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This paper preceded MATRIKA research and was published in 1992 in the Economic and Political Weekly

The Mythic Origins of the Menstrual Taboo in the Rig Veda
Janet Chawla

A crucial subtext can be read in feminist agitations against the injectable contraceptive Depo-Provera: The female body is not to be problematised as a site of pathology and victimized for its potential fertility. Menstruation is a normal, natural female physiological function. In this context it is appropriate to reflect upon traditional cultural constructions of the female body and the meanings of menstruation within Indian symbolic systems-meanings which have undoubtedly shaped Indian women’s (and men’s) experiences of female bodily processes.

Menstruation is the monthly bleeding of non-pregnant women of childbearing age. This article explores aspects of uniquely Indian cultural meanings of menstruation and constructions of women’s body. I will first contextualise these meanings and constructions in relation to the contemporary discussion of the feminist agitation against the injectable hormonal contraceptive Depo-Provera.

Feminist groups have been agitating against the Drug Controller of India’s attempts to allow the introduction of Depo-Provera in the Indian marketplace. Opposition to Depo (and other hormonal contractives, Net-en and Norplant) has been articulated by critics utilizing various discourses. Women’s group have used medical research and language to expose the many negative side-effects of injectable and implantable contraceptive technology and emphasized the dangers of its use with poor and rural women where health is already compromised. Human rights and feminist organisations as well as the socially concerned medical community have used the issue of resource distribution to question those ‘development wallahs’ and bilateral funding agencies who advocate a ‘quick technological fix’ approach to family planning and population control. Critics of the New Economic Policy point out that in the name of liberalization, free trade, and ‘development’ foreign multinationals and their Indian collaborators (such as Upjohn and Max Pharma – the purveyors of Depo) will have laissez-faire access to the Indian consumer without the monitoring and protection of coherent national drug policy.

This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of a complex debate. Nevertheless, there is a significant omission from this discussion. The most frequently encountered consequence of Depo-Provera (of its active ingredient DMPA – a synthetic form of the female hormone progesterone) is alteration in the menstrual cycle. “Some women will experience unpredictable or prolonged bleeding or spotting…most users develop amenorrhea (suppression of menstruation) after several months of use” [1](emphasis mine).

In this current age of ecological awareness, many people are beginning to recognize that the cycles and processes of nature (seasons, the atmosphere, river waters, the earth) must be respected and sensitively handled. Ironically it seems as though this sensitivity does not extend to the natural physiological cyclicity of women’s bodies: menstruation. One group of women’s health activists have accurately described the situation. “In the case of hormones used for oral, injectable and implantable contraception, never before have so many women been given potent medicine continuously to suppress a condition (fertility) that is not a disease”[2].

I would suggest that a crucial subtext can be read in feminist agitations against Depo-Provera: the female body is not to be problematised as the site of pathology and victimized for its potential fertility. Menstruation is a normal, natural female physiological function.

Within this context it is appropriate to reflect upon traditional cultural constructions of the female body and the meanings of menstruation within Indian symbolic systems – meanings which undoubtedly have shaped Indian women’s (and men’s) experiences of female bodily processes.

Obviously traditional Indian cultural constructions of menstruation differ considerably from the bio-medical model. In many parts of south India a girl’s first menstruation was until recently celebrated publicly: after emerging from seclusion the young woman was bathed, dressed in bridal finery, and garlanded with flowers. Aesthetic renderings of a young woman kicking an Ashoka tree imply that it is her shakti which cause the tree to bloom. In tantric rituals, which probably have their origins in tribal and folk cultures, menstrual blood was one of the offerings made to the goddess.

According to historian N.N.Bhattacharyya, different areas of India have had notions of the menstruating goddess. In Punjab it was believed that Mother Earth (‘Dharti Ma’) ‘slept’ for a week each month. In some parts of the Deccan after the ‘navaratra’ goddess temples were closed from the tenth to the full moon day while she rests and refreshes herself. In Malabar region, Mother Earth was believed to rest during the hot weather until she got the first shower of rain [3]. Still today in the Kamakhya temple of Assam and in parts of Orissa the rituals of the menstruation of the goddess are celebrated during the monsoon season. Both the fertile earth and woman must rest be venerated and celebrated.

Bhattarcharyya notes that the auspiciousness of menstruation, representing potential fertility, is symbolized by blood or the colour of blood and is regarded as sacred. Sindur applied in the part of the married woman’s hair symbolizes the sacredness of her fertile potential (when exercised within the confines of patriarchal marriage!) Deities and sacred objects are daubed with red colouring as a part of ritual worship. Within Indian culture, red signifies auspiciousness and potential growth – these ancient religious ideas and symbols are definitely linked to the blood of menstruation.

Understanding these nuances of India’s cultural history it is surprising to find that some studies have shown that Indian women experience menstrual irregularity, spotting, or lack of menstruation as significant problems [4]. Sociologist Veena Das explains the cultural assumptions which underline this experience. “….the female body makes the notion of regularity of nature available to mankind. For the Hindus, it is the regular periodicity of menstruation that is the guarantee of the regularity of nature. Thus, the word ‘rtu’ stands for both seasons and the menstrual cycle. Similarly the word for the woman’s menstrual cycle and the moon’s cycle is the same, showing that the rhythms of the body and the rhythms of the cosmos are in harmony”[5]. However, the Hindu traditions themselves are also deeply ambivalent in their constructions of menstruation as the following investigation of the menstrual taboo reveals.

I

Commentary on the Rig Veda has occupied human minds for literally millennia. Very few of those minds happened to be women’s. I began my study of the Rig Vedic text in order to understand the mythic origins of the ritual taboos associated with menstruation. In this article I will present the woman-centred concerns which I bring to the RigVeda, a feminist interpretation of the textual material and speculations about the historical meaning of the mythic and symbolic elements of the narrative.

Having worked as a childbirth educator and advocate of ‘natural childbirth’ among voluntary organizations I became increasingly frustrated with the medical model of pregnancy and birth. Surely, I reasoned, there must be traditional, indigenous and empowering knowledge about women’s bodies. I decided to document traditional Indian childbirth practices which seemed to me to be more congruent with my natural childbirth orientation. I worked with the Ankur-Action India women’s health group in Delhi to collect stories of women from all classes and religious backgrounds about their experiences with menstruation, pregnancy, birth and mothering.

From these interviews emerged two conceptual areas which appeared significant. One was ritual pollution. Almost every woman spoke of her body as being considered unclean or impure during the time of menstruation and post-partum. Women told of being prohibited from going to the Mandir, Masjid or Gurdwara performing or participating in Pujas, not reading books as well as the importance of bathing rituals after menstruation. One basti woman described the blood of childbirth as ‘rook hua’ (stagnant) and the placenta as ‘nau mahena ka narak kund’ (nine months’ hell vessel).

Second was the well worship ritual[5]. Many of the ‘basti’ women mentioned a ritual worship of the well (or in the resettlement colonies the nal, or water tap) on ‘chhatti’ after childbirth. As they described the ritual it was actually worshipping the water source rather than a purification ritual.

Thus I encountered two seemingly contradictory ritual and belief systems. In Brahmanical Hinduism woman’s body and procreative capacity is defined as a source of ritual impurity. Water or bathing is understood to be purifying; washing away bodily pollution. On the other hand the worship of water source, a woman-centred ritual involving singing and celebration, constructs both the well and water as sacred. Symbolically the well is analogous to the yoni. Wells in many parts of India are constructed in a yonic shape. Just as baby emerges from the watery womb – the source of life – so the well, in the traditional Indian setting, was the source of water, necessary for the continuing life of people, plants, animals. Interestingly some slum women in resettlement colonies around Delhi reported the community water tap (in the absence of the village well) as the focus of ritual celebration post-partum.

I asked myself rather simple questions: why are menstruation and the blood of childbirth considered ritually polluting? What are the origins of a belief which is so categorizes women’s body and the miraculous biological processes which bring new human life into the world? (I should acknowledge that defining women’s bodily processes as polluting and antithetical to religious practice is not unique to Hinduism. It is also a part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.) I got my first inkling of an answer when I discovered the myth of Indra slaying Vritra.

Myths are traditional stories which serve to unfold part of the world-view of a people and or explain a practice, belief or natural phenomena. Myth serves various functions in any given society. First, a metaphysical function; myth orients a person vis-à-vis the world, the cosmos, and society and imbues experience with meaning, often understood as religious or spiritual. Second, myth serves a social function of providing role models, prescribed or tabooed actions and dramatically revealing consequences of behaviour. Third, myth provides a pedagogical tool; as the young hear the stories of their elders, they learn about themselves and the world and begin to understand their environment and the behaviour expected from them in ways acceptable to their family and group [6].

In Rig Veda, Indra’s slaying of Vritra (or the Vritras) is referred to over 100 times. Most Vedic scholars agree that this killing is the central dramatic event in India’s oldest existing text.

In the Rig Veda, Vritra is depicted as the withholder of the waters, the demon of droughts, a snake or dragon-like figure who dwells in the rivers or celestial waters, or in a cavern in the earth. He lives in the caves with the cows. Indra kills Vritra with his thunderbolt, thus releasing the waters, the cows, and wealth, prosperity, and progeny.

