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Mother Who Is Not a Mother

Mother Who Is Not a Mother

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Mother Who Is Not a Mother
In Search of the Great Indian Goddess
Kamala Ganesh
The mother goddess can be interpreted as expressing ideas of
autonomy and primacy in the widest senseof the terms. She conveys not so much the idea of physical motherhood but a world view in which the creativepower of feminity is central; the goddess mediates between life and death and contains in herself the possibilityof regeneration. Is there a basic unity of theme and continuity of ideas to be seen in the variety of goddesseswhich abound in India? This article explores the mother goddess tradition.
GODDESSES abound in India. Varied,diverse, they sometimes contradict eachother. There are those who are consorts,those who have consorts, and there is the onewho is alone. She is bedecked with jewellery,or with a garland of skulls; at other timesshe is the nude goddess. Many-armed,wielding weapons, she sometimes disarmsyou with just a lotus in hand, and the
varada hastas
to dispel fear andgrant boons. Then there are those other god-desses, with no arms, or arms that end instumps. Repulsive or angry or gracious, oryet again those expressionless images of thegreat mother, with no facial features,sometimes not even a head. Riding ferociousanimals, lion, tiger and leopard, or seatedin tranquil equipoise on the lotus. Portrayedin vivid anthropomorphic detail or expressedsymbolically: a pot with eyes scratched onit, a cowrie shell, or a piece of stone smearedwith vermilion. Sometimes abstracted intoa flash of energy, colour, sound, geometry.Who can say which of these represents the'true
goddess tradition? Which is the'essence* and which 'derived'? How does oneinvest chronology, historicity, linearity:qualities that the goddess cuts through in hermany-layered presence in ritual, cult, icon,art, text and philosophy?I think it is possible to see a basic unityof theme and continuity of ideas in what forconvenience I will call the 'mother-goddesstradition'.
Mother-goddess can be inter-preted as expressing ideas of power,autonomy and primacy in the widest senseof the term. She conveys not so much theidea of physical motherhood but a world-view in which the creative power of femini-nity is central; the goddess mediates betweenlife and death and contains in herself thepossibility of regeneration. The 'mother'aspect of the goddess is open to interpreta-tion, and indeed has been developed in dif-ferent ways at different points in time forvarious purposes. The modern iconographyof India as mother-goddess, is a particularlyinteresting example of the 'use' of thegoddess for the end-goal of nationalism.In this essay I am not concerned withestablishing whether different goddess typesare derivable from the mother-goddess, orwhether they are equally and independentlysignificant, though the question is of in-terest. The ideas conveyed by the mother-goddess are sometimes found in other god-desses, at other times they are muffled, atyet other times, there is a complete inversion.But, as I see it, she is always a referencepoint.A word about the scope of this rather ex-ploratory essay. For me, the exercise is tounderstand how I—as an anthropologistfamiliar with feminist and iconographicscholarship, and as a woman and mother inIndia—perceive the signals coming from thegoddess. It is admittedly tricky to handlematerial spanning across disciplines andtime periods, straddling across differentmedia of expression. One does not try to dojustice to its sheer volume and richness. Onecannot even be fair in terms of looking forrepresentative material. The effort is not todwell on the incredible variety, but tosynthesise and extrapolate, without givingcavalier treatment to established facts, andhopefully without violating the spirit of thematerial.This essay draws primarily on icono-graphy, occasionally using textual, ritual orcultic material to make a point. Visual tradi-tions of the goddess are very strong in India,they stretch back in time to pre-textual levels.They are a vibrant presence in currentworship as well. The icon tells a story whichis sometimes at variance with the textualgloss, and it is likely to be more 'original'.There is a prolific literature on mother-goddess. But in the context of the currentfeminist-secularist critique of religioussymbols and imagery, and a simultaneousfeminist 'rediscovery' of the goddess, thetheme is of continuing relevance.
The Indian mother-goddess is more than
years old and there is a continuoustradition of imaging and worship of goddessas mother, though there are many diversitiesin form and material. The first iconic findsare from the Kulli and Zhob valley excava-tions in Baluchistan.
In terms of content,they show linkages with mother-goddessfigures from other regions and periods, andcan be seen in the background of thepaleolithic and neolithic discoveries in.Europe, West Asia and Anatolia.The paleolithic 'venuses' as they are called(the implicit valuation extends beyondterminology) have been excavated fromacross a wide stretch of territory in Europe,in sites including Spain, France, Austria, theBalkans and Siberia.
