Monday, February 04, 2008

Hinduism and Menstrual Taboos

Menstruation is a complex phenomenon not a simple thing in women’s life since it is related to many areas such as biology, psychology, society, and religion. Menstruation is also surrounded by many myths, while menstruation is an indication that a woman’s reproduction system is healthy, in religious doctrines, it is interpreted differently.

Menstruation receives attention in society because it is linked to blood. Blood in society is often associated emotionally with death, homicide, and kinship (Grahn, 1993, p. xvii). Blood is often also assumed to be unclean. According to Mary Douglas (1966), uncleanness for primitive people is connected to sacredness. Due to this, menstrual blood is seen as a curse. This perception regarding menstruation brings out the taboos of menstruation. Lynn Holden (2001) explained that the term “taboos” was commonly used in Polynesian and Melanesian languages. In these languages, the essential meaning of taboo is “off limits,” but each culture has its own perspective of what it is “off limit” (Holden, 2001, p. 5).

According to Nasaruddin Umar (1995), in the past, Jewish men kept away from Jewish women during their menstruation cycle since menstruating women were considered unclean and could bring disaster to those they came into contact with. Therefore, menstrual huts were created for seclusion during the bleeding period (Grahn, 1993, p. 16). Later instead of the huts, women wore hoods or veils in order to protect people from their evil eye (Grahn, 1993, p. 74). The tradition of wearing veil a further developed other traditions such as eye shadow, necklace, earrings, and cosmetic. These menstrual customs served the purpose of warning others that women were menstruating, and they were to be avoided (Grahn, 1993, p. 75).

Misleading interpretation on the Koran verses by some Islamic scholars occurred in the classical period. The Koran, only stipulates one prohibition for menstruating women, which is abstinent from sexual activity. However many male Koran interpreters extended this concept to state that menstruating women had to stay away from their male family members. Some Islamic male scholars state that the hadits (Prophet Muhammad’s utterance and deed), prohibit menstruating women from touching and reading the Koran, and entering a mosque (Wafiroh, 2004, p. 177). However, the fact that all hadits need to be interpreted together and not independently, some of the hadits regarding menstrual taboos are weak (Wafiroh, 2004, p 178-200).

Aristotle argued that the bestower of the soul of the embryo is the man because the soul comes from men. Blood from menstruation only provides nutrition for the embryo, thus women were seen as having blemishes (Anees, 1992, p. 78).

Menstrual taboos also exist in Hinduism. The U.S. International Religious Freedom Department (2006) reports that the current population of Hindus in the world is about 14 percent (Wikipedia, 2006). Hinduism is one of the earliest religions in the world, traced back till 1500 BCE. Hinduism does not have a founder nor a single sacred text, but there are many texts that include its revelation (Anderson, 2004, p. 1). The Vedas is the most basic text in Hinduism, containing hymns and prayers which are recited during rituals (Young (ed.), 1993, p. 265).

The patriarchal culture in Hindu society still prevails, with continuing discrimination against menstruating women. During the menstruation period, women are considered to belong to the lowest caste, Sudra (untouchable), thus prohibited from worshiping (Denton, 2004). Menstrual taboos in Hinduism affect women in many ways, varying according to caste.

This paper discusses the practice of menstrual taboos in Hinduism, with examples from experiences of Hindu women in Nepal, India and Indonesia. These countries, according to US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report (2006) have the three largest Hindu populations in the world. The menstrual taboos that will be discussed focus on the 20th century, focusing on the Brahmana, Ksatria and Sudra castes. This paper will analyze menstrual taboos in Hinduism from a feminist perspective.

The Practice of Menstrual Taboos in Hinduism

Menstruation cannot be separated from taboo. Tapua, the root of the word “taboo” in Polynesian has two meanings, sacred and menstruation (Grahn, 1993, p. 5). Grahn states, “Besides sacred, taboo also means forbidden, valuable, wonderful, magic, terrible, frightening, and immutable law” (p. 5). Taboo sometimes has the same meaning as law (Holden, 2001, p.4). However, taboo does not result in formal punishment if it is broken. It differs from a law in that there is no certain penalty. People believe that a taboo must be followed; otherwise it will result in harm, not only for the person who breaks the taboo, but also for the community. According to belief, breaking a taboo also affects the environment. For example, in some areas, menstruating women are prohibited from stepping out of the house or walking in a field because if it is done, the field will not be fruitful (Grahn, 1993, p. 35).

