A representation of any female deity believed to express qualities such as maternity, femininity, protection and fertility. Mother Goddesses have appeared in many different cultures and religions across the world since the Palaeolithic period. The designation of such figures has sometimes been the result of modern archaeological presumptions that have since been revised, especially in the case of Prehistoric finds, for which the label was sometimes applied without corroborative evidence of worship or connection to maternity. Historically, the term’s reference for a wide array of female figures and images have resulted in a blurring of some distinctive traits that each depiction of a deity may possess. In general, however, there are certain key characteristics and symbolic associations that can reliably indicate whether or not a particular depiction represents a Mother Goddess.
Archaeologists have largely studied sculptures rather than paintings due to the former’s possible role as idols of worship. The Mother Goddess, especially among Prehistoric or Ancient examples, may not necessarily be a deity in the classical sense of organised religious rituals, but has been interpreted as a generally revered figure who represents broad concepts like fertility and prosperity even outside the specifics of human reproduction, such as in agriculture or creation myths. Scholars are of the opinion that, as cultures grew and engaged in different forms of community organisation — such as militarisation, state-building, class, caste and education — they may have added layers and narratives to the goddesses.
The earliest indicators of possible worship of Mother Goddesses in the Indian subcontinent come from scholars’ interpretations of the female figurines excavated at the Indus Valley sites, including among the Indus Valley terracotta human figurines. Some of these figurines share features with similar sculptures representing fertility from other parts of the world, such as large bellies and a corpulent body — possibly signs of pregnancy, with some examples even depicted nursing a child. Others are slim figurines with limbs covered in bangles and other jewellery, which have been taken to symbolise fertility if not motherhood. However, neither sets of figurines were found in positions of centrality in a building, but were stored away and, in some cases, covered in black marks (possibly soot), suggesting ritual burning and that they could have been votive idols rather than depictions of deities meant for communal worship. Most of these interpretations are based on later evidence of goddess worship — including texts, temples and continued practises — although the lack of a deciphered script has resulted in inadequate Prehistoric evidence. Further, contemporary scholars have cautioned against imposing modern ideas of gender roles and sexual symbolism on the analysis of these artefacts without significant supporting evidence.
After the decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, icons of goddesses were found across the subcontinent only from the third century BCE onwards in Taxila, Mathura, Chirand and Kolhapur. These votive figurines were often found in sacred Indus water tanks where they were likely set afloat for ceremonial purposes and not retrieved or reused. The period after the Indus Valley Civilisation also saw the development of a discernible mythology and religious foundation, which was codified in the Puranas, Vedas and Upanishads. The myths and value systems in these texts were interpreted and prioritised by different cults and traditions after the Vedic period. Subsequently, the Mother Goddess became the primary focus of Shaktism and was represented as a set of traits simultaneously held within a single, all-powerful goddess — called Devi, Shakti, Parvati, Durga or Kali — who is said to represent all the creative energies of the universe.
These virtues are also parallelly embodied by a group of deities, often collectively called the saptamatrikas, meaning “seven mothers,” each of whom represents the energy, or shakti, of the deity from whose body they were made. As with all narratives in Hindu mythology, there are multiple versions of their origin. According to one, Shiva creates the matrikas in battle with Andhaka, an asura warlord. In another, Devi, in her warlike aspect of Durga, creates the goddesses from her own body to help her fight the demon Raktabeeja and re-absorbs them after the battle. Despite not possessing any clear maternal traits, the saptamatrikas are frequently depicted holding infants in their arms or accompanied by their (mostly male) consorts. When depicted together, they are shown alongside Shiva. The matrikas and other forms of the goddess are described in the Devi Mahatmya, the Devi-Bhagavata Purana and the Devi Upanishad, all of which are key texts in Shaktism. Panels that show all or some of the saptamatrikas feature on temple walls and were often seen as essential elements of its broader architectural plan.
Contradiction is central to Shakti mythology and are reflected in the Puranic stories of Kali, who, in the most widely portrayed narrative, is depicted as a reckless and destructive goddess restrained by Shiva. He lies down in her path and when Kali steps on him, she is jolted out of her rampage. This story is the basis for Kali’s most common representation: her blood-stained tongue stuck out, symbolising her jarring shock and regret at stepping on Shiva. In a different version, Shiva wanders into Kali’s warpath as a crying infant, provoking her maternal instincts, thus calming her down. In another myth, Tara (a form of Shakti and Kali) nurses Shiva back to health after he swallows the poison that springs from the samudra manthan. The patriarchal imagination of Shaktism portrays the Mother Goddess as powerful and even dangerous, but always restrained or even humiliated by her male companion to return to her duties as a companion and mother. Shaktism also emphasises the interdependence of male and female energies, suggesting that in the absence of an assertive male presence the goddess is a force of chaos, whereas without Shakti’s vitality, the male god is prone and helpless.
The Mother Goddess has also been imagined as a metaphor for India itself. This idea originated in 1905 with Bharat Mata, meaning “Mother India,” a painting made by Abanindranath Tagore in response to the Partition of Bengal, in which India is represented as a four-armed Hindu goddess. With this image and later, perhaps more militant versions inspired by it, Mother India became a symbol of the independent nation, free from colonial rule and seeking to rapidly modernise while staying true to its past. As such, the image of Mother India often functions as a symbol of multiplicity.
Nearly a century after Abanindranath Tagore’s painting, the later modernist artist M F Husain’s 1997 depiction of India shows a continuing development of the theme of country-as-mother. This conflation of bodies has become a regular feature in popular culture, to the point where India and its geography are frequently personified, even in verbal description.
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