Despite thegeographic dispersion, they convey a senseof unity in artistic intent and by extension,in belief and worship systems. Typicallysmall (less than a foot high), made of stone,bone or mammoth's ivory, the recurringmotif is that of a nude female, with vastlyexaggerated breasts, hips, belly and thighs.The head, arms and legs are highly abbrevia-ted; usually there are no toes, feet, hands orfingers, the legs and the arms ending abrupt-ly like stumps. The facial features are blur-red or missing, the head is just a featurelessknob or conical appendage. Some of theivory carvings are meant to be worn asamulets [Absolon 1949:207]. Some of thefigures show traces of red ochre colouring,a surrogate of blood, implying votive orritual function. Trre 'venuses' are widelyrecognised as significant markers of humanaesthetic activity, but the nature of theirsignificance is rather vaguely explored by themajority of the writing, academic andpopular. Though they have been frequentlyseen as reflecting a fertility cult, thispossibility has been typically and specula-tively sandwiched between several otherquestions: are they 'anatomical peculiaritiesof some ethnic types'? Do they represent the'sexual taste of paleolithic man'? [Agrawala1984:6].Are they "stone age man's pin up,his bloated idea of female beauty"? Or isthe steatopygy "an adipose adaptation towinter"? [Reader's Digest 1984:11-13] Do theyrepresent "idols, fetishes, cult figures,divinities or real women with sexualemphasis?" [Absolon 1949:204].The first Venus' discoveries in the late 19thcentury created a lot of puzzled excitement,but the 'fertility cult' argument was used ina way that implied a kind of fetishistic,peripheral oddity. Campbell [1959:V.1:139]sharply chastises anthropologists who pre-tend they cannot imagine what functionsthese numerous figurines performed. Theremarkable feature of this whole group offigures is the extreme stylisation, expres-sionist if you will, where the contrastbetween what is emphasised and what isminimised or dispensed with altogethersuggests the underlying motive: venerationof the birth-giving powers of femaleness.Paleolithic excavations have yielded no malehuman figures. In cave paintings of the sameperiod.the stylised Venus' motif dominatesthe composition. Male figures are quitecommon, but they are realistically painted,usually at the back or the periphery of thecomposition: a pointer to the centrality of
the female principle in votive and ritualactivity.The basic 'venus' type with elaborationand variation recurs in the settled agri-cultural societies of Anatolia and westAsia.
In particular, the goddess and thebull is a striking motif in the sites of CatatHuyak and Hacilar: the pregnant goddess,squatting as though in child birth; thegoddess giving birth to a bull's head, to aram's head; cow-headed goddess with bull-headed child in arms; the goddess riding ona lion or on the back of a bull, or sittingbetween the horns of a bull. Scenes of lifein one wall contrast with scenes of death inthe other. Rows of breasts are shown on thewall, along with heads of bulls. In somecases, the breasts incorporate the lower jawsof wild-boar, the skulls of fox, weasel orvulture—all symbols of death. This earlyexpression of the dual orientation of thegoddess towards life and death, and thepresence of the bull motif have links withthe iconography of the Indian goddess.
In the profusion of iconic representationsof the goddess in India, I would see the'Lajjagauri' genre as best expressing whatI think is a core idea in the paleolithic andneolithic icons. This group of sculptures ex-cavated from across different sites in theDeccan region, date variously between firstand eighth centuries AD.
Typically, thesculpture is of a nude woman squatting withlegs spread out and bent at the knees in abirth-giving position. Usually, the head isreplaced by a lotus. In some cases,as in thefigure from Ter.there is no head. The bodyends abruptly and intentionally at the neck[Sankalia 1960:113]. In another case, the headis replaced by a
[Sankalia:120]. Thehands may be holding lotuses, or foldedacross the breasts. The structure of theAlampur sculpture indicates that it was anactual altar under worship, according toKramrisch [1956: 259] who also notes that thetension in the muscles in the lower part ofthe body indicate the dynamic process ofgiving birth. Some of the sculptures areunder worship, usually by women for pro-geny [Sankalia 1960:120]. Aiyar [1989: 415]notes that they are common in arid regionswhere their function seems to be to bringrain. In one example from Nagarjunakon-da, the area below the navel is filled with thedrawing of a highly decorated
(overflowing pot), which, symbolises abun-dance and fertility [Bhattacharya
In a fourth century terracottaplaque from Keesaragatta, the lotus-facedwoman holds Siva as a
in her righthand and Vishnu as Narasimha in herleft.The image unmistakably conveys a senseof primacy of the goddess.
