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REVIEW:

The Sabarimala Confusion


Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective
by Nithin Sridhar (New Delhi, India: Vitasta Publishing, 2019), 404pp.

GALINA KRASSKOVA

M oved by an incident in 2015


involving women’s entry into the
Sabarimala Temple, author Nithin
Sridhar found the issue of women and by
extension menstruation to be at the forefront
of religious controversy in India. In
response, Sridhar pointed out, first in an
article and now in this meticulously
researched book, how this issue cuts to the
heart of religion and religious piety. It is a
theological question, one that involves issues
of purity and taboo, foreign influence,
discrimination, and the integrity of religious
traditions, like Hinduism, under fire from an
unsympathetic, largely secular, and very
hostile media, both within India and in the
West.
Interdisciplinary in its focus, Menstruation Across Cultures situates
menstruation and taboo across several relevant fields: gender studies, religious
studies, theology, and anthropology. It examines religious approaches to
menstruation across both multiple cultures and multiple religious traditions,
looking not only at Hinduism and the Abrahamic faiths, but ancient
Polytheisms as well. The book is timely, particularly in India, and Hinduism is
the primary lens through which the other cultures and traditions are examined
and compared. Sridhar’s analysis of Hindu attitudes toward menarche and their
scriptural and cosmological origins alone makes the book a valuable addition to
the library of any religious studies scholar or theologian.
The book is comprised of six chapters plus a conclusion. It is expansive in
its coverage of the topic and aims to provide a reexamination of polytheistic
traditions and practices, particularly those involving purity and taboo around
menstruation and women, through the lens of Hindu thought. The preface lays

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the groundwork for this discussion, highlighting the need for contemporary
discourse around menstruation, women’s health, sanitation needs and
commercialization of these attendant issues (16). The author particularly notes
that the prevailing narrative about Indian women indulging “in unhygienic and
superstitious menstrual practices owing to… imposed cultural practices rooted
in patriarchy is misleading, incorrect, and may have been manufactured for
ulterior motives” (20). In doing so, Sridhar opens up the discourse, situating the
issue of menstrual taboo across the broad spectrum of Indo-European religious
practices both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, and showing that far
from being rooted in misogyny, in many cases taboos developed organically out
of a response to communal and religious concerns around purification,
concerns of relevance to men and women alike.
Chapter One introduces readers to Sanatana Dharma, i.e. Hinduism, and its
history. It offers an analysis of Hindu perceptions of menstruation from a
historical perspective but also thematically vis-à-vis Hindu dharma. The
cosmological origins of menses and its connection to lunar cycles is explored
(25) along with Ayurvedic methods for ensuring health and fertility (26). Sridhar
examines the story of Indra, interpreting it as both cosmological narrative and
as the origin for specific menstrual guidelines (31). Indra, afflicted with the
“Karmic guilt of Brahmahatya” (31) had one third of his guilt carried by the
earth, one third by trees, and one third by women. This latter guilt is said to
manifest as a stained garment leading to specific menstrual taboos.
Menstruation is then positioned as something sacred and natural but also as a
time and means for self-purification (33). Readers are introduced to the Hindu
concept of ritual impurity (ashaucha), and through an in-depth analysis of the
Sutras and their attendant interpretations, Sridhar connects the idea of
menstruation as a time of ritual impurity to Hindu theologies of the self and of
the soul. The call to purity becomes an essential duty for every human being,
without which all spiritual work is “fruitless” (36). This purity may be both
internal and external and the requirements for purity are not unique to women.
Menstruation however, is a process of purification, a temporary state of
impurity that by its nature purifies the woman (39), making it unique among
conditions of ritual contagion.
This chapter is thoroughly, meticulously researched and examines relevant
Hindu scriptures across denominations of Hinduism. Sridhar even points out
specific Tantrika practices that highlight menstruation as a particularly vital and
powerful time (63) and also notes Deities and festivals celebrating menstruation
(65) including Parvati, Bhoomi Devi, Kamakhya, and Brahmacharini Durga, to
name a few. This chapter also explores menstrual prohibitions as therapeutic
prescriptions according to Ayurvedic practices of health. Overall, it highlights
that just as Hinduism is not monolithic in practice and approach, neither is the
way its various denominations deal with the questions of menstruation and

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ashaucha. Chapter Two discusses menstruation in other Indic traditions including


Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, showing commonalities and differences
between these traditions themselves and with respect to Hinduism.
Chapter Three examines attitudes toward menstruation in the Abrahamic
traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This section, while well-
researched, was somewhat problematic. Sridhar makes the assertion that
“religion” is only used to properly denote Abrahamic monotheisms (120),
making this comment with respect to the fact that these traditions lack the
spiritual, philosophical, and civilizational tenets found in Polytheisms and
Paganisms. While it is tempting to agree with him, this assertion is belied by the
very depth of the discussion that follows, clearly showing that while the
Abrahamic traditions may be young and thus lacking in the depth of
philosophical and civilizational underpinnings one finds in Polytheisms, at the
same time, they are functional religious traditions with clearly articulated
cosmologies, intergenerational means of transmission, concepts of ritual and
ritual purity, and tenets for spiritual living, all means by which he positions
Polytheisms and Paganisms as authentic and specifically religious.
This is a small quibble, however and his discussion of these three mono-
theisms is quite rich. He engages with relevant scholars like William E. Phipps,
Sharon Faye Koren, M. Guterman, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Rachel Adler,
Barukh Levinetrace, Jacob Milgrom, and Susan Handelman, to name but a few,
and parses out the differences in approach between these three branches of the
same monotheistic root. He notes for example, that within Judaism,
menstruation has been a main cause for excluding women from positions of
authority (121). His examination of primary sources is extensive. He examines
in particular Levitical purity laws, and the way in which such purity laws were
used to differentiate between Jews and Pagans, and later, in the medieval period,
between Jews and Christians. He also explores the meaning of niddah and its
application, and through an exploration of Rabbinic scholarship shows how
Judaism balances purity and holiness against the idea of impurity and unholiness
specifically viewed as a pushing away of God (sitra ahra, 147).
Sridhar does not always differentiate between Jewish and Christian ideas
(for instance, the idea of original sin was not a Jewish theological point, but a
Christian one alone) and has a tendency to equate and elide “Judeo-“ with
Christian without further comment. While he does acknowledge accurately that
Christianity grew out of Judaism, he doesn’t point out that there was no one
monolithic Christianity in the ancient world, nor indeed today (153), which is
important to understand when analyzing the respective approach of
denominations toward a theological subject. In this respect, this chapter lacks
some of the nuance of Chapter One, but it more than makes up for these small
lacunae by its fascinating account of the varying menstrual taboos within
Christianity. Interestingly, Sridhar pays special attention to the Syriac Didaskalia,

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a third-century text, written anonymously, that actually reprimands women for


avoiding prayer or scriptural lessons during menstruation (157), a startling
contrast to other early denominations of Christianity that saw menstruation as
particularly dangerous or even malignant (156). He speculates that the Syrian
approach was perhaps heavily influenced by the strong Jewish presence in the
area and thus a need for Syriac Christians to define and differentiate their
identity from the local Jewish community (165).
Most interesting was his discussion of Medieval Christian associations of
menstruation with idolatry and witchcraft (165). In a nice counterpoint to his
discussion of Ayurvedic influences in Chapter One, Sridhar examines the
influence of Graeco-Roman ideas of medicine, Graeco-Roman theories of
miasma, and Aristotelian natural philosophy on Christian thinkers, particularly
Jerome, Aquinas, and Isidore of Seville (168). He notes that it was during the
eighth and ninth centuries that menstruation shifted from being a female
physiological state to being a potential moral condition for both men and
women (171). He draws heavily on the work of Sharon Faye Koren and
Francesca Matteoni, following the latter in noting that Christian beliefs about
the female body and menstruation played a role in their beliefs about witchcraft
too (174). Blood was a means of “individuating the idea of the enemy in
different kinds of social groups,” including Jews, women, the old, and the poor,
onto whom the stereotype of the witch could be projected (174). Unfortunately,
he seems to take Starhawk’s book Spiral Dance, an excellent book on Wiccan
ritual but not a book of history, as a text of the same caliber as the academic
works with which he otherwise also engages and perhaps because of this,
accepts the idea of the “burning times” incorrectly as actual history. This latter
mars an otherwise fascinating chapter.
One particularly relevant section of this chapter concerns Christianity in
India today and Sridhar examines how Christian notions of menstrual purity
have affected Indian girls irrespective of what Christian denomination the girls
might follow (176). Effects include taboos in some cases against entering a
church or receiving communion while bleeding, though this is not universal in
Indian Christian communities (177). The final part of this chapter examines
Islam and its attitudes toward menstruation. Concepts of purity and impurity
are, Sridhar notes, vital to Islam and menstruating women were classified as
impure, polluted and polluting. They were prohibited from religious duties and
barred from shrines, mosques, and fasting at Ramadan if menstruating (180).
Menarche is considered a coming of age at which point one formally enters
Islamic life, taking up required religious duties (182). The chapter concludes
with a thorough comparison of these three monotheistic religions with
Hinduism.
Chapter Four discusses ideas about menstruation in ancient civilizations
including Greece, Rome, Babylon, and Egypt. Sridhar notes that in Greek and

