Bharat Mata And Her Unruly Daughters

Vishwa Hindu Parishad / Via http:/

The Hindutvavaadi motherland produces only sons – Hindu, savarna sons – to protect their mother’s ever fragile honour. So who are the unruly daughters then? The recalcitrant, the wayward ones? This piece is an idiosyncratic journey across the landscape of potential and actual resistances to the Hindutvavaadi project, resistances that emerge from within, that disrupt the self-fashioning of what has come to be called Hinduism. It goes without saying that this journey is merely a bird’s eye view of a dense, complex landscape of resistances – we are just about skimming the tops of trees. But the stories here are not exceptions, make no mistake about that.

Let us begin with a few moments from Nisha Pahuja’s disturbing 2012 documentary, The World Before Her, which tracks two young women – Ruhi, a beauty pageant contestant and Prachi, a trainer with Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Storyline Entertainment / Via YouTube

While Ruhi and her fellow participants emerge as conventional and pallid, Prachi is fierce and questioning, independent minded. But towards the end of the film, you realize that for both women (and not for Ruhi alone), this period of training was only a small window that gave them a brief glimpse of broader horizons. It was only a brief moment of excitement and hope, of what seemed like freedom, before real life – the real lives of real women – closed in on them.

The daughter of the Hindu nation is only in training to be a mother.

Throughout the film, Prachi has been telling the film-maker that she will never get married, she will live her life as a Hindutva activist. She emphatically rejects the ordinary life of a wife and mother. But towards the end, her father declares quite explicitly that this is out of the question. She can never be a full time activist and of course, she must get married. She has a womb, do men have wombs? Her responsibility then, is to bring up children. Initially in this sequence, Prachi argues against him vehemently, verging on insolence, but gradually she falls silent. Her expression still shows traces of rebellion, but also betrays that she is devastated, resigned to her fate. She has recognised that the daughter of the Hindu nation is only in training to be a mother. That is the highest ambition she can have.

Provided she has been born into a savarna family. Provided she follows the rules.

The Mother as Map

Vishwa Hindu Parishad / Via

Before we acknowledge the daughters, we must begin with the RSS Bharat Mata, always with the RSS bhagwa jhanda in her hand, never ever shown holding the national tricolour, but invoked nevertheless to violently challenge the patriotism of others. Behind her, a map of Akhand Bharat, stretching across Afghanistan, Myanmar, Tibet and of course, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

And yet, when it comes to maps depicting the current political boundaries of their Bharat Mata, the RSS can end up being quite anti-national. In 2015, the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, used a map of SAARC countries in an article “Quest for Reintegrating SAARC” where parts of what India calls ‘Pakistan Occupied Kashmir’ were shown as part of Pakistan. Tendering a written apology, the Editor reiterated Organiser's commitment to the “unity and integrity of India” and explained that the issue had inadvertently used “a map of South Asia obtained from the web source that did not show certain parts of Pakistan occupied Jammu & Kashmir as Indian territory…”

A web source with a map of South Asia, freely available to the whole world, shows Indian territories ‘all wrong’, and poor Organizer made a mistake in using that map. The whole world in, other words, sees one kind of map, while Indians living in India are protected from the world’s opinions of the borders of China, Pakistan and India. Magazines that depict the boundaries of India ‘wrongly’ are banned from entry or the map covered up. In such an incident with The Economist (November 19, 2011), the map of South Asia accompanying an article on water resources in the region (“Unquenchable Thirst”), was covered over by the government of India. But defiantly, The Economist added the following statement:

Missing map? Sadly, India censors maps that show the current effective border, insisting instead that only its full territorial claims be shown. It is more intolerant on this issue than either China or Pakistan. Indian readers will therefore probably be deprived of the map in this briefing. Unlike their government, we think our Indian readers can face political reality. Those who want to see an accurate depiction of the various territorial claims can do so using our interactive map at

So what if you can’t control facts and images circulating globally? You can control your own citizens, especially if you are the world’s largest democracy. Earlier governments only waxed indignant over the world’s ignorance, in May 2016 the current RSS-backed regime came out with a proposal for a law that would punish those who wrongly depicted the borders of India, with imprisonment and fines.

