The idea of Bharat Mata is very ancient and very Indian – Aravindan Neelakandan

Bharat Mata by M.F. Husain (1997)

For what is a nation? What is our mother country? It is not a piece of earth, nor a figure of speech, nor a fiction of the mind. It is a mighty Shakti, composed of the Shaktis of all the millions of units that make up the nation, just as Bhawani Mahisha Mardini sprang into being from the Shaktis of all the millions of gods assembled in one mass of force and welded into unity. The Shakti we call India, Bhawani Bharati, is the living unity of the Shaktis of three hundred million people…. – Sri Aurobdindo in Bhawāni Mandir

Aravindan NeelakandanBharat Mata or Mother India is a name that evokes a deeply emotional veneration in almost all Indians. Often portrayed carrying the national flag and riding a lion, she is to most Indians, a goddess in her own right.

She also has her detractors. She was disliked and feared by the colonialists. Both her devotees and detractors at one time or another identified her with Kali. There are some who deny her ancient roots. To them, she is a colonial construct. Recently, a Dravidian politician claimed that to him, only Tamil was mother. As one cannot have two mothers, India cannot be considered as his mother, he said. At another level, Sumathi Ramaswamy, professor of History and International Comparative Studies, Duke University, considers the imagery of Bharat Mata as the undoing of the European enlightenment through “the recuperation of old myths and the return of fancy”. She also claims that “modern secular and scientific mapped knowledge is hijacked” to assist that “unraveling”.

The economist Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar wrote that in his youth he had “not heard of Bharat Mata”. He also added: “As a Tamilian, I see it as one more example of north Indian imperialism.” Marxist historian Irfan Habib announced that “the idea of Bharat Mata was an import from Europe and there was no evidence of any such imagination in either ancient or medieval India”.

So who or what is Bharat Mata?

Most Western and Westernised Indian academic studies start the study of Bharat Mata with Vande Mataram, a song composed by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1875 and published as part of his novel Anandamath seven years later. They usually neglect the early goddess-centred unorganised resistance to subjugation of people, documented from medieval to early colonial periods.

The Pre-Vande Mataram Goddess

The goddess tradition started spreading throughout Bengal, coinciding with it coming under Mughal and then British rule. When British control became total in Bengal and started generating famines, the famous Sannyasi Rebellion happened. The subsequent increase in dacoity after the rebellion saw the emergence of Kali as the syncretic goddess bridging the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims. Professor Jati Sankar Mondal explains:

The dacoits used to undertake their operations on moonless nights so as to take advantage of the darkness with its auspicious association with Kali. Still there are places in Bengal with temples named Dakatia Kali or Thangadiya Kali…. Firstly, every gang of dacoits, whether they are Hindu or Muslim, used to follow the ritual. The reason is probably the amalgamation of sannyasi and fakir with the peasantry turned into dacoits. These sannyasis and fakirs like Majnu Shah of Birbhum along with others tried to resolve Hindu-Muslim bifurcation in their approach to religion and life.

The British soon “discovered” Thuggee, the secret network of stranglers. The thugs were used by the British to justify their colonial project in India. Colonial narratives in the form of tales of brave British officers saving Hindus deluded by thugs filled the English press. According to the British, the thugs were worshippers of Kali who were motivated by their evil religion to waylay and strangulate people. As many post-colonial studies have shown, most of the excesses of thugs were colonial fabrications which enabled officials to fuel their campaigns and usurp authority. Decapitated “thug” heads were sent to Edinburgh. Based on pseudo-scientific phrenology studies, the British doctors talked about the thug skulls showing “representative examples of normal Hindoo type”, of the “apathetic, weak and lazy Hindoo” with “natural inclination for the work of death”.

Historian Kim Wagner at the University of Edinburgh points out that the Hindu text Bhagavata Purana shows Kali as the patron of a band of thieves. Most of the “thugs” captured, persecuted and ultimately executed by the British, most often referred to Bhavani as their goddess. Wagner points out that Bhavani was the patron goddess of Marathas and the family deity of many Rajput lineages. Marathas were prominent among the Indic forces offering resistance to the British and earlier to the Mughals.