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Roman Polytheisms, the cosmologies were silent on the subject of menstruation


(197) and in classical medicine it was considered the very thing that
distinguished women from men (196). Sridhar looks at the work of Lesley
Dean-Jones, Philip Slater, Andreas Bendlin, and Robin Osborne, exploring
ideas of miasma and katharsis, impurity as the opposite of the sacred, methods of
purification, and ancient medicine. He offers a particularly interesting discussion
centered around the work of Helen King, who posits that for ancient Greeks,
menstruation was fundamental and necessary for the maintenance of order,
including physical order. There was also a connection between sacrifice and
menstruation, and health for an ancient Greek girl was essentially “to bleed like
a sacrificial victim” (214). Rome inherited the Greek tradition and expanded
upon the medical understanding of menstruation through the work of noted
gynecologist Soranus.
In contrast to Rome and Greece, this chapter also discusses Mesopotamia:
the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. These cultures held
certain common notions about menstruation, and virginity particularly had
special ritual value in that certain rituals and ritual acts had to be done by virgins
(241). Menstruation was itself undesirable as a very high value was placed on
pregnancy, to a degree not articulated in the other traditions which this book
explores. There is some evidence that menstruation may even have been viewed
as an illness and Sridhar focuses on both an examination of certain medical and
magical texts as well as etymological examination of the words for purity and
impurity in the relevant languages (255). The chapter closes by looking at Egypt,
where the function of menstruation was purification and where seclusion during
menstruation may have been practiced (290), and then with a comparison of
these polytheistic traditions with contemporary Hinduism. Chapter Five
examines menstruation and religion across indigenous communities around the
world, including the tribes of North America, Africa, Brazil, and the Gold
Coast.
Chapter Six looks at modern attitudes about menstruation in contemporary
Hinduism and the effect of modernity on religious practices. Sridhar posits that
modern attitudes in the West are divorced from sacral dimensions (313).
Menstruation is an annoyance to be overcome, whereas traditional Hinduism
correlates sacredness and regeneration with it. The medical and scientific
approaches have impacted the way menstruation is understood by women to
the point that sacralizing and celebrating it have become unthinkable (314). He
speculates that these attitudes have the effect of alienating people from their
bodies (315), which he likewise considered a type of enslavement (314). He
looks at media representations and commercialization of menstruation,
including the language of television ads and products like “stay free” positing
that cultural experiences have, as a result, been relegated to the status of false-
hood and superstition. Biological information alone has been upheld as truth

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(316) and this has had a deleterious effect on women and their position within
religious practice. For Sridhar, it delegitimizes women (417) and the remainder
of the book examines these influences from modernity and the way they often
conflict with traditional Hindu ideals. Finally, he concludes by emphasizing the
ways in which Hindu traditions promote positive ideas of women and
menstruation, namely that menstruation is best approached as a period of rest,
austerity, and self-purification, and most of all as a special privilege available
only to them (318).
It is here that Menstruation Across Cultures is truly ground-breaking. In
‘common’ understanding, menstruation in the Indic, and especially the Hindu
traditions too often seems all about restrictions that always lead to unhealthy
attitudes both in women and in religious communities. This book challenges
that misunderstanding by painstakingly detailing the understanding the Hindu
Shastras have of menstruation, the meaning they accord it, and how it fits into
the philosophy and schema of human life in general. It challenges Western
stereotypes of Hindu women as oppressed by patriarchal religious ideas, shows
the deeply nuanced theological positions found within Hindu thought, and
opens the door for greater understanding, participation, and discourse by both
men and women, scholars and lay people about the position of women within
these traditions. It is a worthy addition to any scholar’s library.

[Note: for the purposes of full disclosure, I reviewed this from a PDF version received from the
author prior to publication.]

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