The article is based upon the literal English translation of Manusmriti: The Laws of Manu by G. Buhler.
I asked, ‘Why?’
They said, ‘Because they said so.’
The archetypal ‘they’ argue that Menstrual Exclusion was a way to provide women with a much-needed monthly rest, given that she would often single-handedly cook and clean up for the family for the rest of the month. Others say, that it was just not hygienic (given the lack of hygiene products) for menstruating women to cook. All these arguments sounded viable until I took upon the quest of unearthing the ‘they’ which led me to Manusmriti [Manu: a legendary figure who is regarded as the progenitor of humanity and ruler of the earth; Smriti: that which is remembered]. One may think menstrual exclusion is a story from the past and I wish I could agree, but this is the living reality of most Hindu women, in and outside Nepal. The practice has been normalized to a point where the natural instinct for a female is not to question the practice but instead follow suit because that’s what ‘they’ say, that’s what ‘we’ learn and that’s how this self-feeding prophecy loops.
Homes today are adorned with modern appliances, a Pandit [a Brahmin scholar or a teacher of any field of knowledge in Hinduism] uses cell phones to read his mantras [a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation; particularly in Hinduism and Buddhism], uses Facebook to share his ideologies with his followers, but is very conservative in his approach to daily interactions with humans, particularly women. Despite changing times and 3500 years later, with a literacy rate of 70.4% (1) and with 49% of the population that has access to health services (2), a majority of the population still refuses to accept and implement changes in their cultural and religious values with regards to menstruation. 89% of women have reported that they still face some form of restriction or exclusion while menstruating (3).
‘Because that’s what has always been done. So, we must do it as well.’ Well, if people had been so intent in following what’s always been done, then shouldn’t we be chanting mantras every day? How ironic.
Dharma, in other words ‘appropriate behavior’, defined in Dharmashastras [treatises of Hinduism on Dharma] identify the ways in which people should act and behave appropriately (4). Manusmriti is among the most revered and fundamental Dharma texts in Hinduism. Manusmriti encompasses the practical details of everyday life written as the ‘Law of Manu’. After a year of convincing myself that Hinduism isn’t inherently flawed, it’s human interpretations that are fallacious, I held on to the thread of faith. I held on to the thread until I read Manusmriti. It made me realize that the core scriptures lay the foundations of patriarchy and caste discrimination. In this article, I focus on the treatment of menstruating women, particularly in the Hindu culture that I have been exposed to, on grounds of the sacred laws of Manusmriti.
A Hindu reads Manusmriti as the words of Lord Brahma himself rather than the words of Manu. I am not in a position to argue whether Manu fueled his own patriarchal thoughts into the scriptures or not, however, I do acknowledge that for a devoted Hindu, these scriptures would reflect the words of God himself.
- “239. A Kandala, a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, and a eunuch must not look at the Brahmanas while they eat. 240. What (any of) these sees at a burnt-oblation, at a (solemn) gift, at a dinner (given to Brahmanas), or at any rite in honor of the gods and manes, that produces not the intended result.“
Manu says that a Kandala (class originated by the union of a Brahmin woman and a Sudra man), a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, and a eunuch must not look at the Brahmins while they eat (5). The comparison drawn by Manu between menstruating women and animals leads me to an obvious conclusion that menstruating women are equivalent to animals. It doesn’t bother me that menstruating women are compared to animals, I love animals and in fact, animals are much smarter than human beings. What stunned me is the vast difference between the ‘class’ of men and menstruating women, how human beings are categorized, one with the upper hand over the other. As stated in Manusmriti itself that one must not question the sacred law for any matter, it urges the readers to readily accept the laws (5). It urges them to actually consider menstruating women ‘lesser beings’ than them. The connotations that the comparison holds not only degrades women but also holds women responsible for the unintended result, just because they menstruate.
- “41. For the wisdom, the energy, the strength, the sight, and the vitality of a man who approaches a woman covered with menstrual excretions, utterly perish. 42. If he avoids her, while she is in that condition, his wisdom, energy, strength, sight, and vitality will increase.
