Nepal criminalizing isolation of menstruating women is indeed a laudable initiative taken to protect menstruating girls and women who become vulnerable to rapes, snake bites, mental trauma and even deaths. Chhaupadi system where girls on their periods live in Chhau goths (cowsheds) is one of the most pronounced forms of isolation. A lot of modern families, especially inside Kathmandu Valley do not send their females to cowsheds. However, among this group of residents living inside Kathmandu valley, there still exists isolation towards menstruating females even though its not very conspicuous as Chhaupadi. I know families where menstruating girls don’t enter the kitchen even today. And in most of the families, menstruating women must abstain from going to temples and touching the idols of Gods and Goddesses. Despite being a theist, such beliefs were always immaterial to me. So I never stopped myself from praying to my little Ganesha’s idol every night even when I am menstruating. And ever since I heard the news about Nepal criminalizing isolation of menstruating women, my curiosity to know about the roots of all these traditional practices have escalated.
Regarding this news, women’s rights activist Pema Lhaki described the law as unenforceable because it is related to a deeply entrenched belief system that is harder to change. She said, “It’s a fallacy that it’s men who make the woman do this. Yes, Nepal’s patriarchal society plays a part but it’s the women who make themselves follow chhaupadi”. Why would women consider themselves impure? And what is the “deeply entrenched belief system” that’s making the women do this to themselves if not men making them do it. When I asked my mom, her reason about not being engaged in godly activities during periods was because the belief about us being impure in those monthly periods has been passed on from many generations. But this reason was never enough to convince me as I thought how could God’s own creations and his designed biological process be impure to him. I wanted to solve this conundrum of whether this is just a myth or is there a reason/ a story written somewhere in some Veda about why girls should not worship while on their periods.
While I dug a little deeper into the origin of these practices, I came across articles written by research teams that surprised me and made me realize how minute my current knowledge about menstrual practices was. I am also guilty of willing to believe in the occidental theories in a heartbeat while denouncing the eastern ancient practices as superstitions. What I learnt was originally none of these practices were meant to suppress women or because menstruating women are impure and unholy, but rather to prevent menstrual and reproductive health issues in women. Sounds paradoxical right?
Heisenberg, the father of quantum mechanics said, “Underlying all physical matters, is an intrinsically interconnected dynamic network of energy leaving nothing isolated in the universe.” We are constantly interacting with everything surrounding us and influencing each other through waves of energy. This energy is subtle and less noticeable but is very powerful in regulating us and our surroundings. This concept is helpful to us in comprehending the Ayurvedic science and our ancient menstrual practices.
Going deeper into this form of science, Ayurveda like quantum physics talks about things in the subatomic level that ultimately affects the atoms, cells, organs and the systems in our body. It isn’t just about making medicines by chopping herbs directly but rather it is the ability of a body to heal itself naturally, with a little help from ourselves to facilitate this natural process. During menstruation, some girls experience excessively heavy bleeding. The modern medical method of reducing this abnormality is by hormonal regulation through medicines. On the other hand, the ayurvedic approach is directed not towards the hormones but rather the forces that control the hormones in the first place. Again, lets remember that such forces work in subatomic levels. Those who practice Ayurveda believe every person is made of five basic elements found in the universe: space, air, fire, water, and earth. These combine in the human body to form three life forces or energies, called doshas. They control how your body works. They are Vata dosha (space and air); Pitta dosha (fire and water); and Kapha dosha (water and earth).
Since I am not an ayurvedic expert and even far beyond from it, I will write in the simplest words I can about what I have understood. During the days leading to menstruation, there is a build up of energy in the three doshas for the preparation of pregnancy. However, as there is no pregnancy, the excess energy leaves the body through menstruation. This downward flow of energy from the doshas is vital for the wellbeing of the woman’s body. Therefore, any activity or interactions that invert or block the direction of this downward flow of excess energy in the dosha should be avoided. With this realization, the menstrual practices among Hindus were originated in ancient India.
First of all, lets unfold the reason behind the popular belief of not going to temples or worshipping Gods. Is it because our religion tells us we are impure during those days? Turns out absolutely not. Rather we should be considered even holier during that time. In parts of Manipur, there is a belief that the first menstrual blood is so pure and powerful that tasting a drop is beneficial to the health. They also highly value the cloth in which the girl first menstruated. Now this might have made you cringe a little as much as knowing the fact that women are considered impure during their periods and thus isolated and raped in most inhuman ways possible. Your thought might be to not go to either ends of purity and impurity and just stay in between, regarding it as a natural biological process and nothing more. But for those who really considered women as pure and that they must take care of their health, believed that (and I quote) “the energy during menstruation goes downwards into the earth but (at the puja table, offerings, altar), the energy is going upwards. This can bring discomfort in the body such as menstrual cramps.”
