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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [04] Menstruation, impurity of women in general

Published: 20.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Female impurity has many aspects: impurity of the menstruating woman, impurity of the woman in confinement, impurity of the widow. The impurity of the woman cannot be separated from general views on human impurity in Indian traditions. "It is the degree of permanent purity or pollution,... that ordains who may marry whom; who may cook for or eat with whom; who may work for whom, or work with whom, or worship with whom" (H.N.C.STEVENSON 50). Impurity is transferred by contact. Due to the burden of prohibitions, an impure woman incurs the constant risk of interfering with the daily life of others, of causing inconvenience to others.

Menstruation is explained by an aitiological myth: God Indra had killed a dangerous demon who had turned Brahman. He had transferred the materialized sin of Brahman-murder to three parts of the cosmos: He had persuaded the earth, the trees and the women to accept, each, one third of his guilt. Hence the fissures in the earth, the resin in the trees and the menstrual blood of the women. There are variations such as 'rivers, mountains, earth and women' (typical example of allomotifs: DUNDES 69). Women are always present in the mythological lists of recipients (menstruation as inevitable example of received guilt). -- MEYER We 266-267; KANE 801-802; O'FLAHERTY Ev 146-160 (esp. 157-158); LESLIE 250-251; KHANNA 117.

The menstrual discharge is a medium of special power and gives rise to temporary pollution. MEYER (We) feels that menstruation is generally perceived as 'eery and corrupting' ('unheimlich und verderbenbringend' 171, 169-171). The word for menstrual blood is rajas, and the menstruating woman is a rajasvala (woman during her menses). The menstruating woman has to observe numerous injunctions which are different in character, partly unexplained, and amounting to almost complete social immobility: The woman in her menses must not clean her teeth, must not look at the planets, must not sleep or eat during daytime, etc. The woman should take a bath after the lapse of three days to return to her original condition. The period of impurity lasts for three days and three nights. The woman is purified by a bath on the fourth day. "... after menstruation a woman becomes pure like a [brass] utensil cleaned with ash..." (BROCKINGTON 223; infra; §§ 8.7 and 9.3). -- The persons around the rajasvala are subject to various restrictions. The husband should not speak to her. A Brahman on his alms-round should not beg in a house with a rajasvala and in a house of Shudras. The rajasvala's glance is polluting, and she must not touch a twice-born. If a student of the Veda has to talk to a menstruating woman he must talk to a Brahman before and after he talks to the rajasvala. A person who celebrates the meal for the ancestors must not look at a menstruating woman, and he must not be seen by one. The menstruating woman appears in a long list of 'untouchable' persons/beings: Somebody who has touched a menstruating women or an expectant mother, or a bearer (at funerals), or a Chandala, or a dog (etc.) must take a bath in his clothes (JOLLY 156). -- WINTERNITZ 40; JAMISON 14-15. Impurity in general (animals, plants, inorganic substances) is a different matter. There are degrees of impurity, but impurity is probably one worldwide quality. JOLLY 156-157.

Impurity during confinement requires also caution. WINTERNITZ compares impurity during confinement with impurity due to death (a 'full parallel': p.39, infra). A Veda-teacher should not even look at a woman in child bed. A person who touches a woman immediately after delivery should take a bath in his clothes. Food prepared for a woman lying in is impure. Impurity lasts ten days as a rule. WINTERNITZ 39.

Impurity also occurs after the death of a family member (of a relative). The rules to be observed depend on the status, age etc. of the deceased, on the closeness of relationship and on the status, age etc. of the bereaved. Again the time of impurity lasts for two, three, six, twelve days. Domestic sacrifices are suspended. A purification follows after the end of the period of impurity. General rules prescribe two days fasting, prohibit cooking, dictate sleeping on the ground, prohibit (in the case of men) study of the Veda, disallow (in the case of men) the cutting of hair and beard. The fight against impurity is, in this case, a common legacy of both sexes. JOLLY 155-156 and GONDA I 133 (impurity of the survivors); MICHAELS 178-187 (long list of polluting situations and substances).

Impurity through widowhood can be mitigated by virtue. According to Tryambaka a widow is basically impure/inauspicious (the general belief). "Of all inauspicious things, the widow is the most inauspicious; there can never be any success after seeing a widow...." But he adds: only the widow without good character is impure/inauspicious; the widow is pure if she has a good character (LESLIE 303). In that case she is happy in this life, will attain the same heaven as her husband and will be married again with her husband in the subsequent birth. But this is only a simple list of promises.