Good mother/Bad mother

Let us return to Bharat Mata, the fair complexioned, saffron flag-bearing woman, who is ready to bear a thousand sons. Several writers have demonstrated how this image of the mother, far from being eternal, is constructed in the 19th century by the political project of Hindutva; and how this mother can only consider as her sons, those defined by Hindutva as ‘Hindus’.

This mother is imagined as a body:

Do you see this map? It is not a map but the portrait of Bharat Mata: its 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.

Aurobindo Ghosh, cited by Shoaib Daniyal

This RSS-constructed, savarna, North Indian, Aryan vision of the mother is not the only one to emerge from the subcontinent.

If the nation is a body – the body of one’s own mother – then it precedes its children; or is constituted by its children as in Aurobindo’s vision (the “nerves, large and small”). From this image follow the implied hierarchies of birth and origin among the children (large and small, older brother and younger brother, sons and daughters). From this, follows the idea that the children cannot leave the mother, for that implies amputation, the dismembering of the maternal body, an act that none can survive – neither the mother nor the children.

This mother is the nominal head of the patriarchal household, whose power flows entirely from her maintaining the rules of patriarchy, blood purity, and family hierarchies. She acts as the agent of her sons as long as she performs these functions. But this RSS-constructed, savarna, North Indian, Aryan vision of the mother is not the only to emerge from the subcontinent. Sadan Jha, for instance, has drawn our attention to the ascetic Banga Mata of Abanindranath Tagore, imagined at the moment of the partition of Bengal.

Banga Mata.

Abanindranath Tagore / Via Pinterest

Calm, reflective,inward looking; she is a saffron clad ascetic. She bears a book, sheaves of paddy, a piece of cloth (symbolising the swadeshi movement) and a garland in her multiple hands. A far cry from the monochromatic RSS Bharat Mata who carries but the saffron flag, whose only passion is for Hindutva, not the Indian nation.

Then there is this mother, Kerala Maatavu, that J Devika has brought to our attention:

Mother Kerala.

Shreemati / Via Kafila

Mother Kerala, from a women’s magazine Shreemati (1935) is not wan and ascetic like Abanindranath’s Banga Mata – she is languorous, dreamy, looking away from the nation, away from her sons, out across the Arabian Sea with what Devika characterizes as a “wistful, Westward gaze“.

This mother’s gaze acknowledges that seas and oceans do not separate land masses, but link and connect them through trade and cultural interchanges. For centuries, Kerala has had trade links with the lands across the Arabian sea, and its cosmopolitan culture long predates any 20th century ideas of cosmopolitanism emanating from that Other West – Europe. Therefore, Kerala's ties with those lands (in its language, cuisines, in the Malayali imagination) are much stronger than its identification with a Hindi-region-centric Hindutvavaad which understands nothing of Kerala’s history and rich, heterogeneous past.

The wild, independent, sexual tribal goddesses of pre-Vedic times were domesticated and tamed by Brahminical priestly classes.

There are other, more ancient visions of female power in this land than the RSS Bharat Mata – black goddesses who predate the patriarchy normalized over centuries by Aryan migrations from the north – potent, mysterious forces that offered their devotees annihilation, blood and rage. One historical reading of such black goddesses of the southern part of the Indian sub-continent is offered by anthropologist Lynn Gatwood.

In her book Devi and the Spouse Goddess, Gatwood makes the argument that the wild, independent, sexual tribal goddesses of pre-Vedic times were domesticated and tamed by Brahminical priestly classes in the process of pacification of the non-Aryan peoples of the South. They were domesticated by being “spousified” – they were installed as the wives of Aryan male gods. In addition, we see the domestication of other kinds of divinities with complex histories of formation – also black, some ancient forest gods, many non-human – such as Ganesha, Ayyappa, Skanda/Subramanian. They become the children of these newly formed conjugal couples. The libidinal excess that cannot be contained in these narratives escapes into myths such as the birth of Ayyappa from Shiva and Vishnu (in the temporary form of Mohini) – born from Vishnu’s thigh.

However, the shrines to these deities continue to have an independent presence in the cosmological landscape, and attract large numbers of worshipers. The wild undomesticated goddesses are still present as living principles – Ellaiyamman, for example; and Sheetala Mata, who protects children from small pox.