Another practice is seclusion of menstruating women to huts. It came to my utmost surprise there was practical reason behind this: shepherds in the past lived in huts with multiple families. At such time, a menstruating woman had little privacy to manage her periods and also had little immunity and could easily contract any disease from the sheep living under the same roof. Therefore, traditionally huts (or more precisely, menstrual huts) were built for such women. Such huts were also good as the shepherds, after returning from a long hunt for food and work, would return home and be naturally eager to have sex with their females. But if they saw their wives in the menstrual hut, they would understand that their wives needed rest and would not increase her discomfort. Also, interestingly women during menstruation were also suggested to abstain from having sex. In contrast to the evolving occidental idea that “period sex” can be better as the woman lubricates more and is more sensitive, ancient Ayurvedic belief about sex at such times is related to the energy flow. During sex, the man releases his energy into the woman and instead of dissipating the extra energy from the doshas, she gains more in her body that affect her natural energy flow adversely.
Furthermore, the reason behind not eating with the rest of the family has to do with the lower Chakras (energy centres in the spinal column). Those who do Yoga will be familiar with this. There are seven chakras in the human body. The lower chakras are involved in bodily functions while the higher chakras are connected to the higher centres in the brain. When we eat, the lower chakras of our body are highly active. Have you noticed that Buddhist monasteries have a practice of reciting the scriptures during meal hours? It is done so that the monks are focused on higher chakras. If a menstruating woman who is sensitive to absorb all types of energies around her is in the middle of a group that is eating, she can get affected by the lower energies (as opposed to higher or spiritual energies, which are beneficial).
I am not trying to be an advocate of Ayurveda and I certainly don’t want to support Chhaupadi system. I hope your faith in me is strong to realize that I would not want women to be dominated and isolated to become vulnerable to all sorts of social crimes or even animal attacks. Each woman has the right to be informed about why the traditions and practices are to be followed by her. Just saying that she is impure can never be a right reason for her to treat her differently, to stop her from doing things that she normally does and from letting her come close to God. Rather she and everybody else should know the latent reasons for all these practices and the decision should be hers to make; whether she wants to follow them as she might have some belief in the natural healing method through regulation of the doshas or she chooses to casually go on doing everything as she does when she is not menstruating.
I personally, after being aware of these traditional practices might choose to follow some of them like not praying and might choose never to follow the others such as not cooking or eating in isolation. I might choose to practice them in some months whereas just continue my normal routines in the other months. However, it was really important for me, as a believer in God, if not a complete devotee to know the reasons behind why I wasn’t allowed to touch the idols of God and why I was told to stay away from the religious ceremonies during my periods. As a woman, I feel fortunate to have such a body that undergoes all these energy flows and biological processes together to give me the profound ability of giving life.
While I was researching and writing this article, many questions arose in my mind such as what about other animals during their menstruation and why is Living Goddess Kumari dethroned once she starts bleeding. Such queries may not have just one answer but several. Different people with different levels of understanding and knowledge can bring their viewpoints to the table and even if we don’t come up with one solid answer, we have at least gained knowledge enough to eradicate any misconception.
Cultural practices may vary around the world but sometimes there seems to be similarities as well. In China, menstruating women are told not to eat cold things like ice-cream. In Ayurveda as well, it is believed cold aggravates Pitta, the second dosa, which isn’t a good thing during menstruation. Hence, girls are suggested to avoid certain types of food. As we move into modernization, these practices may not be relevant but that’s not a reason enough to say that the belief regarding the forces and energy flow is invalid.
The quintessence of my article is not to persuade anybody to believe or disbelieve any idea. Rather I am more amazed by how hundreds of years of blindly following these practices have caused so much trouble for women as well as men. How little or no knowledge about their own bodies have led countless women to live with shame for something that’s naturally happening in their body. The ignorance to understand one’s own culture holistically has made the ancient beliefs seem so immoral and misogynistic when it was, in fact, first made for the proper care of us women. Being the generation of well educated people in our society, we should realize that if we want to preserve our culture (in which we take great pride), we should let our future generations know the deeper and authentic meaning about the practices. Its important that the meanings don’t get misinterpreted in the long run. I believe, upon knowing those meanings such as the Ayurvedic reason behind the prevalent menstrual practices, the choice to follow or not should solely be of the individual’s to make.
Thank you for reading my article. I would highly recommend you to go through these links which were eyeopeners to me:
Photo reference: https://goo.gl/images/HbqSmd