Recent finds ofLajjagauri plaques of fourth-fifth centuryAD from Nagpur region show close associa-tion with a bull and a lion.
She is catechrestically called Lajjagauri bythe local population
'shame'); morecircumspect writing refers to her as
The 'displayed goddess'motif is found in many cultures, for instancethe 'Bobo' figures of Egypt.
Lajjagauri, the headless one, is body in-carnate, the personified
The artisticdevice is to remove the identity-giving part,the face, and portray the female principle ofcreation literally. There are, of course,various interpretations of the symbolism ofthe lotus as head,
but as I see it, the basicidea expressed is strikingly similar to thatof the 'venuses'. In contrast to various formsof
or goddess, which are iconically moredetailed and specific, and in which diversetrends coalesce, Lajjagauri expresses anelemental idea.What happened to Lajjagauri in the vasttime-space between Harappa and Deccan?There is a fairly active mother-goddess tradi-tion in iconography starting with the ter-racotta busts from Kulli and Zhob, where nomale figures have been found. The femalefigures, nude, jewelled, with hooded face,circular eyeholes, beaked nose, slit mouth,have a somewhat anonymous look and areinterpreted by many as intentionally inspir-ing terror and awe. Hundreds of femalefigures (far outnumbering male figures) havebeen found in Harappan sites, especially inthe granary area. They are nude, wearingelaborate jewellery and distinct head-dress.There is some indication of votive function.In all three, Kulli, Zhob and Indus Valley,nudity is not accentuated. The form showssome independence from the west Asianforms, though in intent it could be very close[Gajjar 1971:13].
The headless female figures with stumpylimbs from post-Harappan chalcolithicsettlements, for instance from Inamgaon(where the figure is associated with a bull),Nevasa, Bilwali are interpreted to belong tothe mother-goddess tradition. The nude,steatopygous female or the 'opulent goddess'as she is often referred to in the literature,is not uncommon in pre-Mauryan finds, forinstance, the gold plaques from LauriyaNandangarh and Piprahwa, and the findsfrom Kausambi, and the numerous ring-stones of the Maurya and Sunga period insites from north western to eastern India."However, the precise iconic details ofLajjagauri would seem to have no pre-cedents, but for an example from an un-expected quarter.The hymns of the
Rg veda
are, in themain, addressed to male nature gods. God-desses are few and in the vedic scheme ofthings, definitely secondary. Tucked awayamidst the bland beauty of vedic nature god-desses is the elemental figure of Aditi, literal-ly 'the unbound one'. Aditi is the subject ofan anthropomorphic creation myth:In the first age of the gods,existence was born from non-existence.j After this the quarters of the sky were bornfrom her who crouched with legs spread.The earth was born from her.who crouched with legs spread,and from the earth the quarters of the skywere born.From Aditi, Daksha was born,and from Daksha, Aditi was born.[R V 10.72 tr by O'Flaherty 1981:37]To find a word-picture in
Rg veda
recreated in an icon after fifteen centuries
and worshipped currently is to realise witha shock the tenacity of the goddess. Aditidoes not fit into the pantheon of vedic god-desses. She is in fact an ill-defined figure'virtually featureless physically' [Kinsley1987:8-9] she is not portrayed as a spouse.Her salient characteristic is her motherhood.'Mighty mother', 'protectress', 'all men areher children', 'she is the mother of gods andkings and mother of the world', 'she is allwhat there is, father, mother, child andbegetting'.
It is significant that thoughtextually and iconically, she is portrayed asa birth-giver, her motherhood is an encom-passing one of cosmic dimensions.She is 'un-bound', not tied to specifics, to a particularhusband, family or lineage. Aditi and Laj-jagauri even as birth-givers, have beenabstracted and universalised in a way thatwould have been impossible under theassumptions of patrilineal systems.
