Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav Bharat Mata India as Mother Goddess

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Anupama Nair

This year 2022, is the 75th year of Independence from the British. There is hardly a month before our Independence. Our beloved Prime Minister decided to celebrate this year as “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. So, I am starting to write a feature on all those sons and daughters of Bharat Ma who fought against foreign invasion from time immemorial. To the young and untutored, what or who is Bharat Mata? For us her children, she is our mother, and we worship her as a goddess. “Bharat Mata is the national personification of India as a mother goddess”.  As it is said, “Janani Janmabhumishcha Swargadapi Gariyasi” which means “mother and motherland are superior even to heaven” in Dev Bhasha Sanskrit, from our great epic Ramayana. I believe in this motto and think my mother and Bharat Maa are superior to heaven.

Before talking about Bharat Mata, you need to understand the concept of Bharat. The Puranas state that it is derived from the name of Bharata, the son of the saint Rishabha, while some other Puranic passages refer to the son of Dushyanta called Bharata as seen in the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata, a larger region of North India is included by the term, but south India was excluded. Bharat Varsha had been used as a self-attributed name by the people of the Indian subcontinent and later the Republic of India.  The name is derived from the ancient Hindu Puranas, which refer to the land that encompasses India as “Bharat Varsha” or the country of Bharata and uses this term to distinguish it from other continents. 

Jambu Dvipa was another name used in ancient scriptures as a name of India before Bharat became the official name. The derivative Jambu Dwipa was the historical term for India in many Southeast Asian countries before the introduction of the English word India. This alternate name is still used occasionally in Thailand, Malaysia, Java, and Bali to describe the Indian Subcontinent. Aryavarta was a term used for northern parts of the Indian Subcontinent in the ancient Hindu texts such as Dharmashastras and Sutras, referring to the area of the Indian Subcontinent where “Indo-Aryan tribes and where Indo-Aryan religion and rituals pre-dominated”. The limits of Aryavarta spread over time, as the influence of the religion spread southwards in post-Vedic times.

Now let me talk about Bharat Mata. In the book “Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India”, Kalyani Devaki Menon argued that “the vision of India as Bharat Mata has profound implications for the politics of Hindu nationalism and that the depiction of India as a Hindu goddess implies that it is not just the patriotic but also the religious duty of all Hindus to participate in the nationalist struggle to defend the nation”.

Now let me talk about the conversation between a Gujarati politician and writer KM Munshi and Aurobindo Ghosh. Munshi asked Aurobindo Ghosh a question that has become vital a century later. He asked Ghosh “how can one become patriotic?” Aurobindo Ghosh, one of the fathers of Hindu Nationalism, replied with an answer that is especially relevant today in 2022. He pointed to a map of British India on the wall, and said “do you see this map? It is not a map but the portrait of Bharat Mata, her cities and mountains rivers and jungles form her physical body. All her children are her nerves, large and small…Concentrate on Bharat as a living mother, worship her with nine-fold bhakti”. The fact that Aurobindo considered Bharat Mata worthy of ‘navavidha bhakti’ or nine-fold worship is a good indicator of how the image of India as a mother goddess had already taken origin in 1905.

The concept of worshipping ‘Bhoomi Devi’, or goddess of the earth, has always been part of Hinduism. However, modern forms of equating a nation with a mother goddess first arose in Bengal where ‘Shakto’ worship dominated and forms of the mother goddess such as Kali, Durga, and Chandi were popular. “Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay transformed Bharat Mata into a fully-fledged Hindu goddess and the symbol of India who is experiencing difficult times, but her children are indifferent to her sufferings, and they need to awaken to the dire conditions and act”. In 1875, Bankim Chandra composed Vande Mataram, a song about a benign goddess figure, which became an anthem for Indian nationalists in their struggle for liberation from British domination. The leader of the rebels in Anand Math showed Mahendra the three faces of  Bharat Mata as three idols of goddesses, being worshipped in three consecutive rooms of the ashram — “What Mother Was – An idol of Goddess Jagadhatri”,  What Mother Has Become – An idol of Goddess Kali and finally “What Mother Will Be – An idol of Goddess Durga”.

“Bharat Mata appeared in the book as a ten-armed idol in a marble temple”. Vande Mataram, contained within the novel, is a hymn to the goddess Durga and, as Tagore wrote, “Bankim Chandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end.”

During the Swadeshi movement and the agitation to withdraw the ‘1905 partition of Bengal’, the idea of India and Bengal as mother goddesses was used widely in the popular realm. Vande Mataram, (praise the Mother), was the popular anthem of the time. Bharat Mata was painted by the great painter, Abayindranath Tagore in 1905. “It represented an archaic spiritual essence, a transcendental idea of Universe as well as expressing Universal Hinduism and nationhood”. He portrayed Bharat Mata as a “four-armed Hindu goddess wearing saffron-colored robes, holding the manuscripts, sheaves of rice, a mala, and a white cloth”.

Eric Hobswam a historian gave other examples of female personifications of nations, such as in Mexico's ‘Virgin of Guadalupe’ and Catalonia's ‘Virgin of Montserrat’. These “holy icons”, imagined the nation visually and emotionally helping forge a sense of unity. During the Roman Empire, the province of Briton was visualized as ‘Britannia’, with a “woman wearing a Roman Helmet, carrying a trident in her hand”. At the time of the French Revolution, there was an idea of a “lady of liberty called Marianne”. During the time of the American War of Independence, there was an image of “Lady Columbia”, which later became “The Statue of Liberty”, built in 1920.

Then arose a view that Vande Mataram can never be the National Anthem of India. However, other streams of political thought in India at the time disagreed with this and strove to reclaim Bankim Chandra’s tradition of “blending the nation with Hindu divinity”. Chief amongst them was Veer Savarkar, who, like Aurobindo Ghosh, had once believed in a violent struggle. Just like Ghosh, Savarkar had been sent to prison by the British and had emerged a changed man.

In his book, “Hindutva”, Savarkar drew a nationalism based on religious identity. “Charging the Indian landmass with sacredness, Savarkar's definition of nationality was based on whichever religious groups had their places of worship in the Subcontinent. Since then, we started cultivating and using Bankim Chandra’s idea of Bharat Mata.

Bharat Mata has also been installed as a goddess in the traditional precincts of a Hindu temple during British rule. There was a Bharat Mata temple built in 1936 whose “installed deity is a large map of the British Indian Empire”. Since the concept of Bharat Mata was first created in British India, the map of undivided Bharat has been used. “Hindutva versions of Bharat Mata have her and her leonine mount floating above a map that almost always includes Pakistan and Bangladesh”. There are Bharat Mata temples in the Daulatabad Fort in Maharashtra as well as one in Haridwar, inaugurated by Indira Gandhi in 1983. There is a temple located in Calcutta and Bharat Mata (the Mother Land) is portrayed through the image of “Jagattarini Durga”. We can also see a Bharat Mata Temple in Kanya Kumari. Ramayana Mandir is inside the Bharat Mata Temple and it showcases the Valmiki Ramayana. So, Bharat Mata for me is a goddess which represents my country Bharat and she is my mother.

(Dedicated to my Mother and Bharat Mata and may she be the punya bhoomi and be free always, never again be invaded and subjected to 800 years of slavery)

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