With 19th century consolidation of power by the East India Company, came also the great 1857 rebellion. And the goddess seems to have played a role in the great uprising of 1857 also—particularly in creating a liaison between the local communities. British accounts record the execution of one Shunker, a small Raja of the Gonds. He was charged, along with his son, of conspiring with the sepoys against the British. He was “blown away from the cannon’s mouth”. Later, British found with him a “poetical invocation to Devi or Kali, the goddess of all cut-throats”. The verses invoked the goddess, addressing her as “Mata Chandi” and “Mata Kali” and asked her to “listen to the calling of the poor” and requested her “not to delay” her actions, “devour the English quickly” and “protect Shankar and her disciples”.

If one is to look back into the centuries just preceding the arrival of the British, then one can discern a pattern. When the Mughal rule entered a particularly oppressive phase, the goddess tradition appeared both in Maharashtra in the form of Bhavani worship and in Sikh tradition, though subsumed to the impersonal supreme Ek Omkar principle, in the form of Guru Gobind Singh’s Chandi di Var. In other words, the goddess has appeared as a socio-spiritual node each time the nation faced a crisis.

This is a uniquely Indic phenomenon. It is not just the principal people movements, that take the centre stage, for whom the goddess provides inspiration, but also the initially expelled, marginalised sections of the population, who under an oppressive structure resort to dacoity.

So, is the emergence of the goddess precipitated by heightened social anxiety?

Or is the goddess connected to the physical body as well as the natural resources of India and the human relations to them?

The ‘Ankle Bracelet’

Chilapathikaram (Epic of the Ankle Bracelet), a Tamil epic variously dated between second century to fifth century CE, written by Ellango, who tradition says was a prince turned monk, may contain the answer for this pan-Indic phenomenon.

Sangham literature (300 BCE to 300 CE) classifies the land into five eco-cultural categories. These categories were originally intended as literary techniques. Yet they had clearly helped the rulers and administrators manage the natural resources of the land. Each of these categories have their names and deities (See table).

Tamil Name Table

How does the goddess come to get associated with deserts? Illango gives an extraordinarily insightful answer to this question. He points out that Palai is not a separate category:

Chaotic and low the nation becomes,
When a king and council of ministers do not deliver.
The same, when climate does not deliver,
The Kurunchi and Mullai get degraded,
Painfully deteriorate and become Palai.

The parallel between the vagaries of climate and the non-deliverance by the state and subsequently people of the degraded lands resorting to dacoity, make it abundantly clear that dacoity, though a punishable crime, was also understood as a symbol of protest against mismanagement or/and disregarding of the natural resources as well as the rights of the people associated with such affected natural zones. So, when such people took to dacoity, the goddess whose body the natural resources are, was worshipped in her fierce form. The subtle hint is not just to the failing climate that has to be blamed but also the very human failure of the state in not mitigating the suffering of the people.

The epic poem itself is the celebration of fierce nature of the divine feminine and explores, through a forest chant of tribal people, the various dimensions of the goddess. Shalini, the priestess of the tribes, who enters into an altered state of consciousness manifesting the goddess, blesses the heroine who is soon going to seek justice in a fierce way. The verses speak of the goddess thus:

Cloaked in the hide of the elephant and wearing the skin of the tiger
Stands She on the black head of the wild buffalo;
She stands at the end of the Scripture of the Scriptures,
The unflickering Flame of Gnosis, all pervasive and worshipped by the celestials.

While the first two lines show a fierce tribal goddess, the next two lines indicate the goddess whom the celestials meet, as narrated in Chandogya Upanishad. “Scripture of the Scriptures” is a term in Tamil to denote the Upanishads. In the ensuing lines of the epic, the goddess is given the attributes of both Shiva and Vishnu. Their deeds are her deeds. She drank the poison that emanated from the oceans. Hence she is blue throated. She destroyed the three flying towns of the demons with Meru as her bow and the cosmic serpent her bow-string. These are deeds of Shiva. She is the one who destroyed with a kick the demonic wheel sent by the evil Kamsa, which is the childhood deed of Krishna. Thus we have here a literary painting of a pan-Indic goddess portrayed in all her glory, being worshipped by the tribal communities in South India.