In popular Indian perceptions of divinity,the dominant image is of a male god,accompanied by his consort, who is hisbenevolent
the actualiser of his latentpower, the embodiment of his grace. Kaliand Durga are, of course, a ubiquitouspresence, but the safe domestic mode isrepresented by Lakshmi, quintessentialspouse, symbol of auspiciousness andprosperity.It is tempting to connect the spheres ofworship with cultural norms concerningwomen. There is an active genre of Writingon the divide between the powerful, 'un-husbanded' goddesses (like Kali) whosepower is seen as dangerous and destructive,and goddesses who are appropriately mar-ried (like Lakshmi) whose power is positiveand benevolent, and how this is echoed insocial arrangements and evaluations, par-ticularly in the obsessive cultural theme ofcontrol and management of female sexuality[see for instance, Babb (1975), Beck (1969),Das (1976), Hart (1973), Kondos (1986),Papanek (1973), Tapper (1979) and Wadley
I shall come back to this shortly, buta specific aspect of this idea is the conceptof 'auspiciousness', Which in currentunderstanding is almost exclusively tied upto the state of being married. Virtually everylanguage has a specific word to denote awoman whose husband is alive (for instance
suhagan, suvasini, sumangali
in Hindi,Marat hi and Tamil respectively). She is theembodiment of auspiciousness.. She has aspecial ritual status. By extension, even theinsignia of marriage that she wears are con-sidered to have sacred power. A widow hasa diametrically opposite position in theEconomic and Political Weekly October 20-27, 1990WS-59
realm of the auspicious, as are all thingsassociated with her. As we shall see, earlyiconography has a different message.The other temptation is to see in thespouselessness of a goddess like Kali orDurga, the source of her power, a blue-printfor autonomy, counterposed against thedomesticated Lakshmi, consort
par excel-lence.
The iconographic scenario issomewhat more complicated and the signalsare mixed. It is not a simple case ofspousehood conveying dependence andspouselessness, autonomy. The goddess isportrayed either by herself or with a malepartner. If the latter, there are variouspossibilities. She could be the subservient orthe dominating partner, or a balance couldbe attempted.A vivid example of Lakshmi as clearlysecondary consort, is the icon in which shesits by the side of Vishnu, who is recumbenton the serpent
on the ocean ofmilk. Lakshmi pressing his feet, Lakshmioffering him betel leaves: this replay ofidealised domestic relations is more commonin kitsch iconography. Usually, the consort-hood of the goddess is shown by her smallsize in relation to the god, as in the case ofLakshmi sitting on the lap of Narasimha orParvati as Sivakami watching from the wingswhile the dancing Nataraja dominates thecomposition. Sastri il916:187-89] makes thepoint that the goddess as consort is shownwith two arms, the single goddess with fouror more. The goddess may well have an in-dependent shrine within the temple as isusual in Tamil Nadu. The philosophical andtextual traditions of
schools place Lakshmi andParvati respectively in a position closelyapproximating independent status, thoughnominally they are the
of male gods.The popular Radha-Krishna couple istypically shown in a totally non-hierarchicalrelationship. Roles are reversed and re-reversed in delightful abandon andcelebrated in icon, poetry and song. Butthen, Radha is not a spouse. The whole rela-tionship is, as Marglin puts it, outside therealm of instrumentality—of marriage andbirth—and exists in
for itself [1986:
icon captures aconcept of gender as a holistic unity. Thereis no hard dividing line between male andfemale, there is an implied interchangeabilityand flow. Though Kali is often an indepen-dent goddess, she is equally often portrayedwith a spouse. Here the conventional rela-tions are completely reversed. In the ultimateicon, Kali dances with abandon, her foottrampling on a prostrate, corpse-like Siva,who is not so much husband as polar op-posite. Durga is perhaps the only importantgoddess who is portrayed alone. Thoughcreated from the combined energies of thegods, she wields weapons and battles alohewith no male support, and slays the buffalodemon Mahisha. However, even here, thereis a strong underlying suggestion of a
sexual/mariul relationship between Durgaand Mahisha, as we shall discuss a little later.Finally, there are the truly 'single' god-desses, whose iconography the male is notpart of. This is the goddess who neither con-fronts nor subserves, she exists in
By her very presence and feminini-ty, she symbolises abundance, fertility andauspiciousness. She contradicts the idea ofauspiciousness being tied to marriage, as shedoes the idea. of spouselessness beingassociated with danger and anger. Chrono-logically, this goddess appears earlier thanthe consorts and spouses. She is a descen-dant in the mother-goddess tradition. In thelatter, 'auspiciousness' is implicit; in theformer, it is elaborated and explicit, a'fre-quent motif in temple and domestic icon.Thus we have
auspicious ones, whose images are put ondoorways and thresholds for magical pro-tection. River goddesses, always single, areagain threshold deities. Decorating archesand pillars is
who makesvegetation bloom into life by a touch ofhand or foot,
and close in spirit is the
of free and vegetative quality, withher body twined around tree and creeper.And there is the archetypal
theherb-nourishing one, from whose bodyplants grow.The development of
is a strik-ing illustration of the shift from indepen-dent, auspicious goddess to spouse. She isa pre-Buddhist icon, and the earliest imagesdo not show her with a male partner. TheKushana
stands amidst lotusesissuing from a
pressing herbreasts to assure plenty and prosperity[Sivaramamurthi 1961:39]. Medallions fromBharhut have the motifs of both
and the closely allied
seated ona full-blown lotus, surrounded by lotusflowers, leaves and stems issuing from a
elephants pouring water onher head [Ray 1975:111, Kramrisch1956:252-3]. In
she is described aslotus-faced ( padmanana), lotus thighed
(padma uru),
with lotus hands
evoking memories ofLajjagauri.
