“Our history,” wrote the Swadeshi leader Bipin Chandra Pal, “is the sacred biography of the Mother. Our philosophies are the revelations of the Mother’s mind. Our arts – our poetry and our painting, our music and our drama, our architecture and our sculpture, all these are the outflow of the Mother’s diverse emotional moods and experiences. Our religion is the organised expression of the soul of the Mother. The outsider knows her as India...It is, I know, exceedingly difficult, if it be not absolutely impossible, for the European or American to clearly understand or fully appreciate this strange idealisation of our land, which has given birth to this cult of the Mother among us.”

A cornerstone of what Pal described as his “constructive study of Indian thought and ideals”, this narration of the nation as Mother was the literary and cultural patent of the Bengali political generation of 1905 as they strenuously sought to “unsettle” the “settled fact” of George Curzon’s partition of Bengal.

By the time of Mountbatten’s more far-reaching Partition of India a generation later, many political attitudes had changed and many roles reversed. In the spring of 1947 the erstwhile votaries of Indian unity started demanding the partition of Bengal and Punjab. In an editorial titled “Banga-bhanga Andolon” (“The Agitation to Divide Bengal”) on 11 April 1947 the newsmagazine Millat (Nation) accused the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha of performing the role of Parashuram as they “together raised a sharpened pickaxe to slice ‘Mother’ into two”. The Hindu Mahasabha’s matricidal tendencies were more readily explicable. They had, according to Millat, been “born mad” (“janma-batul” was the Bengali word used) and had always wanted to “drive the Muslims to the shores of the Arabian Sea”.

“But Congress!” exclaimed Millat...”For half a century they had talked big and had preached many high ideals...What had happened to them so suddenly that having taken off their mask they were dancing on the same platform with the Hindu Mahasabha?”

The allusion to Parashuram refers to Puranic Hindu mythology. According to the Puranas, the rishi Jamadagni ordered his five sons, one by one, to murder their mother, Renuka. The four elder sons refused to commit such a heinous act. The fifth, Ram, obeyed without displaying any qualms. He lifted his parashu (or kuthar, axe, in simpler Bengali) and struck the fatal blow. Parashuram, as he came to be called, was widely recognised in the Puranas as the sixth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, the immediate predecessor of the more famous seventh avatar, Dasarath’s son Ram, whose exploits were narrated in the epic Ramayana.

In a macabre twist to the narrative of the Indian nation, the apparently triumphal moment of independence coincided with a gory dismemberment, if not the death, of the Mother.

This was particularly ironic since the awakening of a nation from slumber, if not its actual birth, was believed to have occurred when its children were blessed with a revelation - the magical vision of the Mother.

As Aurobindo Ghose argued in 1907, it was only when the Mother had revealed herself that “the patriotism that work[ed] miracles and save[d] a doomed nation [wa]s born”. He credited Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay with having caught the first modern glimpse of this grand spectacle: “It was thirty-two years ago that Bankim wrote his great song and few listened; but in a sudden moment of awakening from long delusions the people of Bengal looked round for the truth and in a fated moment somebody sang Bande Mataram. The mantra had been given...”

Bankim’s hymn to the Mother, originally written and printed in 1875 as a filler for a blank page in his journal Bangadarshan (Vision/Philosophy of Bengal), had a chequered and controversial career in the service of the nationalist movement. It was inserted into Bankim’s novel Anandamath in 1882 and set to music and sung publicly for the first time by Rabindranath Tagore at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress in 1896.

“I bow to you, Mother,
well watered, well fruited,
breeze cool, crop green,
the Mother!
Nights quivering with white moonlight,
draped in lovely flowering trees,
sweet of smile, honeyed speech,
giver of bliss and boons, the Mother!
Seven crore voices in your clamorous chant,
twice seven crore hands holding aloft mighty scimitars, 
Who says, Mother, you are weak?
Repository of many strengths,
scourge of the enemy’s army, the Mother!”

