I’ve never been entirely sure what the word utunī means. Typically it’s translated as a woman “in season”. This is a literal translation, since utu means “season”. But what season is it, exactly?
Here are a couple of relevant passages.
- In the famous passage at MN 38, conception is said to be dependent on the mother being utuni. Note that this is specifically a brahmanical idea, as made clear at MN 93. That this is a brahmanical custom is reinforced at AN 5.191, which says that traditionally brahmins would only have sex during this time. Here it is clear that utuni means during the fertile window of the menstrual cycle. This implies that the brahmins, or at least some of them, considered it virtuous to have sex only for procreation.
- In other passages utuni means “menstruating”. This is clear in the Bhikkhuni Khandhaka, where sanitary measures are discussed.
Now, obviously, or at least obviously to us, a woman isn’t usually fertile while she’s menstruating. However, there are a number of passages in the Pali that show that menstruating and fertility were believed to occur at the same time.
In the introduction to Parajika 1, Sudinna’s mother wants to make him disrobe. So she tells his former partner to wait until she is utunī. In case there is any doubt what this means here, the text also says pupphaṃ te uppannaṃ, “your flowers have appeared”. When she is ready, they approach Sudinna and persuade him to have sex for the sake of leaving a family heir, and she gets pregnant.
In another passage, King Bimbisāra was suffering from an affliction that caused his robes to be soiled with blood. The queens laughed at him, saying,
“Now Your Highness is menstruating and your flowers have appeared; soon Your Highness will give birth!”
Ouch! Clearly, snark wasn’t invented in modern times. It’s interesting that a king can be mocked like this without fear of punishment. But more to the point, this makes it clear that utuni equals menstruation equals fertility.
Not only does this seem to be a misunderstanding of the menstrual cycle, it contradicts the normal assumption that a menstruating woman is taboo for the brahmins and may not be touched at all. I suspect that what’s going on is that there was a substantially different understanding of fertility, one that can’t be read directly through modern eyes.
Perhaps we need to ground the meaning of utuni in the basic meaning of utu and the experience of the seasons and the growth of crops. The ground is dry and parched, and nothing grows. Then the rains come. But you don’t rush out when it’s raining and flooding to plant your seeds. You wait till the waters settle and have soaked and moistened the earth. In other words: the rainy season is not just when it’s raining.
I think this is how the menstrual cycle was understood. We need to bear in mind that there was no knowledge of sperm and ova. Rather, conception was believed to have occurred through the mixing of the semen and the menstrual blood. The menstrual blood moistened the womb and made it fertile, like the rain, but you couldn’t “plant the seed” then, as it would be washed away. But when the bleeding stopped, there was a period when the womb was fertile and receptive. This whole period was the utu, not just when the blood was flowing.
Of course, ovulation doesn’t actually occur for up to a week later, but they didn’t know this. So if this understanding was to be even remotely successful, they must have believed that the fertile period extended up until the end of the time of ovulation.
That means the utu is the fortnight or so from the beginning of the menses to the end of ovulation. So while the brahmins wouldn’t have sex during menses as such, after the wife had bathed and purified, for the following fortnight or so it was on. This makes it more plausible that the brahmins might actually have sex only in the utu. Half a month for sex is more realistic than a few days.
This understanding is supported by Ayurvedic notions of the fertility cycle. Most of the original texts don’t seem to be online, but I found the attached study.
SJAMS-22D876-881.pdf (169.0 KB)
It notes that different sources say the ritukāla is either 12 or 16 days, and says:
… if duration of ritukāla is sixteen days then counting of ritukāla is from 1st day of menstruation onset; and if duration of ritukāla is 12 days then ritukāla is considered from 4th day of menstruation onset.
(Sanskrit ṛtu or ritu = Pali utu, thus ritukāla = “the time of utu”)
In the latter case, the menstrual period itself is called rajakāla. Since this term isn’t found in the Pali, it seems the Pali texts use the 16 day ritukāla. In any case, my deduction about the length of the utu agrees with the Ayurvedic interpretation.
Given that our modern perspective invites misunderstanding of this topic, I think it’s best to avoid such vague renderings as “season”. To accurately translate utu in this context, we’d have to say something like “the fertile fortnight that begins with menstruation”.