The world perceives moms in an exalted realm, the center of a child’s universe, the fulcrum of a strong family. The second Sunday in May is celebrated as Mother's Day in the US and in many other parts of the world. Glorification of the mother figure as a supreme symbol of love and sacrifice sets high standards of expectation for the modern mom. A mom is looked upon as being superior to any other human life role. A woman today is often times judged by her choices as a mom and her attitudes are perceived as a reflection of her motherly instincts - more so women of India, where the mother is considered the heart of the home.
Why are moms personified as selfless characters, having a divine aura around them? Motherhood in India has enjoyed a special revered status from time immemorial. As a Hindu mythologist at heart, I like to look to our Indian history and mythology for answers to questions and examples of this perceived ideal.
MathA, PithA, GurU, DevaiM……is a popular Sanskrit proverb that has been whispered across generations in Hindu society. This represents the hierarchical order of reverence and respect that a person adopts in the living world. Starting from the Mother who gives birth to the child, followed by the Father who initiates the child into the world; together the parents show children the path to the Guru or spiritual teacher who ultimately reveals the secret to God and self-realization. If you combine the last letters of these 4 words, you get to chant the sacred syllable AUM! Such is the hidden secret and meaning to many of our ancient proverbs!
As evidenced in this adage, the Mom is evidently bequeathed the highest rung of respect in the ladder of society. The role of the mother has been romanticized down the ages as a super-human self-sacrificing being that had the interests of her family central to her life. In this narrative, I allude to some iconic mothers from Hindu mythology and reflect upon their values and choices which defied traditions of those times and changed the course of history.
Yashoda - The sublime motherly love of Yashoda toward Krishna is a timeless piece of history that is captured in virtually every Indian art form be it dance, music, poetry, sculpture and paintings. Yashoda is epitomized as a loving, indulgent mom who also rebukes her adorable child when necessary. Overwhelming love is tempered with reward and punishment, as evidenced when Krishna is tied to the grinding stone after he playfully eats sand or rewarded with butter after he plays the flute.
Many moms are great about nurturing strong “roots” which give children a sense of identity and stability in life. But giving our children the” wings” to fly where they want to and fulfill their dreams is more difficult. This is because in doing so, we are letting go of our sense of control and comfort of having our kids secure in our own nest. At the right moment, Yashoda blessed Krishna and sacrificed his presence from Gokul as he left the pasture lands for the kingdom of Madura. Krishna acknowledged his mom’s sacrifice and declared to the whole world that Yashoda would always be his true mom.
The purity of a mother’s love can transcend biological dimensions. The Mahabharatha is a shout-out to families in modern India who are hesitant to adopt children or take in foster children due to the fear of breaking the bloodline in ancestral relationships. Yashoda was the foster-mother, but represents the epitome of love and motherly devotion; depicting that nurturing your family with a loving heart and pure spirit, regardless of biological roots, is the most supreme form of motherly love.
Kaikeyi - As the wife of King Dasaratha and mother of Bharatha, Kaikeyi’s decision as a mother was what changed the course of history and was the single defining moment in the Ramayana. Kaikeyi’s strong motherhood instincts fuelled by Mantara her maid, created within her a deep desire to see her son Bharatha as the King, even at the cost of her husband’s happiness and the stability of the kingdom. This is an example of how a mother’s love can get blinded by external influences and weakness in character. Kaikeyi not only wanted her son Bharatha to be king, but saw Rama as a threat to her son and demanded that he be banished from Ayodhya. Profound intensity of a mother’s love can sometimes suppress rationale and apparent truths.
The Mahabaratha has two iconic moms- Kunti and Gandhari -co-sisters who had an unspoken thread of affection and love between them.
Kunti - Kunti as the widowed wife of Pandu and mother of the Pandavas was a dedicated mother who was a perpetual source of support for her sons. After surviving a murderous attempt by the Kauravas who burnt the lac home of the Pandavas, Kunti lived a nomadic life with her children, moving from village to village in disguise and seeking refuge in the forests. Once a queen with a distinguished lineage, she sacrificed the luxuries of the palace to accompany her children and protect them. Kunti collected food from their wanderings and divided them, giving the largest share to Bhima, sharing the reminder equally amongst the other 4 Pandavas, with herself eating the left-over’s. When the Pandavas returned to the forest again, this time on exile for 13 years, Kunti respected the wishes of the elders in the family and stayed back in the palace. She silently lived under the same roof of the Kauravas, the perpetrators of her family’s misery.
Throughout the Mahabaratha, she supported her sons steadfastly with an abiding sense of duty and character and portrayed immeasurable strength as a single mom. Her weakness however, was her hidden secret of being Karna’s mother. Kunti never acknowledged this truth to her sons until after Karna’s death and was cursed by Yudhisthira that no woman would ever be able to keep a secret! Kunti’s rejection of Karna is offset by her impartial attitude toward Nakula and Sahadeva who she considered her very own and kept her promise to Madri to raise them like they were her sons. This is again a remarkable trait to raise step-children as your own and give them equal status as your sons.
Gandhari - wife of the blind King Dhritrashtra lived a blindfolded life by choice both literally and metaphorically. She was overwhelmed with affection for her sons, particularly her first born Duryodhana, continued to be blind to her children’s wrong-doings and ceasing to realize the villainy of her brother Shakuni, whose devious plots were the centerpiece of the war. However, her strength of character is reflected when she refuses to bless her sons, the Kauravas, as they set out to fight the Kurukshetra war.
She upheld the values of justice and non-violence even in the face of the war. These iconic women from Hindu mythology reveal that every mom has her strengths and short-comings. No mom is perfect both in history and in present real-life, but will continue to seek perfection and evolve over time. The modern Indian mom for the most part has effectively faced the challenges of combining tradition with contemporary thinking and has paved the path for tomorrow. We have moved with the rhythm of the current times, continuing to uphold perceived mommy virtues and values. The modern Indian mom has arrived, emerged stronger, wiser, and confident in her decisions whether as a home-maker, single or a working mom. A mirror is a reflection of your perception and every mom will be the best suited for her child.
Balancing a mother’s instincts with logical reasoning, unconditional love with worldly wisdom, societal expectations with personal aspirations- every mom by virtue of her eternal influence on her children, inspires and builds the next generation, living up to the adage that the hand that rocks the cradle truly rules the world!