Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 12, 2023

First published August 5, 2023

 in Economic Times

From Fortune’s Favourite to Mother’s Son

Indians have visualised India in many different ways. Often through the lens of outsiders. About 4,500 years ago, the kings of Mesopotamia referred to the coast of Gujarat as Meluhha from where they imported beads, cotton, chicken, dogs and buffaloes. About 2,500 years ago, the land east of the Sindhu river was referred to as Hind by Persians, and as India, by the Greeks. About 2,300 years ago,

Ashokan edicts referred to India as Jambu-dvipa, the land of the Indian blackberry. About 2100 years ago, Kharavela of Odisha, referred to the Gangetic plains as Bharat-varsha, or the expanse of Bharat kings, in his inscriptions. Dharma-shastra referred to India (mostly North India) as land of Aryas.

South was known by the tribes who inhabited the lands – Dravidas, Pulindas, Kalingas, Andhras – and by their kings – Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras. Linguists identified countries based on language spoken. Chanakya identified countries based on resources that could be obtained for his king.

The idea of nation or rashtra in India is an ancient one. But it applied to regional kingdoms. Jagannath was declared Rashtra-devata of Odisha by the Chodaganga and Gajapati kings nearly eight centuries ago. The idea of Mother India (Bharat Mata) as a goddess whose sons defend her is a recent one, emerging only in the nineteenth century.

Fatherland and Motherland

In ancient India, nomadic communities traced the ancestries to a Kula Devi, or a primal matriarch. Her temples are usually located atop hills. Settled communities traced their ancestry to a Grama Devi, whose worship was celebrated collectively and collaboratively by different village communities.

The idea of Mother India emerged in the Bengal region, where the East India Company had established itself. The idea began as Bongo Mata (mother of Bengal). This later extended to different parts of India. For example, there was the goddess of Odisha, Utkal Mata, and the goddess of the Telugu people, Telugu Thalli. This was perhaps in response to the idea of Britannia, the lion-riding woman embodying the British Empire, and Marianne, the lady embodying the spirit of the French Revolution.

The idea of Fatherland and Motherland itself came from Europe. In ancient Viking society, the land where the ancestors were buried came to be known as the Fatherland. The land where you were born came to be known as the Motherland. Different countries used these words differently. These ideas came into India with writers in the nineteenth century referring to India as Matrubhumi, mother land, and Pitri-bhumi, or land of ancestors.

In the novels written in colonial times, many Bengali writers described the land as a mother as being stripped of her jewellery and reduced to nakedness. Thus was the naked form of Kali explained to the curious. Such imagery and stories provoked Nationalism, and inspired people to fight for the land.

Beloved of the Fickle Goddess

Before the arrival of Muslim and the British rulers of India, the concept of nation was rather different. The kings of India did not see themselves as the sons of the land. Instead, they saw themselves as the guardians of the land. The oldest image of a king that we find in Gupta art is that of a wild boar. It is raising the earth from the bottom of the sea, rescuing her from tormentors. This image was created in the Gupta period. It is from when the Gupta kings fought various invaders like the Shakas and the Hunas to protect the land.

This image was even used in the early days of Islam, when Muslim warlords entered India. The kings saw themselves as Varaha, rescuing India from barbarians, from Yavanas, Lepcha, Turukas and Tajikas. So, the image of a king was not one of a son who protects the mother. It was of a great warrior like Vishnu who protects the earth, and seeks her help. He becomes a guardian god and she declares him her lord and husband, Bhupati, her guardian and protector. In exchange for his valour, she gives him all the bounty that is locked in the earth.

The other name given to a king was Prithvi Vallabha. The title was very popular amongst the Chalukya kings of Karnataka since the 8th century. Prithvi Vallabha is beloved by the earth for proving his valour. In the Puranas, we are told that Vishnu gets the warring sides of the asuras and the devas to work together, collaborate and churn the ocean of milk. This produces great jewels from the ocean of the milk. This impresses Lakshmi the goddess of fortune, who selects Vishnu as her husband. This is why Vishnu is called Shreepati, the lord of the goddess of fortune.

In the same way, a king has to earn the love of the land. He does so by earning the love and admiration of the goddess Sri Lakshmi. She has two forms. She is Shree-devi the goddess of abstract concepts like splendour and fame. She is also Bhu-devi, the goddess of tangible concepts, like grain, gold, wealth and land. So the king earns his affection for the goddess and becomes her beloved. This is very different from the obligation that a son has. A son protects his mother from those who seek to harass and control her.

What is interesting is that the relationship between mother and son cannot be broken. But, the relationship between lover and beloved can be broken. We are told often in mythology that the Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, is fickle. If one does not protect her and please her with one’s valour and capabilities, she chooses a more worthy suitor. This old model was popular amongst kings. This is why the kings would fight each other to prove their superiority. Amongst all the kings of India, only one could take the title of emperor (Chakravarti) at one time.

There was constant competition between the kings to upstage other kings. A great king was not just one who won wars, or had a larger territory and thus had access to more wealth. He was also one in whose court there were great scholars and poets. Which is why we hear stories of how the Solanki kings of Gujarat were very upset with the Bhoja of Malwa. The Bhoja had Kalidasa, and many other poets, in his court. Only when you prove yourself to be strong, generate wealth and attract intellectual talent, do you become a Prithvi Vallabha. The model is based on meritocracy. One works hard and earns the love of the land and then becomes Prithvi Vallabh. This idea is lost in the current generation of leaders who aspire to be kings.

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