June 09, 2008

Menstruating Goddesses

Meena KandasamyWHEN IT WAS announced recently that the first batch of non-Brahmin students were being ordained for priesthood in Tamil Nadu, there was great reason to cheer and celebrate that priesthood has been “officially” thrown open to all the castes and that Brahmin exclusivity was set to break (at least theoretically). But what is disappointing is that all women are denied this right and there is no talk in Tamil Nadu of any legislation, anywhere in the near future, to grant them the right to officiate as priests.

I could branch off into a tangent, right now, right here, and talk about how women are being systematically treated as a caste, and how that in turn leads them to being denied equal rights, being treated as untouchables, being discriminated against. And this despite the obvious fact that women don’t form a homogenous category except on the basis of their sex, and that not all women are equally disadvantaged. But I will refrain from my urge to track the caste-patriarchy nexus, not because it doesn’t exist, but because the phenomenon of depriving women the right to become priests is a disease that has infested most of the world’s religions.

Religions, whether Abrahamic (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) or Eastern (such as Hinduism) consider a woman to be in a “fallen state” during her periods. Whereas religions which grew as a response against caste—which encoded the concepts of purity and pollution—such as Buddhism and Sikhism condemn the practice of considering women “impure” while they are menstruating.

This ancient issue of impurity during menstruation has ensured that women in the reproductive age group are barred from the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala in Kerala. The contentious reasons merit a monstrous tag: the presence of fertile women causes trouble to Ayyappa’s volatile bachelorhood and sometimes the menstrual odour may attract wild animals in the forests through which the pilgrims have to traverse. New age religious sects haven’t updated their views on menstruation either: Mata Amritanandamayi’s sect runs temples where two women are appointed as priests to a single temple “so that each can keep away for four days in a month, during their menstruation.” (I am unaware of what will happen when the two women’s cycles begin to sync.)

Article 17 of the Constitution of India abolished caste-based untouchability, but perhaps we need another section/amendment to abolish menstrual taboos. Or haven’t our religions heard of “seminal” fluids yet? What is their pollution quotient? Then, if pollution is the problem, will our holier-than-thou holy ones switch over to battery-powered priests? By the way, do these menstrual taboos apply to our goddesses? Are there days in every month when they too begin to pollute the temple?

While these logic-defying practices fall within the ambit of organized, mass religions, local practices fare no better either. The Times of India (June 8, 2008, Chennai edition) carried a report on how a Tamil Nadu state minister had on May 27 inaugurated an ‘isolation room’ for menstruating women in the remote village of Thuvaar in Thirupattur. According to the ToI report, a soothsayer had predicted that rains failed because the village gods were angry that the ‘Muttukuruchi’ system had been discontinued for the past few years. To revive the system of isolating women and young girls on their reaching puberty, the villagers had constructed the cramped eighty square foot isolation room were bleeding women could be banished.

Thousands of years ago, the Mayans believed that menstrual blood changed into snakes used in black magic. It appears that we still hold on to such regressive beliefs and haven’t really come of age yet.

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17 comments to Menstruating Goddesses

  • >>Whereas religions which grew as a response against caste—which encoded the concepts of purity and pollution—such as Buddhism and Sikhism condemn the practice of considering women “impure” while they are menstruating.

    A small factual addition ..
    Mahayana Buddhism accepts every prevailing societal construct of patriarchy. Thus, Thai, Japanese and in Chinese Buddhism ( in several dynasties) menstruation was considered impure. Infact there is as much misogyny in the moralistic injunctions of the followers of Nagarjuna as there are in Hindu texts. Only in a few theravada sects is menstruation accorded normalcy. Again even there social constructs seem to have overridden the beliefs. Even in the Buddhist fold women had to fight their way into the bhikkuhood and even there Buddha is said to have placed a veto power in the hands of the male bhikku in cases of conflicts or issues of powers. To me it seems that other than guru Nanak no one else has explicitly condemned the practice.

  • Yes Vidya, though it was condemned
    in theory, Buddhism did practice it. Even now it is something of a ritual to whisk a menstruating girl away.

    Of course, Gurunanak was a truly enlightened/ empowered person in that regard. Likewise, I think the Veerashaiva sect (a Bhakti movement that was also quite anti-caste in its character) removed the idea of menstrual pollution: women didn’t have to observe seclusion and they could perform the linga pooja. But look at how time changes people. Today, the Veerashaivas consider themselves a separate caste.

