In my last post (here) I talked about how the temple is the centre of the community in India. However I have now found myself banned from entering. Yes, banned from the temple….. what terrible faux pas did I make to be prohibited from entering the temple?
The most natural thing in the world a woman can do. My body did exactly what it was designed to do and for this I was banned.
The female body is considered to be unclean, impure, polluted and capable of polluting others during the menstrual cycle. This is the same body that gives life to all, prepares virtually all the meals, keeps the house clean and the family functioning. For a quarter of their fertile adult lives, approximately 5 years 10 months 10 days in total (yes I really did calculate an average), women are made to feel like social outcasts.
Whilst for me personally, it hasn’t been quite that traumatic, I have found it disturbing that the whole household realises I have my menses, and are discussing it and calculating how many days I am in my cycle. They are all counting because on the fourth day, a woman is allowed back into the temple…..but only if she washes her hair first.
For those that live and breathe religion, the temple is the focus of their social activity. I imagine, to be excluded from participating every four weeks could be quite upsetting. There may be feelings of guilt (because you can’t help your friends at the temple) and certainly isolation (in some instances women are also not allowed to prepare food or touch others).
Thankfully it’s not that extreme in my family, but it has meant I have missed out on some interesting events at the temple. I certainly have felt excluded.
I struggle to understand where this concept of women being impure or unclean comes from. Blood is shed in battle by men, and there are no connotations of impurity if they carry their wounded comrades to safety. Indeed that is considered valour.
Most perplexing to me is what do the goddesses do? After all, they are female and capable of reproduction. Are they also banished from the temple, THEIR temple, once a month?
A google search highlighted that there is a temple in Kerala, the Chengannur Mahadeva Temple, where an idol of the goddess Parvati menstruated. It is recorded that she did so every month in years past, but now it only occurs occasionally. Perhaps she is also experiencing hot flashes and the challenges of menopause.
At this temple, each menstruation is celebrated, and special ceremonies mark each event. It is not ignored or hidden away. No one is excluded from the temple on these days.
So I still sit here confused. Why if it is acknowledged that even the goddesses menstruate (and they are of course pure), then why are all other women still considered unclean for doing something that is a natural part of the cycle of life, and which they cannot stop even if they wanted to (except without medication)? I can’t seem to find any situation where men are considered to be unclean or excluded from the temple, even if they do something unsavoury that is within their control. This double standard is difficult for me to comprehend.
I know Hinduism is not alone. Other religions have similar beliefs that dictate certain behaviour of women in order to render themselves worthy again. For example, in some streams of Judaism, women are required to shave their head and wear wigs. But just because there is a collective practice of deprecating women doesn’t make it right.
As a woman looking through western eyes, I find this continuing practice deeply offensive. I refuse to believe that my body preparing itself to create life is wrong, dirty or impure.
Yet the Indian in me has chosen to respect it nonetheless. I am not sure why, this is one of the contradictions in me being both a westerner and an Indian. It’s a matter of respect I guess. Whilst I don’t believe, those who worship at this temple do. I do not see it as my place to offend them or do anything that would cause them any ill feelings.
Regardless, I continue to struggle with this contradiction. I suspect in the coming months I will uncover more like these. I just hope and pray that it doesn’t come at the cost of me undermining more of myself, my values or my femininity.