Keith notes that Vritra is the primary enemy of the Vedic gods: “He is a serpent with power over the lightning, mist, hail and thunder when he wars with Indra, his mother is Danu, apparently the stream or the waters of heaven, but he bears that name himself as well a Danava, offspring of Danu.” According to Keith, Vritra paradoxically resides within the waters, but also on lofty heights which suggests the waters of the air. His name denotes”… the encompasser of the waters, rather than the holder back by congealing them: the cloud mountain is therefore said to be in his belly”. Indra, the Vritra slayer, is also the breaker of forts. Keith notes that Vritra “has 99 forts which Indra shatters as he slays him”[7]. It is this frequently used epithet of Indra as “fort-breaker” which has led some scholars to speculate that the aboriginal peoples (the Vritras, Asuras, Dassas or demons of the Rig Vedic text) were the occupants of the Harrapan cities such as Mohenjodaro.

I will attempt to understand the figure of Vritra in two ways. First, by reading the text as an historical document reflecting the Aryan encounter with, and the subordination of pre-Aryan indigenous peoples; simultaneously seizing and exploiting natural resources and appropriating pre-existing cultural forms. How did the deification of Indra and the demonisation of Vritra construct an ideology which legitimized the Indo-European domination over the native peoples? What can be inferred from the narrative and symbolic content of the text about the social organization, values, and cultural forms of the original inhabitants of the subcontinent? Second, I will use as a working hypothesis the idea that the figure of Vritra is inextricably linked with a pre-existing matristic social system and a world-view which valued the sacred (or powerful) feminine.

Existing critical literature recognizes the marginality of women in the Rig Veda. J. Gonda acknowledges that “Women are a rare subject: they are mainly mentioned in metaphors and, as a collectivum, in similes”[8]. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty categorically states ‘The Rig Veda is a book by men about male concerns in a world dominated by men; one of these concerns is women, who appear throughout the hymns as objects, though seldom as subjects”[9].

The text, however, speaks for itself on the general category of women: “Indra himself hath said, the mind of woman brooks not discipline, Her intellect hath little weight”) RV VIII 33.17). (Ironically this aphorism is put in the mouth of a heroic warrior known for neither his intellect nor his self-discipline.) “With women there can be no lasting friendship: hearts of hyenas are the hearts of women”) RV X 95.15).

Indologists have interpreted natural symbolism in the Rig Veda within various conceptual frameworks. However the task of decoding what Gonda refers to as ‘similes and metaphors’ as real human persons, not just part of the natural flora and fauna, has not, to my knowledge, been attempted. Androcentric scholarship, both Indian and western, has been quite happy to leave unchallenged categories of man = culture whereas woman = nature’ (and primal peoples = nature whereas dominant people = constructed culture). I suggest that the cows, rivers, and caves can be read as referents to both the mythic feminine and to real historical women and groups of women. (More precisely, ‘proto-historical’ because there is considerable evidence that our hypothesized matristic society was in fact, the pre-Vedic, Harappan civilization. The Harappans had a form of writing which has not yet been deciphered, and is thus technically ‘proto-historical’.)

Interestingly Vritra, in fact all the demons of the Rig Veda, are known by matronymics rather than patronymics. Vritra is a Danava, son of Danu. In one passage, describing his death, the Rig Veda links the two in imagery of cow and calf: “The vital energy of Vritra’s mother ebbed away, for Indra had hurled his deadly weapon at her. Above was the mother, below was the son; Danu lay down like a cow with her calf” (RV 1.32.9, translation O’Flaherty).

My hypothesis is that Vritra is mythically and symbolically linked to pre-patriarchal, pre-Vedic social formations. By re-interpreting the slaying of the ‘son of the mother’, we discover the mythic origin of the later brahmanic pollution ideology which devalues and de-sacralises the female bodily processes of menstruation and childbirth while simultaneously glorifying the patriarchally constructed institution of ‘motherhood’.

The Dharmashastras, the lawgivers’ treatises on how to live a proper life, contain various proscriptions on that a menstruating woman should and should do and should not do. In this text, Chapter 5 of the Vasishtha Dharmashastra, menstrual taboos and woman’s subordinate social position are related to the narrative of Indra slaying Vritra.

(1) A woman is not independent, the males are her masters. It has been declared in the Veda. “A female who neither goes naked nor is temporarily unclean is paradise”.

(2) Their fathers protect them in childhood, their husband protects them in youth, and their sons protect them in age; a woman is never fit for independence.

(3) The penance to be performed by a wife for being unfaithful to her husband has been declared in the section of secret penances.

(4) For month by month the menstrual excretion takes away her sins.

(5) A woman in her courses is impure during three days and nights.

(6) During her period she shall not apply collyrium to her eyes, nor anoint her body, nor bathe in water; she shall sleep on the ground; she shall not sleep in the day-time, nor touch the fire, nor make a rope, nor clean her teeth, nor eat meat, nor look at the planets, nor drink out of a large vessel, or out of joined hands, or out of a copper vessel.

(7) For, it has been declared in the Veda, “When Indra had slain Vritra, the three headed son of Tvashtri, he was seized by sin, and he considered himself to be tainted with exceedingly great guilt. All beings cried out against him saying to him “O thou slayer of a learned Brahmana!” He ran to the women for protection and said to them, “Take upon yourself the third part of this my guilt caused by the murder of a learned Brahmana. “They said, “Let us obtain offspring if our husbands approach us during the proper season, at pleasure let us dwell with our husbands until our children are born.” He answered, “So be it”. Then they took upon themselves the third part of his guilt. That guilt of brahmana-murder appears every month as the menstrual flow. Therefore let him not eat the food of a woman in her courses for such a one has put on the shape of the guilt of brahmana-murdered.

(8) Those who recite the Veda proclaim the following rule: “Collyrium and ointment must not be accepted from her; for that is the food of women. Therefore they feel a loathing for her while she is in that condition saying “she shall not approach”.

(9) “Those brahmanas in whose houses menstruating women sit, those who keep no sacred fire, and those in whose family there is no Srotiya – all these are equal to shudras.”

In this text we find practices relating to the seclusion and restrictions of menstruating women explicitly linked to the mythic drama of Indra’s slaying of Vritra. This myth is found first in the Rig Veda and subsequently woven through various texts – in this paper we shall only consider the Rig Veda, but the Satapatha Brahmana and the Taittireya Samahita of the Black Yajur Veda also are germane to an understanding of how female physiology is constructed, symbolically and narratively linked to the mythic slaying of Vritra and incorporated into Vedic sacrificial liturgy and ritual.

Mircea Eliade, writing of the Vritra myth, notes the Indian practice of astrologically determining the placement of a peg into the earth before building a structure. The peg is to secure the head of the snake (thought to reside in the earth) and prevent it from shaking and destroying the building. “But the act of foundation at the same time repeats the cosmogonic act for to “secure” the snake’s head, to drive the peg into it is to imitate the primordial gesture of Soma (RV 2.12.1) or of Indra when the latter “smote the Serpent in his laid” (6.17.9) when his thunderbolt “cut off its head” (1.52.10).” According to Eliade’s interpretation the serpent Vritra symbolizes chaos, the formless and non-manifested. He supports this understanding by textual references to Vritra as “undivided (aparvan), unawakened (abudhyam), sleeping (abudhyamanam), out-stretched (asayanam).” Eliade proceeds to state that Indra’s “hurling of the lightning and the decapitation are equivalent to the act of Creation, with passage from the non-manifested to the manifested, from the formless to the formed[10].

Eliade’s notion of primal chaos is outdated and androcentric. The new physics is radically changing scientists’ conceptions of order and chaos. Phenomena previously understood as chaotic now seem to display an underlying sense of order. It is masculine ‘creation’ which involves hurling of lightning (read sperm) and decapitation is a rather anomalous symbol for creativity. What has previously been understood as ‘primal chaos’ might now reveal itself as a matristic social and symbolic order. The creative order of the menstrual cycle and the rhythms of labour may involve stress and pain – but not the violence to the ‘other’ depicted in the Indra-Vritra slaying. The essential question remains “what/whom is really being killed?”

Eliade reasons that because Vritra had confiscated the waters and was keeping them in the hollows of the mountains that either “Vritra was the absolute master – in the same manner as Tiamat or any serpent divinity – of all chaos before the Creation; or that the great serpent, keeping the waters for himself alone, had left the whole world ravaged by drought.”

But Sjoo and Mor interepret the pervasive Indo-European serpent and dragon metaphor in a radically different fashion. They state unequivocally that “the serpent of chaos is originally and always a woman’s body. As the Great Mother of Chaos, of matter still unformed and undifferentiated, she holds the earth like an egg in the pure energy of her coils.” Sjoo and Mor understand the “Great Mother of Chaos” to represent the ‘time before the gods’, which preceded the establishment of patriarchal hierarchies and distinctions. Within this woman-centered interpretation, “the dragon of matter, the Undivided One older than the individuation of forms”, also signified the flesh and blood bonds which unified the people. These authors link the snake/dragon with “the indigenous ‘masters of the ground’ – the matrifocal peasantry – who are invaded, conquered, plundered, co-opted by the ‘dragon-slayers’ of patriarchal history….” In Sjoo and Mor’s analysis Indra’s murder of Vritra initiates the creation, not of the cosmos, but of patriarchy. “…In the Indo-European view the dark, serpentine Danu and Vritra had ‘withheld the waters in the mountain hollows’ and so hindered the world from coming into being. The Indo-European patriarchal world, that is”[11].

