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God is my mother

Vitthal Panduranga is one of the most popular deities in Maharashtra. He stands akimbo on top of a brick (Vit, in Marathi, hence the name). To see him, hundreds of thousands of varkari (pilgrims) make the journey called Vari to Pandharpur, women carrying his sacred tulsi plant atop their heads and men singing the songs of the saints. 

Vitthal Panduranga is one of the most popular deities in Maharashtra. He stands akimbo on top of a brick (Vit, in Marathi, hence the name). To see him, hundreds of thousands of varkari (pilgrims) make the journey called Vari to Pandharpur, women carrying his sacred tulsi plant atop their heads and men singing the songs of the saints.


Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Though most devotees, from Dyaneshwar onwards in the 13th century, see Vitthal as Krishna, the traditional Vedic/Puranic scriptures do not make this association. In fact, according to writer Ramchandra Chintaman Dhere, who has done path breaking fieldwork on the Vitthal traditions, in all probability, a thousand years earlier, Vitthal was probably a pastoral god, worshipped by local shepherds and goatherds, which led him to being associated with the divine cowherd, Krishna. This association may have also been encouraged by Yadava kings of Devagiri (modern Daulatabad), who claimed descent from Krishna and were patrons of the Marathi language. Their rule from 8th to 13th century is associated with hero stones, and local heroes were worshipped as divine beings. Before being associated with Krishna, or any divinity, the image of Vitthal was probably that of a Vira or hero.

The image does not have the characteristic crossing of one leg over the other, or any sign of holding the flute. The only connection with Krishna/Vishnu is the deity’s characteristic fish-shaped earrings.

Still, for the devotee, this is Krishna. Songs of his childhood, of his mother Yashoda, and of him watching over cows on the banks of the river Yamuna, are famous. This despite the fact that in a nearby temple stands his wife, Rukmini, known locally as Rakhumai, who came into his life long after he left Gokul and his cowherd life, behind. All this shows how in Hinduism, scriptures do not establish God; God is constructed by the faith and the gaze of the devotee.

Even more interesting is that most of the poet-saints of Maharashtra, from Dyaneshwar to Namdev to Eknath to Janabai to Tukaram, refer to Vithal not only as Vitth-oba (father Vitthal) but also as Vitth-aai (mother Vitthal). In Dyaneshwar’s commentary of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjun does not see Krishna as a friend or as an awestruck devotee when Krishna shows him his universal form. He sees Krishna as the universal Mother, affectionate and tender. Thus the devotee chooses to see God, despite his very male image, in a female form in his imagination.

Hinduism has no dearth of female deities. Maharashtra has many temples dedicated to local manifestations of Durga and Kali and Gauri. But Vitth-aai is different. She is not fiery. She does not ask for offerings of blood. She does not kill demons. She does not strike children with fever or cause miscarriages or epidemics if not appeased. She is loving and affectionate, and ever willing to nourish and forgive. She is equated with the mother-turtle who cushions her young ones or with the mother cow that runs up mountains to offer milk to her little frightened calf. Thus is gender sublimated in love.

At least in the devotional space.

But in the social and legal space of modern India, such gender sublimation is unacceptable. Fathers cannot be seen as mothers. Mothers cannot be fathers. A husband must be a man, not a woman. A wife must be a woman, not a man. We are told such gender rigidity is ‘real’ culture.
But the gods and the saints, immersed in affectionate love, seem to disagree.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper

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