Kali of Kalighat, Chitpur, Bengal, 1870
  Mother of the universe, Motherland — 4  

  The rite stuff
  Vol I : issue 4

  Gloria Orenstein
  Tapan Raychaudhuri
  Paula Gunn Allen
  Prayag Shukla
Shrikant Verma
  Lakshmi Kannan

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Tapan Raychaudhuri

The most unlikely and striking development in the adoration of the Mother Goddess was its use in the formation of nationalist thought and the mobilisation of popular support for nationalism. The exploitation of religious motifs for nationalist purposes was attempted in other parts of India as well, especially Maharashtra. There, the radical leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak endowed the popular festival in honour of the elephant-headed god Ganapati with a new meaning. The term Gana in Sanskrit refers to a group of supernatural beings whose lord was Ganesa. Tilak invoked another meaning of the term — the masses — and used the religious festival to bring the nationalist message to the urban poor.

In Bengal, the link between the mother cult and nationalist perceptions was first projected by the writer Bhudev Mukhopadhyay. Responding to the comments of an English Professor of Hindu College who asserted that Indians never had a sense of nationhood, Bhudev wrote that the story of the pithasthanas, the legend that the parts of the goddesses’ body was scattered all over India, was really an allegory: the divine body was the same as the motherland. His younger and better-known contemporary Bankim Chatterji carried the idea much further in his novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss). The novel, based on a highly fictionalised version of a popular rebellion in the days of Warren Hastings, the Faqir or Sanyasi Rebellion, has for its protagonists a group of patriotic monks who worshipped Vishnu in his role of a very well-armed God the Preserver. But their monastery also contained three images of the Mother: as she had been, as she had become and as she would be in the future. These images, more of the Motherland than the Mother Goddess, projected the increasingly popular belief in a glorious and prosperous past, impoverishment under colonial rule and the hopes of a great future in which at least some were beginning to believe, The patriotic monks are described by the novelist as the santans, the children of the Mother, ie, both the Divine Mother and the Motherland. The two are in fact the same. The Motherland is conceived as Durga with ten arms and the song to celebrate her glory, Bandemataram, which became India’s first national anthem, pays homage to a land that is prosperous, beautiful and endowed with the potentialities of great power. Some twenty-five years after the song was written, Bandemataram (‘Hail Mother’) became the battle-cry of the first popular movement of resistance to colonial rule in which the middle class Bengalis participated. The action was intended to annul the decision to partition the Bengal Presidency into two provinces, a decision seen to be an attempt to divide the politically-conscious Bengali people. Bandemataram was the name adopted for a patriotic periodical with extreme views. The revolutionary movement first born of the anti-partition agitation treated Anandamath as its Bible. Aurobindo Ghosh, the Cambridge-educated Bengali revolutionary, projected the vision of a Bhavani Mandir, a temple dedicated to the goddess, as the centre of revolutionary activity. His Mandir was closely modelled on Anandamath.

It is not clear if the Bengal revolutionaries and early nationalists who invoked the Mother were religious people or the goddess was only an emotive symbol. When the revolutionaries took to violent action, the image of Kali was appropriately invoked and there was dark talk of white goats for Kali, according to police reports. One British officer reported that he had seen an image of Durga where the buffalo demon had been replaced by one of his colleagues. This form of devotion had to be proscribed by the government.

The worship of the Mother Goddess remains central to the social life of Bengali Hindus. Celebrated to the accompaniment of Hindi film music and Western pop, its religious or devotional content is no longer very obvious. With her devotees, the goddess has travelled to the far corners of the world. She is worshipped in South London. In West Bengal, ruled by a Communist-led coalition of leftist parties, party cadres regularly collect what is politely described as ‘subscription’ to celebrate the annual worship of the goddess. Her features are occasionally made to resemble those of the screen heroines of the day. Even the extreme radicals, the Maoist Naxalites, did not entirely ignore her. Pamphlets distributed during the Puja often appeal for strength to the Mother: ‘Ma shakti dao (Mother, give us strength)’. The Naxalites introduced a minor change in the wording: ‘Mao shakti dao (Mao, give us strength)’. Plus ça change, il ne change pas.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4

Tapan Raychaudhuri is Professor Emeritus at St Anthony's College, Oxford, UK. This article is based on a lecture delivered at the Ashmolean Musuem, Oxford.