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Mother India: The Fierce Tenderness of Life, Mythic Women and the Time of the Mother

Mother India: The Fierce Tenderness of Life, Mythic Women and the Time of the Mother

  • When my mother repeats the story of the ferrywoman and the Goddess Annapurna, I become a child again, wonderstruck at the tales of ancient India, a land that is going through a severe test, not just because of the nightmare of the pandemic, but a test of character.

Thus, have I heard from my mother a tale from the Bengali folk tradition: a ferrywoman who had the good fortune of having the Goddess Annapurna in her boat asked this blessing of the deity: “may my offspring always subsist with milk and rice, (amar shantan jeno thake dudhe bhate).” This ferrywoman may know something about life and motherhood that we need to pay heed at this crucial juncture in human history. In this simple prayer, there is hope for abundance, peace, and there is innocence, something so many of us have forgotten under the spell of a world where harsh bottom lines matter more than life’s tender and yet fierce beauty.  

Motherhood everywhere has been given a place of honor; women, not so much. Whether they choose it or not, good enough or ill equipped for the job, women become mothers, unless and until we robotize the process and say goodbye to life itself. Why do some cultures have such ambivalence toward this most fundamental fact? Is it because we have come to disrespect materiality itself under the delusions of various speculative notions, religious or otherwise? Modernist robotism is a variation on a theme of fear and loathing for what “woman” represents. Women sometimes, because they give birth and uphold life, are blamed for all the ills of the world. They are seen as mere “flesh” or “temptresses” or the ones who perpetuate “samsara” and represent “maya.” Under modernist and Cartesian ideologies, anything we call “matter,” we feminize and put under the rule of what we presume to be a “masculine” and rational mind although a man is no epitome of real reason if today’s world dominated by them is any proof.  Patriarchy though is not necessarily about “men” but in its fundamental operation is all about dominating, controlling and consuming “matter.” Lower class/caste men are as much feminized by controlling power structures that may include biological women. 

I had once taught to my students in my goddess in world religions class that when we forget the word mater (Latin mother, same root as matri in Sanskrit) within the word matter, we get stuck to materialism which in fact has come to mean a sort of stuffism. Annie Leonard’s groundbreaking documentary, The Story of Stuff and subsequent work vividly show what has happened to us as consumers of stuff. Some of the young American women in my class got the import of that lesson because they have been suffering under body image issues and other afflictions. Unconsciously, they had objectified themselves and become “stuff” to be consumed. Some women digest their “objecthood” but begin to wake up quickly with a bit of nudging. The world has forgotten that women inhabit the Mother Principle, image of divinity herself that includes both the yin and the yang aspects of our self. 

Not all women inhabit the fullness of the feminine, the Great Yin, but archetypally in the Indian world, they are identified with the Mother Principle. She in her divine manifestation is the source of life which includes birth and death as we experience them on this earth, our only home. However, Indian mythic world is ruthlessly honest about mothers and their realities, and there is nothing sentimental about mothers and children there. Let us imagine Sita as a mother raising her twins in the forest under the watchful eye of Valmiki, but without Ram. Sita who represents earth itself having been born from it, in the end abandons Ram when he crosses the line. What about Shakuntala who was also abandoned by her beloved? Her anguished cry to the Great Mother at the end of Kalidas’ “Abhijnana Shakuntalam” makes the reality of her aloneness utterly palpable. 

Shakuntala too raises Bharat in Mariche’s ashram without the “protection” of her son’s father, King Dushyanta. From a mere dainty teenaged beauty who chooses her mate to her peril, she grows to be a most dignified woman who accepts her erring beloved without any subservience. It is from her son, who did not know his father, that the land receives one of its names. By the way, those who are bent on reducing India to Bharat to erase other histories that have enriched this land should remember the root meaning of the word. Late Kapila Vatsyayana commenting on Bharat Muni’s Natyashashtra had pointed out that the word “Bharata is only an acronym or eponymous for the three syllables Bha (bhava), Ra (raga), Ta (tala).” We should note that all three belong to the feminine and indicative of his theory’s profound connection with lived life. 

Some argue it is the recognition of women’s power itself that leads to misogyny. There is no winning in the world of delusion. Let us return to some more tales. There are strange myths of women who become mothers through the magic of their own powers.  

So, this Bharat is full of tales of women and their motherhood, and in its core respects rta or the rhythm (bhava, raga, taala) inherent in nature/prakriti/feminine although not all mothers are motherly. Shakti, the feminine force, and energy of the cosmos too is something India acknowledges. However, some argue it is the recognition of women’s power itself that leads to misogyny. There is no winning in the world of delusion. Let us return to some more tales. There are strange myths of women who become mothers through the magic of their own powers.  We know about Kunti whose children have many divine fathers, but her singularity as a mother remains central to the epic. Mahabharata after all is a tale of matriarchal lineages.  It is Satyavati whose blood runs through all the protagonists and antagonists of this marvelously human epic. She decides that her son Vyasa from a previous liaison would father the children whose progeny will rule the kingdom. Draupadi, a stunning case of polyandry, does not figure prominently as a mother and tragically loses all her children in the fruitless war that was waged at least partially to restore her honor.  Not to forget an inscrutable Ganga who seemingly “kills” her children unless we see the circularity of these mythologies that span many lifetimes. 

