Is Bhārat Mātā a feminist?

Pandit Nehru recalls in his essay The Search for India, in The Discovery of India, that when he would visit the countryside during the struggle for independence, people would often erupt into a roar to welcome him: “Bhārat Mātā kī jai,” “Victory to Mother India!” Pt. Nehru, aware of the anthropomorphic representation of his country India as Mother, would revert by asking, “who is this Bhārat Mātā?” The confused and amused faces of the people would delight him. Then, he would go on to tell his audience who she was. According to Nehru, Bhārat Mātā was essentially these millions of people, and victory to her meant victory to these people (Agrawal 4-5).

Today, the connotations of “Bhārat Mātā kī jai” have changed, and victory to her does not signify victory to all the people but a certain majority-sect which appropriated her in the first place. The more important question in front of us is not who is Bhārat Mātā but perhaps why is Bhārat or India—a country; a landmass separately identifiable as a cartographic representation—revered as Mātā or mother even today? The answers to this question are found overlapping in the study of Hinduism and the nationalist movement in India, and can be explored only through an analysis of both. 

The reverence of the whole earth as mother finds its roots in the famous Prithivī Sukta, the “Hymn to the Earth” of the Atharva Veda, dating deep into the first or even second millennium B.C.E. where the ancient poet writes, “the Earth is the Mother, and I am the son of the Earth”. However, the “Hymn to the Earth” is not about nation, but the nationalists of the early twentieth century drew upon the same sentiment to conform to a vision that informed the imagination of India as “mother” (Eck 102-103). 

In the West, during the French Revolution, Marianne—portrayed as the Goddess of Liberty—becomes the national personification of the French Republic. Here in India, capturing the sense of Bengal as “motherland,” Bankim Chandra Chatterjee writes his famous hymn “Vande Mātaram,” “I Bow to Thee, Mother,” in 1870s and later incorporates it into his Anandamath—a novel, written in 1881, that breathes rebellion and Hindu revivalism. “Vande Mātaram” later becomes the marching song of the much broader Indian nationalist movement, giving emotional expression to nationalists who found in this geographical-cultural-religious language the answer to, “What is India?” (Eck 95).

In 1905, Abanindranath Tagore paints his Bhārat Mātā in the style of a Hindu Goddess, which was the first illustrated depiction of the concept of “Bhārat Mātā.” B. C. Pal in his 1911 book, The Soul of India, amplifies the rhetoric of the “motherland” or “matribhūmi.” “Our highest ideal of love and devotion to our country is to be found in our conception of our land as mother,” he writes, and refers to her as “this complex Being, at once physical and spiritual, geographical and social, which we call and tenderly worship as Mother in our motherland” (Eck 97). Following it, the Image of the Bhārat Mātā—as a Hindu Goddess, often carrying the Tirangā or Tricolor—gets juxtaposed on the map of India, and the body-map of Goddess Durgā on her lion emerging from the map starts adorning the walls of the offices of far-right groups like the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Mahasabha. Mother India’s anthropomorphic form and the map of India also find a place in special Bhārat Mātā temples that get erected in the holy cities of Benaras and Haridwar in 1936 and 1983 respectively (Eck 100-102). 

Savarkar, a pro-Hindutva right-wing ideologue, uses the same symbolic resources, however, talks about Bhārat as our “common fatherland” (Eck 65) and the love we bear to that common fatherland (Eck 98). The hyper-masculine, pro-Hindutva movement and its propagators also use the anthropomorphic representation of India as a mother to establish Hindus as the children of Bhārat Mātā, who, eventually, are also burdened with a moral duty to “honor the Bhārat Mātā” by avenging the past (Menon 11). Savarkar and his cry for masculinity, by shaming those preaching peace and non-violence, also succeed in creating an enemy—the “other.” As a result, the atrocities against Hindu women in the past are portrayed and propagated as atrocities against the mother nation, challenging the sons of Bhārat Mātā to avenge the past and free their mother and themselves of the shame (Menon 12). 

Looking at the visual representation of Bhārat Mātā and analysing what such pictorial representation wants, Ramaswamy, in The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, argues that its primary purpose is to elicit a reverential action from the citizen-viewers, moving them to answer the patriotic call of duty and to sacrifice their lives (8). Precisely this has been the motive of the Hindutva patriarchs i.e. to use the anthropomorphic-sacred representation of the Indian territory to incite a violent cry for Hindu Rāshtra or the Hindu Nation, among the Hindus, in the name of their Mother Nation. Moving a step further, Ramaswamy claims that Bhārat Mātā as an anthropomorphic figure retained features of idealised British femininity and Hinduism’s fierce warrior-goddesses but was self-consciously modelled on late-19th-century’s “new woman” of the bhadralok (native bourgeoisie) as is also obvious from Tagore’s painting of her. She concludes, “’the outer limits of visual patriotism are reached in picturing a bloodied or wounded Bhārat Mātā and female martyrdom more generally” (Ramaswamy 233).

Kalyani Devaki Menon, in her book Everyday Nationalisms: Women of the Hindu Right in India, throws light upon the status, role, and importance of women (to suit the motives of the men) in right-wing nationalisms. It is interesting to observe that the women in the right-wing nationalism movements participate, if at all, in highly gendered ways (6). They are recruited by and in male-dominated movements only for their gendered roles, and their roles as mothers, wives, and sisters—while still being subservient to their male counterparts or simply, the male authority—are elaborately defined (Menon 6-7).

Of utmost importance is particularly the role of mothers in such movements as the question “how can we expect our culture to survive unless we have children?” is propagated by and amongst the women. Those advocating for the Hindu Rāshtra firmly believe that women as mothers are responsible for reproducing the Hindu Nation (Menon 6). According to Menon, motherhood provides the most dominant “condition of possibility” for Hindu nationalist women’s activism in the public sphere (7). The appropriation of their roles as “cultural reproducers of the nation” (Menon 7) and the representation of India as mother are the brainchildren of the same patriarchal ideology. 

In the prologue to the book Devī: Goddesses of India, the editors John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff argue, “the price of becoming manifest as a Goddess is thus to die as a woman.” Along similar lines, Ramaswamy, in her book, notes that the fetishisation of Mother India resulted in the invisibility of real women in the political imagery of late colonial and early postcolonial periods in India (238). Perhaps the hyper-masculine, mother-worshipping sons of the soil could only bear their women being a part of the struggle for nationalism as “mothers” to be protected and worth-dying for. 

Hawley and Wulff also ask, “is the Devī a feminist?” I’d like to ask, “is the Bhārat Mātā a feminist?” 


Works Cited: 

  1. Agrawal, Purushottam, editor. Who Is Bharat Mata?: on History, Culture and the Idea of India: Writings by and on Jawaharlal Nehru. Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd, 2019.
  2. Eck, Diana L. India: a Sacred Geography. Three Rivers, 2013.
  3. Menon, Kalyani Devaki. Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
  4. Hawley, John Stratton, and Donna Marie Wulff, editors. Devī: Goddesses of India. Aleph, 2017.
  5. Ramaswamy, Sumathi. The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India. Zubaan, 2011.
Bharat Mata statue at Kanyakumari. (Source : Wikimedia Commons)

Read more essays on Bengaluru Review magazine :

The coloniser’s language

A room is not enough, women must loiter

An ode to the strongest women characters in popular literature



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