On one hand, menstrual blood is seen as polluting and dirty (Puri & Kapoor, 2006), while on the other it is seen as powerful Grahn (1993). Menstruation taboos serve many functions and according to Lynn Holden (2001), keeping the prevailing status quo of inequality is the essence of the taboo’s function. Religion has been used to maintain this status quo (Holden, 2001, p. 6-7).

The law of Manu states that a Brahman, while eating, should not look at a menstruating woman (Meyer, 2005, p. 127). The Vŗddhahārt-smŗti states that a wife had to be burned alive if on her husband’s death, she was menstruating (Meyer, 2005, p. 127).

In Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southern India, menstruation is one of ananku. Dianne E Jenett (2005) explains Ananku as “ is a word used to describe the powers associated with women’s sexuality and women’s blood which were consistent with, and equivalent to, the divine power in gods, goddesses, forces of nature, animals, warriors and kings” (p. 177). One goddess (Shakta) in Kerala, is associated with menstruation. The physical earth and menstruation are parts of the goddess’s body (Janett, 2005). Menstruation can open shakti, which Jenett (2005) explains as the, “surfeit of a capacity or ability to do something” (p. 183). According to Jenett that was cited from Grahn,

The onset of menstruation brings to a woman’s body an openness to shakti, life energy that is comprehended as intentional (therefore deity), and perhaps earlier named as ananku, powerful allure in vulva and breast that can also be harmful if it is not controlled. This power when contained creates an orderly, functional, and joyous world; or when it is out of control it can be burn the house down (p. 184).
In Kerala not all the power of shakti can be accepted, thus the unwanted power of shakti has to be controlled. Indeed, menstruating women must also be under control, and menstrual taboos are the way of keeping the shakti.

Serenity Young (1993) in An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and about Women asserted that since Hindu women during menstruation might pollute others who come into contact with them, they had to wear only one garment. There is a text in Taittiriyasamhita regarding women’s menstrual periods that states “Therefore, one should not converse with (a woman) with stained garments, nor should one sit with her or eat her food when she has emitted the color of Brahmahatya” (Smith, 1991, p.23). The Taittiriyasamhita tells the story of Indra. He killed Visvarupa who was a Brahmin (brahmahatya). As a result, Indra had a stain of murdering, and one third of the stain was conveyed to women (Smith, 1991, p. 23).

A Nepalese interviewee, Mandira Neupane, belonging to the Brahmana caste, said that she had to live with her grandmother during her first menstruation until a few days after menstruation. From her grandmother, she was taught that she could not touch her male relatives for about thirteen days. After marriage, she has to sleep separately from her husband during menstruation, and cannot touch him. Her female relatives explained the reasons why menstruating women needed to have no contact with males. She said, “I have to do that because I am unclean, I might be polluting them if I touch them.” Based on the doctrine from her family, Neupane believes that a menstruating woman is unclean and polluting.

Like Neupane, Shilpa Nagar who belongs to the Brahmana caste was not able to touch anything or anyone, particularly male relatives during the first three days of menstruation. However Nagar did not have to live separately from her family. Neha Chaturvedi who belongs to the Brahmana caste and Mamta Panwar, who belongs to the on Ksatria caste, believe that food goes bad if a menstruating woman touches it. It means that the power of a menstruating woman is considered strong enough to spoil the food. Otherwise, my interviewees from Indonesia, Dewa Ayu Eka Agustini who belongs to the Ksatria caste and Putu Sutiyati from the Sudra caste, are unaware of these taboos.

To protect others from perceived contamination, Hindu menstruating women have to use separate utensils for eating and drinking. They must also wash their clothing themselves. Chaturvedi, Nagar and Neupane state that their families have been practicing this taboo.