The violence of the Vritra murder is recapitulated in the ritual metaphor of the serpent needing to be pegged for masculine ‘construction’ to take place. (That this metaphor is still operative in the folk mind is obvious from the worship of the Nag which took place in many Garhwali villages after the Uttarkashi earthquake.) We are claiming that another paradigm of order, not primal chaos, can be discerned in the text; one that is congruent with women’s procreative capacity, menstrual and lunar cycles and the hypothesized matrifocal social order. I am suggesting that what preceded Vedic ideology on the sub-continent was not the primal chaos of chthonic peoples, but a previously unrecognized, humanly constructed social order. The death and dismemberment of Vritra can be viewed as a metaphor for the Indo-European exercise of power, symbolic and martial, over the pre-existing peoples and their culture.

The mythic Indra was, after all, a warrior par excellence: the Rig Veda is a martial document. Scholars have debated whether the warfare was literal, ritual, symbolic – between groups of men, men and demons, gods and demons, etc. But Vedic study, both Indian and foreign, has neglected a crucial question which Uma Chakravarty poses: “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dassi?” Chakravarty, in her deconstruction of “the myth of the golden age of Indian womanhood as located in the Vedic period”, emphasizes the historiorgraphic foregrounding of “the Aryan woman (the progenitor of the upper caste woman) as the only object of historial concern”. Chakravarty notes “It is no wonder then that the Vedic dasi (woman in servitude), captured and subjugated, and enslaved by the conquering Aryans, but who also represents one aspect of Indian womanhood, disappeared without leaving any trace of herself in 19th century history”[12].

The Indo-Europeans infiltrated the sub-continent in different waves, c 1500-1200 BC. The Aryan hymn singers of the Rig Veda lionized the exploits of Indra – his swigging of Soma, his rape of Ushas, his plundering of booty for his followers and also his killing of Vritra. Sukumari Bhattacharji calls Indra a culture hero [13].

As Chakravarty’s historiographic essay implies, a focus on the dasi and the figure of Vritra implicitly questions the legitimacy and sanctity of this heroic paradigm. Warfare has always been a different experience for men and for women.

Gerda Lerner describes the historical process of the enslavement of women in west Asia and a similar situation probably existed in ancient India as well, “Biological and cultural factors predisposed men to enslave women before they had learned how to enslave men”. Lerner suggests that physical terror and coercion, which were essential ingredients in the process of turning free persons into slaves, took, for women, the form of rape. “Women were subdued physically by rape: once impregnated, they might become psychologically attached to their masters… Free sexual access to slaves marks them off from all other persons as much as their juridical classification as property…” Lerner concludes that there exists “overwhelming historical evidence for the preponderance of the practice of killing or mutilating male prisoners and for the large-scale enslavement and rape of the female prisoners”[14].

Lerner’s view is entirely congruent with historians’ views of Rig Vedic times. R.S.Sharma describes Vedic life. “Spoils of war and cattle formed the main forms of property. Cattle, horses, and women slaves were generally given as gifts” [15]. I am suggesting that the Rig Veda, however, tentative an historical source, can be read as a mythic version of a lived past. Indra’s slaying of Vritra, like his rape of Ushas, can be understood, not just as a phantasmagorical metaphor, but also as the mythic rendering of real human experience; of the encounter between the Indo-European patriarchal infiltrators and the extant social formation.

D. D. Kosambi interprets Indra’s rape of Ushas, the goddess of dawn and renewal, “an otherwise inexplicable event” in terms of a conflict of belief and ritual systems. “The only possible explanation lies in a clash of cults, that of the old mother-goddess being crushed on the river Beas by the new war-god of the patriarchal invaders, Indra.” Kosambi explains the survival of the independent feminine represented by Ushas in terms of her redefinition; she assumes, within an androcentric pantheon, the more familiar patrilineal roles of women – mother, wife and daughter. “That she survives after being ‘killed’ can only indicate progressive comparatively peaceful, assimilation of her surviving pre-Aryan worshippers, who still regarded her as mother of the sun, wife of the sun, daughter of heaven” [16]. That the metaphor of rape is used, within the text, to assert the domination of god over goddess implies that the practice of actual rape was utilized as a method of pacification of human women as well. Bloodshed, rape and plunder are all masked in the Rig Veda as the heroism of the solar god, pushing back the frontiers of darkness and primal, chaotic disorder.

Evidence of a Rig Vedic overlay on a pre-existing meaning system is provided by Dipak Bhattacharya in his chapter on the birth of Agni. In a section interestingly titled “The flow of rta from the obscured mothers of Agni”. Bhattacharya grapples with the imagery of ‘rta’ (cosmic order) and ‘rajas’ (menstruation). Agni is said to have been born in the depth of the great and ‘in the yoni of this rajas’ and is referred to as ‘the embryo of the waters’. The aqueous origin of Agni in the atmospheric region is a well-recognized Vedic idea. Bhattacharya writes of the symbolic meaning of ‘the waters’. “It has to be noted that in a different context Pischel and Geldner recognize that the waters are imagined as females with their regular (sic) peculiarities, mainly periods. The high waters of the rains are regarded as catamenia (menstruation) and their drying up as menopause. In the context of the birth of Agni the rains may symbolize not catamenia, but locial (childbirth) discharge”[17].

This symbolic nexus of the waters, rajas (also meaning atmospheric vapour) and rta or cosmic order indicate an original mythic structure which sacralises menstrual and lunar rhythms and recognizes these rhythms, embodied by women, as principles of clarity and order, as well as the source of life.

Perhaps to the indigenous peoples, woman’s blood was awesome and numinous. Women bled monthly, in cyclical harmony with the moon, and yet did not die – rather miraculously produced new life. The blood shed by them, during menstruation and childbirth may have been considered sacred emblems of cosmic order. Indra’s slaying of Vritra ended that symbolic connection. As Dharamshastras elucidate, menstrual blood comes to be considered loathsome – powerful, dangerous and threatening. Indra expropriates women’s function of bloodletting. The warrior is socially sanctioned to shed his enemy’s blood – that act is constructed as being heroic, dharmic and sacred, as exemplified in Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

We have foregrounded the symbolic connection between the idea of rta or cosmic order and menstrual rhythms. Other scholars, Bhattacharya more recently, and the older Vedic Sanskritists Pischer and Geldner have also noted this symbolic connection. Further validating this line of understanding rta is the scientifically documented phenomenon of menstrual synchrony.

In 1971 the American researcher, Martha McClintock documented the phenomena of human intra-group menstrual synchrony [18]. She observed that the menstrual cycles of frequently interacting women tend to become synchronized over time, and that this synchronization is related to the extent and frequency of contacts between individual women. Anthropological work on the Yurok Indians of northern California and aboriginal Australians point towards the ‘precontact’ existence of menstrual synchrony among the women of these groups, as well as describing ritual forms celebrating menstruation and female bonds. The work of McClintock and these anthropologists has tremendous relevance to woman-centered attempts to understand early human culture.

Returning to the mythic Vritra-slaying two questions remain in this interpretation. One, why in the Rig Veda is Vritra grouped with the dasas, and in the later texts, including the Dharmashastras quoted above, his slaying is referred to as a brahminicide, which would lead us to see him as a Brahmin? Second, why is Vritra usually rendered in the neuter, rather than masculine, gender? It seems to me that although the Rig Veda is the earlier document actually the later texts contain more information about the aboriginal peoples. In the later Vedas, puranas and epics Vritra is further personified, fleshed out, and conceptualized. The process of assimilation and absorption of pre-Indo European material allowed for what we might call ‘prakritisation’ i.e. the transformation of the Aryan world-view, which we find more starkly presented in the Rig Veda. Brahmins, as a priestly caste, did not yet exist in Rig Vedic times. ‘The notion of Brahminicide describing Indra’s slaying of Vritra is thus an anachronism. Perhaps the Brahmins, while formulating these later texts were appropriating some of the power and legitimacy of Vritra (or proto-brahminic forms) to themselves. This is a reasonable assumption because Vritra is textually identified as having special powers and may have functioned among the autochthonous peoples as a shaman. Nevertheless the device of the ‘braminicide’ shows that the later Brahmin priests in some way identified themselves with the Vritra figure.

The Rig Vedic Vritra is a demon, dasa, and magician or priest. He exercises the power of ‘maya’ or illusion. The use of the neuter gender in referring to Vritra and the Vritras can be related to the literal meaning of ‘vritra’ which is concealing-covering-hiding and defending-resisting-protecting. (The root vr conveys the idea of aiding or succoring in a positive sense, sheltering [18]. Most interpreters have favoured a natural phenomen understanding as mentioned above. This level of meaning is certainly present but not exclusive of a socio-symbolic as well biological-symbolic (women’s biology) reading. The neuter gender may have been used because the reference is finally to the indigenous people’s system, a social and symbolic formation. Within the Vedic text this system is represented in the form of protective resistance and concealment – masking the beliefs and practices, ruses and maneuvers of a defensive aboriginal population.

II

In this section I will present other textual evidence which supports this woman-centred reading of the Rig Veda. First I will further substantiate the argument that the similes and metaphors of cows, waters, maids, mothers. In fact are signifiers for the generative capacity of women and that this imagery can be read historically as referring to the Aryan assimilation of women from a pre-existing matrifocal social order. Then I will consider two different, but not mutually exclusive, meanings of rta: rta as the cosmic order of menstrual and lunar rhythms, and a Marxist understanding of rta as denoting a pre-Vedic, egalitarian food distribution mechanism. I shall then present grammatical and symbolic material relating to the notion of ‘mothers-in-common’ which further documents the existence of a matrifocal familial pattern. Within this context I will examine the symbolic significance of the few references to blood in the Rig Veda.