- “57.…let him not converse with a menstruating woman…“
The literal translation of Manusmriti visibly indicates menstrual exclusion as a practice to preserve men’s strength, wisdom, energy, sight, and vitality (5). I wonder, how feeble is a man’s vitality that a second person’s blood may ruin it. I wonder, how fragile is a man’s life that it depletes by conversing with a bleeding woman. All the while, we’ve been told that women are excluded for sanitary purposes, in fact, women were excluded so that men would not ‘perish’. In fact, men avoided women by demanding women to exile themselves while on their periods. It wasn’t women who would be at risk, it was men. Following this line of argument, one could state that, in fact, women are the reason men retained their strength, energy, sight, wisdom, and vitality. Had women not taken upon the seclusion, men would have perished, men wouldn’t have enjoyed the consequences they desired. And yet.
Sanitation purposes. Women were/are demanded to exile themselves for the longevity and vitality of men, all the while they asked women to deal with their problems on their own. They asked women to bleed for a few days in isolation and clean up their own mess. A beautiful way of saying ‘It’s none of our business.’ The society is a patriarchal one and it acknowledges the flaws in its treatment of women in ancient times and there’s no point in crying over spilled milk, but the reasoning they have given and they still give is flawed.
Women are told that they can’t enter temples, partake in any religious rites or interact with religious leaders while on my periods because that would make them a sinner. Manusmriti doesn’t mention that anything about women becoming sinners, it simply says that the purpose of the rite shall not be fulfilled (mentioned above). And if we were to take a stance that the society takes, it should be equally justified for women to say, ‘It’s none of our business’ and take part in all the rites and activities. It’s women again, who have to bear the responsibility of making sure that what is expected is achieved, so be it by excluding herself. It’s women who have to take upon themselves the burden of making sure the men get what they want, what they desire.
Manusmriti fails to convince me that I should not enter a temple while I am on my periods, it fails me because it doesn’t give the explanation as to how the consequences of any rite shall be unexpected by my presence. The consequence of any act is never certain, there is always a probability of the unexpected. One might live for 100 years or one might die the next minute. However, it’s so surprising we simply obeyed the sacred laws of Manu, maybe in more subtle ways, without questioning the ‘how’. Manu fails to explain how a man perishes. Manu fails to explain how my periods affect the future of the men. Manu fails to explain how my menstruation induces devastation.
Yet, these very scriptures, concealed behind made-up reasons of menstrual isolation, lay the foundations of many practices in our communities. The reasons that we had/have been given for menstrual seclusion sound viable. However, they don’t comply with Manusmriti and that the reasoning provided, in fact, sugarcoats patriarchal values to make it more digestible. It keeps all of us under the impression that the exclusion is justified by the religion. In reality, the religion completely fails to justify the exclusion, it’s pure misogyny. While it could be argued that the reason why we never knew about the actual rationale given in the scriptures for menstrual exclusion is that the ‘they’ knew it was illogical. In fact, it could be that women were actually excluded only for sanitary purposes. But how does that justify menstrual exclusion in today’s’ context? How does it rationalize the feeling of inferiority that menstrual exclusion ingrains in the minds of young girls and women?
From the very go, menstrual exclusion is unjustified, lacks concise reasoning and is based on speculations. Manusmriti is inherently flawed, not only with regards to menstruating women but also in its treatment of women and enforcing caste discrimination. While I narrowed my arguments to menstruating women, it is crucial to address that women are considered honorable and at the same time are objectified in it. The hypocritical nature of the sacred laws leads me to question the ‘appropriate’ or ‘correct’ approach to religion. While the culture is beautiful and the spiritual aspect of religion is very rewarding, it agitates me to find solace on the moral grounds of religion.
Manusmriti isn’t commonly heard of, it has only been a week that I came across it, however, it constructs the core of Hinduism despite its unpopularity in the Hindu community that I grew up in. There might be a huge number of Hindus unaware of these scriptures, yet the practices that they follow are governed by its subtleties. It is the invisible hand, you feel the presence but can’t figure its textures. All these years, we’ve experienced, seen women around us experience menstrual exclusion, all reasoned by the ‘they said’. It could be that the archetypal ‘they’ never knew of Manusmriti as well, all they knew of was the ‘they’ said. Unearthing the ‘they’ leads me to a conclusion that we are the ‘they’. As we keep following these practices and norms of menstrual exclusion because ‘they said’, someday, the future generations will refer to us as ‘they’. It’s a vicious cycle, a never-ending loop of not acknowledging the literal translations and foundations of Manusmriti and concealing the patriarchal views by creating a façade of more viable and convincing reasons.
- The Message and The Book: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions, John Bowker, 1935, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012
- Manusmriti: The Laws of Manu, 1500BC, translated by G. Buhler