The depiction is by a poet who lived more than 1,500 years ago. In short, the goddess who emerges when the land and the people suffer, is already there with the tribal communities of the deep-South.

Centuries later, she would reappear in Punjab in Guru Gobind Singh’s Chandi di Var on her fierce lion:

She called upon Her demon devouring lion. ‘Do not worry at all,’ she assured the gods. The Great Mother became frenzied and prepared to destroy the demons.

The Khalsa had come into being to fight against the imposition of monoculture.

Now read this report by James Ker ICS, a personal assistant to the Director of Criminal Intelligence, from 1907 to 1913, on the image of the demon-slaying goddess who was named “Rashtriya Jagruti” (National Awakening):

Her lion or tiger is labeled `Bahiskar’ (Boycott) and is attacking the bovine monster labeled `Pardeshi Vyapar’ (Foreign Trade), on whose back the goddess has placed her foot after, apparently, cutting off its head. The demon near the severed head of the monster is labeled ‘Vilayati Mal’ (English Goods) and is being bitten in the arm by a snake called `Swabhiman’ (Pride of Self), which is held in one of the hands of the heroine, while the same demon’s head has been injured by the knife labeled `Svavalamban’ (Self-Independence). The demon being held by the hair is labeled `Desha Droha’ (Disloyalty to Country) … the hand which holds his hair is labeled `Desh Seva’ (Service of Country).

She is simultaneously the essence of all deities and philosophies even as she is wild, fierce and battle ready—the spirit of Bharat Mata. A colonial import—She?

Her Vedic roots

The roots of both the fierce and benign dimensions of the goddess can be found in Vedic literature. Yet she predates and stands above the Vedas.

Many modern scholars have pointed out that the imagery of Bharat Mata has roots in Prithvi. For David Kinsley, a historian of religion, “the fundamental conviction that the earth itself, or the Indian subcontinent itself, is a goddess, indeed, that she is one’s mother, pervades the modern cult of Bharat Mata (Mother India), in which all Indians are called sons or children of India and are expected to protect their mother without regard for personal hardship and sacrifice”. He considers Vande Mataram as “one of the earliest and probably still the most popular literary expressions of this theme”.

Anwar Shaikh, Pakistan-born British author and humanist, traces the concept of Bharat Mata to Bhoomi Sukta of Atharva Veda. The hymn pays respect to the entire earth, whom it calls as “queen of all” and this queen, according to Shaikh, is Bharat Mata. “Prithivi, as I understand, is the deified earth”, Anwar Sheikh opines and to him “it refers to Bharat”.

Later, Bankim Chandra only provided another manifestation to a phenomenon that had been repeated throughout India. According to art historian Vidya Dehejia, “Since the land itself is spoken of in Sanskrit as Prithvi or goddess earth, it is perhaps not surprising that kingdoms, cities, districts, and boroughs are gendered feminine. India is Bharat Mata or Mother India”.

While it is very easy to associate the benign smiling Bharat Mata we see today in calendar art to the Vedic Prithvi, how do we relate the ferocious Kali to her?

 Devi Nirrti-Dhumavati

Nirrti is the Vedic goddess who is considered “black in form”. She is also golden-haired. She has often been considered a “negative goddess” by Western Indologists. It is true the Vedic hymns ask her not to bind humans. They ask her to leave.

However, she was not despised. This is clear from the fact that people were named after her and she was considered as motherly as any goddess. Thus, we have a Rig Vedic seer Nirrti-Putra Kapota (dove). In Harappan excavations too, goddess figurines associated with the dove have been found. Vedic scholar R.N. Dandekar derives her name from the absence of ṛta. She is the Vedic entropy. The Satapathabrahmana identifies Nirrti with the earth. Yama is Agni and Nirrti is Yami and “this Earth”. Being of one mind with Yama and Nirrti liberates one. Nirrti not only binds humans but can also unloose the bonds.

