Navratri is the nine nights festival, which concludes with Vijayadasami — the tenth day of victory. It is the victory of dharma — universal harmony Rta, which represents justice in the human realm. The nine days celebrate the victory of the divine feminine — the goddess, who wages a war against the forces of darkness and disharmony. She subdues them — personified as the buffalo-headed asura king, Mahishasura.
The goddess permeates India in its entirety. In the collective consciousness of the country, she is every river, every language and the very soil. With the rise of the national movement in the twentieth century, which fought against colonialism, she arose in the form of Bharat Mata — Mother India. The imaging of the nation as the mother exists in many cultures — Mother Russia and Britannia. The French visualised the revolutionary spirit as the feminine, and for the United States liberty exemplifies the feminine, holding the light.
But what distinguishes Bharat Mata from these feminine forms of nation-states and political concepts is that she is also intimately associated with the goddess tradition that has survived and evolved unhindered with all its diversity on its own strength. This unrestricted flourishing of the goddess tradition in India and the emergence of Bharat Mata are organically and historically related.
Let us see how the goddesses tradition converge and manifest as Bharat Mata.
There are ‘three goddesses’ (tisro devih, Rigveda, 1:13:9) who are invoked together in the vedas. They are Saraswati, Ila and Bharati. In Atharvaveda, all three are given the name Saraswati (tisrah Sarasvatih). Another vedic goddess of interest is Vac. In the Vajasaneyi Samhita of Yajurveda, Saraswati bestows Vac on Indra; she is the controller of Vac and she herself is the Vac. In Satapatha Brahmana, Vac and Saraswati are declared as one. Bharati is also identified with Vac. In Brhaddevata, first compiled in 400 BCE and revised during the early puranic period, Vac is united with Bharati.
Both Vac and Saraswati are also goddesses who can fight. Saraswati is compared to Indra, and her assistance is requested in the battlefields. She is the only goddess addressed as the slayer of Vrtra, she is Vrtragni. The epithet in its masculine form that is used to address Indra 106 times is used only once in feminine form and that is to address Saraswati. In Yajurveda, Saraswati is invoked along with rudras to help people.
Vac Sukta is interesting because this hymn is attributed to the human daughter, Vac, of sage Ambrna. Seized with an elevated and expanded state of consciousness merging with the archetypal divine feminine, she identifies herself with the goddess. She declares herself to be roaming the land with rudras (invoked with Saraswati), 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. We have here the primordial surfacing of Bharat Mata, combining her traits as the provider of knowledge and the fighting warrior goddess.
Dr Catherine Ludvik, professor of religion at Kyoto Sangyo University, in her detailed study of Suvarnaprabha Sutra, or the sutra of golden light, points out that Saraswati becomes a multi-armed goddess fighting for dharma. Could this warrior goddess of dharma manifesting in the Buddhist texts “two thousand years removed in time from the Rg Veda have drawn on an aspect of the goddess that amongst the Hindus had been left behind, seemingly forgotten?” Dr Ludvik ponders, but rejects such a scenario. To her, these are distinct goddesses — an individual Saraswati merging with another warrior goddess.
However, there is a strong connectivity between Saraswati and the eight-armed form of warrior goddess — more related to Kausiki-Vindhyavasini and Mahishasurmardini. The eight-armed Mahishasurmardini can be seen as involuted in Vac, who has been from vedic times itself integrated with Saraswati. The buffalo-slaying divine can be traced to the Harappan period. Archaeologist Jonathan Kenoyer, while discussing the Harappan terracotta tablet, which shows “the ritual slaying of a water buffalo in front of a deity seated in yogic position while a crocodile crawls above the scene”, points out that these aspects in Hinduism are “associated with the deity Durga”. In North India, in Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) and the Nagar region of Rajasthan, Mahishasurmardini, images have been obtained, attested to the end of the first century BCE.
During the period of second urbanisation, which in South India coincides with the Sangam Age, the goddess, who slays a buffalo demon has emerged in literature. She had won a battle and is the mother of Murugan. Tamil epic Silapathikaram (circa second to fifth century CE) clearly establishes her identity as Mahishasurmardini, describing her as both a fierce deity clothed in elephant and tiger hides, standing on the head of the wild buffalo, and shines as the light of wisdom at the summit of Upanishads. The epic also identifies her with the goddess related to India’s sacred geography — Kumari (Kanyakumari).
Devi Mahatmya, a fifth century CE work (part of Markandeya Purana), provides, perhaps, the most clinching evidence connecting Mahishasurmardini, and Vac. Mahatmya describes in detail the weapons of the goddess and the deities, who provided them. The maruts or the rudras (sons of Rudra) gave her the bow. In Vac Sukta, it is the bow of Rudra that she strings for the people. When one sees depictions of her holding the bow and fighting Mahishasura, as in the famous Mahabalipuram relief of Pallavas (seventh century), one can see the imagery of Vac Sukta reflected.
So, here we have the goddess of wisdom as well as the goddess of war united in one. But what triggers her manifestation, particularly, related to the more ferocious Kali imagery, as it happened in the case of Indian freedom struggle?
Nirrti is the vedic goddess who is considered “black in form”, also golden haired. She has often been considered a negative goddess by Western Indologists. 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 absence of Rta. She is the vedic entropy. Satapatha Brahmana identifies Nirrti with the Earth. She punishes those who disrupt Rta — 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.
