The Mother in Indian Literature

From time immemorial, since the time of the origin of scriptures, conventional beliefs and values have been put forward about womenfolk.

Even mythological figures have been portrayed as role models in institutions such as family and marriage. Anyone going astray would then surely be depicted as evil and unaccepted.

The woman who breaks the bond is depicted as wild and destructive. The man then is called to appease and control, be it through domination, violence or aggression. Classical

literature abounds in such portrayals. The laws of Manu in Hinduism have codified in detail all the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ which Indian women have to abide to, and ironically this age-old norm in the history of Indian civilization is still used as a reference in matters of morality and values.

If we consider the social background we will see that at different phases of life the woman gets a new status but never sheds the last one, so that her responsibilities get multiplied. She starts from being a daughter and a sister. As she grows up she is a wife, a daughter-in-law, then a mother. Marriage adds a series of additional duties and procreation becomes her sole reason for existence. This is what the Indian woman seems to be born for.

Motherhood then becomes the most important aspect in a woman’s life. It is while the lady is pregnant that her status and importance in the family soar to great heights. She is showered with all the care and comfort due to a queen. Can we say here that the family members pamper her out of love, compassion or sympathy? No, there is here too a remarkable degree of selfishness. All the care and pampering are but manifestations of their selfish goals, not love and affection. The family members just keep fingers crossed waiting for that heir to appear.

If it is a son, the child represents an element of certification in a patriarchal society. If it is a daughter, the mother starts again every year till she gets redemption.

The Indian woman knows then that motherhood confers upon her a purpose and an identity. She does not enjoy such a status anywhere else. Matrifocal activities override everything else in her surroundings. The woman is then the nurturant figure while the man stands always as the commanding one. But one thing the world agrees is that the essence of women’s distinctiveness in life lies in the multiplicity of their roles. When the girl gets married she is not the bride, she is mostly the daughter-in-law, and as a sister-in-law she becomes a surrogate mother to the younger members of the family. She is the guide, the teacher as well as the friend to the husband together with being a submissive wife. In case she resists to submit, she is beaten or thrown out.

Aristotle wrote: ‘The only slave to whom a commoner might lay claim is his woman.’

From literary texts we learn that the predominant duty of a wife is to ‘cook and look after the family’. She must take hold of all the household chores while the men ‘are still unable to make tea’.

Older mothers are portrayed as completely ‘unromantic’. They are expected to hold no radical views, but cling to customs and rituals. Mothers for instance ‘kept innumerable fasts and are forever bargaining with God’. This is nothing but strict discipline due to severe conditioning. And all the fasts and bargain benefits are credited to the family’s account. This is the greatness of a woman or a mother.

Female subjugation then has never been a new concept. No matter where one looks in history, there is the same sad drama of female suppression. Similar attitudes are found in indigenous tribes as well as in more enlightened cultures.

Since time immemorial, women were not honoured for any quality of mind or spirit. She was honoured only for her fecundity and obedience. The family in India’s society, and in Indian literature, is a sacred institution. Great sages, saints, philosophers and writers have sung the glory of the mother in the finest of languages and her eternal qualities have been applauded in the best of adjectives.

Mother Sita, mother Yashoda, mother Devaki, mother Parvati, mother Ganga, and so many other Devis or Goddesses abound in the Indian Sciptures and Indian literary world. All of them had their share of pains and pleasures, but pains simply overtook all other aspects. There is no story where the mother is not in tears or where the woman gets her due.

Goddesses are adored in innumerable temples around the world throughout the year, while the living domestic goddesses on the home-front are given a day to celebrate, that is on Mum’s day – even if everyday is mothers’ day! This is the only twenty-four hour job where there exists no sick leave, no casual leave and no resignation letter is accepted.

Happy Mother’s Day.


* Published in print edition on 23 May 2014

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