So, here we have the goddess of the earth, who is black and fierce. She punishes those who disrupt ṛta—the natural order. Nirrti is the archetype from which the goddess-warrior groups emerge from the communities of eco-degraded and oppressed lands in India.

There are also other mighty streams of goddesses who have merged into the body of Bharat Mata. The three goddesses who are invoked together in the Vedas are Saraswati, Ila and Bharati. They are called the three goddesses in Rig Veda. In Atharva Veda, all three are given the name, Saraswati. Saraswati is also a goddess who can fight. She is compared to Indra and her assistance is requested in battlefields.

She is also Vac. The Vac Sukta is an interesting hymn attributed to the very human daughter, Vac, of sage Ambhrna. She, seized with an altered state of consciousness, merging with the archetypal divine feminine, identifies herself with the goddess. She declares herself to be roaming the land with Rudras (invoked with Saraswati in Vac Sukta), Adityas (invoked with Bharati) and Vasus (invoked with Ila). Thus, she embodies in her all the three goddesses. Then she says that she fights for the people. She reveals herself as Rashtri—the embodiment of the nation. She says that she strings the bow of the Rudras and fights for the people.

A comparable poetic manifestation of this Vedic hymn would arise centuries later in the worship of the goddess expressed in Chilapathikaram in South India. Later, in pan-Asian Buddhism, she would become the goddess fighting for dharma and in Indic evolution, she would emerge as Bhawani Mahisha Mardini.

Again, we have here the primordial precursor of Bharat Mata in her fierce fighting imagery which would later emerge during freedom struggle.

Goddess of Liberty embodying Diversity

Swami Vivekananda, with his penetrating insight, had spoken of Mother India as the only true godhead from which all other divinities arise. He also associated her with the very population of India—thus making service to the masses the true worship to the underlying divinity of motherland:

For the next fifty years this alone shall be our keynote—this, our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our minds. This is the only god that is awake, our own race—“everywhere his hands, everywhere his feet, everywhere his ears, he covers everything.” All other gods are sleeping. What vain gods shall we go after and yet cannot worship the god that we see all round us, the Virât? When we have worshipped this, we shall be able to worship all other gods.

In Vande Mataram, she seized the rhythm of the national heart. Kazi Abdul Gaffar, an Urdu poet from Hyderabad, translated Vande Mataram and published in Payam, a popular Urdu paper in 1937: “Madare watan! Hum tujhe salaam karte hain.”

Interestingly, that was the same year that the Muslim League passed a resolution condemning Vande Mataram as “anti-Islamic” and “idolatrous”. Prof Aurobindo Mazumdar also points out that the first Indian to sing Vande Mataram in a foreign land was the Parsi patriot, Bhikaji Rustom Cama.

For Savarkar she became the Goddess of Liberty. He composed his famous song Jayostute on Goddess Liberty during his confinement in Andamans, where he scribbled the lines on the walls. He addresses the goddess, who is one with the “soul of the natio” as Sivastmate and Bhagavati. He related this Goddess of Liberty to the ultimate Vedantic liberation sought by the seers. So the political liberation becomes a spiritual aspiration and Bharat Mata merged with the Goddess of Liberty.

There is an interesting parallel to the fundamentalist and Marxist-colonial critique of Bharat Mata. In the United States, which got from France the statue of Liberty, the protestant clergymen considered it “pagan and idolatrous”. Even in 1925, a prominent Christian theologian Rev. Dr. Andrew Bard stated that the statue of Liberty should be replaced by a statue of Jesus Christ. In many fundamentalist, evangelical texts, one can still come across attacks on the statue of Liberty.

Linguistic sub-nationalisms emerged during the colonial period. Strategically encouraged by British, the proponents of these often based their narratives on the framework of Aryan/non-Aryan divide. One of the earliest Indian proponents who insisted on a separate Tamil identity was Maraimalai Adigal (1876-1950). However, he also composed a hymn on Mother India which is very similar to the Anandamath depiction of glorious and fallen Mother:

Oh Mother India who gave the world many riches,
Thou art the lamp of light to the entire world!
Thou art dear to me as very life of my life!
How can I with my little knowledge
Elaborate upon the multi-splendored greatness of Thee!
Thou with wealth that can never be lost,
Stand today impoverished by plundering aliens!
That shame shall be wiped out by thy children!
Enlightened they toil to revive thy glory in fields diverse!
May they flourish and succeed in their efforts and
May our minds cease suffering!

