The Other Mothers

June 4, 2016 § Leave a comment


yoginisThe Sixty-Four Yoginis: Cult, Icons and Goddesses (Roy, Anamika)

Hinduism has three hundred and thirty million divinities, or so the cliché goes. I do not believe anyone has actually counted and confirmed this number, but if they did, I am confident that at least half the total would turn out to be female. We Hindus may not all be feminists, but we certainly are Equal Opportunity worshippers.

There are two kinds of goddesses in Hindu tradition, as AK Ramanujam has pointed out (“Two Realms of Kannada Folklore”): “breast” mothers and “tooth” mothers. The former are married to other gods and subservient to their spouses, are largely benevolent and invoked for blessings at auspicious times, worshipped with offerings of incense, flowers and fruits, in temples built in their honor inside towns and villages, with well-crafted idols with beautiful smiling faces. The mothers of the tooth variety are diametrically different: they are not subservient to any males, and indeed are often fatal to any males associated with them. They are deities of dread invoked at times of crisis, like plagues or famine, and the devotees don’t pray for blessings, they plead for mercy. They are propitiated with blood sacrifices, not floral tributes. Their temples are typically situated outside the village, and the idols are usually either faceless or terrible to behold. These temples can be spotted by the wayside all over rural India, especially outside the Gangetic heartlands, but they are not the subject of either mainstream mythology or popular worship. We in the cities have forgotten them, even though our cities have now expanded so much that these temples, once outside village limits, now languish unnoticed at the curbs of busy thoroughfares.

In the book under review, Anamika Roy documents temples to such mysterious ‘tantric’ goddesses in the tribal belts of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps eerily and perhaps naturally, they follow the identical patterns described by DD Kosambi in Maharashtra and Ramanujam in South India. They are called Sitala, Jogubai, Tulaja, Mhalsa in Maharashtra, Bhagawati or Pattini in Kerala, Kuravai, Ananku, or Tunankai in Tamil Nadu. The Yoginis described by Roy have equally fearsome names:  Kankalini Mata, Sat Bahinia, Danteswari, Raksasi, Hunkari, Vadavamukhi, Mahakrura, Krodhana, Tarala, Meghanada, Pisaci, Vikrta, Durjaya, Bhayankari, Pralaya, Vakranasa, Yamajihva, Pretaksi, Putana, Nisacari, Durmukhi, VIsalanguli, Yamaduti, Asura, Vikatalocana, Lalajihva, Kapalahasta, Pracanda, Sisughni, Rudhirapayini, Garbha-bhaksa, Sava-hasta, Antra-malini, Sosani-drsti, Kataputana, Attahasa. They have beautiful bodies but fierce faces: most have protruding eyes and teeth, or an extra eye, or their tongue out, others have the face of an animal, others still have no face at all. Some of them stand on corpses or brandish severed heads in their hands. Admittedly, one of them is pictured holding a baby (awww!) but then she looks fierce and holds a sword in her other hand, so we can’t be sure what exactly is going on.

V0045118 Kali trampling Shiva. Chromolithograph by R. Varma.

Kali by Raja Ravi Verma (courtesy Wikipedia): the best known of the Other Mothers

How did people living in vastly different geographies have such similar rituals and beliefs, despite not having an origin or a language in common? And how can these grotesque cults co-exist with the benign idols and high moral philosophy of Puranic Hinduism? When and how did these cults merge into Hinduism, or evolve from it? It is impossible to read a book like this without wondering.

Roy is an Associate Professor of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, and naturally, the best part of her book is where she discusses how these cults may have evolved, separate from and in parallel to, mainstream Hinduism. She discusses fascinating theories laid out by people like MN Srinivas, DP Chattopadhyaya, Vidya Dehejia, Sutherland Godman, RS Sharma, Robert Redfield and Milton Singer – albeit in a tantalizingly brief section. I would have preferred an entire book on that theme.

According to the Chicago school of anthropologists (Redfield and Singer), Roy informs us, there is a two-tier formula in play for historical processes that govern the spread of religious influence. It consists of a Great Tradition and a Little Tradition that evolve separately but influence each other; what we call culture is the dialogue between the two. It follows that when the little one is ignored or forgotten, the dialogue is one-sided, and the culture stagnates. For this, if not for any other reason, we must study and attempt to understand these strange cults of the Other Mothers.

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