COWS-WATER-WOMEN-MOTHERS
CLUSTER OF MEANING

In RV 6.47.2.2-4 the ‘sweet juice’ of Soma “boldened Indra when he slaughtered Vritra.... He who hath created the breadth of earth, the lofty heights of heaven, He formed the nectar in the three headlong rivers.” This cosmogonic act of Indra/Soma involves the slaying of Vritra and depositing the nectar (read sperm) into the headlong rivers (read genealogies of women). Wilson comments “Thus Soma has deposited the ambrosia in its three principal receptacles”. This mythic death and creation, of course, operate on many levels. Traditional scholarship has emphasized the cosmological symbolic (Indra as solar god): the world of nature (Indra as vegetation god): and the ritual context of the Vedic sacrifice (hymns with liturgical function). But social and biological strata of meaning also are evident.

In RV 3.61.3-5 the “Bull, who wears all shapes” is the male inseminator, the “Everlasting Ones” impregener”.

“The Goddesses, the Waters, stayed to meet him; they who were wandering separate enclosed him. Streams! The wise Gods have thrice three habitations.”

“Child of three mothers, he is the lord in synods.”

Three are the holy Ladies of the Waters, thrice here from heaven supreme in our assembly.”

The ‘child of the three mothers’ is Agni. We have already put forward Dipak Bhattacharya’s thesis of rta and the obscured mothers of Agni. Griffith supposes “the Ladies of the Waters” to be the Ila. Sarasvati and Bharati[20]. In a socio-physiological interpretation the ‘cows’ (which are inseminated by the bull) – ‘holy Ladies of the Waters’ (women) – ‘Mothers’ cluster signifies in both social and symbolic realms. Clans or genealogies of women which were ‘wandering separate’ that is not attached to any male or matrilineally constituted, become assimilated into the Indo-European’ patriarchy[21]. They are thus honoured as ‘supreme in our assembly’ as Aryan pregenitrices. And the salutation ‘Streams!’ (indeed the omnipresent metaphor of women as water) is thus honouring the facts of female physiology – bodily fluids which indicate generative capacity as producers of progeny: menstrual, vaginal and amniotic fluids.

Part of the interpretive problem is that not only were previous commentators andocentric, they also shared the patriarchy’s discomfort with frank discussion of women’s bodies and sexuality. The facts of female biology stream out of the text. From the pundit Sayana to the Victorian Indologists, commentators were more comfortable with interpretations involving heavenly bodies than female ones. It has taken the Freudians to legitimize a discussion of sexuality, but this discussion is still phallocentric and individualistic (not exploring the textual evidence for an alternative social formation).

The present interpretation foregrounds women as persons capable of full participation in the formulation of societal and symbolic systems and female physiology as a locus of power. (When we speak of female physiology we do so in a gynocentric sense of the total range of female bodily process; menstruation, female capacity for sexual pleasure, as well as potential for pregnancy, childbirth and lactation.) Such a holistic, woman centred – and biologically accurate – definition of female physiology implicitly questions the patriarchal assumption of woman’s value as ‘the mother of sons’.

We are positing that female physiology (inclusive of the later desacralised aspect of menstruation) may have been a powerful and positive symbolic referent in the meaning systems of indigenous peoples. Emblematic of the generative natural world and cosmic rhythms, woman’s physiology may have functioned as a pre-patriarchal gynocentric ordering principle which was both symbolic and matrifocal. This involves recognizing both the processes of menstruation (as a sign of the independent, cosmically syncronised rta) and the biological primacy of the mother (human beings are not a sexually dimorphic species – the central human drama of creating new human life happens in the female body not in the male body).

The Rig Vedic hymns reified the female body and provided the symbolic structure which sacralised patriarchal. Aryan motherhood (Aditi) while demonizing the independent female energy (‘diti’, ‘danu’, the demon of defloration, ‘druh’) and begins the process, developed in the later texts, of assigning negative valence to menstruation as death fluid.

RV 3.60.16-17 reads:

Let the milch-kine (read women) that have no claves stream downward, yielding rich nectar, streaming, unexhausted. These who are ever new and fresh and youthful…

What time the Bull bellows in other regions, another herd receives the genial moisture; For he is Bhaga, King, the earth’s protector….

In RV 3.33.6-10 the waters-women are encouraged to co-operate and be easily traversed after the demon is slain.

Indra who wields the thunder dug our channels’ he smote down Vritra, him who stayed our currents…

That hero deed of Indra must be lauded forever that he rent Ahi in pieces. He smote away the obstructers with his thunder and eager for their course, flowed the waters. List quickly sisters, to the hard who cometh to you from far way with car and wagon. Bow lowly down: be easy to be traversed; stay Rivers, with your floods below with our axles.

Yea, we will listen to thy words. O Singer with wain and car from far way thou comest. Low, like a nursing mother, will I bend me and yield me as a maiden to a lover.

The hymn encourages the sisters to listen or accommodate the bard: receiving the word of the singer is analogous, to receiving the seed of Indra (‘bow lowly down’, ‘be easily traversed’). The extension of the imagery to ‘like a nursing mother’ and ‘a maiden to her lover’ further validates this reading and reminds us of Lerner’s suggestion that the motivation for women to submit to slavery was the experience of being impregnated, giving birth, and forming attachments within the patrilineal family.

COSMIC RTA AND YOUNG MAIDS

In the text we find amble evidence to support Dipak Bhattacharyya’s interpretation of “the flow of Rta from the obscured mothers” as a veiled reference to menstruation. RV 4.19.2-7 reads:

Thou slewest Ahi who besieged the waters, and duggest out their all-supporting channels. The insatiate one, extended, hard to waken, who slumbered in perpetual sleep, O Indra, The Dragon, stretched against the seven prone rivers, where no joint was, thou rentest with thy thunder….

They ran to thee (Indra) as mothers to their offspring: the clouds, like chariots, hastened forth together. Thou didst refresh the streams and force the billows…

He (Indra) let the young Maids skilled in Law, unwedded, like fountains, bubbling, flow forth streaming onward.

Indra slays the Ahi/Vritra/Dragon figure who is “Stretched out against the seven prone rivers”. The rivers-women then run to Indra subdued, in a childlike fashion. He ‘refreshes the streams’ in imagery which almost sounds like contributing genetic material to a gene pool. But most interesting is the fact that these maids are ‘skilled in Law’, or rta. This description reinforces the association of rta with menstrual rhythms. These young women are ‘unwedded’, or not within a system of patriarchal marriage. Once impregnated they ‘flow forth’ with much sought after Aryan offspring.

In RV 4.23.7-10 Indra turns his hand against an independent female spirit and the next three stanzas elaborate on rta. The commentators are creative in their explanations of what rta symbolizes in this context.

(7)About to slay the Indra-less destructive spirit he sharpens his keen arms to strike her [according to Griffith, druth-the mischievous female spirit who does not acknowledge Indra]…

(8)Eternal Law hath varied food that strengthens; thought of eternal law removes transgressions. The praise hymn of eternal law, arousing, glowing, hath opened the deaf ears of the living.

(9)Firm seated are eternal law’s foundations; in its fair form are many splendid beauties. By holy law long lasting food they bring us; by holy law cows comes to our worship.

(10)Fixing eternal Law he, too, upholds it: swift moves the might of Law and wins the booty. To Law belongs the vast deep Earth and Heaven: milch-kine supreme, to Law their milk they render.

Commenting on stanza 8 Sayana writes “the word rta means Aditya, or Indra or sacrifice”, Griffith claims “its meaning varies slightly in this and the two following stanzas, but the original idea of regularity, conformity to or establishment by eternal order or law is found throughout”. About Rk 10 Griffith claims the establisher of the law is also its upholder. Wilson translates “the worshipper subjecting rta to his will verily enjoys rta”.

Rk 8 relates rta with ‘food that strengthens’, O’Flaherty mentions that “the Vedic materials abound in texts in which semen is regarded as a form of food. Butter and honey, frequent metaphors for Soma come to be compared with semen”[22]. But in the context of this hymn, and following the interpretation that the menstrual rhythms are emblematic of cosmic rhythms, the ‘food that strengthens’ may connote female fluid (in later texts female ‘seed’). During pregnancy, when menstruation ceases, that female blood is often understood to grow or ‘strengthen’ the foetus. In the Rig Vedic hymn singers preoccupation with offspring, this ‘food’ is also seen to strengthen the Aryan patriline. Within the context of the Vedic sacrifice that ‘food’ becomes Soma. Perhaps within the previous ritual system of the indigenous ‘demon-priests’, like Vritra, female bodily fluids were considered the symbolic ‘food’.

Finally we must ask about the significance of the female demon in this passage. I would argue that the Aryan appropriation of a pre-existing social and symbolic form is a violent act; the indigenous reaction, and the continuation of non-Aryan ritual and social process is constructed in the Vedic text as an anathema, demonic. As we shall see with the demon of defloration in Suryaa’s Bridal and the demon-priest Vritra himself, it is entirely plausible to read the demonic as signifier for what is being excluded or forcefully appropriated by the emerging Aryan world-view.

This ambiguous meanings exist not just because of the multi-levelled planes of reality operating within the text, but also because the Vedic poets are switching back and forth attempting to reconcile conflicting symbolic and social systems of the pre-Vedic cosmic rta and the ‘new world order’ of Aryan hegemony.

Within a Marxist interpretive frame work, N. N. Bhattacharyya suggests an alternative. but not mutually exclusive, meaning for the Vedic rta. He identifies gambling and dice, always heartily condemned in the canonical texts, with an ancient tribal redistribution system which was egalitarian, not hierarchical. His understanding provides another dimension to the phrase ‘food which strengthens’ mentioned above.