The Tamil-Sanskrit scholar Sankaranarayanan (Jataayu) points out that even the Mother Tamil anthem by Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai, which is sung compulsorily at all government functions in Tamil Nadu, derives its very opening imagery from Vedic literature: “Ocean as the garment of earth.”

The sculpture of Mother Tamil installed by Dr M.G. Ramachandran at Madurai in 1985 was modelled after the sculpture of Gnana Saraswati in the Brihadeeswarar Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, built in the 11th century by Rajendra Chola. The concept of Tamil as mother is essentially part of the pan-Indic goddess tradition which sees languages as manifestations of the goddess. Sri Lalita Sahasranama, the thousand names of the goddess, which forms part of Brahmanda Purana, has as the 678th name “She who manifests in language forms”.

So in the Tamil psyche, Mother India and Mother Tamil are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. This finds expression in a sculptor’s banner for his workshop where he has named his workshop “Mother Tamil” and proudly displayed in the banner is the picture of Bharat Mata with the flag.

Has She a Consort?

Both, during the independence struggle and also in the post-independent era, in all her depictions, she stands alone—Mother India. Though the Indian mind naturally identifies her with Durga or Kali, she is depicted in pictures as being alone—a goddess with no consort.

However, the Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi explicitly pictured her with Siva, as his consort. He sang:

Demonic Our Mother can be;
Great madness carries She.
She loves dearly the Mad One
He who carries the Fire scorching

It is interesting that it was the much despised Maqbool Fida Husain, who, during the fiftieth anniversary of Indian Independence, brought out this association very forcefully in the visual medium. In the painting he made of Bharat Mata (1997), he shows Her with Ganesha, playing. And there is the uncompromising sacred geography of Himalayas as the very head of Lord Siva—notice the crescent.

It is hard to miss the association of this painting with the 77th name in Sri Lalitha Sahasranama: Kameshwara mukaloka kalpitha sri Ganeshwara—She who has begotten Ganesa by looking into the desire arousing face of Siva.

With some fringe opposition to his old paintings bringing him extreme media attention, and he himself being a person who loved basking in it, M.F. Husain started intentionally provoking simplistic Hindu sentiments. He knew, that in doing so, he would catapult himself to fame without getting into any real danger.

This sad fall can be seen in the comparison of his two paintings: the 1997 (see above) and the 2006 painting. In the 1997 painting one can see the “secular” dimensions of the state being both harmonized and subsumed to the sacred nature of the nation. In the 2006 painting, which relies more on the riots of colours than on innate dynamics of aesthetics and symbolism, one can see all dimensions of the sacred being erased. Despite the fall, it remains that the 1997 painting by M.F. Hussain, despised by many in the Hindutva camp, was the one which made the boldest visual statement identifying Bharat Mata with Goddess Parvati—in all her splendour, both secular and the sacred.

All Inclusive

Though older than the Vedas, she is still dynamic and is all-inclusive. Dr. Arkotong Longkumer, who studies the interactions of religions in the Heraka movement among the north-eastern tribal communities, makes a critical observation about Bharat Mata:

The pan-Hindu idea of ‘Bharat Mata’ (Mother India) as a territorial deity correlated with the image of a mother’ in Heraka contexts, and ‘Goddess’ in Gaidinliu’s biography. It portrays an imagery as uniting and including disparate groups in India, such as the Heraka, under the wings of ‘Bharat Mata’.

The Goddess embedded in ‘Jana Gana Mana’

In 1911 Gandhiji wrote a small note in Tamil to one of his compatriots. He ends the letter with “Vande Mataram” followed by his signature. By the 1930s, for the sake of communal unity, he accepted that the song could be truncated. He further wrote: “If at any mixed gathering any person objected to the singing of Vande Mataram, even with the Congress expurgations, the singing should be dropped.”