For the Vajapeya sacrifice (§ 8.3) the wife of the sacrificer has to be girded with kusha grass. She is impure below the navel (H.N.C.STEVENSON 50-51), and her body must be purified by the sacred grass. The priest arranges this and can therefore be polluted by touching the woman (apparently below the navel). According to a late author like Tryambaka the priest is in this case like the wife's father, who need not avoid physical contact (WINTERNITZ 12-13, 42; LESLIE 176; JAMISON 270). See Manu 5.132 infra.

WINTERNITZ emphasizes the traditional classification of women along with Shudras (42). We quote: "nothing is more characteristic of the Indian view on the social position of the woman than the ubiquitous linkage 'women and Shudras' as found in the entire Brahmanical literature." We must probably distinguish between two deficiencies: low rank in terms of the varna system, and impurity in terms of the daily dichotomy of purity and impurity. Varna and purity/impurity are the basis of two parallel systems.

T.N.MADAN has introduced a distinction between pure and auspicious. The birth of a child, let us say a son, is auspicious (the event), widowhood or death are inauspicious. A temple is pure, a cremation ground is impure, a prepubescent unmarried girl is pure, the mother after childbirth is ritually impure even in the best of circumstances. MADAN 15-16, 17-18.

We distinguish between purity, impurity, purifying agents and methods of purification, and we have collected a few Manu verses demonstrating the rich vocabulary in this area:

Manu 5.108. What needs cleaning is cleansed by using earth and water, a river [is cleansed] by its current, a woman defiled in thought [is cleansed] by her menstrual flow, and Brahmins [are cleansed] by renunciation.

5.130. A woman's mouth is always pure; so is a bird when it makes a fruit to fall, a calf when it makes the milk to flow, and a dog when it catches a deer. [?]

5.132. All orifices above the navel are ritually clean; those below are ritually unclean, as are the foul substances that shed from the body.

5.134. To purify oneself after voiding urine or excrement and to clean any of the twelve bodily impurities, one should use a sufficient amount of earth and water.

5.135. Body oil, semen, blood, marrow, urine, feces, ear-wax, nails, phlegm, tears, discharge of the eyes, and sweat -- these are the twelve impurities of man.

5.139. A man who desires bodily purification should first sip water three times and then wipe the mouth with water twice; but a woman or a Sudra sips and wipes just once.

Women have, theoretically, a unique means of purification (supra). Every month their sins are taken away by the menses.

Before birth, women are in order enjoyed by the gods Soma (beverage of the gods, juice of a plant), Gandharva (celestial musician) and Agni (god of fire); it is only afterwards (after birth) that they go to a man. The motif is interesting but unexplained. The conflict of this belief with the necessary virgin status of the bride was probably realized at a later stage. THIEME 433-434, 465; O'FLAHERTY An 267-274; § 8.7 (LESLIE 252-254); § 8.6 (Soma and Agni).

A peculiarity which may be mentioned in passing is the widespread rule of the defilement of rivers during the rainy season: The rainy season is compared to the period of menstrual discharge -- the rivers transfer their impurity to bathers (SALOMON). The periods of defilement differ considerably for the different rivers, and there is a tendency to prohibit bathing in a river during the respective time of defilement. But the times of defilement (as given by different authors for different rivers) differ wildly: Ganges three days, Ganges two months, Ganges never defiled (167-168). SALOMON writes: "The descriptions of the various smrtis must all be accepted as equally authoritative, and therefore apparent contradictions must be resolved by any of a variety of interpretive devices." (167).

The Jainas have developed in post-canonical times a bizarre and complicated theory which is perplexing from the point of view of non-Jainas. "According to the unanimous Jaina view, certain portions of a woman's body, particularly orifices and indentations such as the genitals, the space between the breasts, the armpits, and the navel, give rise to vast numbers of minute and subtle living organisms... These creatures, sometimes seen as arising specifically from menstrual and other bodily fluids, are, the argument goes, destroyed in vast numbers by the ordinary activities of the woman whose body is their host and so she is seen as inevitably the agent of massive involuntary himsa, or injury to living beings." (GOLDMAN xix). And [if], "as they argue, the vaginal canal is infested with vast swarms of minute beings, then it follows that the powerful friction of the sexual act must slaughter them in huge numbers. Indeed the Jaina authors frequently cite verses to the effect that with each 'blow' hundreds of thousands perish." (GOLDMAN xxiv [JAINI ] 179). The doctrine of the small beings reduces the sexual act (forth Great Vow) to himsa (violence, first Great Vow). The argument can be called pan-ahimsism (BRUHN Ah 13-32).

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Body
  2. Brahman
  3. Brahmins
  4. ESP
  5. Fasting
  6. Gandharva
  7. Himsa
  8. Indra
  9. JAINA
  10. Jaina
  11. Manu
  12. Rajas
  13. Shudras
  14. Space
  15. Varna
  16. Veda
  17. Violence
  18. Winternitz
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