Bhattacharyya writes that “Evidently dice were the symbol of ancient social justice and casting the lot was a means of equal distribution of wealth in early Vedic times…” I understand Bhattacharyya to be describing something like an ancient ‘kitty party’ where the harvest or available resources were allocated via a game of chance. All would sooner or later receive their share, but the timing would depend on the throw of the dice.

As Bhattacharyya points out, rta cannot possibly only denote cosmological or natural laws because these laws would not have been subject to change. “There is no doubt that rta stood for a peculiar complex of moral and physical laws, but this is not all. Rta also stood for other principles…. One point which should be stressed is that the Vedic poets eventually felt the loss of rta and strongly urged for its revival. If it were exclusively the physical and cosmic laws, there was no need of such lamenting… “[23].

Bhattacharyya proceeds to argue that “the Vedic rta must have originally been what Engels called ‘the simple moral grandeur of ancient gentile society’, and this explains why the Vedic poets felt the loss of rta for which the breakdown of ancient collective life was responsible”. He also notes the moral and ethical qualities originally attributed to the character of Varuna, friend to all and the guardian of rta. (These moral and ethical qualities of Varuna stand in complete opposition to the amorality of Indra.) Although Bhattacharyya’s Marxist methodology may seem obtrusive today, his scholarship stands. “Rigvedic passages relating to the rta convincingly prove that the said concept had direct or indirect bearing on the process of obtaining means of subsistence”.

N. N. Bhattacharyya thus provides a plausible explanation of the mechanism, the dice game, by which a pre-Vedic egalitarian society may have implemented distribution of resources. (Thematically the motif of the dice game is often linked with women in Hindu mythology. In the Uma-Maheshwar iconography Uma is depicted as winning a game of dice, beating an emaciated Shiva. In the famous dice game sequence of the Mahabharata, Draupadi is gambled away by her husband.)

Veena Das, in writing of Draupadi, has indicated that the motif of pollution is dominant in the rendering of her character. This pollution motif allows her to “reveal the dark side of the male codes of heroism and chivalry”[24]. According to Das the symbols of menstrual pollution were used by Draupadi to interrogate the male-centred events in the Mahabharata discourse. This irony would be even more pronounced if, in fact, the motif of the dice game hearkens back to a pre-existing moral order of rta in which women were not rendered as property and menstruation was not depicted as polluting.

It is relevant that at Mohenjodaro and other Harappan sites (which, as previously noted, some Indologists suggest may have been inhabited by the Dasas or demons of the Rig Veda) many small, cubed artifacts have been unearthed which archaeologists have called ‘dice’. In addition no system of coinage (for a city of 60,000 inhabitants) has been found that is pre-Buddhist.

COLLECTIVE MOTHERS

The cows-waters-rivers-mothers cluster of imagery leads to a consideration of the group or collective mothers concept. D. D. Kosambi has written “There is, moreover, an ancient tradition of mothers-in-common that cannot be reconciled with Vedic father-right. It would be difficult to explain Panini 4.1.115 unless mother-in-common were taken for granted by the master grammarian.” Kosambi states that Tryambaka, which was later explained away as meaning “with three eyes’ originally meant ‘with three mothers’. He suggests that this notion, which seems fantasy to the partrilineal mind, appears in ‘the legends of Jarasamdha born of two, and Jantu, born of a hundred mothers-in-common show”. According to Kosambi this demonstrates “that there was an undeniable tradition of many mothers with equal status, even for a single child”.

Kosambi appropriately idedeflorationntifies this ‘mythology’ as the historical patriarchal reworking of an original matrifocal culture. “These legends were meant to explain the record away when society had changed to the extent that the original concept seemed fantastic…. However, seen mothers who equally bear a child-in-common (without any particular father) is a primitive concept in some kinds of pre-patriarchal society, and the inexplicable notion is present even in the Rig Veda” [16].

Kosambi, although he gives no reference, may have been referring to RV 3.55:

(3) My wishes fly abroad to many places: I glance back to the ancient sacrifices. Let us declare the truth when fire is kindled. (4) King (Agni) Universal, born to sundry quarters, extended through the wood he lies on couches. On mother rests, another feeds the infant…

(5) Now lying far away, child of the two Mothers, he wanders unrestrained, the single youngling. These are the laws of Varuna and Mitra…

Interpretations of the two mothers have included ‘heaven and earth’, and ‘the lower and upper branches of the wood for the sacred fire’. But the reference to ancient sacrifices (which probably means ancient rituals) combines with the realistic domesticity of “one mother rests, another feeds the infant” combine to suggest previous matrifocal familial and ritual patterns.

In RV 3.54.14-18, a hymn to Visvadevas themses of group mothers, the Vritra-slaying, rta, and fear of childlessness appear.

(14) To Visnu rich in marvels, songs and praises shall go as singers on the road of Bhaga, the Chieftain of the Mighty Stride whose Mothers, the many young Dames, never disregard him.

(15) Indra, who rules through all his powers heroic, hath with his majesty filled earth and heaven. Lord of brave hosts, Fort crusher, Vritra-slayer, gather thou up and bring us store of cattle.

(18) Aryaman, Aditi deserve our worship; the laws of Varuna remain unbroken. The lot of childessness remove ye from us, and let our course he rich in kine and offspring.

The ‘road of Bhaga’ is noted by Griffith as meaning “on the path of good fortune or felicity”. Actually one of the meanings of ‘bhaga’ is vagina or yoni. The ancient conception seems to have been one of yoni as metaphoric source of all things, acknowledging the power and generativity of the female body. The Chieftain of the Mighty Stride’ is Visnu as the sun. His mothers (plural), the many young Dames (plural), are, according to Sayana “the regions of space which generate all beings”. Here we encounter the Vedic (and probably pre-Vedic) notion of the generative power of air or space which is, within the text continually subordinated or appropriated by the power of Indra (lightning, seed, semenic rain) to create life.

Keith writes of the opposition of the gods to the demons or dasas. “That in many cases historic men may be meant when Dasas are overthrown is true; but gods of the defeated aborigines may also be denoted, and more generally powers of the air, opposed to the gods”. Keith explains that the Dasyus seek to scale heaven, but Indra vanquishes them from birth. Indra wins the sun and the waters after defeating them. Keith also mentions that “a Dasa is husband of the waters…”[25] further corroborating our socio-symbolic interpretation.

In one context (RV 8.66.5) Vritra is referred to as a Gandharva, or celestial (air) being. “Indra in groundless realms of space pierced the Gandharva through, that he might make brahmans’ strength increase”. This notion of generativity and sexuality (not involving patriarchal marriage or procreative intent) continues in the male-air-Gandharva, female water-Spsara personification of sexual elements. In the Arthashastra and Manusmriti the term ‘Gandharva marriage’ refers to a love marriage, by mutual consent, which is not considered in the ideal or dharmic category. Manu commented that “it has sexual intercourse for it’s purpose”[26].

The acquiescence of the ‘cows-waters-women-mothers’ to the designs of progeny-obsessed Aryans involved leaving behind her ‘airy fairy’ consort (now symbolically killed by Indra) and accepting another model of generativity which located power-source-seed in the male god, in this case Agni (RV 3.57.3) “Fain to lend vigour to the Bull, the sisters with reverence recognize the germ within him”. Within the dominant patriarchal Aryan symbolic formulation, ideological justification for assimilation of the much needed indigenous women-mothers, it is the seed-germ which becomes sacralised and deposited in the stream mothers; the blood of women, and blood generally, is excluded or demonized.

BLOOD IN RIG VEDA

O’Flaherty in her analysis of “the origins of the sexual fluid hydraulic systems of Hindu texts” writes that blood is seldom mentioned in the Rig Veda – surprising for such an earthy and martial document. She mentions that “one late and notoriously problematic hymn ask, ‘Where is the earth’s breath, and blood and soul’?(RV 1:164:6)”. O’Flaherty points out the commentator Sayana’s anarchronistic understanding of this passage. Sayana “interprets this as a reference to the gross body (of earth and blood) and the subtle body (of breath and soul)… despite the probable anachronism of this interpretation, the Vedic text itself is certainly a clear reference to blood as the essence of the earthly body”[22].

This nostalgic paen to the ‘breath and blood and soul’ of the earth, located in a hymn to Visvadevas, displays the Vedic poets’ longing for the lost rta, as N. N. Bhattacharyya has noted. The text assigns equal value to the elements of earth, blood and soul which differs from the later Vedic hierarchical distinction of subtle body/gross body understood by Sayana.

Relevant portions of the hymn as translated by Griffith read:

(4) Who has beheld him as he sprang to being, seen how the boneless. One supports the bony? Where is the blood of earth, the life, the spirit? Who may approach the man who knows to ask it?

Griffith and other commentators relate the bone less one to the unsubstantial, Prakriti or Nature and the source of the substantial, material world. Still common as a traditional image is the belief that the mother contributes the fleshy, unsubstantial material for the foetus, and the father contributes the bones. Patrilineal and patrilocal familial structure may be projected onto the body of the foetus in this Vedic notion of embryology.

(8) The mother gave the Sire has share of Order; with thought, at first, she wedded him, in spirit. She, the coy Dame was filled with dew prolific; with adoration men approached to praise her.