The images below show two images of Ellaiyamman, one black, fierce, with blood-red lips; the other, domesticated, fair skinned, with Aryan features.

C. Sandira / Via

C. Sandira / Via

I have written elsewhere of the contemporary dancer Chandralekha’s insistence on disrupting the fertility/maternality dyad. Chandralekha demands:

“On what basis do you call them mothers, these dynamic figures of fierce power who look so calm and confident on the bull, lion, tiger; who wear weapons as ornaments in their hair, who are not at all maternal?”

Vidya Dehejia describes the phenomenon aptly in her book Devi, The Great Goddess (1999):

She is encountered in manifold guises. In a simple wooden shrine in the town of Chhatradi in the Himalayan foothills she stands as a glowing brass image, smooth and sensuous, adorned with jewels and silks. On a hilltop near Guwahati…worshipers invoke her presence in the simple form of a cleft in a natural boulder, filled with water from an underground spring…She is a bizarre fiendish figure riding a wild ass with a third eye in its flank in Tibet; in southern Madurai she is a dark stone figure concealed beneath crown, jewels, silks and flowers. And in the numerous villages of the Indian subcontinent, she is little more than a vermilion smeared stone or mound of earth.

Image of Devi worshipped under a tree in the Brajeshwari Devi temple, Kangra.

Arti / Via

Unruly daughters of unruly mothers?

I use ‘daughters’ in the sense of them being secondary in the patriarchal family but also necessary to its continuity. For the Bharat Mata of the RSS, everyone apart from her savarna sons can only be expendable daughters.

By ‘daughters’ then, I mean the adivasis – and I use this term in its literal sense as well, ‘first inhabitants’ – to refer to both tribal peoples and Dalit Bahujan.

For the Bharat Mata of the RSS, everyone apart from her savarna sons can only be expendable daughters.

Let us consider some of the most fascinating revisionist accounts of popular Hindu festivals from the perspective of the Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan daughters of the nation. Of course, they are not really revisionist, they simply bring to the surface older histories that have long simmered below the skin of mainstream savarna Hindu society, and are now breaking the surface of Hindutvavadi narratives from within.

Ambedkarite intellectual Kanwal Bharati reminds us that the myths behind almost all Hindu festivals involve the defeat of Asuras by Devas – whether Dussehra, Diwali, Onam or Holi. These Devas, Bharati identifies as Brahmins, and the defeat of the Asuras is the defeat of anti-Brahminical and pre-Brahminical ways of life and religious practices – in forests, and outside centres of established kingdoms. Very often this defeat is by trickery – (Mahabali by Vamana, Ekalavya by Dronacharya) – and by the co-option of willing elements in these non-Brahmin societies – Vibheeshana, Prahlada.

Bharati retells the story of of Holi to illustrate this claim. The pre-Hindu spring festival of Holi has a later Hindu mythology that draws it into the Aryan configuration of a perennial Deva-Asura confrontation. Prahlada, the pious son of the Asura Hiranyakashipu (himself pious, but too arrogant for the gods), is sought to be killed by his own father in various ways because he has become a devotee of Vishnu. One of the ways is getting Hiranyakashipu’s sister, Holika, Prahlada’s aunt, to sit with her nephew in her lap in the sacrificial fire, for she has a boon that fire will not burn her. Her boon fails, Bhakt Prahlad survives by chanting Vishnu’s name, and Hiranyakashipu is slain by Vishnu in the form of Narasimha. On Holi, effigies of Holika are burnt to symbolize this defeat.

But what was it a defeat of? In Kanwal Bharati’s telling, Prahlad turns to the Brahminincal religion (Sanatan Dharma) while Hiranyakashipu and Holika continued to fight Brahminism.

A similar reversal of narrative is effected by MB Manoj, who says that reading Onam through the eyes of Dalits, the festival loses its natural association with the Malayali identity. In fact, in the words of Manoj, “Onam is a black day for Dalits, a day of murder, even as it is a day of happiness for the upper castes.”

“Onam is a black day for Dalits, a day of murder, even as it is a day of happiness for the upper castes.”

Source: New feed

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