Cooking was prohibited for almost all Hindu women in India and Nepal during menstruation. However, Panwar, from Ksatria caste in India, did not refer to this taboo. Like Panwar, Agustini and Sutiyati can also cook during menstruation. According to Chaturvedi, after washing her head on the third day, a menstruating woman can enter the kitchen and start cooking. Regarding prohibition on cooking, Chaturvedi puts forward an argument based on her analysis. She said,

These menstrual taboos have their roots in hygiene. I was told that in older times, women did not have sanitary napkins and used a cotton cloth which they would use again and again. Thus, they were not allowed to enter the kitchen because they were not considered clean and hygienic enough to cook for the other members of the family. Nowadays, in some families, as in Panwar’s family, this taboo still exists though recently women do not worry about hygiene. Thus, hygiene is not the only reason surrounding this taboo but rather, it is maintained to keep an unequal status quo between men and women.

Neupane said that during seclusion at her grandmother’s house, she was not allowed to go outside during the day. Chaturvedi also had to follow the same taboo. Neupane followed this rule although she did not know what the connection between menstruation and sunlight was. She believes that the elder generation was knowledgeable on the appropriate behavior for menstruating women.

Chaturvedi, was not allowed to serve herself water when menstruating. If she needed water, she had to ask somebody to get it for her. Chaturvedi and Neupane had to sleep on a bare bed without any mattress or bed sheet. This is parallel to what is written in the book of Vyāsa. In this book, menstruating women only can lie on the ground, eat once at night, and they are not able to speak or move (Meyer, 2005, p. 127). Grahn (1993) also argued, “Menstrual seclusion rites as recorded over the last few centuries typically include three basic taboos: the menstruating women must not see light, she must not touch water, and she must not touch earth” (p. 11).

There are many other taboos. According to Kapoor and Puri (2006), in some areas in India, attending to a visitor is banned for menstruating women. Some Hindu women are not permitted to wear new clothes or look at themselves in a mirror. Sutiyanti also mentioned that during menstruation she is not able to go to house of a Pedande (priest). Hindu women in rural areas face more restrictive practices than Hindu women in urban areas (Kapoor & Puri, 2006).

The main taboo for Hindu women during menstruating is that they cannot worship. All interviewees agreed that the essential taboo for menstruating women is not being able to do pooja (prayer). Agustini from Indonesia asserted that during menstruation women are considered to be in an impure state. The rational of this taboo, in Panwar’s opinion, is that menstruating women are passing out the dirty blood from their body, so they avoid going to the temple during menstruation. Agustini said, “Most women will feel guilty when they have to prepare offerings for certain ceremonial events.” Everything that is connecting with the temple is prohibited for menstruating women. Even though all interviewees are currently living in the United States, they still keep this taboo. Chaturvedi explained that after seven days of menstruation, she can wash her hair, and worship. The prohibition on worshiping in Sutiyanti’s culture is no longer than three days. According to Sutiyanti’s husband, I Nyoman Sumandhi, the number of days is unquestionable because this decision is based on the scriptures.

Breaking these taboos result in many consequences. Agustini stated that she believes that there is a sanction for not following rules when menstruating, though she never witnesses it. She expects all Balinese Hindu women to know what the restrictions are. Should a woman break a taboo, she and her family along with the community must hold a ceremony that is intended to bring purity and balance to her surroundings. Unlike Agustini, Neupane also follows these taboos because she believes in the knowledge of the older generation. Due to this, she has never tried to break these taboos, particularly in relation to temple attendance.

Although the interviewees obey these menstrual taboos, some of them think that these menstrual taboos are unwise. Nagar said, “Actually for me, I do not like to adhere to these menstrual taboos, but I do not have the power to refuse.” At the same time, Chaturvedi argues that these menstrual taboos are illogical. She describes that she feels guilty when she cannot go to the temple. Menstrual taboos have implications for Hindu women.

The Implications of Menstrual Taboos for Hindu Women

There are many menstrual taboos in Hinduism. The main taboo is that menstruating women are prohibited from attending temples. Menstruating women also cannot cook and serve themselves water. Other taboos include not being able to step outside the house. To avoid polluting, menstruating women are not able to touching anyone and anything. Sleeping on the ground also is also one of the menstrual taboos for Hindu women.

Basically, menstrual taboos are implemented to maintain inequality and preserve male dominance. Scheaf (1992) explains, “A number of techniques are used to make women back off from their own perceptions” (p. 73). Menstrual taboos, in fact, are purposed to keep women under a male system of dominance. Feeling guilty is the main stopper for women (Schaef, 1992, p. 74). When women feel guilty, they do not have power. As a result, women are under male control.

