On the second year of the world menstrual hygiene day on May 28th, I write this blog. I write it, as I read articles, posters and materials dismissing cultural practices around menstruation; calling them Menstrual Taboos. I write it, as I read about organizations deciding for Indian women based on what they think are superstitious beliefs, which need to be uprooted. I write, for all the women across India, who follow menstrual rituals and have asked me what these practices signify. I write for the men who have never known what to make of menstrual practices – to support them or to dismiss them. I write, because I feel responsible for reviving what has been lost. I write with the learning and the realization that none of these practices were originally meant to suppress women.
Over the last one year, my team has travelled to 8 States across India to learn the origin of menstrual practices and their impact on women in rural India. The biggest surprise was that every time we dug deeper, it always revealed a positive side of the story and it became obvious that none of the menstrual practices came into being, because women are impure or unholy.
Many of us get stuck in trying to prove whether or not these practices are scientific. Yet, during my interactions across rural India, I realized that most women who follow menstrual rituals are not concerned with modern science’s outlook. For most women, it is reverence to an age old belief system that they want to be keepers of.
Therefore, I tried to consciously stay away from validating cultural practices scientifically. Instead, I wanted to focus on the spirit behind these practices, which is what influences attitudes towards menstruation. However, my explorations took me in a roundabout way to science itself. A different level of science though.
The core of explanations around menstrual practices
Many a times, it seemed that each culture has a whole new explanation of the same menstrual practice such as not going to the temple. At one point, I even thought that 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 that I learnt over the last one year, I realized that most 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.
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.
With this in mind, let us look at some of the common menstrual practices and the explanations that I have come across during my travels and study. In this write-up, I have covered the following cultural practices around menstruation:
- Not attending religious functions, visiting the temple and not touching menstruating women
- Avoiding cooking and eating with others during menstruation
- Avoiding sex during menstruation
- Avoid swimming or washing the hair during menstruation
- Avoid eating certain types of food during menstruation
- Believing that menstrual blood is impure
- Taking time off during menstruation
- Restricting menstruating women to seclusion huts
In addition to the above, I have also written about my personal experiences so far in experiencing some effects of what menstruation can do.
——To be continued…——
(earlier published on https://mythrispeaks.wordpress.com/)