Women Should Not Be Afraid To Differ From Mainstream Narrative, Period

 

Why is menstruation associated with ‘impurity’? Why do some Hindu parents celebrate menarche of their daughters? Nithin Sridhar, currently, editor, IndiaFacts and Advaita Academy, author of Musings On Hinduism, provides an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society through his writings based on research into primary sources. He has also written on the Hindu view on menstruation. Sridhar will be sharing his views in a lecture, Menstruation Practices in Hinduism, What and Why, at INTACH, New Delhi, on October 7.

Creative India talks to him about his interest in menstruation, related biases and views on gender.

 

How did your interest in menstruation develop?

In 2015, there was a media outcry regarding the restriction placed on the entry of women, between menarche and menopause, in the Sabarimala Temple, Kerala. Media debates and NGOs made noise about women’s right to enter any temple and called out these temple practices which were directly or indirectly connected to menstruation, as superstition, and as demeaning to women. While many Hindus wrote articles explaining how the Sabarimala issue is more to do with the form of deity present in the temple, and not with menstruation, I felt it’s time someone made a detailed study into the core issue of menstruation and what Hindu texts and traditions speak about them. A lot of people who were speaking either for or against Hinduism in the context of menstruation were hugely misinformed, relied more on hearsay and shallow notions than an unbiased understanding of the subject. While researching, I stumbled upon the aspect of health, which plays a central role in how Hindu traditions understand menstruation — almost never spoken about in media or in academic narratives.

Are there taboos concerning menstruation men should help women fight?

The basic premise of the question, the assumption that there is something to “fight”, is incorrect. Does it not betray a preconceived bias? I believe much of modern narrative about menstruation is rooted in (this) bias. Example — while menstruation huts in rural areas in India and Nepal are branded as “oppressive”, the Red Tent Movement is being celebrated by feminists and others as “liberating”. What can explain this completely opposite narrative about two similar practices? The only difference — one is rooted in native traditions — the other — in “modern innovation”. Preconceived bias in treating anything related to indigenous traditions alone can explain this. So, we must first make a humble attempt to properly understand menstruation practices and restrictions before thinking about either preserving or fighting them. I hope to accomplish this through the talk.

Texts you have read on menstruation:

Honestly, when I began my research, I did not have any view on the matter, except a vague conviction that there must be some rationale behind at least a few Hindu menstruation practices. But, as I delved deeper, interesting insights kept emerging. I consulted a wide range of primary texts of different Hindu genres, as well as many academic papers and articles. In Hindu tradition, it is noted that Veda is the ultimate pramana or valid means of knowledge for everything related to Dharma. After Veda come Smritis and Dharmasastras. So, I referred to relevant portions of Veda, Smritis and Dharmashastras — as much as I could get hold of. I also studied tantrik traditions and their practices. I have extensively consulted Ayurveda. I must also mention Sinu Joseph, whose writings helped me during my initial days of research on the issue.

Where do ancient texts place women and menstrual health in the social and domestic context?

Not menstrual health, but women’s health as a whole is given a central role in social and domestic context. Ayurveda, in fact, prescribes various life-style practices to be adopted by women at different stages — primary purpose — to protect the health of the women. These Ayurvedic prescriptions have been easily and harmoniously absorbed into domestic practices. The absorbing has been so smooth that many Hindus have even forgotten that these practices have roots in Ayurveda. So, many practices we urban-educated folks reject as superstition were actually implemented for menstrual health.

The narrative on menstruation and temples has gone through cycles. What are your views regarding women, temples and menstruation?

One of the most widely prevalent don’ts regarding menstruation is entering temples. These are a number of factors involved. One needs to understand what a temple is, what menstruation is, not just biologically, but at deeper spiritual levels. A temple is not just a place of congregation, it is kshetra, an abode of energy. The advice regarding not entering temples during menstruation has a sound basis in this interplay of energies, especially the Prana-Shakti.

What does Devi Kamakhya mean to you?

Kamakhya is the desire fulfilling tree, as her name denotes. The tradition also identifies her with both Kali and Tripurasundari, two of my Ishta Devatas. Kamakhya is the Yoni Peetam. The seat of very creation, where the mother, like her human female children, also undergoes menstruation. She is, thus, the presiding deity of menstruation.

How should Indian men evolve in their response to menstruation?

First, the hesitation regarding any discussion on menstruation should be removed. It is not going to be easy. It is going to be a continuous process. But, for this to be a reality, women should come forward. Menstruation should not be treated as a topic only for women. Many women have asked me why I should write or speak about menstruation and what men know about menstruation. This attitude reinforces hesitation and pushes the discussion behind the curtains. It needs to change. One point I would like to highlight here is, how, contrary to today’s situation, men in the past, especially the authors of Dharmashastra, wrote openly and unhesitantly about menstruation. We should learn a thing or two from them.

How does knowledge of ancient texts help strengthen the narrative on gender in this context?

Our current narrative on gender is mostly borrowed from the West and superficially imposed on Indian society. So, our knowledge of ancient texts will not strengthen these superficial positions. On the other hand, they will reveal an alternate narrative about gender and menstruation, a narrative which was a living reality for thousands of years in this nation. The insights from our ancient texts will help us to self-introspect and raise some important questions about current western narrative. More importantly, knowledge of tradition opens up a choice in front of each individual to learn, introspect and make an intelligent choice regarding what is best for them.

Should women from different fields talk more about menstruation?

Definitely. Not only should women from different fields talk about menstruation, but also not be afraid to differ from mainstream narrative.

 

Feature image: ARINDAM DEY/AFP/Getty Images

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