  • While I agree that taboos around menstruation are regressive if not outright barbaric, I would argue (actually, have argued – see here) that trying to participate in what is fundamentally a regressive and inegalitarian system is not the way to go. Shouldn’t we by trying to tear down these patriarchal and casteist institutions instead of further increasing their legitimacy – and consequently their power – by pleading to be let in? The solution, according to me, is not to have government meddle in private business (which, at the end of the day, is all these temple trusts are) but simply to boycott any and all religious institutions that discriminate against women.

  • @meena,
    Thanks for clarifying though I am not able to find my original comment.. Buddhism as depicted in history was as much as any other ‘ism’ in the hands of religious patriarchs, kings and powerbrokers.
    I am not able to find a theoritical text (other than new age websites) that makes a statement like Guru Nanak does. Even the older theravada texts (ie the theory) have a lot of misogyny(theory).Infact there wasn’t any room for women in the sangha in the older times(practice) are represented typically as objectified images of temptation from which a seeker should free ‘himself’ .So non-Casteist does not always equal non-patriarchical / gender-empowered – the veerashaiva movement you cited is another example.

  • @falstaff, over 90% of the temples in Tamil Nadu are run by the HR&CE (Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments) ministry, so when temples are state-run, they have no business discriminating in the name of religion. I am not sure the we-will-boycott route will work where women and religion are concerned. The little that has been gained in other temple-related struggles, such as entry for the Dalits was won through agitations, and not boycotts.

    @vidya, but Buddhism is praise-worthy because it allowed for women’s participation in religion, and inducted them into the religious order. (It is another thing, that a lot of misogynist people attribute the fall of Buddhism to the induction of women). The Veerashaiva movement was an anti-caste movement that explicitly liberated women from menstrual taboos, and in that respect it was anti-patriarchal. However, in my comment, I regretted the fact that Basava’s movement, which was empowering to women and the oppressed castes, has itself been appropriated/assimilated/ identified as a caste today. I was not trying to say that “non-casteist does not equal non-patriarchal.” I find that when anybody is up against one system of oppression, they are naturally allied to fight against any other system of oppression.

  • Meena: “I am not sure the we-will-boycott route will work where women and religion are concerned. ” Why not? Has it ever been tried?

    And this may be just semantics, but they’re not “discriminating in the name of religion”, are they? They’re maintaining a long-standing religious tradition that is fundamentally discriminatory. The idea that religion and discrimination are somehow separable is one I don’t buy. After all, if you take the non-discriminatory argument to its logical conclusion, why have priests at all?

  • Sej

    An informative post! But the ill-treatment to menstruating women doesn’t stop at South-India or specific religion as you have mentioned in the post. I have seen some of my friends in Gujarat having restricted access to the house kitchen during their periods. They even had to keep their vessels aside, wash them separately outside the house, stay limited to one corner, and not touch anybody and anything in the house!

    I recall the health camp I went in Pune, where in there was one session for girls regarding Menstruation, and I could see those girls feeling shy while listening it. Later when I had some chat with them, I could find the same silly traditions being followed in the Villages of Maharashtra as well!

    Recently I have come to know about another tradition in TamilNadu in which they carry out some Puja/feast sorta thing whenever the girl gets into her first periods!

  • High Priestess

    There are indeed taboos against seminal fluids as well.

    Priests are not to perform their ablutions and various other temple duties after having sex without thoroughly cleansing themselves. Some are forbidden to have sex while during their cycle of temple service.

    There are also taboos against performing priestly activities with a wound that oozes liquid.

    The taboo is not just against menstrating women, it’s against the flow of blood and puss in general.

    After a woman’s period is over, there is no reason why she can’t function as priest until her next period, just as when a puss-oozing wound is healed, a male priest can again resume his priestly rites.

    If India has a lack of female priests, it is not because of their periods, even if that is used as an excuse.

    And the word “bachelor” does not mean “brahmachari”. Brahmachari conveys celibacy while “bachelor” just means single guy, and the word conveys alot of sexual activity in the countries where it is used, certainly not celibacy.

    I’ve noticed that Indians confuse the two words alot.

    That no women are allowed in the temple of Ayyapa, even when NOT menstruating is completely ridiculous and I don’t know why the entire temple staff has not been taken to court yet or why this has not been made an issue in the United Nations.

    Indian women UNITE!

  • Doc

    It’s so funny!!! To read some of the views expressed by the author. Discrimination of women being appointed as priests in Hindu temples has been discussed. Why are Hindus so much targeted.

