First things first. The Pandora’s Box has been opened, it’s worth examining its contents. I received the impetus to pen down my thoughts about menstruation and spirituality after reading Sri Devi didi’s blogpost. So, a big thank you is due to her. You may read her post here. This subject has been on my mind, but I could never get down to writing about it. Her post has made it important to talk about the rules and taboos.
In an almost similar experience like hers, I was left behind in a hotel room in Kumbakonam (the heartland of temples) in interior Tamil Nadu, even as my family members and their friends continued with their Mandir tour. Now, imagine what it does to a woman? You feel alienated, betrayed, unloved, and a harbinger of pollution. Thankfully, I rubbished the very idea of seeing myself as ‘polluted’. However, I will be lying to say that it did not affect me. I felt lonely in a small Tamil town where I had come most enthusiastically to soak up the temple architecture. At that time, I did not know enough Tamil to get by. On ordering a filter coffee with less sugar, the room service got me coffee with no sugar at all. It took some effort to explain that I wanted ‘less sugar’ and not ‘sugar less’. So, yeah, there was a humorous silver lining in a burgeoning cloud of emotions. When I called up my husband, in his usual slam-bang attitude he said, “Who asked you to come with them? Let them go to temples. Why don’t you step out and enjoy the marketplace instead?” Mustering courage, I ordered coffee in pidgin Tamil, got a smacking cuppa, and made peace with the vagaries of life. My father-in-law, an extremely sensitive man, also saved the day. He ditched the temple enthusiasts quietly and spent time with me. I felt a smattering of emotions that day. I was enraged but pretended that all was well. Did I feel polluted? Not an ounce. I shudder to think how a young girl who has just reached puberty would feel if ostracized or abandoned in social situations.
At my house, my overworked mother had never really cared if we bowed down in the altar during ‘that time of the month’. Post marriage, it was shocking to be asked the period date whenever a big Pooja or temple trip was being planned. Something so private becomes an open secret. Amidst the whispers, everyone in the house is privy to your impending ‘problem’. Thankfully, such occasions were few and far between as my husband and I lived in a different city after marriage. Think about it. Why do we refer to period as ‘problem’, children as ‘issues’, and death as ‘expiry’? Such delectable use of language calls for independent scrutiny sometime later.
Recently I attended a ‘half saree ceremony’ of a friend’s daughter, after much deliberation. To my rational self, the ceremony had always seemed an occasion to tom-tom from the rooftops that your girl was ‘fertile’. Sensing rigidity in my own belief, I decided to attend the ceremony. Half-saree function celebrates the onset of puberty, specifically menarche. The young girl is dressed up in a ‘pavadai’ with a dupatta, she receives gifts from her family and relatives; there is general bonhomie with the singing of bhajans and a lavish South Indian fare. It looked like a lovely ceremony intended to help the teenager feel special. It’s a celebration of her changing body. Looking at the festivities, I wondered how and why we go horribly wrong thereon. Why does the girl who is an embodiment of Devi suddenly become polluted every month? Marked by a show of suppressed theatrics, there are hushed whispers when men in the house will feign ignorance and refer to it as a ‘monthly ladies’ problem’. The accessible and non-accessible places get demarcated in the house. In some families, women are banned from touching feet, and crossing paths. Some family members- the ostensibly devout ones, I must add-go to the extent of taking a bath if accidentally touched by a menstruating woman. On other thoughts, for a sheer comic break, it’s not a bad idea to accidentally brush past the holy souls in the house (at the time of your period) and see them jump out of their skin.
I know a close family member who recalls the ignominy of having to sit alone in a room while the marriage rituals of her cousin were happening. Few elders in the house threw disparaging looks in her direction questioning her temerity to bleed on an auspicious day. She was young, afraid, and quick to allow guilt to take the better of her. Women carry the burden of this guilt through their lives. Raised in the small temple town of Srirangam, my mother-in-law recalls harrowing stories of how she and her sisters were made to sleep in a separate room outside their house. A poky room infested with rats and bandicoots. Petrified, she would not sleep at all. Even today, the memory sends a shiver down her spine. Interestingly though, even after such experience, she has not been able to denounce the arbitrary menstrual policing. She is an extremely loving and devout woman. While I have never been restricted to a different part of the house, she sees the puja room as a sacrosanct place that a menstruating woman must not be seen around and avoids any physical contact.
So deep is the self-loathing and conditioning that women accept the age-old diktats and pass them on as a norm, unquestioningly. And, to top it all, the rules defy all logic. For the 11th day ceremony after my son’s birth (Punyajanma), I was allowed to sit for the Puja even though I was bleeding heavily at that time. The next year, on the occasion of his first birthday, I was barred from the main ceremony since I was menstruating. I do remember attending some rituals, but my active period status had created much brouhaha. Looking at my little son, I had questioned if I was dirty and polluted, how come my baby – a sum total of that polluted blood- was perfectly adorable?
I have seen girls fret over menses before their wedding. A close family member, a Ph.D. holder from a US University with a laser technology idea patented under her name, spent sleepless nights worrying how she would be perceived in case her period began on the auspicious day of her wedding. Well-meaning, scholarly matriarchs gave her contraceptive pills (on a doctor’s advice) to avert the horror. The result: there were eruptions all over her face and she had mood swings. She was most stressed out at a time when she should have been joyful. My personal experience is based on well-educated, urban, and erudite family setups. I am sure the rules would be even more stringent in small towns and villages.
In case, I am giving the impression that such prohibition occurs only in South Indian families, pardon me. The malady is rampant across the length and breadth of this country. Haven’t we heard of pickles developing fungus if they are touched by a menstruating woman? Women are subjected to homilies about the worst that will befall them if they fail to abide by the rules. They will lose their eyesight or rot in hell. It’s hilarious and horrendous at the same time. And who created these rules? Some men probably, but largely we the women have ensured that such rules and practices get adhered to the t.
I want to believe that the rules would have originated out of an earnest intent to give rest and recuperation to women, to allow them a break from the back-breaking housework, to help them deal with fluctuating hormones. Probably there were no rules but compassionate gestures to ease the discomfort of a female body. I would want to believe that. Some spiritual Gurus (not Swami) have also spoken about the prohibition on menstruating women to enter spaces with occult practices for reasons of safety. This idea seems understandable and logical too though for a lack of interest I haven’t delved deep into it.
This year I performed a mini Gayatri invocation at the time of my period. The Sadhana period briefly coincided with my monthly period; I decided to go ahead with my Sadhna. I am new and very green to talk about any spiritual experience as such. All I can say is that my period did not hinder my Sadhna in any way. There were sessions with ‘pure bhava’ just as there were days when concentration was hard to come by. I never felt judged by the mother divine and my Guru has given the explicit go-ahead for Gayatri Sadhna during menstruation time. So the good news and the bad news is that you can no longer hide your laziness and blame it on your period.
Menstruation is NORMAL. It is a regular bodily function to shed the unfertilized egg and the uterus lining. Women don’t control it, they can’t affect it, and they certainly do not become polluted due to it. If anything, menstruation is a sign of nature’s longing to grow. We must empower our women to not be ashamed of their bodies and bodily functions. The biggest disservice any society does to a woman is not letting her think beyond her body.
While scouting for relevant poetry, I came across some powerful lines by poet and activist Sonya Renee Taylor. I have not read her works; her poetry, however, resonates with this write-up.
The body is not a crime; is not a gun.
The body is not a spill to be contained.
It is not a lost set of keys, a wrong number dialed.
It is not the orange burst of blood to shame white dresses.
The body is not an apology.
P.S: The intent of this write-up is to open up a forbidden topic for debate and discussion.