The mother is identified as source, gifting the sire with his procreative function, share of order, rta, congruent with Dipak Bhattacharyya’s notion of the ‘obscured mothers of Agni”. The initial wedding exists in the realm of mind and spirit. She is subsequently impregnated by the dew prolific or semenic rains. This shift marks the transition from the matrifocal to the patriarchally constructed mother.

(15) Of the co-born they call the seventh single-born; the six twin pairs are called Rsis, children of Gods. Their good gifts sought of men are ranged in order due, and various in their form move for the Lord who guides.

(16) They told me these were males, though truly females, he who hath eyes see this, the blind discern not. The son who is a sage hath comprehended; who knows this rightly is his father’s father.

Griffith cites Wilson’s observation that the males/females reference is ‘a piece of grammatical mysticism – but there is nothing mystical about the formal transfiguration of seven ‘rivers’ or gencalogies of women into seven families of rishis. Griffith himself demures ‘the meaning is obscure’. This rk may be an acknowledgement of the appropriation of metaphors of fertility and the substitution of the patriline for the matriline. The knowledge of the sage of being his father’s father operates on two levels: the pre-existing esoteric knowledge of all human life of divine origin – the lack of human paternity within a matristic system being attributed to a divine father, and the brahmanic construct of the pitrs or male ancestors who are continually reborn within the same patriline.

(17) Beneath the upper realm, above this lower, bearing her calf at foot, the Cow hath risen. Witherward, to what place hath she departed? Where calves she? Not amid this herd of cattle.

[This rk echoes in structure and tone, rk 4. The sentiment expressed is a questioning lament –something has been lost and that something relates to the blood and breath and soul of the earth and to the Cow giving birth. The independent feminine truly ‘calves not’ within the Aryan herd of cattle.]

Although this hymn has been interpreted cosmologically, in relation to months, years, the sun, lightning, fire, dawn, etc. it is perfectly congruent with a socio-physiological reading.

Another mention of blood (RV 1:87:16) refers to demons who are smeared with blood of men, horses and cattle and who steal away the milk of cows. This reference seems to reflect a practice of applying blood to the body. We can understand this literally as camouflage for cattle raiders or symbolically, as ritual practice using blood or both. In any case the reference clearly associates the demons with application of blood to the body.

According to O’Flaherty “There is in the Rig Veda one veiled but highly charged reference to female sexual blood – not menstrual blood, but the blood of defloration”[19]. The divine prototype for patriarchal marriages is found in a passage referred to as ‘Suryaa’s Bridal’. Her Suryaa (the daughter of Surya, the sun) is wed to Soma – according to O’Flaherty the only time in the Rig Veda when Soma is regarded as the moon. Relevant portions of the hymn (RV 10:85) read:

(27) May happiness be fated for you here through your progeny. Watch over this house as mistress. Mingle your body with that of your husband….

(28) The purple and red appears, a magic spirit; [Griffith translates ‘fiend’] the stain is imprinted…..

(29) Throw away the gown, and distribute wealth to the priests. It becomes a magic spirit walking on feet, and like the wife it draws near the husband.

(30) The body becomes ugly and sinisterly pale, if the husband with evil desire covers his sexual limb with his wife’s robe…

(34) It burns, it bites, and it has claws as dangerous a poison is to eat. Only the priest who knows the Surya hymn is able to receive the bridal gown.

(35) Cutting, carving, and chopping into pieces – see the colours of Surya which the priest alone purifies (RV 10:85:27:30, 34-35 trans O’Flaherty).

O’Flaherty comments that verses 28-30 and 34-35 concern the defloration of the bride and the staining of the bridal gown with her blood. She explains that “this blood becomes a magic spirit, potent and dangerous though not necessarily evil; the defloration is an auspicious event but too powerful to allow its emblem to remain present afterwards”. According to O’Flaherty the magical power of the blood of defloration is transferred to the bride’s family and to the husband, but it becomes evil if allowed to pollute the husband. Thus Soma performs a mediating function “by exercising his droit de seigneur. Soma takes upon himself the first and most powerful stigma of the blood of defloration”.

O’Flaherty emphasizes the multiple meanings of stanza 33-35. Literally, of course, this verse describes the cutting up of the blood-stained robe: “but the words usually refer to the cutting up of the sacrificial animal, and there is a further overtone of the physical injury of the defloration itself, the sacrifice of the maidenhead on the altar of marriage”[27]. The hypothesis of a pre-existent matrifocal social order presupposes expression of female sexuality, unfettered by patriarchal marriage and not identified with the production of progeny for the patriline. The demon of defloration then can be read as a signifier for the violation of the independent and powerful feminine on many levels:

- The political because the institution of patriarchal marriage renders woman as an object of exchange.

- The personal violence involved in the forcible breaking of the hymen of the newly-married girl.

- The sexual as androcentric preoccupation with penetration, for example Urvashi’s reprimand of Puruvas’ aggressive sexuality (RV 10.95.5 trans O’Flaherty “Indeed you pierced me with your rod three times a day and filled me even when I had no desire. I followed your will, Puruvas…”).

- The religio-symbolic in which the woman’s experience is excluded from determination of collective meaning, and she instead is rendered a cipher n an androcentric symbolic system. In this case, the textual analogy between the girl’s bloody garment’s and the sacrificial animal. (This demon of defloration bears a striking resemblance to the traditional popular notion of the churel – the demonic spirit of the woman who dies in childbirth.)

The demonisation of the blood of defloration demands the construction of a heroic masculine figure in order to, borrowing Uma Chakravarty’s phrase, “manage female sexuality”. Hence the priest does Soma’s work of “droit de seigneur” literally the right to ‘deflower’ the ‘virgin’ bride. I use the word ‘virgin’ here in the patriarchal sense of unpenetrated, inexperienced sexually; not in it’s original sense of not belonging to any man – free, unexploited yet fecund as in contemporary usage, ‘a virgin forest’.)

I would argue that the defloration sequence located in Suryaa’s bridal involves a misreading or distortion of pre-existing esoteric knowledge [28]. This misreading subordinates other conceptions of the sacred masculine (linked with mountains, ethereal space, withholding of the waters, the Gandharva, the shamanic Vritra). The marriage-defloration passage in the tenth mandala is a late addition to the Rig Veda. All the citations regarding rta and the maidens, the collective mothers, and cows-water-women-mothers imagery are in the earlier family books. It may be that the earlier esoteric notions of the mystical generative power of women’s body, admittedly already defined in the masculine voice and rendered poetically and symbolically, in the tenth mandala become institutionally harnessed in the construction of the patriarchal marriage ritual.

Suryaa, cosmically nominated as daughter of the Sun, is wed to Soma who, as O’Flaherty noted, is here linked with the moon for the only time in the Rig Veda. Suryaa, adorned with red flowers symbolic of menstruation, is encouraged to enter the world of patriarchal immortality (as the mother of sons), at the same time another male figure (Visvavasu, a Gandharva) is banished and her cosmic connection with Varuna (guardian or rta is severed (RV 10.85.21-25 trans O’Flaherty).

Mount the world of immorality, O Suryaa, that is adorned with red flowers…. Prepare an exquisite wedding voyage for your husband.

‘Go away from here! For this woman has a husband’. Thus I implore Visvavasu with words of praise as I bow to him. ‘Look for another girl who is ripe and still lives in her father’s house. That is your birthright find it.

‘Go away from here Visvavasu, we implore you as we bow. Look for another girl, willing and ready. Leave the wife to unite with her husband’.

May the roads be straight and thornless on which our friends go courting. May Aryaman and Bhaga united lead us together. Gods, may the united household be easy to manage. I free you from Varuna’s snare, with which the gentle Savitr bound you. In the seat of the Law, in the world of good action, I place you unharmed with your husband.

I free her from here, but not from there. I have bound her firmly there, so that through the grace of Indra she will have fine sons and be fortunate in her husband’s love.

The banishment of the Gandharva is another version of the slaying of Vritra. The woman’s role is now that of faithful wife and fecund mother of sons. All other male presence, earthly human or heavenly spirit, is banished so that the patrilineal household should be ‘easy to manage.’. Here the ‘seat of Law’ or rta has become “the world of good action” or patriarchal dharma. Menstruation is depicted as a symbolic adornment rather than emblematic of cosmic rhythms.

CHILD MARRIAGE

N. N. Bhattacharyya suggests that this and later texts have been used to justify child marriage. He claims that from Rig Vedic times (RV 10.85.40-41) there existed the belief that Soma, Gandharva and Agni were the divine guardians of a girl.

Bhatttacharyya notes that in later texts – the Grhyasamgraha, quoted in the commentary on the Gobhila Grhyasutra (3.4.6) and Parakara Grhyasutra (1.4.16) – “Soma enjoys a girl when she develops her pubic hairs, Gandharva enjoys her when she develops her breasts and Agni enjoys her when she menstruates.” He understands this belief to be a mythological expression of primitive puberty rites which indicate that a girl was ceremonially deflowered by at least three individuals. According to Bhattacharyya “this myth was subsequently utilized by patriarchal lawmakers in order to explain and support the cause of child marriage and to declare that a girl must be married before she develops the signs of maturity”[29].

Bhattacharyya also states that in the Dharmasutra of Gautama it is prescribed that the girl should be given in marriage at puberty and she is only allowed to remain virgin until her third menstruation. He quotes from the Parasara Smriti (7.6-9).

A girl of eight is called Gauri; but one who is nine years old is a Rohini; one who is ten years old is a Kanya; beyond this one is a Rajavala (i.e. one who has had the experience of menstruation).

