Oct 17, 2014

Menstruation in myths

After Karna’s death, Krishna tells Arjuna: You have slain your Vritra. Now people will talk of this battle in the same breath as Indra’s defeat of Vritra.

Today we remember Arjun but Vritra is just one of the many half-remembered characters in our mythological jungle. But at one point, every hero was compared to Indra and every villain to Vritra.

Vritra occurs first in the Rig Veda, of which Indra is the central hero. Here the story is not linear and has to be pieced together from different verses praising Indra’s deeds. It then occurs as a coherent narrative in Mahabharata, where we are told that Indra acquired his exalted status by killing Vritra. But Vritra happened to be a Brahmin, and by his murder, Indra acquired the sin of Brahmahatya.

To free himself from the sin, Indra divided his sin into four parts and gave them to trees, water, fire and women. Women’s monthly periods is a manifestation of that sin, which is why she is considered impure during her menstruation.

This story defines menstruation as a sin, but does not lay out the rules for menstruating women that are practiced today. This was done by latter dharmashastras and Puranas. Manusmriti, the foremost law of Hindus, instructed that women would be “clean” when they bathed after menstruation. A Brahmin was not to eat any food touched by a menstruating woman. According to Vashishta Dharmashastra, menstruating women are not to be allowed to touch the fire, and even essentials like ointment are not to be accepted from them.

“After that, almost every Purana has prescribed rules for menstruating women,” says Pundit Ram Prasad Pokharel Acharya. “Our scriptures say that menstruating women are not even human. On the first day, they are Chandalini, on the second day, Brahmaghatini, and on the third day, Dhobini.” In Bhavishya Puran, Krishna informs Yudhishthira that women can cleanse themselves of the sins incurred during menstruation through the Rishi Panchami vrat.

Modern interpretations assume that menstruating women are segregated for reasons of hygiene, but in scriptures women are actually encouraged to be just the opposite. According to Vashistha Dharmashastra, these women should not bathe, should not anoint themselves with collyrium, and should not clean their teeth.

The labeling of menstruating women as “impure” seems to have little to do with their physical condition and is more important as a symbol. Manusmriti says that a Brahmin should not even look at a menstruating woman when he is eating, and “the wisdom, the energy, the strength, the sight, and the vitality of a man who approaches a woman covered with menstrual excretions, utterly perish.” A simple conversation with a menstruating woman is considered inauspicious, and hygiene is not a consideration.

The key to understanding the shaming of menstruating women lies in the story of Indra’s conquest of Vritra, which is referenced by all latter scriptures to validate women’s impurity. Vritra is identified as Ahi (snake/lizard/dragon). In many cultures across Europe and South Asia, snakes are identified with women. Conquest of snakes forms an integral part of early myths.

One of the more famous stories occurs in the Bible where Eve listens to a snake and bites an apple. For her sin, she is punished with the pain of menstruation and childbirth. Similar stories can be found in many Middle Eastern religions, now extinct. Perseus who kills the serpent-head Medusa (which means divine feminine wisdom) is heralded as the founder of a new order in Greek myths.

Merlin Stone writes in her book When God was a Woman that these stories are proof of matriarchal civilizations that preceded the present patriarchal tradition. For example, while the latter characters in Hindu scriptures are known by their father’s name, Vritra, a Danav, is named after his mother Danu. The subjugation of such civilizations is represented by parallel stories which associate female reproductive functions with sin.

Archana Thapa, a feminist scholar, agrees that the rituals of menstruation are a means of regulating women’s behavior. “A virgin goddess is worshipped, and so is a mother. But during her fertile period, a woman is impure. This is a moral disciplinary act to suit the logic of men who made the rules,” says she. Indeed, the label of impurity restricts women from taking part in rituals, invalidates their worship, and generally reduces them to a non-entity when it comes to religious authority.

Since our earliest texts begin where matriarchal civilizations ended, they give the impression that patriarchal traditions have been with us since the dawn of time. But in fact, these texts are built on the ashes of an older one, and set up a new order: one where the power, mobility, and authority of women were systematically circumscribed by labeling their fertility “impure”.



Casey Ann said...

Interesting post, I always knew the roots of menstrual shame and seeing women as impure during periods was related to the laws of Hinduism but I have wondered in modern day times whether patriarchy is more to blame for it. What do you think? Even I have seen it here in Australia. I am a white Australian woman and I have beeb asked if I have my period at Dashain or when I give a tikka at a rice feeding ceremony. I honestly don’t know how to take it. I was polite but it angers me. The fact that women and girls are still subjected to this mistreatment in modern day Nepal makes me sick to my stomach but I am not Nepali and I without knowing all the facts I have not been as out-spoken as I should be. I have blogged about this issue before, maybe it’s time to do another one and refer to your blog topic here  and there is a good article on it here http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/oct/30/costly-periods-economic-impact-of-menstrual-shame p.s. I have added you to my blog roll at www.whitegirlinasari.wordpress.com

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