iskcon related ideals for the Asaucham: (Contamination period)
- Should Women Be Kept Separate During Menstruation – Sadhguru
- Srimad Bhagvatam, Canto 6, Chapter 9, Text 6