Move over, 'adarsh ma': Hindu mythology revelled in stories of bad moms, and the havoc they wreaked
There are some mother figures in Hindu mythology who would have made even Norman Bates reconsider his love for mummy.
We need to talk about bad mothers. Even in using that line, that reference to the extremely disturbing book (and film) We Need To Talk About Kevin, I'm talking about a bad mother. Had Kevin's mother bonded with him more, would he have turned into the titular bad Kevin? If Bridget Jones' mother didn't constantly undermine her, would we cheer so loudly when she's finally swept off her feet by Mark Darcy?
Bad mothers are staring out at you from a lot of pop culture, literature and film, people want to believe that all mothers are good, heavenly, nurturing, all that jazz, but secretly, everyone wants to know the stories of the bad ones. I'm not just talking psychological manipulation either. Think of the Aarushi murder case. When it came down to it, in the heat of the investigation, all eyes were on her mother Nupur Talwar, her seeming lack of grief, and many, many people asked, “What sort of mother would do that?”
But bad mothers aren't just a modern-day construct, a way to shock and awe and move a story forward. No, we've been seeing echoes of them all through mythology, whether it's Greece, Egypt or yes, right here at home. Ancient Hindu mythology wasn't afraid of villainising mothers — only most of the time, the narrative isn't so much about “this is a bad thing that this woman did”, more like “if you pray to this mother goddess, there's a chance she won't kill your child.”
There's a septet of mother goddesses called the Matrikas, said to date to the pre-Aryan times. They move together and were probably inspired by the Pleiades constellation of stars. They were worshipped so they didn't spread death and destruction in their path, and off-shoots of these goddesses in various forms have been associated with Tantrik worship. (For truly nightmarish images, look up ancient sculptures of the mother goddess deity Chamunda. The White Walkers have nothing on her.)
But while the Matrikas as a unit were pretty terrifying, there was some healthy respect going on there — and if you made it to age 16, they'd look after you kindly from then on, it was only children and pregnant women they seemed to target — a good explanation for deaths during childbirth and infant mortality.
However, there are some mother figures in Hindu mythology though that would have made even Norman Bates reconsider his love for mummy.
Enter Putana, who has nothing to do with spaghetti alla puttanesca, though that would be fun. That being said, the Italian and the Sanskrit words do mean similar things; the Italian 'puttana' means 'whore' and in Sanskrit, it's 'put' for virtue and 'na' for none, so you see where they're going with it. Our Putana, however, doesn't seem to have any whore-ish attributes, just plain old child-killing evil.
Putana, the demon-woman in this story, was hired by Kamsa, a classic Evil Uncle in the style of Scar from The Lion King, to murder his nephew Krishna. Kamsa had been told that Krishna would one day grow up and kill him and, much like Voldemort, he wanted to make sure that would never happen. In Kamsa's case, he wasn't leaving anything to chance. Instead of just murdering his prophesied nemesis — the eighth child Krishna — Kamsa patiently imprisoned Krishna’s parents Devaki and Vasudeva for many years, killing off each of their successive new-born babies one by one. This would have been a good time for Devaki and Vasudeva to practice some birth control, of course, but they had other tricks up their sleeve. The seventh child was IVFd into another womb via godly magic and became Krishna's beloved elder brother Balarama and the eighth child, Krishna, was hand-delivered to foster parents Nanda and Yashoda by his dad in the dead of the night and became the (second) Boy Who Lived.
Everyone knows you can't stop a prophecy, but Kamsa was going to try anyway, which is when we go back to the Putana story. (Ironically, by this time, Krishna already had plenty of reason to want to kill him, prediction or not. Imprisoning one's parents for over a decade and then killing all your other siblings is pretty good cause for revenge.)
But Krishna wasn’t in the clear yet. Putana, pretending to be a beautiful woman, fully planned to kill Krishna by rubbing poison all over her nipple and offering to feed him for a bit to his foster mother. Back in ancient India, I suspect that having a little feed swap, where other people suckled your child as you worked and vice versa was an an obvious solution to day care, though in this case it may also function as a little warning about disease control, rather than an argument for bottle over breast.
However, clever baby Krishna was onto Putana, and killed her instead (it is unclear how exactly he killed her, although some sources say he just clung to her bosom and strangled her until she assumed her “real” demon form and died, which is a lovely image for any breastfeeding mothers).
There are several psychological interpretations of the Putana myth, most famously by psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakar who says she represents the “'schizophrenagenic' mother who has her son in an emotional clinch in which neither can let go.” In an essay by Nilofer Kaul, she draws parallels between the Putana story and the Oedipus myth — the bad mother who must be killed to preserve the self of the child. “Even as Putana is the ‘dark and demonic’ aspect of the mother who needs to die,” writes Kaul, “she is suckling the baby, bringing him to life.”
Mythology shows us our most ancient fears — and I find the stories of the villains somehow much more telling than that of our heroes. In the case of Putana, I wonder if the story was not also told as a warning against trying to kill your children, because maybe they'll turn around and kill you instead. Also, even though now, in the 21st century, there's all this deification of mothers as these self-sacrificing near-holy beings, I'm glad that the ancients had room for so many shades of grey. It certainly makes for more interesting and and multilayered reading.
Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan
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