Hinduism Bhārat Mātā
by
Sumathi Ramaswamy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0020

Introduction

Bhārat Mātā (a Sanskrit phrase that literally translates as “India Mother”) is also widely known across India as “Mother India.” Since her emergence in the late 19th century, this novel mother/goddess has been imagined as the substantial embodiment of Indian national territory, as well as its inviolable essence. As a powerful rallying symbol in the struggle for independence from British colonial rule, she gathered together in common celebration and devotion large sections of the subcontinent’s vast population fissured by language, ethnicity, and local and regional attachments. All the same, she has also come to be perceived as escalating the rupture that had developed by the early decades of the 20th century between the dominant religious communities of the region (Hindu and Muslim) and that eventually led to the partition of British India in August 1947. Her very appearance on the Indian patriotic landscape compels us to ask why a nation yearning for form makes a turn toward the anthropomorphic figure of a female deity. The figure of Mother India also brings to the fore other critical issues, such as the place of religiously inflected symbols in modern democratic polities and politics, and the undertow of Hinduism in a country aspiring to be secular, diverse, and plural. There has been a tendency in the scholarly literature to identify Bhārat Mātā exclusively with the ideologies of a resurgent Hindu nationalism; however, it is clear that a heterogeneous range of interests, including leaders associated with pluralist parties such as the Indian National Congress, have contributed to the feminization of Indian national territory and body politic as mother and goddess. Indeed, such a feminization has been largely underwritten by the new ideology of motherhood that accompanied the consolidation of industrial modernity in various parts of the world in the 19th century, India included. All the same, the passions that Mother India has managed to arouse in the subcontinent, and the structures of sentiment in which she comes to be embedded, are also distinctive enough that she is not a mere recurrence in the South Asian context of comparable national icons such as Britannia, Marianne, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. As such, a study of her iconography, her deployment in nationalist politics, and the range of sentiments expressed about her furthers our understanding of the complexities and nuances of late colonial and postcolonial Indian modernity.

Historiography

Until the publication of Ramaswamy 2010, there was no scholarly monograph on Bhārat Mātā. Conventional “primary” texts that assemble the numerous prose narratives and poems on her in the many languages of India are also not available. Nevertheless, interest in the figure goes back to the late colonial period, when the state began to document her appearance in sundry “extremist” nationalist activities (for an introduction, see Ker 1917). The colonial government also proscribed poetry, writings, and images featuring the goddess (Barrier 1974, Shaw and Lloyd 1985). This rich archive of proscription has yet to be deeply analyzed and certainly points to one direction in which future scholarship on the goddess needs to go. Another area awaiting further research is the regional variations in the imagination regarding the figure: the bulk of the scholarship has largely focused on Bengali-language materials, especially the writings of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (see Literary Representations), although some discussions of Tamil and Hindi-language sources can be found in Baskaran 1981, Jha 2004, and Ramaswamy 2010. Scholarly interest in the goddess has also been provoked since the mid-1990s by Bhārat Mātā’s proliferation in the activities of a resurgent Hindu nationalism from the late 1980s (van der Veer 1994, Brosius 2005, and see also Hindu Nationalism). Until the early 21st century, much of the scholarship largely focused on prose and poetry on Mother India, but for an analysis of mass-produced art around the figure, see Ramaswamy 2010 (see also Picturing Mother India)

  • Barrier, N. Gerald. Banned: Controversial Literature and Political Control in British India, 1907–1947. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974.

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    Although there is no index entry for Bhārat Mātā, this work takes the reader into the proscription regimes of the colonial state that banned writings (prose and poetry) and pictures featuring Mother India; hence, it is useful for charting British anxieties over the potentially incendiary and inflammatory nature of such publications.

  • Baskaran, S. Theodore. The Message Bearers: The Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Media in South India, 1880–1945. Madras: Cre-A, 1981.

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    Mother India is not the focus of this pioneering study of patriotic Tamil plays, dramas, and feature films; nevertheless, the reader learns of the performative contexts in which Bhārat Mātā appeared during the nationalist period in the Tamil regional context. Republished in 2008 (Chennai: Oxygen).

  • Brosius, Christiane. Empowering Visions: The Politics of Representation in Hindu Nationalism. London: Anthem, 2005.

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    An ethnography of modern Hindu nationalist mobilizations, in which Mother India has a central role. Based on valuable analysis of mass-produced publicity materials and interviews with party activists and publicists, this work also considers the deployment of rhetorical and symbolic tropes in Hindu nationalism, including sacrifice and martyrdom on behalf of the mother/goddess.

  • Jha, Sadan. “The Life and Times of Bharat Mata: Nationalism as Invented Religion.” Manushi 142 (2004): 34–38.

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    A short but important essay that points to Hindi-language sources on Mother India, such as the writings of Hindi literary figures Phaniswarnath Renu and Sumitranandan Pant. This essay anticipates the author’s unpublished University of Delhi doctoral dissertation in history (2008).

  • Ker, James C. Political Trouble in India, 1907–1917. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, India, 1917.

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    Written by a highly placed colonial bureaucrat (and assistant to the director of criminal intelligence in British India from 1907 to 1913), this volume is an invaluable official resource for understanding the colonial state’s responses to nationalist mobilizations around Bhārat Mātā both in India and abroad.

  • Ramaswamy, Sumathi. The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

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    The first monograph focused on Bhārat Mātā, this work also introduces the reader to the existing scholarship on the figure and offers a comprehensive bibliography on a range of issues, including comparable national icons of Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.

  • Shaw, Graham, and Mary Lloyd, eds. Publications Proscribed by the Government of India: A Catalogue of the Collections in the India Office Library and Records and the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books. London: British Library, 1985.

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    Invaluable introduction to the proscribed materials in the Indian Office collections in the British Library. Although there is no index entry for Bhārat Mātā, the annotations point to banned publications on the goddess from the colonial period. Unfortunately, the annotations neglect to mention accompanying pictorial materials, many featuring the goddess.

  • van der Veer, Peter. Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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    A critical publication that is essential reading for any understanding of the broader cultural politics of religious nationalism in the later decades of the 20th century, which saw an enormous resurgence of the figure of Mother India in the activities of various political parties associated with the Hindu Right.

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