    Has any female ever entered a mosque and did worship? When was the first woman appointed in Catholic church? These two biggest religions in the world, accounting for more than 2/3 of human race and are totally forgotten. I guess no one can comment against Islam or make a cartoon on Allah but can make fun of poor Ayyappa’s bachelorhood.

    As a physician I do ORDER isolation many a time on patients with communicable disease or who is at risk of getting such an infection. This is done to protect them and is done for a purpose. (MRSA, VRE infections, neutropenic precautions if they make any sense to you). I guess this “empowered” women will prosecute me now, under Article 17 for discriminating!! I wish they know a little better about the subject they are talking about. High Priestess has made better comments.

    PS: This sarcastic comments made because of similar comments made on a faith (Ayyappa). If you respect others, they will respect. If you make fun of Ayyappa’s bachelorhood and comment of equality, I think it’s a pot calling the kettle black. Explanation always works, making fun or talking with penal code sections, almost never!!!

  • High Priestess


    I assume most of the women who participate on this site are Hindu and that is why they are targetting the sexism in their own religion. Nothing wrong with that.

    It still does not make sense to me that Ayyappa (isn’t he a form of Narayan or Krishna?), would not want women in his temple simply because of a vow of brahmacharya.

    I am also practicing brahmacharya at this present point in my life yet I am surrounded by men on a daily basis and am not the least bit bothered.

    Surely if a mortal like me can control myself, what to speak of a God???

    Again, the term “bachoelor” does not translate into “brahmachari”.

    Brahmachari denotes celibacy while “bachelor” implies sexual fun.

  • Meenu Jain

    yes, goddess also menstruates.
    I know about one temple of Goddess Kamakhyaa situated on the Nilachal Hill in western part of Guwahati city in Assam, India.
    According to legend this was the place where Sati’s yoni fell after Shiva danced with her corpse.
    The goddess menstruates during monsoon season every year. Legend has it that every year on the seventh day of the Assamese month of Aahar, which coincided with June 22- 28 , Goddess Kamakhya goes through her yearly menstrual cycle during the Ambubachi days.
    . .
    . The temple remains closed for three days – the menstruation period. Tantriks in large numbers visit the shrine during this period and thousands of devotees wait outside the temple on the fourth day to have a glimpse of the deity – when the purified Goddess reappears at the shrine.

    The devotees make a mad rush to receive the unique ‘prasad’ which is small bits of cloth, which is supposedly moist with the menstrual fluid of Goddess Kamakhya are distributed .Devotees wear them as amulets as blessings of the mother.
    It is considered highly auspicious and powerful.

    How can the “sanitary napkin” of the Goddes be pious ?
    while a menstruating female is restrained from entering the temples. aint these the same male devotees of Kamakhya devi who restrict a woman from entering a place of worship?
    THE FACT IS ———–
    sanctum sanctorum of the temple is in the form of a cave, which consists of no image but a natural underground spring. The spring emanates from a fissure in a large rock that symbolizes a yoni. In summertime the water runs red with iron oxide resembling menstrual fluid, an occasion for the Ambubasi festival.
    any comments? meenu jain mumbai

  • High Priestess

    India is a place of contradictions, that is the only comment I can give.

  • Meenakshi S

    India and Hinduism are full of contradictions. Itis very difficult to define the characterstics of the religion based on only a sub set of practices. The godess worship in Hinduism is at times truly empowering for women. At other instances the misogynist, ant-women elements of the religion is oppressive and barbaric.
    The problem comes when the distributed identities and religious belifs are not understood in their context and

  • High Priestess

    And what?

    You got cut off right in the middle of what was probably a good point.

  • unconventionaldesi

    Its pretty commendable how mankind can make a hill out of a mole.

    I heard somewhere (I might be wrong) that in ancient times women were kept in seclusion so that they could get some rest while they were menstruating; they wouldn’t have to perform the heavy chores.

    But the society made something completely different out of it. Its so funny.

    Its your system and God gave it for a reason. No menstruation = no procreation = no babies.
    Don’t these illiterate people understand that ? Where is basic biology?

    Have you heard old people say things like “Dont water the plants when you have your period. Dont touch things like pickles o papads because they go bad”

    How foolish !

  • static

    I don’t think that denial of priesthood for women is only about menstruation. For instance among christians, there is no taboo on entering the church or reading the Bible on these days. Still they they do not have a female for a priest. Menstruation and the idea of pollution just becomes a weapon in the hands of the patriarchal society.
    The point that this isolation was supposed to give them some rest is quite valid. Then isn’t it strange that in today’s world, when many of us cannot afford to sit at home for four days, this taboo on menstruating woman still continues.

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