We were in Kochi, Kerala recently for the Shastapreethi – a time when thousands celebrate the Hindu God Ayyappa. There is a lot of festivities, singing, dancing, chanting and this was the first time my oldest was witness to religious fervor of this magnitude. Worship of God Ayyappa has evolved into a distinctly male thing – there is a famous temple dedicated to Ayyappa in Sabarimala – on the hills of the Western Ghats in Kerala – where women between ages of 10 and 50 – aka all menstruating women – are forbidden to enter. This rule has been enforced for hundreds of years, but now suddenly, it is all over the Indian press with a petition being filed with the Indian Supreme Court to lift this ban since this rule violates women’s constitutional right to religious freedom. My oldest was intrigued that there was such a rule – “unfair” was one word used to describe it and demanded an explanation for why such a rule was created. Great question – I had no idea what logic was used to justify this rule other than menstruating women are discouraged from going to temples and this rule is a way of enforcing this Brahmanical tradition. And then of course, that opened the can of worms – why can’t menstruating women go to temples? I had only a vague idea – menstruating women are considered impure – in fact the original ruling states that allowing menstruating women to touch the idol is an act of “desecration”. However, I was not about to tell my daughter this. I racked my brain for an explanation might sound half reasonable to her – I started to tell her that Ayyappa was the bachelor God – that became construed to mean he did not like women – not a very positive explanation either. We left it at that and happily other distractions brought the discussion to a halt.
However, I could not let it go. I scoured the Internet to see what opinions people had on the subject. I came across some interesting reads on the cultural practices around menstruation. Many articles were penned in the name of “scientific” explanations for the cultural practices. So far, all these theories have logical inconsistencies. I am not going to publish any links as my opinions are pretty strong on some of the articles and I don’t want to create any more animosity in this world than there already is.
- A woman’s energy is low during menstruation and since going to a temple is a physical activity, makes sense that women were not allowed to visit temples during their period. Even if this were true, essentially prescribing what women should or should not do during menstruation is a socialistic approach – there are other conditions when people’s energies dip – such as when you get a cold, but there are no dogma prescribing what people should or shouldn’t do when they are feeling under the weather – least of all – a ban on visiting temples. What really annoys me about this explanation is a rationalization of the practice in the pretext of it being good for women – they used to work like dogs in the old days, let us shove three days of enforced rest down your throat whether you like it or not.
- Another explanation that blew my mind was this – women are extremely pure during their period – so pure in fact that they deplete energy from others around them as well as from the idols in the temple. Hence they should not be touched (pure things are not touched) or go to the temple as all the energy from the idol will pass on to the woman. This was offered as a “scientific” explanation in one of the articles I read. Really? First off – what is this pure hogwash? It astounds me that a culture that prides itself for producing Yoga and the Vedas can so blatantly forget that we are all pure – our purity does not depend on biological or chemical processes – our “true selves” are pure – in fact akin to God or Brahman.
- Regarding why menstruating women were not allowed in Sabarimala – one explanation was because they are a distraction to the men – the poor men spend 40 days in celibacy – wouldn’t it be a shame if a stunning woman got them all riled up at the temple after all that effort? If you do not have self control in the face of temptation, no problem, just take out the temptation itself – which begs the question – why take up this religious path at all?
My basic conclusion is this – the cultural practices around menstruation such as not touching menstruating women, not going to temples, enforced isolation and rest etc. were just a means to confine something that was “yucky” from the sight of the general public. In the old days there were no sanitary napkins and I can only imagine how disgusting it might have been for the husband and other family members to see blood stains on the bed, bloody clots in the bathrooms, blood stained clothes in public. So having a separate bed and minimizing the area in which evidences of this mess could be seen makes some sense. I would be disgusted too. Let us just see this for what it is and nott contrive all kinds of explanations – scientific or otherwise – to rationalize them. It only makes us sound ridiculous. Thoughts???