Religion is a fundamental institution of human society. Through a common moral philosophy, it brings people together, binds them and promotes behavioral consistency. Emile Durkheim believes our primary categories of understanding in the world have origins in religion when he states, ‘Religion gave birth to all that is essential in the society’.¹ His ideas conform to the evolutionary theories which believe humans evolved through group selection and religion is one among the forces that glues non-kins together and outcompete other groups.² The advent of modernity or enlightenment has neither eliminated religion, nor has it undone every practice and norm in our society influenced by religious beliefs.
Social outlook on menstruation is deeply influenced by religious beliefs in India. It is among the objections which prevent women from entering priesthood and participating in religious rituals. In the case of Sabarimala, it was quoted as a reason to not allow any women inside the temple premises. Even though we observe rising activism in the given space, they are one sided. Discrimination of women due to menstruation in Hinduism is a problem of brahmanical patriarchy and cannot be reformed without challenging the caste system. This is my attempt to deliberate how caste and gender discrimination are interlaced and why the problem of menstruation should be addressed keeping the intersectional nature of the problem in mind.
The yuck factor
Whenever I have conversations on moral judgements with my friends the arguments pertain to “harm principle” or the concept of justice. The harm principle as John Stuart Mill quotes “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” can be roughly translated to recent times assertion “any action can be considered morally right as long as it doesn’t harm anyone”. The concept of justice is either perceived as equality (egalitarianism) or proportionality (people should be rewarded based on their effort/ people should get what they deserve). These two foundations are in line with Kohlberg’s theories on moral psychology which asserts moral judgements involve values about individual rights, fairness and personal Freedom.³
However, in recent times Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have shown that innate elements of moral judgements are formed by not only two but five domains: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.⁴ Amongst these domains, the effects of purity on moral judgements was a revelation to me. Even Though we hardly perceive the influence of purity, primarily driven by psychology of disgust, in our moral decision making, it has far reaching consequences.
The domain of purity involves values and principles directed at protecting the sanctity of the body and soul. It is controlled by omnivore’s dilemma (coined by Paul Rozin), that is, omnivores must learn what to eat by seeking and exploring new potential foods while remaining wary of them until it is proven to be safe.⁵ Hence, humans being omnivores have two competing motives: neophilia (attraction to new things) and neophobia (a fear of new things). The emotion of disgust evolved to optimize responses to this dilemma and it extends beyond food. It can be understood that purity foundation evolved as a need to avoid the consumption of toxins, parasites, or bacteria. What began as concerns over purity and contamination by physical touch or proximity, however, subsequently extended to include concerns over the purity of the individual’s character and social conduct, thus promoting beliefs in the moral value of a physically and mentally pure lifestyle.
The purity foundation is critical in binding people together and clearly demarcating in-group/out-group proclivities. Researchers tried to find out which moral foundation builds cohesion among similar people and induce aversion towards others. Purity foundation was identified as the strongest driver. People wanted to maintain as much physical and social distance as possible with folks who have offending purity concerns.⁶ Studies have also shown that inducing disgust can enable people to keep away from minority groups at least temporarily, for instance, staying in a smelly room makes people feel less warmth towards homosexual men and this effects was of equal strength among liberals and conservatives.⁷
Hierarchy of purity
Purity-pollution dichotomy is one of the key tenets of Hinduism and it is operationalized by the caste system leveraging the morality behind the purity foundation. Luis Dumont argues that, the fundamental opposition between purity and pollution permeates all the visible features of the caste system such as hierarchy, separation and division of labour. Dumont explains, he does not claim the opposition of pure and impure created the caste system, however it provides the meaning and operating rules for the institution of caste.⁸ The caste system should be understood using purity-pollution dichotomy along with Brahminical supremacy, tyranny and exploitation based on unequal access to material resources.
The significance of purity-pollution opposition in the caste system can be observed in the following cases. Firstly, Dumont suggests that Hindu system is a perfect case of hierarchy where every member/caste is ranked according to their share of purity in relation to God with brahmins in the top and untouchables in the bottom. Secondly, separation of caste is enacted since ‘pure is powerless in face of the impure and only the scared can vanquish it’. That is the higher you are in the hierarchy, the more susceptible you are to pollution by being in contact with the impure and hence strict regulations were enforced for various interactions amongst members from different caste groups (inter-dining was not allowed with other caste members in the past). Thirdly, division of labor was also tied to pure, impure hierarchy. It was not merely an economic division of labor, the pure and impure jobs are closely linked to the hierarchy of purity.