The magic number of seven crore refers, of course, to Bengalis, and the Mother whom Bankim had in mind in 1875, even though there is no specific mention, is Bangamata or Mother Bengal. The name Bharatavarsha for the subcontinent as a whole was commonly used in the political discourse of Bengal, certainly since the Hindu Mela of 1867. One of the earliest literary evocations of the concept of Bharatmata was Dwijendralal Roy’s song:

“Jedin sunil jaladhi hoite uthile janani Bharatabarsha,
Shedin bishwe she ki kalarab, she ki ma bhakti, she ki ma harsha.”

“The day you arose from the blue ocean, Mother Bharatavarsha, 
The world erupted in such a joyful clamour, such devotion, Mother, and so much laughter.”

An early visual evocation came in 1905 with Abanindranath Tagore’s painting “Bharatmata”. Visualised as a serene, saffron-clad ascetic woman, the Mother carried the boons of food, clothing, learning and spiritual salvation in her four hands. A conscious creation of an “artistic” icon of the nation, Abanindranath tells us in a memoir that he had conceived his image as Bangamata and later, almost as an act of generosity towards the larger cause of Indian nationalism, decided to title it “Bharatmata”...[I]t is necessary to probe a little further into the relationship between nation and gender.

The figure of gender has been central to a large array of modern and postmodern readings of the colonial encounter. Ashis Nandy, among others, has underscored the theme of male anxiety and fantasy in the projection of colonial knowledge and power and its attempted inversion, if not subversion, in Gandhian resistance. Thoroughly “Westernised” nationalists like Jawaharlal Nehru relied heavily on the metaphor of sexual aggression and rape in their critiques of the violence perpetrated by the colonial masters.

Sara Suleri has objected that “the continued equation between a colonised landscape and the female body represents an alteritist fallacy that causes considerable theoretical damage to both contemporary feminist and post-colonial discourses”. She points out that the “colonial gaze” was not directed to “the inscrutability of an Eastern bride” but rather to “the greater sexual ambivalence of the effeminate groom”. “[N]o intelligent feminism,” she contends, “should be prepared to serve as the landscape upon which the intimacy of homoerotic invitation and rejection can be enacted.” Yet there was more to the casting of the nation in the image of a mother than is captured by the metaphors of heterosexual aggression and resistance and homoerotic invitation and rejection.

"Bharatmata" by Abanindranath Tagore
"Bharatmata" by Abanindranath Tagore

The mother complex (I use the term ‘complex’ simply to refer to an engaging social–psychological phenomenon and not to mean any sort of disorder or neurosis) in Bengal and some other linguistic regions in India had fairly deep psychological and cultural roots. It is tempting to interpret “the concept of the Motherland – Deshmata”, as Tanika Sarkar has done, as a “cultural artefact”. But to nationalist thinkers like Pal, the Mother, in what had come to be called Motherland by modern Western-educated Indians, was in origin “not a mere idea or fancy, but a distinct personality. The woman who bore them and nursed them, and brought them up with her own life and substance was no more real a personality in their thought and idea than the land which bore and reared, and gave food and shelter to all their race.”

While European expressions like fatherland were “clearly metaphorical”, the “real concept Mother as applied to India” had “no metaphor behind it”.

The “full truth and reality of this concept” could only be grasped, in Pal’s view, “in the light of the entire Nature Philosophy of the Hindus”, especially the conception of the Earth as Prakriti.

That the conception of the earth as mother was not peculiarly Indian is suggested by recent work on European environmental history which has posited a strong correlation between the earth and the nurturing mother before the historic rupture of the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries altered an organic view of the cosmos. Until that happened, the onslaughts on nature were restrained by the culture of a Nature- Mother equation for, the Parashurams of the world excepted, men did “not readily slay a mother, dig into her entrails for gold, or mutilate her body...”

A relatively undisturbed “cosmic balance” was, however, not the only bridge between the love of a mother and devotion to the motherland, but was importantly mediated by specific cultures and ideologies, and articulated by the vernacular languages of nationalism.

