Mothers of famous sons

by Naomi

Last week I presented a paper at Edinburgh’s Centre for South Asian Studies on my latest avenue of research for this project, into the mothers of heroic sons.

Why explore mothers? One practical reason is that all our other case studies are focused on men, who are, after all, much more commonly found in Indian religious narrative! We wanted to bring some female characters into the conversation, even if we do so largely with reference to their male relations. The mother-son relationship is also a really helpful access point into broader debates about duty and love, the tension between family ties and religious or dharmic quests, and concerns of lineage.

In the paper I used three pairs of mothers to start to sketch out the characterisation of heroic motherhood in early Indian religious narrative: (1) Kausalyā (mother of Rāma) and Kuntī (mother of the Pāṇḍavas), along with other mothers that provide a helpful comparison within the epics, namely Kaikeyī, Mādrī and Gāndhārī; (2) Māyā (biological mother of the Buddha) and Mahāprajāpatī (foster mother of the Buddha); (3) Marudevī (mother of Rṣabha Jina) and Triśalā (mother of Mahāvīra Jina).

Although my research is still very much in progress, some key themes have already emerged very clearly. The least surprising of these is the idea that the conception, pregnancy and birth are generally accompanied by auspicious signs or miracles; these, of course, indicate the quality of the son as much as they do the mother (if not more so). Motifs such as positive pregnancy cravings, miraculous and pain-free births, a rain of flowers from the sky, or the arrival of gods to pay honour, reinforce the significance of the arrival of the child into the world.

Another, more interesting, theme is the contrast drawn up between two different mothers, one pure and associated with simple divinity, and the other more complex and human yet also stronger and more successful. Reiko Ohnuma has outlined this contrast well in relation to the Buddha’s two mothers (in her Ties That Bind, OUP 2012), but it is present also in the Mahābhārata‘s characterisation of the mothers of the Pāṇḍavas. Mādrī, mother of the two younger brothers, insists on joining Pāṇḍu in heaven after the latter dies, leaving Kuntī with the messy job of raising five sons alone, helping them remain safe from the attacks of their cousins, advising them, arranging their marriages, and so on. Mādrī, meanwhile, is frozen in heaven, just as Māyā is in the Buddha’s lifestory, while the Buddha’s human mother Mahāprajāpatī becomes a nun and achieves nirvana.

There is another reason to compare Kuntī with Mahāprajāpatī, since both raise the children of their co-wives with a powerful affection that erases the distinction between biological child and adopted child. Indeed, the motif of multiple mothers and multiple sons is a strong one, with the child also expected to treat each of his mothers equally. This evening out of relationships is of course in tension with the competition of co-wives, especially when it comes to producing a son in the first place.

A different parallel links Mahāprajāpatī with the mother of the Jina Rṣabha, Marudevī, namely their role as pioneers in the religious realms of their sons. Marudevī, in Svetāmbara accounts, is understood to be the first entrant into the realm of liberated souls, after she sees her omniscient son, the first Jina of the current time-cycle, in all his glory. Likewise, some Buddhist accounts declare that Mahāprajāpatī entered complete nirvana (ie nirvana at death) before the Buddha. There is much more to be said about both of these stories, but the parallel is a provoking one.

Meanwhile the mother of the Jina Mahāvīra, Triśalā, can be helpfully compared with the mothers of the Buddha. Like Māyā, Triśalā’s primary function is as birth-giver, mother in the biological sense. However, like Mahāprajāpatī, she also raises her son, and forms a powerful bond with him. He feels an obligation towards her, which leads, in Svetāmbara accounts, to his decision not to renounce until after her death, since it would cause her too much pain. This account contrasts strongly with tales of the Buddha’s renunciation, which is said to cause immense grief to Mahāprajāpatī.

The motif of separation and of maternal grief is present in the epics too, though here the separation is due to exile (or the higher calling of dharma) rather than a voluntary renunciation. It is in this motif that we most clearly see the tension between family obligations or bonds and the other calls on a young man’s attention.

I still have a long way to go with my survey and analysis, but already these key themes are calling out to be explored, and reinforcing the value of this project’s consideration of sources across the three traditions. The mothers of heroes do warrant some more attention, and I will endeavour to give it to them.


2 thoughts on “Mothers of famous sons

  1. Reiko

    Hi Naomi, I have been enjoying this blog! Have you looked at Stanley Kurtz’ _All the Mothers are One_? I thought it might be useful in thinking abut multiple motherhood and the imperative to love all mothers equally as a feature of South Asian family structure.

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thanks Reiko! Yes I was reading Kurtz’s book last week actually, and did find some of his analysis interesting, though I am not really in a position to judge his new psychoanalytic model! Certainly the relationship between human mothers and divine mothers will have to come into my work somewhere, and the many mothers motif is clearly relevant here. After my paper last week Jonathan Spencer (from Anthropology) made the interesting observation that in modern kinship studies parenthood often has more to do with who is feeding you than who gave birth to you, which is something else I will want to consider. Your book has been wonderfully thought-provoking in all this – thank you! All the best, Naomi


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