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Monday, August 15, 2022

Sinu Joseph: Decoding menstrual practices with compatible frames of reference

In the second part of her interview,  Sinu  Joseph, menstrual educator, author and one of the pioneers of the menstrual health movement in Bharat, says, “We must begin by accepting our own sciences as valid, and not trying to constantly reduce our knowledge to somehow fit into the limited lens of modern science!”

Sinu Joseph’s  work on menstruation has been unique in its efforts of unearthing the ancient science behind native menstrual practices and bringing forth a narrative which is the Bharatiya perspective on menstruation. She is the co-founder and Managing Trustee of Mythri Speaks, and also works with The Forward Foundation.

She has studied several Hindu temples, religious restrictions owing to menstruation and their impact on women’s menstrual health. Her study on Sabarimala and the associated Sastha temples explore the way consecrated spaces can alter women’s menstrual cycles. Her book Woman  and  Sabarimala: The science behind restrictions is written from a woman’s perspective, explaining the nature of the temple through India’s traditional knowledge systems, such as Tantra and Agama Shastra. Her next  book  Ṛtu Vidyā,  an attempt to bring together various indigenous knowledge systems that provide information about the science of menstruation, which is relevant even today, is being published in  early October 2020.

(You can read the first part of the interview, here)

9.) I’ve read your insightful book Women and Sabarimala. Could you tell us about why you wrote the book and the process involved?

Glad to know that you took the time and trouble to read it. Thank you.

My first book Women  and  Sabarimala was originally meant to be just one chapter in my book Ṛtu Vidyā. For me,  to write anything, it has to be the result of first-hand research. That means, I insist on visiting the places that I write about and only then do I sit down to write.

So,  I took the journey with two of my team mates to five temples associated with Sabarimala and began writing about each of those, based on my experiences. What was intended as one chapter got lengthier with each temple, and I figured it would not get the deserved attention if it was hidden in a book on menstruation.

So, I decided to pull it out and publish it separately. Also, my writing style and narrative in Women  and Sabarimala is very simple because I wrote it keeping devotees in mind. Ṛtu Vidya is more complex and detailed. 

10.) What is the core theme (s) of your book?

I may have written two books, but I am not primarily an author/writer. I wrote because I wanted to share my experiences. I have been a menstrual educator for a decade now, and the books I wrote are a culmination of my work in this field. I get invitations to facilitate workshops in colleges and schools, on menstruation, and the time given (one to two hours) is hardly enough to even touch upon the subject!

So, I felt that it needs to go into a book, which will free me from having to do these workshops. Hence, I have shared everything that I know through these books. I hope that others will take it forward from here as I exit my work on menstruation. I am involved in other areas of social work as well and don’t really have plans of writing anything specific. So, the question of a core theme does not arise. At least, not now.

11.) In your book Women and Sabarimala, you highlight the impact of sacred spaces on women’s reproductive health that has often been confused as a women’s rights issue, misogyny and patriarchy. Your views on this.

As a race, we have been in deep slumber, forgetting that our culture and its many manifestations are not merely symbolic. Even when we mean well, we, at best, reduce a Hindu temple to a great architectural marvel! That a Hindu temple is a living space, imbued with prana which can influence the human physiology, is hardly discussed, and perhaps, not even fully understood. For that understanding to happen, we must begin by accepting our own sciences as valid, and not trying to constantly reduce our knowledge to somehow fit into the limited lens of modern science.

The means of validating the truth as mentioned in the Bharatiya systems of philosophy such as the Darshanas needs to make a comeback, so that we can study and validate native sciences within their own framework. Unless this happens, it is but natural that we reduce a deep science and the knowledge contained therein to mere rights with the topping of misogyny and what not.

12.) In one of your earlier interviews you said that we invest so much in getting our history right (not sure if we do!) but not in our sciences. How would a knowledge of sciences in the Bharatiya tradition impact and influence our understanding of menstruation and menstrual practices?

 A knowledge of native sciences such as Tantra Shastra, Agama Shastra, Ayurveda, Yōga Sutras and all the sciences that come within these broader systems such as the science of Chakras, Mudras, Prana Vidya, Mantra Vidya, etc. are the basis on which the Bharatiya culture is built. This is not just about menstruation or menstrual practices. If we have to decode any of our cultural practices correctly, then the knowledge of these sciences is a must.

13.) The challenge I suppose is how do we communicate knowledge of Bharatiya knowledge systems and traditions to the current generation? How do you propose to address this challenge?

The challenge is not in communicating. It is in finding people who know enough to teach. There simply aren’t enough people who know these sciences first hand, and therefore majority of what we call ancient knowledge is second hand knowledge that is interpreted as and how one pleases. In our culture, seekers and thinkers were always encouraged to go to the source of knowledge. We called that source as Saraswathi. But going there required one to undertake certain sadhana.

Almost all of Tantra Shastra is misunderstood today because it is a Sadhana Shastra. This means that one cannot understand it unless one does the sadhana and gains an experience of the goal of the sadhana. So only a handful of spiritual masters who do the sadhana and are able to tune in to the experiences of the sukshma sharira (subtle body)  are capable of understanding and explaining these things.

Unless more of us get deep into the sadhana and are able to understand from our direct experience, there will continue to be a dearth of teachers. The modern methods of teacher training will fall short of what it takes for someone to prepare to teach indigenous sciences.

14.) Can you tell us about your next book – Rtu Vidya (not sure if I’ve transliterated this correctly)  that is to be published shortly? (BTW can’t wait to read it and join the online support groups!)

The book Ṛtu Vidyā emerged in search of answers to questions asked by adolescent girls and women in Bharat during my interactions with them as part of the menstrual health workshops, conducted over a span of a decade across rural Bharat.

In an attempt to decode menstrual practices, I travelled across Bharat and studied various indigenous knowledge systems such as Ṣaḍ-Darśana, Āyurveda, Tantra, Cakra, Yōga, Āgama Śāstra, Jyotiṣa Śāstra, and several sub-texts from these categories. As a result, the book goes beyond just describing cultural practices and takes a deep dive into explaining the scientific and logical reasoning behind the origin of these practices.

This book is for all Bharatiya women who have unanswered questions pertaining to menstrual practices; for menstrual researchers who will find a treasure trove of potential areas for research pertaining to menstrual health; for sportswomen to discover the ancient techniques employed by traditional martial art and dance that worked in sync with women’s periods and not against it; and also for the feminist who assumes that cultural practices around menstruation are a taboo that need to be done away with!

The correct understanding of the science behind menstrual practices, as given in this book, will help women prevent menstrual difficulties, develop a positive attitude toward menstruation, and learn to work in sync with nature’s cycles.

Ṛtu (pronounced as ruthu) is one of the terms for menstruation in Sanskrit. Vidyā means knowledge. Ṛtu Vidyā is an attempt to bring together various indigenous knowledge systems that provide information about the science of menstruation, which is relevant even to this day.

The book has been published and is available on Notion Press, amazon.in and Flip kart. In a week, it will also be listed on international platforms and the e-book will be available in 12 days.

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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