One of the interesting concepts with respect to division of labor is that an accidental contact might be polluting while a specialized contact pertaining to the religious exchange of service, that is when a lower caste person performing his duty to a higher caste person will not have a polluting effect. Dumont provides the given example, a washerwoman (generally one of the lowest castes) does not pollute a brahmin household when she is coming to do laundry but will pollute it badly if she entered for any other purpose. In addition, the pure-impure dichotomy extends beyond the physical realm. It is also believed the caste of a person is a consequence of moral judgement based on their moral karma from their previous life.⁸
With modernization of Hindu rules and democratization of Hinduism, since the time of Dumont’s analysis, nowadays lower caste people are less segregated, untouchables restriction to enter temples is abolished and people are able to pursue varied occupation as a consequence of positive discrimination/reservations. However, the preoccupation with purity in India still remains a significant part of everyday culture. We do see several strict vegetarian communities and people who refuse to rent houses to people who would eat or cook meat within the premises. I have also heard of cases where upper caste/vegetarian roommates would not share utensils and plates with people who eat/cook meat. While these have been dismissed as lifestyle preferences they are manifestations of pure-impure dichotomy from the caste system. Ritual purity is also upheld where non-Hindus are not allowed to enter certain temple premises or can only enter until the first corridor of the temple.⁸
A case of temporary impurity
There are two levels of purity in hinduism — permanent and temporary. People are born with a certain degree of permanent purity based on which their caste is determined. On the other hand we have temporary purity or impurity that is acquired due to natural organic events or external contacts. Dharmasutras provide several advice for maintaining personal purity which is constantly threatened by various polluting circumstances.⁸ People with the highest degree of purity they are born with (Brahmins) are most vulnerable and the recommendations from Dharmasutras are pertinent for them.
In Hinduism menstruation is considered a time of impurity as per the systems that govern bodily fluids and interactions between individuals. For instance, in Dharmasutra Gautama says “When a man touches an outcaste, a chandla, a woman who has just given birth or menstruating, a corpse or someone who has touched any of these, he becomes purified by bathing”.⁸ Menstruation is considered one of the polluting agents that threatens the status of Brahmin men in the socially constructed hierarchy of caste. In addition to placing menstruation among the system of purity-pollution, Manusmriti also suggests that menstruation is a sign of women’s inherent impurity.⁹
I have used hinduism interchangeably with brahminical hinduism thus far. Even though it is identified as a singular world religion, Hinduism encompasses a broad array of traditions, sects and religious-philosophical schools. Sangam Literature, which represents the Dravidian worldview, provides an alternative perception of menstruation. It is believed that anaku (sacred power) fills up women’s bodies at menarche, during menstruation and following childbirth. As opposed to Brahmanical tradition, the Dravidians recognize the sacred power of females and have instituted restrictions for reciprocal protection.⁹ The given interpretation provided an inversion of sacred-impure dichotomy, nevertheless, it still lies in the same axis of moral psychology.
Women and reproduction of caste
Endogamy (marrying within the same caste) is one of the key factors that helps maintain the caste order. In his essay ‘Castes in India: their mechanism, genesis and development’, Dr. Ambedkar outlines that endogamy is established by codifying gender specific behaviors to ensure an equal number of men and women within the caste. He explains how subjugation of women and controlling their sexuality is crucial for preservation of endogamy (closed boundaries of caste to ensure generational purity) hence perpetuating the caste system.
The concern of ensuring the family and personal purity is higher as you go up the caste ladder which implies the restriction on women with respect to purity are more severe in upper castes households as opposed to lower castes’. For instance, domestication of women is more of an upper caste practice and all lower caste women have to work to provide for their families. Similarly, practices such as not touching the pickle during menstruation or not cooking are all adopted by upper caste women to preserve the purity of the household.¹⁰ Creation and maintenance of caste requires control of some men and all women for specific (re)productive purposes. This awareness suggests that menstrual restrictions serve to preserve caste boundaries.