The early
has a strongassociation with vegetation, growth andfecundity; a teeming vitality marks herpresence. In later icons, she is linked to anumber of gods—Soma, Dharma, Indra andKubera, and texts refer to her unsteady,fickle nature. By about 400 AD, she settlesdown as the steadfast and benign consort ofVishnu, involved in the moral order, inrighteous behaviour, in correct social obser-vance [Kinsley 1987:19-26]. Colloquialphrases about the 'Lakshmi of the home',popular in many Indian languages, refer tothe quality of auspiciousness of women whoplay the proper wifely role.The issue of spousehood is a complex one.The very goddess who is the domesticatedspouse is demonstrably independent inearlier forms. The cohsorthood of the samegoddess is often differently expressed intext/legend and icon. For example, in themyth, the confrontation between Kali andSiva is resolved by the ultimate taming ofthe former, but the icon invariably capturesthe moment of confrontation, not thedenouement. The popular Bengali legendabout how Kali became embarrassed whenshe realised she had trampled on her hus-band (and hence the out-hanging tongue)would be a cute example of trying to makea consort out of Kali, were it not so absurd!The
are nominally the femaleversions of eight gods, but they usually occuras an independent set. The
(temple legend) of the village goddess oftenconcludes by making her into an aspect ofParvati, spouse of Siva, but the icon saysotherwise. She is given pride of place in theshrine, accompanied by male attendants orservants. It is as though having paid tokentribute to the married state, she is free to pur-sue her activities independently. 'True' con-sorts are very few, and even they expressautonomous personality in various degrees.The power associated with the goddess—offertility, creativity, nurturance, protection—does not stem from her consorthood whichseems to be a later development. It is rele-vant to remember here that the concept ofthe goddess as virgin-mother is deep-rootedacross cultures.lt contains a suggestion ofparthenogenesis—self-created,
supporting—and is linked with the magico-religious domain of fertility and agriculture.It forms the kernel of the autonomy of thegoddess.
Much of the current literature on the god-dess is dominated by the theme of the benignversus destructive goddess or the 'good' andthe 'bad' aspects of the goddess. It is vir-tually impossible to read a paper on the sub-ject which does not have a reference to the'ambivalence' of the goddess. It is treated asaxiomatic. Some of the approaches ground-ed in psychological analysis develop the ideaof a radical split in the mother image intothe 'good sheltering' versus 'monstrous ter-rifying'. The great mother archetype is seento reflect early childhood feelings about theprimacy of mother or mother-figure. WhileFreudians see the goddess imagery as rootedin the experience of the personal mother,Jungians see its base in the collective un-conscious [Wulff 1986: 283-97, Preston 1983:
The intense feelings of RamakrishnaParamahansa towards Kali as mother, and theemotionally charged poetry of Ramprasaddo in fact articulate the good mother/badmother theme. But to accept a clear relation-
one needs to understand why themother-goddess is absent or eclipsed in somecultures.
The ambivalence of the goddess has beenlinked by many writers to the cultural evalua-tion of female sexuality as dangerous anddisruptive if not harnessed appropriately.The two faces of the goddess are both facesof power, but as properly married spouse,she is the embodiment of grace and bene-volence; as the independent goddess, shethreatens to destroy the very basis of theWS-60Economic and Political Weekly October 20-27, 1990

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