The Sabrimala Confusion: Menstruation across cultures

This is no evidence in Hindu History, which is comparable to witch-hunting and burning in Christianity, or the severe restrictions placed on women in Islam. Instead, we have enormous evidence regarding the celebration of menstruation among different Hindu communities.

Let me make this clear. This is NOT an easy book to read, and that does not mean it’s not fascinating. It indeed is. But the human body, including menstruation, is complicated. So are our religious and cultural practices around them. The author has done his best to explain and give context to WHY such traditions are practised and explained the logic behind them. The book tells how menstruation was perceived across various Indic religions, Abrahamic religions, ancient western civilizations like Egyptian, Mesopotamian civilization, etc. and other indigenous communities. To quote Ms Ojha from the forward of the book, The author sets the record straight about menstruation in the Indic Tradition and compares it with ideas from different cultures, past and present to put it in perspective. All roots with the past, the passing down of best practices from mother to daughter and grandmother to granddaughter have been brutally sidelined in the name of modernity. All discussions about menstruation revolve exclusively around biology and other aspects of the issue like subjective experiences, cultural knowledge and spirituality are reduced to taboos and superstitions. The contemporary narrative about Indian Women not having access to hygienic menstrual products or that they largely indulge in unhygienic and superstitious menstrual practices owing to poverty, illiteracy and imposed cultural practices rooted in patriarchy is misleading, incorrect, and may have been manufactured for ulterior motives.

The book begins with the Hindu View of Menstruation, this segment is given the most focus and is discussed in thorough detail, to clear the misconceptions about the traditions in the Sanatan Dharma. It talks about the lunar cycle and how it connects with menstruation, but mainly about the Story of Indra, of how menstruation came into existence according to Hinduism. About ASHAUCHA.  It also discusses the key principles that can be derived from the narrative, and what things should be practised during, in extreme detail. Another important discussion is about Traditions that have been since inception. This segment ends with discussing the Yogic & Ayurvedic perspectives on Menstruation. The author discusses various scriptures and explains in great detail, the practices that should be followed and how they are beneficial for both the body and the soul.

Other Indic Religions, such as Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, have some traditions very similar as Hinduism, although origination might be different. Buddhism, for example, percives. all bodies as being polluting, although the female body takes the larger burden of impurity. Hindu traditions also perceive different conditions under which both men and women enter Ashaucha(Impurity). Both Buddhism and Jainism accept women in ascetic orders, but both consider women as being at a disadvantage with regard to the “Buddhahood” or final liberation. The Buddhists think due to their being at a greater stage of suffering and impurity, The Jains perceive women at being at a greater state of Himsa(Injury). Hindu traditions do not consider women as being incapableor even at a disadvantage of attaining Moksha. In Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, disregards the purity-impurity prevalent in Hinduism and Buddhism and adopts a moralistic view of life. The Knowledgeable often hold this change in perspective as radical and reformist, it is important to note that as Sikhism was growing in India at the time of Islamic Invaders and it was a very troublesome time.

The author then further talks about Menstruation notions in the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Judaism, menstruation attained a very crucial role in medical times, and the observance of menstrual laws became a defining “defining criteria of Jewishness”, one that was used by the Jews to set them apart from the Christians. Jews believed that they were pure and holy because they maintained Levitical Purity Laws., while Christians were impure and idolatrous because they maintained sexual relations with Menstruant women. Niddah and the laws associated with it became a central element of not only the Jewish Lifestyle but also Jewish identity. Niddah refers to a state of ritual impurity into which a woman enters when she experiences uterine bleeding, especially after she becomes aware of that bleeding. The practice of Niddah by Jewish women entails their adhering to certain do’s and dont’s during that period. The guiding principles of Niddah can be divided into three parts: Complete separation of husband and wife during the bleeding days, the practise of sexual abstinence during the seven clean days after the menses and the examination and cleansing during the clean days ending with final purification in Mikvah(a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion). Ketubot 61b (a special type of Jewish Prenuptial agreement) states that a menstruating woman is permitted to engage in all the same activities as a non-menstruating woman with three exceptions – making her husband’s bed, washing his feet and pouring him wine – acts that might lead him to break the Levitical purity laws and have sexual relations with the menstruant. Comparing Hinduism and Judaism, there are many similarities in the menstrual norms and practices, like the association of impurity with menstruation, the element of “curse”. Like Hindu Women, Jewish women also are expected to avoid sexual intercourse; also are believed to become pure after ritual bathing. Yet, a closer examination reveals very significant differences. All this along with several other things have been discussed in thorough detail by the Author in the book.

Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism, as many of you might know, so many of the things in the “Old Testament “, were brought back in the “New Testament”. though the Christians have attempted to define their separate identity several times throughout history, hence there are several differences too. Menstruation was used as one of the tools towards the end. Like Judaism, Christianity derives its primary views about menstruation from Leviticus, part of the Old Testament. Unlike Judaism, Christians do not practice any menstruation practices like Niddah and Mikveh. This non-observance of Niddah Regulations and the belief that Baptism, the Christian rite of purification and admission into Christianity, itself frees Women from all impurities formed including Menstruation. Methodius of Olympus and Clement of Alexandria note such things in their texts. For the most part of their history, Christians have considered Menstruation dangerous and observe a number of restrictions and taboos. William E Phillips wrote ” The taboo is so alive that menstruation is customarily spoken of in hushed tones and only in women-to-women talk. Because of embarrassment, many mothers still fail to provide daughters with an adequate advance briefing about their first menstruation.” One of the most disturbing parts of Christian History was the persecution of women under the pretext of witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Miriam Simos writes “The terror was indescribable. Once denounced, anyone a spiteful neighbour or a fretful child, was arrested immediately, without warning and wasn’t allowed to return home. Considered Guilty until proven innocent. At the heart of these witchhunts were the medieval Christian blood beliefs, those regarding menstruation.  Theories regarding the body played an important part in the complex witchcraft beliefs which nourished the period of the trials and persecutions. Both the educated and the illiterate believed the witch body as evidence of dangerous power with blood being considered the means of exchange between a supernatural force and the physical world. Some Indian Christians also associate the notion of sin and pollution with menstruation and restrict themselves during their menses, but a large number of Christian women have given up many of these practices as can be seen from a 2016 study.

Islam traces its roots to Judaism and Christianity and recognises Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus as messengers of God, Prophet Mohammad is held as the final messenger, whose teachings supersedes all others. Owing to its common origins in Abrahamic monotheism, the Islamic views on menstruation borrow heavily from Judaism and Christianity including their notions of impurity and sin. Purity and Impurity, or Tahana and Najasa are the most important aspects of Islamic Life. Water is the most prominent tool used for purification. Islam prescribes two kinds of ablution rituals for purifications, Wudu and Ghusl. Wudu is a mandatory component to be followed before each of the 5 daily prayers. Ghusl is a lengthier process, which has to be performed before special circumstances. 1)After a New Muslim takes Shahada (witness Prayer) for the first time. 2)Sexual intercourse where semen/sexual fluids have been discharged 3)After a woman completes her menstrual cycle. Menstrual and Postnatal blood are considered impure, in contrast to the blood that may emerge from other parts of the body. As Menstruation is considered an impure condition, with menstrual bleeding both sexual and dirty, a woman cannot pray or fast, even during Ramadan, while she is menstruating, even if she wants to. Also, she is not allowed to have sexual intercourse for seven days. Menarche marks a women as “mature enough to assume duties expected of every practicing Muslim”, its acts as a formal entry into Islamic life and a woman will now be expected to pray 5 times a day and fast during Ramadan (Interestingly , A Man also begins to pray and fast only after they have had their first emission of semen). While in the Quranic account of Adam and Eve, they are addressed as a couple, with God warning them about the tree, Satan approaching BOTH of them together and them eating the forbidden fruit TOGETHER, resulting in their fall, the post Quranic texts drastically change this, emphasising the role of Eve and connecting it with the fall of women as a whole.

While both Christians and Muslims observe many menstruation practices similar to Hinduism, like Christian women not undertaking communion or Muslim women not fasting or praying during menstruation, the underlying principle which guides these practices is fundamentally different from those observed in Hinduism or in other Non-Abrahamic traditions. Some Modern Academics have tried to read negatively the association of menstruation with impurity in Hinduism, most such views don’t have a factual basis and are an outcome of a pre-conceived bias and ignorance about Ashaucha. This is no evidence in Hindu History, which is comparable to witch hunting and burning in Christianity, or the severe restrictions placed on women in Islam. Instead , we have enormous evidence regarding the celebration of menstruation among different Hindu communities.

It is discussed how most cultures and communities have some notion of impurity and sacredness attached to menstruation. The book is an unbiased examination of menstruation through the various section of societies Point of view. This book discussed the topic in extreme detail and I HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend that that you pick up the book, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sabrimala Confusion: Menstruation across cultures.

Author: Nithin Sridhar

Publisher: Vitasta Publishing

Pages: 370

Price: Rs. 483/-