Did the element of “reality”, stressed by Pal, in the “imagination” of the nation as mother lend a special quality to the “profoundly self-sacrificing love” inspired by this particular devotional movement? ... [It] would be a grave error to treat the narrative of the nation as mother related by men like Pal as constituted outside the domain of ideology. Pal was not above resorting to analytical sleights of hand to locate a Prakriti–Ma or Nature-Mother equation within his particular project of cultural nationalism. The ideological construction of the nation as mother was vectored on to a dynamic, discursive field previously unmarked by political values. The mobilisers and mobilised necessarily stood in different positions in relation to this construct.

In the cultural context of Bengal the nationalist cult of the Mother, not surprisingly, emphasised the female principle as Shakti or the source of strength.

Consequently, a certain concordance came to be drawn between the Mother Goddess, whether in the form of Durga or Kali, and the mother country. Tanika Sarkar suggests that a contradictory image, that of the mother as an “archetypical, hapless, female victim” was also present in the nationalist iconography. As an example she cites the Bharatmata painted by Abanindranath, whom she describes as “pale, tearful, frail”.

This may not be a particularly good example. To me, at any rate, “Bharatmata” looks rather radiant, calm and reassuring. But “Srinkhalita Bharatmata”, the Mother bound in chains, was a widely used emotive image in nationalist posters and the contrast between ma ki chhilen (the way mother had been) and ma ki hoiyachhen (what mother has become or been reduced to) was quite enough to fire nationalist ire. In addition to her glorious past and her sorry present, the utopia of ma ki hoiben (what mother will be) constituted a powerful temporal sequence that boosted nationalist morale.

The concept of the nation as mother could not of itself even begin to address many problematic aspects of the relationship between nation and gender, not least the question of the social emancipation of women. Even though the most commonly used Bengali term for the mother’s children, santan, was not gender-specific, early ideologues of nationalism implicitly, if not explicitly, portrayed a son–mother relationship.

Matribhakti, devotion to the mother, was clearly not the monopoly of sons, but the psychological and cultural nuances and complexities of the daughter–mother relationship appear to be conspicuously sparse in early nationalist discourse. A few women like Sarala Devi and Kamini Roy, of course, composed panegyrics to the motherland; a few others performed Swadeshi service of various kinds for the Mother. The feminisation (and peasantisation) of the ideal type of the Mother’s nationalist devotees nevertheless involved the imputation of certain values by men and elites to women (and peasants).

Even in the literature that glorified the nation as mother, the ideals of womanhood were mythical characters such as Sati, Savitri, Sita, Lilavati, Khana and Arundhati who were often distinguished by high learning, wisdom or other accomplishments that were tempered by devotion to their husbands as well as a desire not to outshine them.

In one famous Swadeshi song the wandering rural composer and singer Charankabi Mukundadas exhorts the women of Bengal to throw away their silk and glass bangles. He asks them not to be deceived by the false glitter of imported goods and not to wear kalanka (shame) instead of shankha (the white bangle, a symbol of chastity). That they don’t have gold bangles is hardly a cause for mourning, he tells them. The daughters of Bengal must see to it that the Mother’s wealth is not drained away any further.

Another sort of problem could stem from the intolerable burden placed on women who were idealised as mothers. This point was made forcefully in Prabhat Mukhopadhyay’s story and Satyajit Ray’s film Devi (1960) in which the family patriarch persuades himself that his daughter-in-law is an incarnation of the Mother Goddess. The loss of value of woman as a human being that this entailed was considerable.

The tyranny of divinity could only be countered by an invocation to humanity. When Abanindranath painted Bharatmata, he had in mind his daughter’s face. It was the coming together of human intimacy and divine inspiration that gave not just the picture but the idea of the nation as mother its overpowering appeal.

Excerpted with permission from The Nation as Mother: And Other Visions of Nationhood, Sugata Bose, Penguin Viking.