Menstrual blood is connected with the idea of pollution. According to Douglas (1966), the idea of pollution in social life has two levels. Douglas said, “At the first level, the more obvious one, we find people trying to influence one another’s behavior” (p. 3). The second level is that the articulation of social order can be viewed in terms of pollution (Douglas, 1966, p. 4). Douglas gave an example of the second level. One sex is believed to be more dangerous than the other sex (p.4). In this case, menstruating women are assumed to be a danger to others. However menstrual taboos, which are associated with pollution, are only a symbol of the present social order. In this case, the social order is still based on a patriarchal order.

Lynn Teskey Denton (2004) in her book, Female Ascetics in Hinduism, stated that menstruation is an indication that women are impure and sinful, so they have no ordinary inclination to dharma (prayer). This forbiddance has major effects for women. First, since a menstruating woman is banned to do dharma, she is associated to the lowest caste, Sudra. In Hinduism, people from the Sudra caste are not able to do dharma. This situation avoids women’s right in asceticism (Denton, 2004, p. 25). However, according to Sutiyanti, in Bali Indonesia, people from the Sudra caste are able to worship and share temples with other castes. This indicates that Hinduism in different countries results in different rules.

Second, without dharma, a menstruating woman is always dependent on others because she has to always be remained her duties. In this case, her male relatives have authority to be remainders (Denton, 2004, p.25-26). Thus, women can never be independent as they are always under the power of others. The prohibition on cooking and taking water is created so that menstruating women must always depend on others. Third, a woman in amantravat (without mantra) cannot be allowed to conduct religious duties (Denton, 2004, p. 26).

The implications of amantravat place women in a weak position. If a woman does not take part in the religious event, she is assumed to be less pious or spiritual, and not have any bargaining position in society. According to Chaturvedi, because of menstruation, women cannot become priests. She said, “Could you image a priest menstruating during worship?” Similar to Chaturvedi, some Islamic male scholars also believe that no women can became a prophet because women need to stop worshiping when they are menstruating. This perception is based on one hadits that women are less religious because they cannot worship all the time. Even though this hadits is debatable in terms of quality and originality, some Islamic male scholars often recite this hadits.

Schaef (1992) argued that there is a basic hierarchical structure in our culture: God, men, women, children, animal, and earth. God is the upper hierarchy. Men are under God, and women, children, animal, and earth are under the control of men (p. 170). One always tries to switch to the upper rank. For instance, men want to be like God, and women want to be like men (Schaef, 1992, p. 171). Because women are one rank beneath men, women are not able to avoid menstrual taboos. At the same time, men perform like God, so they want to maintain control over everything, including menstruating women.

The control of a menstruating woman goes beyond the body and also extends to the social sphere. If a menstruating woman is unable to leave the house, she will not be able to join in social activities. It is through social activities that women gain many things, such as knowledge. Thus, if a woman is less activity socially, she may lose her chance to develop her ability in society.

In short, menstrual taboos are designed to maintain a patriarchal society, keeping women subordinated. Menstrual taboos support male domination. Indeed, menstrual taboos in Hinduism have many implications for women, not only physically but also psychologically. Socially, menstrual taboos are used to eliminate the opportunity for women to take place in social activities.


One function of taboos is to maintain the prevailing unequal balance of power between men and women. Religion is often used to maintain this imbalance, such as in Hinduism. Menstrual taboos also symbolize a social order that women are under male control.

Menstrual taboos in Hinduism exist in castes: Brahmana, Ksatria, and Sudra. However, based on the interviews, women from upper castes are more restricted. For instance, the number of menstrual taboos for women in the Brahmana caste is more complicated than for women in the Sudra caste. The main menstrual taboo prevalent in all castes and countries is the prohibition on attending a place of worship and preparing religious rituals.

Menstrual taboos in Hinduism have implications for women. The effects of menstrual taboos are not only physical but also psychological. Due to menstrual taboos, the chances for women to be active socially are limited since menstruating women in Hinduism are not able to work outside the home during the menstrual period. Overall, menstrual taboos put women in a second position to of men.