However in 1940, in response to the students’ strike in a missionary college in Calcutta because of the stopping of the singing of Vande Mataram, he wrote, “Whether the song is in fact national or not is not for the missionaries to determine. For them it is surely enough to know that their students recognise the song as national.”

On 25 August 1948, in the Constituent Assembly, Nehru announced that Jana Gana Mana composed by Tagore would be accepted as the national anthem. A section of nationalists found this substitution humiliating. The perceived humiliation comes from identifying the term “Bharata bhagya vidhata”—dispenser of the destiny of India—with King George V.

Going through the song itself, which comprises of five stanzas, it is not hard to find the identity of this “dispenser”. The third stanza talks of him as the “eternal charioteer” (chirasarathi) and goes on to say that in the midst of revolution or chaos, this charioteer’s “conch sounds” (shankhadhwani). Concluding that the “Bharata bhagya vidhata” is none other than Vishnu, this writer prepared a presentation in 2007 which is available on Scribd. However, while revisiting the work recently, I found that that the poet had given a feminine description of this “dispenser of the destiny of India”:

Through Your lowered but winkless eyes
Through nightmares and fears,
You protected us in your lap,
O loving mother!

Tagore here is employing a very old Vedic motif. Discussing the four-pointed star pattern found in Harappa (like the button seal discovered by Brad Chase from the Kot Diji phase of Harappa 2800-2600 BCE), Parveen Talpur, a historian who specializes on Harappan culture writes:

Parpola has already suggested that the circle with a dot motif represents eye. It is also known through Vedic texts that Varuna keeps an eye on his subjects through the stars which are his thousand-eyed spies. Furthermore, Parpola compares gods’ eyes with fish eyes, as both are unwinking.

Was Tagore somehow bringing in the Vedic imagery? Then why he is making it feminine here? Of course Varuna, like Nirrti, is also a binding deity. There may also be another influence here. Before Japan became menacingly expansionist, Tagore had looked forward to Japan for a pan-Asiatic cultural collaboration. He had worked with such eminent scholars of Japan like Okakura Kakuzo, who, during his visit to India in 1902, stayed with Tagore and finished the book, The Ideals of the East, in collaboration with Sister Nivedita. Tagore too, was very interested in the culture, art, education and spirituality of Japan. Dr. Upendra Thakur, historian of ancient Indian and Asian studies, points out a relevant fact:

(The) God widely worshipped by people in downtown Tokyo was originally Varuna and was introduced into Buddhist pantheon by esoteric Buddhism and then adopted by Shintoists, ,,, We have some idea of his iconography from the Daran-hu-kyo according to which his image should be carved out of white sandalwood with a height of five inches in the form of a Tennyo (Devi) with three eyes, heavenly crown and garments and a cintamani jewel held by his two hands.

If Tagore had known about this deity, surely he would have made the connect between the feminine Varuna and his three eyes in Japanese iconography and the three eyes of the goddess so pervasive in his own native Bengal. Tagore once said of Nicholas Roerich, the famous Russian painter, that what Tagore failed to depict in words, Roerich fulfilled it with a stroke of his brush.

Now look at this painting of Nicholas Roerich titled “Mother of the World” (see below) and read again the Japanese iconography of Vedic-Buddhist Varuna in feminine form. Now look at the Mother figure seated on lotus like peninsular land surrounded on three sides by water. She is holding the jewel. The famous three dots, which in Roerich represents art, science and religion, the three cultural aspects of humanity, neatly mapped into the three circles. Are they also her eyes? Her crown is the heavens. And the world comes to her in veneration.


Can you recognize Her?

Perhaps you can recognize Her with the following prophetic words of Swami Vivekananda:

I do not see into the future; nor do I care to see. But one vision I see dear as life before me: that the ancient Mother has awakened once more, sitting on Her throne rejuvenated, more glorious than ever. Proclaim Her to all the world with the voice of peace and benediction.

» Aravindan Neelakandan is an author and contributing editor at Swarajya. Article from Swarajya, 17 August 2017.

Mother of the World by Nicholas Roerich