Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, lost his beloved and revered Mother, Hiraben, on December 30, 2022. She was ninety-nine. As tributes and condolences poured in from world leaders and from all corners of the country, it was as if the whole nation felt her loss keenly.
Hiraba, as she was popularly known, literally means Diamond Mother. She was no less than that for her son, whom she raised to such greatness through tremendous hardship and sacrifice.
Last year, on June 18, when she entered her 100th year, Modi went to seek her blessings. It was an emotional scene, with the prime minister bending down to touch her feet, as the whole nation watched and congratulated her on crossing such a significant milestone.
Invoking that day, Modi recalled her advice to him given in their mother tongue, Gujarati: Kaam karo buddhithi, Jeevan jeevo shuddhithi. Which means “Do your work cleverly, live your life spotlessly.”
Before the year ended, however, Hiraba passed on to the infinite beyond, after a brief illness. The prime minister, barefoot, was one of her pallbearers, carrying her frail body in a simple bier on his shoulder. Though not the eldest son, he himself lit her funeral pyre.
After participating in solemn last rites of cremation, he was back to work within four hours. He flagged off, via video conference, the “Vande Bharat” superfast train in Kolkata and projects worth almost Rs. 8000 crores in West Bengal.
But his mind was very much with his deceased mother: “A glorious century has ended at the Lord’s feet…In Ma I have always experienced the triple manifestation of an ascetic’s journey, a selfless Karmayogi’s example, and a life dedicated to the highest values.”
I was of reminded another world-famous leader’s tribute to his mother. Though she passed away when he was only nine, Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
Fellow subcontinental and opposite number across the border, Pakistan prime minister Shahbaz Sharif, commiserated “There is no greater loss than losing one’s mother.”
India’s moving response
India’s sensitive and moving response to Hiraben’s demise was not surprising. Very few civilizations revere the Feminine as much as India. The Taittiriya, one of the earlier Upanishads, dating back to at least 2400 years ago, famously enjoins us to accord the highest respect and honour to the mother, father, teacher, and guest. Treat them as if they were divine, it says.
The fifth commandment in the Old Testament also declares “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Ex. 20:12.). But in the Indian list, the mother comes first; in addition, the teacher and the guest are added to those who must be hallowed.
Several scholars attest to the importance of the Divine Feminine in Indian traditions. David Kinsley and John Hawley’s work readily come to mind among the dozens of books on the subject. It is no surprise that during the freedom struggle against British colonial rule, the nation was itself reimagined and recast as Mother India.
The Duke University cultural historian Sumathi Ramaswamy maps the pictorial representations of Mother India in over 150 illustrations in book.
Starting with Abanindranath Tagore’s iconic painting, “Bharat Mata” (1905), hundreds of thousands of images of the nation as mother continue to be created and circulated, from the most famous artists of the land right down to poster and calendar art.
The ethos of the land
Actually, the veneration of the nation as Mother was popularized much earlier, as far back as the 1880s, by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in his song “Vande Matram” (Hail to the Mother). The song is still popular and sung every day in India.
The adoration of the nation as mother is such that in election rallies, leaders of almost all political hues are heard crying out, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”—Glory to Mother India. Given this cultural predilection, which distinguishes India from most other countries, the collective homage to Hiraba is in keeping with the ethos of the land.
In one of my earlier writings, I had called India a nation of “matriots” rather than patriots. This “matriotism” is also evidenced in Bollywood’s unforgettable tribute to the nation as mother in Mahboob Khan’s 1957 celluloid epic, Mother India, regarded as one of the most successful and influential Indian movies of all times.
During Modi’s tenure, the contribution of women to nation building, especially during India@75 “Azadi ka Amritmahotsav,” has received special attention. Hundreds of veeranganas (women warriors), apart from the well-known Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, have been remembered.
Less heard of ones such as Velu Nachiyar, Rani Chennamma, Rani Avantibai, Asha Devi, Jhalkari Bai, Mahabiri Devi, Uda Devi, and Rani Gaidinliu, have only recently been rescued from oblivion.
Among the venerated veeramatas (mothers of heroes), Jijabai, Shivaji’s mother or Mata Gujri, the mother of Guru Gobind Singh, the more recent example of Putlibai, Mahatma Gandhi’s mother, also come to mind. Of the latter, Gandhi says in his autobiography, “The outstanding impression that my mother has left on my memory is saintliness.”
Hiraba was both a veerangana in the manner in which she successfully fought the battles of life under adverse circumstances and a veeramata in her continued influence on and support for son, who went on to become India’s foremost leader in recent times.
In this regard, Indian President Droupadi Murmu’s message is worth citing: “Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s mother Hiraba’s struggle-filled 100 year life is a symbol of Indian ideals. Shri Modi integrated ‘regard your mother as divine’ and Hiraba’s values into his life. I pray for the peace of the pure soul and condole with the family.”
That sums up the nation’s feelings too.