Goddesses are Us: Maitrikas in Indian Art

In a recent conversation about museums, I remembered one of my favourite exhibitions at the National Museum in New Delhi from 2014: The Body in Indian Art by the incredibly talented Naman Ahuja, Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. In the catalogue, Dr. Ahuja writes: “The body and its representation is revealed not only as the subject of art, but as the keeper of the values, pre-occupations and aspirations of times ancient, medieval and modern, popular as well as classical.”

Read more about the collection in this review by Habiba Insaf: “What happens when an exhibition is choreographed to weave a discourse within a complex history of a civilisation, that too around the most speculative and provocative subject of art- the body? A magnum opus that brings together 300 known and lesser known masterpieces from provincial as well as private collections and state institutions to chronicle and celebrate the myriad representation of the body in Indian aesthetic thought. The corporeal plurality that results from the diversity of tradition, sociological and economic positions, complex interaction between different faiths and the expansive cultural geography of the country is revealed through monumental stone sculptures, bronzes, paintings, manuscripts, printed posters, reproductions and video installations. The classical and the folk are set in dialogue with the popular and the contemporary to bear testimony to civilization and its unflagging meditation over the ideal representation of the body through time vis-à-vis ruptures, continuities and challenges to established iconography…”

About the original display in Brussels, Dalrymple wrote:

“The heady mix of sensuality and religion that defines so much of Indian art often confuses and even alarms western viewers when they first encounter it. The sacred and the sensuous rub shoulders in an intimate manner that seems strange to sensibilities that have been trained to see art through the lenses of a tradition rooted in Christian attitudes to sexuality and religion: why, we wonder, would a monastery built for celibate Buddhist monks be decorated with images of beautiful, half-naked palace women? How could it be appropriate to cover the exterior walls of a religious building with graphically copulating couples? Yet to pre-colonial Indians, there was no paradox here. For ancient Hindus and Buddhists, there was no association of women with sin; and in all India’s voluminous scriptures there is no Eve. Women were associated with fertility, abundance and prosperity rather than temptation, and there is an open embrace of sexuality as one route to the divine: “In the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the whole world, everything both within and without,” states the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. “In the very same way, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without.”

As the Indian art historian Vidya Dehejia writes: “The human bodily form was hailed as the epitome of manifested perfection, and all objects were seen to gain in meaning, and to be best understood, through comparisons with human beauty and human behaviour, especially in the context of erotic love and union.” It is therefore, quite expected that human form would be abundantly featured in Indian Art. While scanning through my own album of this visit, I came across the Saptamatrika piece that was part of this collection, and following that, our team went down a rabbit-hole of explorations of how motherhood as been featured in art. Here are a few results of this journey.

‘Saptamatrika’. Early depictions of multiple mothering? Seven mothers, 2nd to 3rd Century BC. Kushan period in Terracotta

National Museum, New Delhi. ‘The Body in Indian Art’ from 2014.

When I first saw this installation, I assumed it was a depction of multiple mothering, but like all symbolism in ancient Hinduism, nothing is as simple as it seems at face-value. The maitrikas are a complex symbolisation of bodily elements, psychic attributes of the self and the constant battle between wisdom and ignorance. Here are some references we could find. The Saptamatrika, or seven mothers in Hinduism is a group of mother-goddesses, each of whom is the shakti or female counterpart of each of the gods: Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Kumara, Varaha (an incarnation of Vishnu), Indra and Yama. In one source, this group is also depicted with an additional Yogeshwari who was believed to have emerged from a flame from Vishnu’s mouth. The concept of shakti literally means energy, ability, strength, effort, power, and capability and is the primordial cosmic energy and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the entire universe in Hinduism in which Shaktism is a major tradition. In Shaktism, metaphysical reality is considered metaphorically a woman and shakti, as the supreme godhead. It includes many goddesses, all considered aspects of the same supreme goddess.

Other notes on Saptamatrikas report (Devi Purana) that these images are worshipped by women on a new moon day, with the 64 yoginis (a female master practitioner of yoga, as well as a formal term of respect for female Hindu or Buddhist spiritual teachers), represented by rice flour images or betel nuts. The goddesses are worshipped by offerings of fruit and flower and mantras. It is believed that when the Matrikas are angry, they can strike misfortune on others, especially women and young children. Hence, they are prayed to for protection, health and happiness. The maitrikas are also believed to control bodily substances like skin, blood, fat etc.

Also, “the Saptamatrikas portray an allegory. Shiva is the spirit of vidya or knowledge. andhaka represents, ignorance or the darkness of avidya. It is believed that the more wisdom attacks ignorance, the more it the latter tends to increase. This is represented by the multiplication of andhaka and secondary asuras, or malevolent beings constantly in battle with the benevolent devas, but equally powerful. Unless the eight negative qualities, kama (lust), krodh (anger), lobha (greed), mada (pride), moha (attachment), matsarya (jealousy), paisunya (slander, trechery) and asuya (fault-finding) are completely brought under the control of vidya and kept under restraint, it can never succeed in putting down andhakara. The Varaha Purana state that the matrikas are atmavidya (or science/wisdom of the self) warring against darkness and ignorance or “Etate-te Sarvam-akyatamatma-vidyamritam”.

Thanks to Reshu for her research on Saptamatrikas! Here are some other images of matrikas. Source.

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