If a person does not give away a maiden when she has reached her twelfth year, his Pitrs (ancestors) will have to drink every month her menstrual discharge. The parents and also the eldest brother go to hell on seeing an unmarried girl becoming Rajasvala[29].

Such are the patriarchal constructions of previsous gynocentric esoteric knowledge. In the Parasara Smriti, as noted by Bhattacharyya, the brahmanical justification, not only for child marriage but also for enforced motherhood, is symbolically constituted in a threat to the ‘pitrs’. The notion, abhorrent to the brahmanic mind, that the ancestors might have to drink the girl’s monthly menstrual fluid suggests that this female bodily fluid may have been a part of the magic and ritual practice of the demon-priest. Thus, within the shastras, menstrual blood has drastically changed its symbolic valence from its Rig Vedic connection with generativity and cosmic order. Within the priestly meaning system this female blood becomes a threat to the patriarchal family and the father-ancestors.

FOOD

Interestingly, and unintentionally, we have uncovered various textual connections between food and menstruation. In the Dharmashastra taking food from the hand of the menstruating woman is forbidden. The rule presented for the twice born who recite the Veda is “Collyrium and ointment must not be accepted from her; for that is the food of women.” N. N. Bhattacharyya makes the point that within the Rig Veda the concept of rta is linked with the process by which means of subsistence, or food, is attained. “Eternal law has varied food which strengthens.” And in the Parasara Smriti the threat of the pitrs having to consume the menstrual blood of the unmarried girl relates to food. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine and understand the implications of these references. However we suggest that ritual and belief systems, which define what is considered sacred and what is considered profane or demonic, provide the underlying rationale for any economic or socio-political system.

The Dharmashastra reference presented at the beginning of this paper cites the Vedic origins of menstrual pollution in mythic terms: women assume the guilt of Indra’s brahmanicidal Vritra-slaying. As mentioned above there are many later Vedic, puranic and epic versions of both this killing and the subsequent distribution of Indira’s culpability. But in RV 4.18, a narrative of the birth and childhood deeds of Indra, there is merely a foreshadowing of the transference of Indra’s crime. In this hymn many of the motifs and concepts we have been exploring are interwined; the Vritra slaying, the waters-mothers-women imagery, the construction of the female body and motherhood, and the demonic or violated independent feminine. In this passage Indra refuses to be born through his mother’s vagina, even though she protests that a birth through her side will cause her death. Verbal articulation of the women/waters (independent feminine) who were “screaming like righteous women” is, within the narrative subordinated to onomatopoeia and praise for Indra – culminating in an indication that they will take on the sin of Indra. As in previous examples given above, this violation of the independent feminine is followed immediately by the appearance of a female demon who, as a split-off fragment of the character of Indra’s mother, plays a deeply ambivalent role in the narrative.

(1) (Indra’s mother): “This is the ancient proven path by which all the gods were born and moved upward. By this very path he should be born when he has grown great. He should not make his mother perish in that way.

(2) (Indra): ‘I cannot come out by that path; these are bad places to go through. I will come out cross-wise, through the side. Many things yet undone must I do; one I will fight and one I will question’…

(5) (Narrator): As if she thought he was flowed, his mother hid Indra though he abounded in manly strength. Then he stood up and put his garment on by himself; as he was born he filled the two world-halves.

(6) (Indra’s mother): ‘These waters flow happily, shouting ‘alala!’, waters that were screaming together like righteous women. Ask them what they are saying, what encircling mountain the waters burst apart.

(7) ‘Are they speaking words of praise and invitation to him? Do the waters wish to take on themselves the flow of Indra? With his great weapon my son killed Vritra and set these rivers free.

(8) ‘Still a young woman, I did not throw you away for my sake; nor did Evil-childbirth swallow you away for my sake. But for my sake the waters were kind to the child, and for my sake Indra stood up at once.’

(9) ‘Not for my sake did the shoulderless one wound you generous Indra, and strike away your two jaws’ through wounded, you overpowered him, and with your weapon you crushed the head of the Dasa.’

O’Flaherty’s understanding of this passage is linked to “it’s place in Indo-European mythology; it refers, in purposely mysterious tones to the story of a male god concealed by his mother from a father who threatens to kill a father whom he himself then kills”[27]. A woman-centred interpretation would, however, foreground the threat to the mother, the role of the waters-women in taking on Indra’s guilt and the female demon.

In stanza 1 Indra’s mother pleads for a conventional birth and fears her own death in the birth from her side. Mythically Indra’s choice of being born from his mother’s side can be read as a rejection of the centrality and sacrality of the yoni as generative source. On the level of social and familial grouping the matriline is rejected for the patriline. (This shift also marks the beginning of the Oedipal violence between father and son.)

In rk 2 Indra actually says that the paths of the vagina or yoni “are bad places to go through” confirming the desacralisation of the female body and the mysogeny inherent in his character. He speaks of his heroic destiny of fighting Vritra and questioning someone whose identity is not clear. (O’Flaherty suggests Vishnu or Tvastr.)

His mother hides Indra in stanza 5. “as if she thought he was flawed”. O’Flaherty notes “The flow may be a physical birth flow …this suspicion is invalid. Indra is not physically flowed. But the phrase may also foreshadow the moral flaw which is to be a problem to Indra, the guilt of the slaughter of Vritra, alluded to in verse 7.” If we take the slaying of Vritra as the symbolic equivalent of the decline of matrifocal social groupings and the desacralisation of the independent cosmic feminine then the holistic meaning of this hymn is clear. Indra’s flaw (which his own mother recognized as a threat to her life) is his independence of a matrifocal moral order, his strength and tendency towards violence: his violent birth, his violent dismemberment of Vritra, his slaying of his own father – indeed his rupture of a pre-existing, peaceable, matristic social and symbolic order.

The issue within this violence then becomes protection. Indra’s mother, within the context of the Vedic hymn, first functions to protect Indra (both from his father and from his own violent character) and then abandons him to the protection of the waters.

In stanza 6 Indra’s mother speaks of the waters who are now flowing happily and onomatopoetically. Through Indra’s mother’s words the waters are rendered in the male voice symbolically constructed as free and happy. But previously they were “screaming together like righteous women”. O’Flaherty succumbs to androcentric perspective and reads this as referring to screaming for help when Vritra assaults them. But nowhere in any version of the Rig Veda have I read of imagery which speaks of Vritra’s ‘assault’ on the waters/women. Vritra encloses, contains and lies with the waters, but does not assault them. I read ‘screaming together like righteous women’ as the protest of the violated feminine/females which is silenced (by the poets) and then becomes poetically and aesthetically rendered. The text itself acknowledges the problem of interpreting the message of the waters. “Ask them what they are saying…”

In stanza 7 Indra’s mother continues in a tentative and questioning voice betraying the ambivalence of the shifting positions of the waters from righteous protest to gurgling poesy, to praise and invitation, to willingness to take on Indra’s guilt. And again the Vritra slaying is mentioned as releasing the waters.

In stanzas 8 and 9 Indra’s mother repeatedly uses the phrases ‘not for my sake’ and for my sake indicating that she may be faulted for the motivation of her actions. First she claims that her rejection of Indra as a child, and his subsequent swallowing by the demon-childbirth was ‘not for her sake’. (According to Sayana, ‘demon-childbirth’ was Kusava, a rakshasi who swallowed Indra at his birth, and Roth states this reference is the name of river – again the river-women-mothers, in this case demonic, imagery.) But Indra’s mother will take credit for the waters nurturing the child and his own independence. The question of acting in one’s own self-interest is operative here; Indra triggers the entire drama by rejecting birth through the vagina and endangering his mother. She reacts ambivalently, by rejecting him – but “not for her own sake”.

She distances herself from the swallowing evil-childbirth (obviously symbolic of the rejected power of the (‘yoni’) and in the next stanza proceeds to distance herself from the shoulderless one (Vritra) who is said to have not acted for her sake. Why the need for this disavowal of both demon-childbirth and Vritra unless both are linked to her rage at her son’s heroic strength which threatens and marginalizes her? But she also allies herself with the nurturing waters and Indra’s independence because these are congruent with the construction of the heroic masculine and maternal feminine, ultimately espoused by the Vedic poets. The contradictory nature of the maternal waters is a continuing theme throughout later texts and mythology.

As O’Flaherty notes “none of the principals in the drama is named except Indra; later commentary identifies the mother with Aditi and the father with Tvastr”. “I would argue that Indra’s mother has no name here because she is still generic for Mother – or more appropriately within the early Vedic period – Kosambi’s ‘mothers-in-common”’. She is singular only because she is the mother of Indra and thus patriarchally constructed. But the hymn is ‘permeated by her deep ambivalence towards her hero-son.

Women taking on the sin of Indra, in the form of their menstrual blood, elaborated on in the later texts, is only hinted at the Rig Veda. But Indra’s avoidance of his mother’s yoni, and the silencing or symbolic construction of the waters/women are narrative elements which precede the suggestion that they will absorb his culpability.

III

Thus within the Rig Veda the elemental and numinous power of the feminine/female is nominated symbolized, appropriated – managed and controlled. Vedic gender categories of primal female power are constructed. Those able to be controlled are designated as sacred – Vac (the word), and ‘Aditi’ (patriarchal motherhood). Those more difficult to manage are demonized- Nritti (death), Danu and Diti (mothers of the aboriginal peoples) or raped, Ushas (independent cosmological feminine). The earlier elemental imagery of cows-waters-maid-mothers is replaced by the patriarchal institution of marriage in Suryaa’s bridal hymn from Book Ten. Rta, cosmic order is subordinated to dharma, right action, as defined and elucidated by the emerging priestly caste.

