We Need To Talk: Why Menstruation Must Not Leave The Indic Discourse

We Need To Talk: Why Menstruation Must Not Leave The Indic Discourse

by Sumati Mehrishi - Saturday, March 9, 2019 09:07 PM IST
We Need To Talk: Why Menstruation Must Not Leave The Indic Discourse Members of Ayyappa Dharma Samrakshana Samithi hold placards during a protest against the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa Temple. (Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Nithin Sridhar’s book on menstruation across cultures would arm women working across different fields with a broader perspective on the issue.

    Going forward, this book should clear the path for a deeper study of Indic traditions nurtured around menstruation.

The Sabarimala Confusion - Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective. Nithin Sridhar. Vitasta Publishing Private Limited. Rs 650.

The onset of menstruation was breeze. Being a teenager in the early 1990s was good. Oodles of vigour for rough and long athletic hours, intense co-curricular activity, excruciating love for loud laughter and immense love for vegetables - these not only stayed in place for me, but also leaped.

There was a glitch in staying free. I did not tell my mother about it. A nun at the convent school I was going to, was not particularly happy with my laughter (its type and volume). She would issue a warning, which did not seem to go down well with the general sense of disciplining me, especially during period days. "Don't laugh, girlie, your uterus will fall," she would announce and leave.

Banksy would find interpreting this one tricky, I guess. It might have attracted Eve Ensler for her script of Vagina Monologues for some laughter. Why not?

From the scribble given in our moral science book, it was clear that the sack called uterus was connected to the ovaries, and ovaries, definitely, with menstruation. How laughter would push out the entire apparatus of the egg releasing laboratory inside the belly - was not pretty clear. To be safe, I kept my mouth fairly zipped 'during those days', initially. “Don't laugh, girlie, your uterus will fall" became a joke in the school corridors, but that queasy feeling, for some girls I knew, took a while to subside.

The school hosted sanitary pad introduction sessions brought by sanitary pad making companies. Notions remained unaddressed, unlike today, when ideas, views and experiences of women such as Sinu Joseph can make a difference to a teenager’s idea of her own body and hygiene. Reading Nithin Sridhar's book The Sabarimala Confusion-Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective makes me look back at some of the notions many of us Hindus held about menstruation. In the past, Sridhar has written about Joseph’s work and her strong perspective on menstruation and women’s health. He mentions these in his book as well.

The Sabarimala Confusion 
The Sabarimala Confusion 

In the early 1990s, at home, my mother was pretty gentle with menstruation-related rules. No touching pickles, and strictly, no lurking around pooja space. If I did, after temptation, the deity's vastra would be taken away and he given a bath. Laddoo Gopal is a male, after all, and you do feel silly when he is bathed because you touched his shirt. I could laugh out loud at it. No uterus would fall. I do not remember objecting to or protesting against my mother's set of rules even once.

It was because her own set of rules came from my paternal grand father, who was respected for maintaining the sanctity of the space meant for worship in the agricultural household. Even the female pet dog developed the sense to never enter that sacred space. Somethings are harder for agenda-driven humans to understand.

The act of churning out peels and peels of obfuscation is a skill. The act of countering obfuscation using knowledge is art. Sridhar is working towards perfecting the second category. This art has several dimensions and takers - in different areas of work - including courtrooms. The fight for the sanctity of Lord Ayyappa Swami's abode, the Sabarimala Temple includes people like Sridhar, who is doing his bit for the deity by clarifying the Hindu narrative on the issue, and putting things in perspective for the public.

The first essential is covered. He calmly caps the hue and cry surrounding the cunning projection of menstruation and spells out that the Sabarimala issue is a religious issue, not a women's issue. It's a view he has presented in articles earlier. Then, he removes the cork from the giddy exercise that seemed to bottle up menstruation as the reason for the Sabarimala controversy for ideological consumption.

In his book, Sridhar has been able to put wipe a number of clever obfuscations planted and nurtured by old media to suit their end of the narrative spectrum on the issue. In this timely work that boldly deals with the misconceptions and myths surrounding menstruation, Sridhar sets the record straight on the narrative surrounding the Sabarimala temple. The book makes me realise that our own lack of interest in the narrative surrounding menstruation has distanced us from setting our own narrative in media, academic literature and TV advertisements, day to day life over the decades.

Sridhar mentions that menstruation has always played an important role in man-woman relationship. We have barely celebrated this aspect in our wide and evolving narrative. The sacred in the male and female context in Sabarimala issue was systematically dragged away from us. Because many of us were “confused” (ignorant) about the devotee in the woman.

He addresses several vital aspects regarding the offensive launched on dharmic and traditional facets of the Sabarimala, its devotees and traditions. He takes on the targeting of the traditions surrounding Sabarimala. He knocks off the charade - that of women's rights surrounding the issue of entry into the temple. It was erected for fogging the malicious propaganda on Hindu dharma's treatment of menstruation.

