Menstruation and fertility in the Pali texts

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 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”.

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A very interesting essay. I wonder if these early beliefs about the nature of the ovulation cycle had the effect of lowering the overall birth rate in north India? India’s eventual modern population explosion might have been mitigated somewhat by the timing issues involved in believing that conception was optimal during and soon after a woman’s period.

For me, this is a further illustration of the importance of agrarian themes in the Buddha’s Dhamma as well as the teachings of his contemporaries…" the basic meaning of utu and the experience of the seasons and the growth of crops." Good stuff! I’ve always preferred the translation of “bhavana” as “cultivation,” with the idea that meditation practice is not a thing, but a verb, a process of sorts of preparing the soil, amending it skillfully, and ridding it of mental weeds that sprout up.

Also, props to King Bimbisara, who seems to be a mindful and nonreactive king, despite the slagging he took from his queens over his medical issues. Henry the 8th would not have been as kind. :slight_smile:

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i reckon the main reason still must have been high child mortality rate

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LXNDR, true…I wasn’t ruling out other causes, of course. Child mortality was, and is, a tragic fact for India. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/india-missed-2015-child-mortality-target-says-lancet-report/

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Other factors need taking into consideration, such as the evolution of women and their ever-changing, and in some cases, movable roles in society, the changes in diet, social existence and biological alterations brought about by chemicals and medicines.
It IS possible (although admittedly rare) for a woman to both be menstruating AND become pregnant.
Sperm can survive within the female for a period of 6 days, so it is possible that a woman may, depending on her stage in her cycle, ‘incubate’ sperm and become pregnant. Also, don’t forget that a woman was ‘deflowered’ on her wedding night, the tell-tale sign being a marked bedding sheet, denoting the breaking of the hymen (meaning she was pure virginal and chaste). Blood was therefore an indicator of a both a woman’s purity AND fertility.

The way women had - and dealt - with periods has changed dramatically since the days of the Buddha…

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Interesting, I didn’t know this. I guess bodies are unpredictable and don’t like to be stuck in a timetable.

As to the deflowering thing, I can’t recall encountering it in old Indian texts; not to say that it isn’t there, of course.

There’s quite a lot of detail in the Vinaya about this. What’s astonishing about it is how matter of fact it is, dealing with questions of cleanliness but avoiding the whole taboo thing.

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It’s possible that the term ‘deflowering’ might not be found in Indian texts; it’s a term I have only come across in Western literature, not being adept at either reading or translating ancient Indian texts (let’s not include ‘understanding’!) I note however, that the comparison and closeness of the terms is interesting.
In American Indian Lore, a small girl is known as a ‘blossom bud’ a grown mature woman as the ‘Bloom’, and the Crone, or ElderWoman, (who we know garnered a great deal of homage and respect) was known as ‘The Seed Pod’. It was she who bore the mature fruit which would give rise to the Wisdom of the next generation. Interesting how different cultures use flowers as a term for the woman, or her state.

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a bit off-topic here

some insights into the price of reduction in Indian child mortality

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