The patriarchal synthesis effected by the Vedic poets involved the construction of a symbolic structure which glorified women in their role of mothers and simultaneously excluded or mystified and demonized the female biological fluid of blood. Imagery of cows-waters-women-mothers facilitated articulations of feminine generativity which were developed into mechanisms of social and symbolic control of female sexuality. Both the religious ritual of the sacrifice and the social grouping of the patrilineal family structurally reflect a focus on the masculine figures of Indra and Agni as the source of scared authority, object of ritual practice, and dominant biological metaphor.

The mythic slaying of Vritra, son of the mother, symbolizes this paradigmatic shift from the female body to the male body as principle social and symbolic metaphor. The generative female power of childbirth is eclipsed by the sacrificial dismemberment of the cosmic male; it is out of Purusha’s body which the world is created – the Vedic, androcentric world, that is.

My initial investigation was prompted by the seemingly contradictory attitudes towards the female body displayed by the basti women’s rituals of well worship after childbirth and observations of menstrual taboos. The Dharmashastra outline of menstrual prohibitions and beliefs linked this practice to the Vedic myth of Indra slaying Vritra. I was not familiar with any textual or historical sources which would give information about the well worship ritual so my efforts have been to detect an alternative positive valence to water as sacred source rather than merely ritual purification or washing away sins within the context of the Rig Veda.

My working hypothesis of pre-existing meaning systems and matristic indigenous kinship groupings evolved into a methodology of a socio-physiological reading of the text. A foregrounding of Vritra reveals his, and all demons, matrilineal origins, linkage to the transformative elements of air, water, and earth (as opposed to the Indra-Agni element of fire)., and ritual function as demon-priest. The symbolic nexus of cows-waters-women-mothers, read within the historical context of Aryan assimilation of indigenous women and concern with progeny, validates this socio-physiological interpretation. Dipak Bhattacharya’s analysis of “the flow of Rta from the obscured mothers of Agni” and Kosambi’s work on the collective mothers, point toward the fact of the patrilineal superordination of the matrilineal in both social and symbolic realms. O’Flaherty’s treatment of the symbolic element of blood, its exclusion from the demonisation wthin the text, facilitates an understanding of the later brahmanic symbolic valence of menstrual blood.

Finally the deeply ambivalent role of both Indra’s mother and the waters, in the hymn narrating Indra’s birth (which also hints at the water’s taking on the guilt of Indra’s Vritra slaying), provides a mythic understanding of the contradictory constructions of woman’s body found in the basti woman’s ritual practice. The worship of the well as yonic source of life is congruent with the early Rig Vedic waters-women-mothers cluster of imagery. If Rta was, in fact, a signifier for both a moral and a cosmic order (for which menstrual and lunar rhythms were emblems) then it is understandable that a patriarchal priesthood needed to subordinate the control, via ideological construction of woman’s body, that powerful primal female force. The emerging brahmanic symbolic and social order created oppositional categories: Indra-Vritra, gods-demons, fire-blood, man-woman, twice-born-shudra, purity-pollution, death-immortality.

Finally the deeply ambivalent role of both Indra’s mother and the waters, in the hymn narrating Indra’s birth (which also hints at the water’s taking on the guilt of Indra’s Vritra slaying), provides a mythic understanding of the contradictory constructions of woman’s body found in the basti woman’s ritual practice. The worship of the well as yonic source of life is congruent with the early Rig Vedic waters-women-mothers cluster of imagery. If Rta was, in fact, a signifier for both a moral and a cosmic order (for which menstrual and lunar rhythms were emblems) then it is understandable that a patriarchal priesthood needed to subordinate the control, via ideological construction of woman’s body, that powerful primal female force. The emerging brahmanic symbolic and social order created oppositional categories: Indra-Vritra, gods-demons, fire-blood, man-woman, twice-born-shudra, purity-pollution, death-immortality.

References

[1] Family Health International. Injectables Contraceptive Technology Update Series. Family Health International Triangle Park, North Carolina, 1993. p.9. Family Health International is a not-for-profit USAID funded research organization.

[2] WAH (women and Health Group) ‘A feminist Perspective: on Women’s Health’, unpublished.

[3] N. N. Bhattacharyya. The Indian Mother Goddess, Manohar, New Delhi, 1977. p 8.

[4] Manisha Gupte, ‘Of Shame and sorrow: Women in Sillence’, Medico Friend Circle Bulletin, August 1990, Shubada Kanani and Priti Consul, ‘Women’s Views Matter, An Overview in Women’s Health and some Experiences from India’, Women Household Development Studies Information Centre, Ford Foundation and Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Faculty of Home Science, M. S. University, Baroda, 1993.

[4] Veena Das, ‘Feminity and the Orientation to the Body’ in Karuna Chanana (ed.), Socialisation, Education and Women, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1988.

[5] H.A Rose, ICS, Rites and Ceremonies of Hindus and Muslim (based on the Census Reports for the Punjab, 1882 and 1883) (Harnam Publications, New Delhi) 1983, corroborate the existence of this little documented practice. “In Rohtak, a month or so after the birth of boy a rite called doghar puja is observed. Women visit the nearest well singing songs… the well is worshipped, rice and dubh grass being offered to it. In Ferozepur the mother goes on the twenty-first day, to a well and there distributes boiled barley to the children” p.23.

[6] Joseph Campbell’s ideas on the functions of myth – source is, I think, the American television series ‘The Power of Myth’, extensive interviews with Joseph Campbell.

[7] Keith, A.B. Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1969.

[8] Jan Gonda, A History of Indian Literature, Vol 1. Vedic Literature (Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1975. p. 151.

[9] O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. The Rig Veda, Penguin Books, London, 1981. p.245.

[10] Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Cosmos and History, Arkana, London, 1989. p.19.

[11] Sjoo, Monica and Barbara Mor. The Great Cosmic Mother Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1987. p.250.

[12] Chakravarty, Uma (eds.) ‘Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?” in Kumkum Sangam and Sudesh Vaid. Recasting Women Essays in Colonial History, Kali for Women, New Delhi, p.28

[13] Bhattacharji, Sukumari. The Indian Technology, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. 1988, p 258.

[14] Lerner, Gerder, The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1986, p. 87.

[15] Sharma, Ram Sharan, Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India, Macmillan India, Delhi, 1983, p.159.

[16] Kosambi, Damodar Dharamanand, Myth and Reality, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1983, p.64.

[17] Bhattacharya, Dipak, Mythological and Ritual Symbolism: A Study with Reference to the Vedic and Tantric Agni, Sanskrit Pushtak Bhandar, Calcutta, 1984.

[18] McClintock, Martha, Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation, Buckley and Gottlieb (eds.), University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988.

[19] Lahiri, Ajoy Kumar, Vedic Vrtra, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi, 1984, pp 28, 71.

[20] Griffith, Ralph T.H. The Hymns of Rig Veda, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 1973. Unless otherwise noted all Rig Vedic passages are from Griffith’s translation.

[21] Bill Aiken in his recent work, The Seven Sacred Rivers, Penguin, New Delhi, 1992, notes that the fourth century pundits were unfamiliar with the Brahmaputra in the north-east and thus is not included in the Brahmanic pantheon of sacred rivers. He also notes the independence of these matrilineal women. “Unlike the childbearing chattels of the cow belt, the ladies along the Brahmaputra glowed with the self-confidence that comes with the advantages of their pre-Hindu matriarchal tradition. Of all the women I have met in the subcontinent the ladies of the Assam hills are the most stunning to look at, talk to, and (I imagine) to live with. Their dress and hearing is refreshingly free from the cultivated servility that characterizes the sari-clad.”

[22] O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, Sexual Metaphors and Animal Symbols in Indian Mythology, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1981, p.26.

[23] Bhattacharyya, N.N., Ancient Indian Rituals and Their Social Contents, Manohar Book Service, Delhi, 1975, p. 38.

[24] Das, Veena, ‘Draupadi and the Breach of the Private and the Public’ summary of a paper presented at Teen Murti Library (date unknown).

[25] Keith, A.B. Vedas and Upanishads, Volume 31.

[26] Mukherjee, Prabhati, Hindu Women: Normative Models, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1978, p. 55.

[27] O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, Rig Veda, Penguin Books, London, 1981, p. 274.

[28] William Irwin Thompson explores the process by which esoteric or mystical knowledge is literalised and transformed into an instrument of domestication and social control. He writes about the ritual of castration in which priests offered up their paternity to the culture of the Great Mother.

“Castration of bulls was a socialization process that turned a bull into an ox; in this transformation something wild became something very useful; nature became culture. This knowledge thus became a way in which the wild knowledge of paternity could be converted to a useful function – the rise of the priesthood. Castration is an obsessive form of behaviour; it is an institution way of taking literally and concretely something the solitary shaman would know to be metaphoric for initiatic and secret states of consciousness. Just such a priestly translation of shamanistic knowledge took place in the Mexico of the Aztecs. In the yoga of Quetzalcoatl, the initiate spoke of the opening of the heart to the light of the sun and what was meant by this was the opening of the charkas in the subtle body: the Aztec priests, as voices for collectivization, took the esoteric words literally, ripping out the victim’s physical heart and holding it up to the sun. The castration of men seems to represent a similar misreading of esoteric knowledge…” Thompson, William Irwin, The time Falling Bodies Take to Light, Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1981. p. 125.

[29] Bhattacharyya, N.N., Indian Puberty Rites, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1980.

 

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