The National Geographic Magazine of December 2015 carries a very interesting cover story consecrated to Mary, the Virgin. She is hailed as the most powerful woman in the world. According to National Geographic, Mary is a magnet for both young and old. With indepth research from one end of the globe to the other, Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg writes that the idea for a cover story for this issue was inspired by an exhibition that was held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts at Washington DC about a year ago. The theme of the exhibition itself was invocative: “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea.”
Mary, most depicted woman across many cultures
Research has shown that Mary is the most depicted woman in the world while keeping that mysterious aura. Her powers of miraculous healing are invoked by the sick in search of a cure for incurable diseases. She is even worshipped by “quarterbacks hoping for a Hail Mary pass to win the game!” Truck drivers adorn their dashboards with plastic statuettes of Mary so that they can have a safe long distance travel. Mothers of the whole world feel a particular kinship with her.
Why is it that people from varied cultures and geographical spaces ranging from Poland, Rwanda, Egypt, France and Mexico who have little in common share that incredible belief that Mary is there for them? She cares for them and watches over them. According to Melissa R. Katz, Art History Professor at Wesleyan University, Mary has always been more accessible to people. She has done things that Jesus could not do (National Geographic). Therefore, she is that unifying power, force and with more universal appeal with her feminine qualities. She inspires. Mary has many faces. In Haiti she’s Ezili Danto – the Black Madonna. In Mexico, she is the Lady of Guadalupe.
In Port Louis, Mauritius, she stands high over the city at the foot of the Signal Mountain as a protectress – as “Reine de la Paix”. Lourdes a small town in France has become an outstandingly famous place in the world for her miraculous cures and Marian signs. Statistics prove that some 80,000 sick or disabled seek cure every year at Lourdes.
The tradition of Devi the Goddess and Mother Cult
The cult of the Mother indeed is as old as woman herself. In the West, however, it is only recently that the feminine dimension in religious experience has received much attention. Women who were once debarred from Church services are now ordained as ministers. At one time a common system of the Goddess did prevail across the Mediterranean countries and Europe. But the upholders of patriarchy clamped down this culture of seeing the divine as feminine (John Hawley and Donna M Wulff).
In India, however, the Devi or the Mother Cult has always prevailed. All the archaeological findings of the Indus Valley Civilization reveal thousands of terracotta figurines dating back to third and second millennia B.C. It is clear that the feminine has always occupied a sacred place in Hindu religious literature. The Mother Protectress or the Compassionate has followed the Hindus through their millennial pilgrimages on earth, through the Sanatan or Vedic Dharma or even tribal beliefs.
In 1980, according to Devadatta Kali in Devimahatmyam, which in Praise of the Goddess, a team of Indian, American and Australian archaelogists and anthropologists unearthed the oldest evidence of Goddess worship on the Indian soil. Dating as far back as 9000 BC, a site in the Son Valley below the Vindhya Mountains revealed through excavation the remains easily recognised by tribal village dwellers as the sacred emblem of Shakti, the Goddess. This is a dramatic evidence of continuity of the sacred in the feminine and the veneration of Shakti in the mountains of Vindyachal stretching back at least 10,000 years! It is this cultural matrix which gave rise to the Devimahatmya.
The Goddesses of the Vedic Hymns
The Vedas, sacred source of Hinduism, reveal many goddesses in their myriad hymns and mantras celebrating divine presence or powers. To this day in Mauritius as well as the diasporic countries, thanks to the Herculean work of bringing the Vedas to the common people by Swami Dayanand Saraswati (founder of the Arya Samaj movement), these hymns are chanted regularly and methodically by not only priests and priestesses but by the common man. Thus, the young generation too is aware that besides the male deities such as Surya, Agni, Mitra, Soma, Indra, Brihaspati there are also innumerable goddesses. Usha is one such goddess with great veneration power, but also Gayatri. Which Hindu child does not know in present day Mauritius the Vedic hymn of Gayatri Mantra – “Om Bhur Bhuwa Swaha.”
Lalita Sahasranama of Shri Vidya Doctrine
Then there are Shri, Prithvi, Aditi, Saraswati and others. In the Gita, the seven qualities that are to be the gems in one’s life are all feminine, for example Shri, “Vac”, Dhairya… The Devi cult has given rise to such wonderful profound religious literature as the Lalita Sahasranama which is venerated by the worshippers of Shri Vidya and followers of the Shakta Doctrine and the Tantric. The Lalita Sahasranama or the thousand names of the Divine Mother are derived from this cultural matrix of ancient India. Indeed modern Hindu girls can trace names from these thousand and manifold appellations of the Divine Mother.
That is why when a girl is born in the family, it is said that Lakshmi, the Goddess of Light/Wealth has come. The nine images of the Goddess are worshipped magnificently during the Navratri Puja with great divine spendour, chantings, pomp and eclat eulogizing the Mother Durga and her epithets Kali, Shakti and others. We should not forget that all the male Gods have their spouses by their side in divine glory. No religious ceremony is complete in a Hindu household without the presence of the householder’s wife incarnating the Divine. Shiva is incomplete without Parvati. As for Krishna, it is Radha who is his companion to be worshipped along with him and not his wife Rukmini. Sita’s name is taken before Ram’s in chants and prayers – “Sita Ram”.
Enter Bollywood with Jai Santoshi Ma
In 1975, the Bollywood film Jai Santoshi Ma brought out in great glamour and media exposure the sacred powers and compassion of this Goddess who confers santosh i.e. gratification or contentment on her devotees. The film was an immediate hit and the theme song Mein to aarti outaroon re Santoshi Maa ki became a classic of all times, sung and danced upon by Hindus all over the world.
The filmmakers discovered at the right time that visual access to the divine was an important element of post-modern day living. Santoshi Maa became instantly a favourite goddess of modern times. She shared the same benign qualities, compassion of all ancient goddesses worshipped since time immemorial familiar to the devotees and very close to woman’s psyche.
Poster art industry too has greatly influenced the colours of the goddesses’ clothes and complexions just like the changing “visages” of Mary, the Virgin in Marian mysticism. If Mary’s plastic statuettes adorn the dashboards of Western truckers, in India, the buses, trucks, taxis, rickshaws and “autos” have plastic stickers, plastic or metal replicas of the various goddesses, prominent of whom is Durga, or Kali – Kali because she casts off the evil eyes of envious people.
Girmitia goddesses in Geet Gawai
During the immigration period, the poor girmitias or indentured immigrants created their own versions of the Mother in the form of Saptamatrika (seven Mothers) or the Bhojpuri Sato Devis/Sato Bahinis – seven sisters. These were at first in earthen rounded moulds and later mortar or cement until they assumed more sophisticated forms with material improvement of devotees. These are beautifully integrated and preserved in the oral Bhojpuri folk traditions of Mauritius and sung in the Geet Gawai sessions of pre-wedding ceremonies.