Kunti and Draupadi remind me of the panchakanyas (five girls) ahalyā draupadī kuṃtī tārā mandodarī tathā । pañcakanyāḥ smarennityaṃ mahāpātakanāśinīm ॥. They are supremely revered and supposed to release people from great papa, but a simple look at their tales shows they are most complex and are anything but so called stereotypical “sati/savitris.” How we misread our profoundly powerful mythic tales! Sati as the one who protests patriarchal injustice by igniting herself with her own shakti and Savitri who challenges Yama, death incarnate, are not subservient women extolled by the current and viciously misogynist regime

In India today, violence against women and perceived “others” is on the rise.  Massive statues and gilded shrines are being erected while people writhe under the pall of a pandemic that itself is a stern warning from Mother Earth about our errand ways and delusions of grandeur. Since I sing paeans of Mother Gods of the world and their relevance to women, I often must face the terrible reality of women’s lives in the land of my birth where the paradox of great goddesses and stark debasement of women coexist. For many women motherhood is a privilege and a source of great joy, for some a trial and may even be a bane, especially when they must raise girl children under severe conditions. Women themselves internalize misogyny and often perpetuate it against other women. Women are expected to be mothers but preferably of sons; a marvelous poet Usha Akella, in a scathing protest, has recently launched a volume called I Will not Bear You Sons —However, outright desecration of the feminine principle is something of a modern event that has led to consumerist ideologies that I am calling stuffism. Unfortunately, this has been imported by many nations, including India.

It is this “modernist” phenomenon borne out of a provincial Eurocentric history that makes the celebration of Mother’s Day a curious incident. My wisecracking older son quipped the other day that it is an obligatory national mandate! After all, Anna Jarvis initiated this now highly commercialized holiday precisely at a moment when women’s traditional work was being severely devalued under an industrialized and colonial capitalism. Vandana Shiva has been tirelessly fighting against that sinister spell around the world. I am reminded of a beautiful essay “My Mother Never Worked” by Bonnie Smith-Yackel where the irony of what is “work” under a bureaucratic lens is critically underscored. I also think of New Zealand politician Marilyn Waring’s books If Women Counted that launched the field of feminist economics and “Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth” that starkly reveal how drinking water, pollution free environment and mostly women count for nothing when institutions calculate national wealth. 

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So, what is a mother worth? a day of remembering that she counts? My own 96-year-old priceless mother, a teller of tales, reader of complex literary journals and marvelous reciter of poetry taught me everything about beauty, dignity, wonder and love of learning and above all, what it means to be a mother. She is a treasure house who has experienced life in its magical vastness in her lyrical childhood through partition, late marriage, and motherhood in faraway UP, and now for the last decade with her daughters in the U.S. and Canada. Ma’s stories about her small village named Mallikpur in Sylhet district in today’s Bangladesh has inspired me to articulate my and other ordinary women’s realities. Her deep wisdom tells her that this pandemic has diverted our attention from possible wars, and humanity has been putting its energy into healing rather hurting.  My sons’ other grandmother whom we tragically lost last year to the pandemic came to the United States in the sixties when brain drain from India brought my father-in-law to this country. Amma, a scientist by training who raised four children under difficult circumstances in an alien culture and even got a PhD later in life, was a teller of family tales and was often full of innocent laughter.  

Whether mythic or familial, tales tell us that we are all of value because the Great Mother, the womb of creation, sustenance, and annihilation, is a sacred presence in our lives. In desecrating the feminine, we pave the way toward our own extinction as a species. But all energies including modernist ones have their good and bad consequences. Large number of modern educated women and mothers are seeing the world through a different lens, and even the reductionist and mechanistic scientific paradigm is changing. Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist, is proving what many indigenous cultures always knew that we are deeply interconnected with all that is. Talking about an injured Douglas Fur that sends signals to other trees, she says, “Trees are linked to neighboring trees by an underground network of fungithat resembles the neural networks in the brain”

When my mother insists on walking barefoot on earth, breaks into spontaneous dance and song and rejoices in the world of trees, birds, and sunsets, I see the image of the Great Mother in her now fragile body, Mater in our ephemeral but pulsating materiality. When she repeats the story of the ferrywoman and the Goddess Annapurna, I become a child again, wonderstruck at the tales of old India, a land that is going through a severe test, not just because of the nightmare of the pandemic, but a test of character. This Mother’s Day, however symbolic, may we all come to our senses and invite the time of the Great Mother who will balance the yin and the yang of our collective psyches so that we wake up to our full humanity and learn to share the bounty of milk and rice with all. 

Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena is Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Nassau Community College, NY.  She has published two books, “Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism,” and “In the Beginning IS Desire: Tracing Kali’s Footprints in Indian Literature.” Some of her other publications include, “Mapping the Chiasmus: Liberating Patterns in a Planetary Mandala”, “AI as Awakened Intelligence: Buddha, Kurzweil and the Film Her”, “Woman is ‘Antahprajnatmika’: A Spectrum of Enlightenment from Maradarikas to Female Buddhas in Tantric Buddhism,” “Iridescent Self in the Womb of the Wholly M(O)ther: A Vajrayani Meditation”, “Neither Theos Nor Logos: Indic Divine Mother Beyond Ontotheology”, “Prodigy, Poet, and Freedom Fighter: Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India”, “Peopling an Unaccustomed Earth: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Supreme Fictional Journeys into Human Conditions” and “Gynocentric Thealogy of Tantric Hinduism:  A Meditation upon the Devi”. She writes a blog called “Stand Under the Mother Principle”. More information about her work can be found on her website.

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