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How The Manusmriti, And Not The Vedas, Informs Us About Impurity Of Menstruation

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Menstruation In Scriptures And Religious Texts

Menstruation is a commonly debated and discussed topic in the contours of religion, particularly regarding its depiction in scriptures and ancient texts. The early manuscripts of Vedas never explicitly mentioned any form of prohibition on performing rituals during menstruation by women. The ban on temple entry and reprimanding women as impure is straightaway against the values and principles of the Vedas. Even in Yoga Upanishads, the sexual sadhana during periods is considered ‘Raja-yoga’, which establishes the acceptance and prevalence of sexual intercourse during blood discharge.

The popular ideals predominant today are influenced by the Brahminical Hinduism as propounded and propagated through the laws of the Manusmriti. It treats the phenomenon as a ‘communicable’ disease and attaches the notion of ritual impurity with it. The blood during menses is deliberated as ‘impure’ and the menstruating person as ‘untouchable’, which reinstates patriarchal norms. Amidst the taboos and myths associated with periods, textual evidence in the earliest scripts of tantric rituals highlights the importance of menstrual blood. Tantric rituals consider menstrual blood as pure and sacred, and it holds a significant value in their performance.

Tantric Rituals: From The Text

The sacredness of menstruation can be witnessed in the tantric practices such as Yoni Puja (worship of vagina), where the Yoni or vagina is worshipped as a symbol of the cosmic Yoni from which the emergence of the entire universe has taken place. The Yoni tantra emphasises the worship of the Yoni that has started menstruating and states that worshipping a yoni, which has never bled, causes loss of siddhi on every occasion.

Menstruation holds the positive attributes in Tantric sadhana and is an inseparable aspect of many practices.

To describe the purity of menstrual blood, Kaulajnananirnaya of Matsyendranath (Patala 8), states: “In Kaula Agama, the five pure and eternal substances are ash, wife’s nectar, semen, menstrual blood and ghee mixed. In occasional rites and acts of Kama Siddhi, the great discharge is without a doubt and most certainly what one should do in Kaula Agama…One should always consume the physical blood and semen. Dearest One, this is the obligation of the Yoginis and the Siddhas.”

In continuation, it further says: “A Brahmin goes to heaven by endless washing of the feet and mouth, whereas a person repeatedly making a forehead mark of Kunda, Gola or Udbhava menses, destroys various ailments such as leprosy and smallpox and is free from all disease in the same way that a serpent sloughs its skin.” The text in Patala 18 notes: “Blood is the female elixir. Mixed with wine and semen, it is the Absolute.”

In the Matrikabheda Tantra, the divine power of menstrual discharge has been eloquently described. It says in the words of Lord Shankara, “The first menses appearing in a woman who has lost her virginity is Svayambhu blood. In a maiden born of a married woman and begotten by another man, that which arises is Kunda menses, the substance causing the granting of any desire. Deveshi, a maiden begotten by a widow gives rise to Gola menses, which subdues gods. The menses arising in the first period after a virgin becomes a married woman is the all bewildering Svapushpa.’’

To explain the procedure for the worship in Yoni tantra, a detailed dialogue is mentioned between Goddess Parvati and Lord Mahadeva. When she asks her husband about the ceremonial process to worship the yoni, he replies thus: “A sadhaka (worshipper) wishing to worship a yoni, which is the form of the cosmos, should cause an erection, and insert it into that thing which is Shakti herself. The vagina is Mahamaya and the penis is Sadashiva. Worshipping them, one becomes liberated while still alive, there is no doubt of it. One should offer Bali (sacrifice), flowers, and so forth. If incapable of this, worship with wine, Durga. One should do pranayama and my six-limbed puja in the yoni region. After reciting the mantra [a] hundred times at the base of the yoni, one should rub the linga and the yoni together.”

Therefore, it is clear that menstruation holds the positive attributes in Tantric sadhana and is an inseparable aspect of many practices. The ritual purity and sacredness of menses are worth understanding to uplift the dogmatic and irrelevant practices associated with it. However, this brahminical notion of ritual purity also acts as an expression to outline caste hierarchies. It is a way to perpetuate Brahminical superiority and a tool to demarcate the boundary between themselves and untouchables.

The whole idea of ritual purity is absent among Dalits and they don’t have any taboo attached to menstruation. The process has ‘permanently’ been labelled as impure by the upper-caste ideals of purity and hence, this temporary view of menstrual impurity does not hold any relevance in their lived experiences. Further, with the ban on the entry of Dalit women in an upper-caste household, their menstruation would not defile them in any way and hence, they can uphold their ritual purity that is generally validated through the kitchen and the household.

Due to the discourse of treating menstruation as natural was already established in the religious texts, the subordination of women became difficult for the patriarchal society. The need to change the narrative led to the emergence of discriminatory writings such as the Manusmriti. The ideas envisaged in it have formed the basis of the culture in society. The norms, constraints and ‘relaxations’ are forced upon individuals to provide them with special treatment in a state of physical fragility. They are believed to be “special” in a not-so-special way. The lack of knowledge of religious scriptures facilitates the taboos and myths around various phenomena, thus strengthening the hold of patriarchy upon the members of society.

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