This Nirrti holds the key to understanding the manifestation of Bharat Mata in the historical periods of India — even before the British. To understand how this goddess functions in social dynamics, one needs to look at ancient Tamil literature.
In south India, 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.
Of the hills and forests — Kurunji. The deity worshipped is Skanda (Murugan). Related activities are hunting, collection of honey and other forest-based products. Of the grasslands — Mullai; the deity worshipped is Vishnu (Mayon). Related activities are hunting, collection of honey and other forest-based products. Of the farmlands — Marutham; the deity is Indra. Related activity is farming. Of coastal areas and ocean — Neithal; the deity is Varuna and related activity is fishing. Of desert zone — Palai. The deity worshipped is Kottravai, which is related with dacoity.
In conventional Western anthropology, the goddess traditions are associated with fertility. Yet, here goddess is associated with desert. This apparent contradiction is solved by Silapathikaram, which explains the genesis of Palai or desert.
Chaotic and low the nation becomes,
When deliver not a ruler
Along with his ministers’ council;
Same happens when climate fails;
Kurunji and Mullai get degraded,
The parallel between the vagaries of climate and the non-deliverance by the state and subsequent degradation of the lands and its people resorting to dacoity, make it abundantly clear that dacoity, though a punishable crime, was also understood as a symbol of protest against the way the state handles the natural and social harmony or the Rta. The goddess, then, manifests when Rta is harmed. This associates Nirrti with Kottravai, who in turn is identified with Mahishasurmardini, by the ancient Tamil epic.
With this understanding, if one looks at Indian history, one finds the goddess appearing to cut across the linguistic sub-cultures of India whenever the social harmony is violently disturbed or natural resources are ruthlessly exploited. When Marathas raised their war cry “Jai Bhavani” they were simply connecting to this collective unconscious of the nation. She would reappear in Punjab as Guru Gobind Singh fought against the proselytising drive of Aurangzeb. She appeared in his “Chandi di Var” riding 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.”
In her manifestation, there was no tribal and non-tribal binary divides. British accounts record the execution of one Shankar, a Gonds chieftain, who too participated in the 1857 rebellion. He was charged, along with his son, for conspiring with the sepoys against the British. He was ‘blown away from the cannon’s mouth’. Later, the 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’ asking her to ‘listen to the calling of the poor’ and ‘not to delay’ her actions, ‘devour the English quickly’ and ‘protect Shankar, and her disciples’.
When British control in Bengal started generating famines, the famous Sanyasi 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, in his study of sanyasi-fakir dacoits, points out that these rebel dacoits undertook their operations on moonless nights ‘so as to take advantage of the darkness with its auspicious association with Kali’ and that ‘every gang of dacoits, whether they are Hindu or Muslim, used to follow the ritual.’
The British soon ‘discovered’ the notorious ‘thuggees’ or thugs. Colonial narratives of brave British officers saving innocent Hindus deluded by thugs filled the English press. To the British, the thugs were Kali worshippers, motivated by their evil religion to waylay and strangulate people. Decapitated ‘thug’ heads were sent to Edinburgh. Based on phrenology a pseudo-science, 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 (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 goddess of Marathas and the family deity of many Rajput lineages. Thus they were more rebels than robbers.
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 Virat? 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’. Professor Aurobindo Mazumdar, who exhaustively points out a great acceptance among Muslims for the imagery depicted in ‘Bande Mataram’, also points out that the first Indian to sing Vande Mataram in a foreign land was the Parsi patriot, Bhikaiji Rustom Cama.
Linguistic sub-nationalisms emerged during the colonial period. Strategically encouraged by the 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
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
That shame shall be wiped out by thy chil
Enlightened they toil to revive thy glory in
May they flourish and succeed in their ef
May our minds cease suffering!
The sculpture of Mother Tamil installed by Dr M G Ramachandran in 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 Mother is part of the pan-Indic goddess tradition, which sees languages as her manifestations.
Both, during the independence struggle and also in the post-independent era, Mother India is shown as without a consort, despite her association with Durga or Kali. However, Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi explicitly pictured her with Shiva, her consort. He sang:
Demonic Our Mother can be;
Great Madness carries She.
She loves dearly the Mad One
He who carries the Fire scorching
The much despised Maqbool Fida Husain, 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 Shiva — notice the crescent.
When a fringe opposition to his old paintings brought him extreme media attention, the maverick painter basked in it, and started intentionally provoking 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 and the 2006 works. In the 1997 painting, one can see the ‘secular’ dimensions of the state being both harmonised and subsumed to the sacred nature of the nation. In the 2006 painting, which relies more on a riot of colours than on innate dynamics of aesthetics and symbolism, one can see all dimensions of the sacred erased. Despite the fall of Husain, it remains that the 1997 painting by him is the one which made the boldest visual statement identifying Bharat Mata with Goddess Parvati — in all her splendour, both secular and the sacred.
Bharat Mata is still dynamic and 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.
Whom we call Bharat Mata, is then, the goddess-womb of all gods and goddesses of India who from vedic valley to the Tamil land permeate the entire Indic matrix through space and time, as Saraswati, Mahishasurmardini, Nirriti, Kottravai, Durga and Kali — through every age. She manifests to restore and protect the harmony — dharma, and, she is the embodiment of Rta.
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