He deftly places the plain fact - that the Sabarimala issue is not an issue of women's right but a religious one. He reminds us women, that we need to pause, and be in a calm discourse with our own bodies during menstruation. Among other gentle punches, he uses some to demolish the many decomposed ideas still circulated recently on Sabarimala. He bursts the bluff of “confusion”.

I have a slight problem with the word 'confusion' in this context. Sridhar uses it in the book title as well. Confusion on the Sabarimala issue was thrust upon the ignorant lot, which includes me. This was done to smokescreen the deity, the real issue surrounding his abode, action and action-plan — by those people who wished to thwart a tradition. Sridhar is in full control of the issue. He has equipped himself with readings to be able to detect obfuscation mines, which have been camouflaged by menstruation — a women’s issue. People who want to wreck a tradition knew and know what they were beginning to stir. They, too, were in control of narrative-ammunition they were laying bare. So, Sridhar didn’t have to be polite to the ignorant among us.

He delves into menstruation attitudes emanating from within Hinduism versus the free floating notions on this biological phenomenon sprung towards us from the West. He writes on how organisations working towards menstruation and companies selling sanitary napkins have contributed to the popular dismissal of cultural practices around menstruation and things of menstrual taboos. He initiates the understanding of these cultural practices, and puts in focus the emphasis on how sanitary pads are projected as expression of the modern woman and her freedom. And they are not.

We have not accepted yet that we had remained mute spectators to the narrative that imposed cultural taboos about menstruation on Hindu dharma for decades. It has distanced us from each other, from understanding the different practices surrounding menstruation, our own, yours and mine. Sridhar coaxes you to make a beginning, as he has for you.

In the introductory chapter, he looks back at his own perspective on Hindu lifestyle practices surrounding menstruation. He, like many of us, thought they were a "product of superstition." He says, "This was further reinforced by the silence and avoidance of the topic by people in general, family elders in particular." Sridhar's book is a valuable work involving his own wish to examine the "Hindu treatment of menstruation" in detail, largely, a balanced and neutral approach to the aspect across cultures, and gender sensitivity.

Is the Indic view on menstruation well represented in the global discourse on gender? Is the sacred in pure and impure well covered in literature and popular discourse? Nithin must take this up next. Does the Indic view encourage the sensationalising of a woman’s own view of pure and impure? His book tells me not.

Around 8 March, 2003, I watched Eve Ensler performing Vagina Monologues. When I came out of the Chinmaya Mission auditorium in New Delhi, where Vagina Monologues was performed to be later rejected entry in Chennai in its tour, I thought I was not constructively provoked, but irritable at the sensationalism in most parts. I was young and still not stirred or provoked as others. Why?

The viewing of ancient Indian sculptures featuring the female body, at Delhi museums, stood up for my own notions of my gender, man-woman relationship, menstruation and birth. Curiosity for related Indic texts trickled in. But at that moment, I came back and wrote that Vagina Monologues did not impress me. It was playing to the gallery. It played on “cultural representation” but was selective and did not move. It was about women's rights, but almost not in parts, I felt.

With his book, it becomes easier to loop back those valued years and understand how and why the mind and body would operate over different fields and experiences during and about menstruation. He opens the window and lets the warmth of his own study and knowledge acquired on the subject fall in. The bloated and tender bumps of ignorance regarding our own cyclical inwardness through menstruation recede.

At school, I would be particularly interested in hearing accounts of life practices surrounding menstruation that came from Garhwali, Kumaoni, and Nepali households. I would hear in awe. The beautiful contrasts between Vaishnavite and Shaivite life practices would come to the surface in these innocent descriptions we girls shared. Cut to 2019. It's an age of strange sleepwalk towards 'woke' menstruation experiences, which besides other essentials that crave for a zillion eyeballs, include grisly photo shoots where young adults redefine "purity" and "impurity" without caring much for cultural appropriation.

Sridhar's book points at the numerous unknown aspects held and followed by different religions and cultures across the world. The concept of pure and impure runs as a common thread.

Readings around menstruation for teenagers and young adults is an untapped field wanting solid and interactive Indic view of related traditions and pride in those traditions (instead of a usual curled-nose approach pressed into popular and social media). I see Menstruation Across Cultures clearing the path for Sridhar for a deeper study of Indic traditions nurtured around menstruation.

It would arm women working in the fields of arts, education, sport, gender studies, literature and culture with a broader perspective. Sridhar must to continue to bombard the narrative with his constructive rant on menstruation-related obfuscations that target dharma.

Then, a perspective on women warriors and menstruation is a dream project I wish Sridhar takes up some day. The sacred depictions of Kamakhya Devi and Lajja Gauri must continue to coax him into it.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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