Beyond upper caste feminism
Feminists fight the menstrual taboo which restricts their mobility, deems them polluting and humiliates them for their natural bodily change. However, it needs to extend beyond entering temples, GST on sanitary napkins and period leave. It is imperative to approach the problem of menstruation (or feminism) with an intersections lens since gender discrimination depends on the graded caste system. Upper caste women are subjected to oppressive norms which leads to domestication and repression of sexuality. On the other hand, Dalit women stationed at the lowest point are affected by sexual violence, lower wages and unhygienic work conditions.¹¹ In addition, fighting menstrual restrictions without challenging the caste structure is merely a “reform of Hindu family” and not “a social reform in the sense of reorganization and reconstruction of Hindu society”.
We do not pay enough attention to mechanisms of disposal of sanitary napkins as much as we care about making them available to all women. Before the advent of disposable sanitary napkins, upper caste women used the frills of their nine-yard saree folded inside to soak up the period blood and would dump it in the backyard after use. The washer man/woman collects and cleans it for them. Eventually, upper caste women started using pieces of white cloth to soak up the blood which were cleaned by the washer men as well. In Andhra Pradesh, The clothes worn by upper caste girls when she hits puberty is to be given to a ‘chakali’ (lower caste) women, as a tradition, to pass on the pollution brought by the first menstruation.¹² Even though the hygiene practices have changed from saree to disposable sanitary napkins, lower caste women still clean up upper caste women’s mess. Out of 1.2 million manual scavenges in India about 95–98% of them are women.¹³ In her personal account on mensuration as a Dalit women, Deepthi Sukumar narrates that Dalit women cleaned her hostel and carried away the soiled pads. Whenever the toilets get clogged due pads flushed into the toilets, manual scavenger (usually Dalit) is engaged to the clean them. All these practices are modern manifestations of upper caste preserving their purity and lower caste taking the burden of pollution.¹⁰
Upper caste women came up with the slogan ‘women are not untouchables’ since they were not allowed to enter the temples during menstruation. However, such slogans invalidates Dalit women’s experiences, for they were not allowed to enter the temples based on the caste they are born into (discrimination based conceived permanent impurity is not the same as that based on temporary impurity). We also speak about the need for period leave but we really need to introspect if this is an enactment of privilege. It could be availed by upper caste women mostly employed in corporate/permanent jobs. Even though it is helpful for some women, it begs the following question — will it be possible to extend such benefits for women from lower economic backgrounds — the maids, the factory workers, the manual scavengers, the contract laborers?
Dumont said untouchability cannot be eradicated until purity of brahmin is radically devalued.⁸ Similarly the idea that menstruation is polluting is deeply rooted within caste hierarchy and should be addressed by challenging brahmanical patriarchy. Any other form of reform is a temporary fix which rather than empowering women merely aids sharing of power across gender in privileged class/caste.
- Allan, Kenneth (2005). Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World. Pine Forge Press.
- Why we love to lose ourselves in religion
- Horberg EJ et al (2009). Disgust and the moralization of purity. J Pers Soc Psychol.
- Moral Foundations Theory
- Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, pp. 172
- How purity divides us?
- The Yuck Factor: Surprising power of disgust
- Mickevičienė D. (2003) “Concept of Purity in the Studies of the Indian Caste System”, Acta Orientalia Vilnensia, 4, pp. 239–254. doi: 10.15388/AOV.2003.18279.
- Cohen I. (2020) Menstruation and Religion: Developing a Critical Menstrual Studies Approach. In: Bobel C., Winkler I.T., Fahs B., Hasson K.A., Kissling E.A., Roberts TA. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-0614-7_11
- Sukumar D. (2020) Personal Narrative: Caste Is My Period. In: Bobel C., Winkler I.T., Fahs B., Hasson K.A., Kissling E.A., Roberts TA. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-0614-7_13
- Singh, P. (2020). The Advent of Ambedkar in the Sphere of Indian Women Question. CASTE / A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, 1(2), 17–30. https://doi.org/10.26812/caste.v1i2.182
- Why the debates on menstrual taboo are one-sided?
- Manual Scavenging: Women Face Double Discrimination as Caste and Gender Inequalities Converge