The Universal Mother

— Swami Vireshananda —

या देवी सर्वभूतेषु शक्ति-रूपेण संस्थिता ।

नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमो नमः॥

To the Devi, who abides in all beings in the form of power, salutations to her, salutations to her again and again.1

Devi Mahatmyam or Chandi, the celebrated scripture on Divine Mother, ecstatically describes Her to be pervading every element and aspect of this universe, not only in the physical dimension but also in every sphere that transcends the ordinary experience. It is heartening that the Mother was given a lofty position all over the world for thousands of years. We find architectural proofs in different parts of the globe that indicate the prevalence of the worship of God as Mother. Also, there was an all-pervasive proclivity in the ancient civilisations to adore the feminine as a symbol of immaculate love, protection, and fertility. Some scholars have also proved that the ancient societies were predominantly matriarchal, which later transformed into patriarchal due to various historical factors that accounted for the subjugation of women by men.

All of this shows that worshipping God as Mother was not limited to a particular culture or society, but was a primary psychological requisite of human beings who were longing for protection, warmth, and pure love that they get only from the mother. Hence, the Mother worship has an overbearing psychological connotation, which has been widely accepted by doyens of Western psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung who have analysed this in detail in their writings, shedding light on multifarious aspects of such worship. In recent years, we witness a renewed interest in Mother Goddess, which the scholars say, is closely related to the role of women in past and present societies. It is mainly triggered by the feminist movement which demands equal rights and equal positions for women in societies traditionally dominated by men.

All the above factors no longer limit the Mother worship to a particular religion or culture, but have transmuted it into a global subject of critical academic study, analysed in various fields of human interests like sociology, religious studies, anthropology, history, literature, and archaeology.

Antiquity of the Mother Worship2

Even in the pre-historic past, gods and goddesses represented natural elements like water, in the form of a bird or a snake goddess, which was called ‘Mistress of Waters’. Hundreds of sculptured images and cave paintings of these kinds of figurines of the Paleolithic age have been excavated from various archaeological sites throughout Europe and northern Asia including France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Ukraine, and Siberia. The images were carved in bone, stone, antler, and mammoth tusks. They are said to be part of the elaborate worship of Mother Goddess.

In the Neolithic age, with the expansion of agriculture, Mother Goddess came to be associated with the seasonal cycle and harvest, and also representing death and rebirth. We find various figurines of Mother Goddess in the islands of Malta and Gozo in the Mediterranian sea. They express religious conceptions of the farmers living on these islands in ancient times and had a deep psychological meaning for them. The figurines also prove, as some scholars argue, the existence of a matriarchal society in that period, with a religion centred on the Mother Goddess.

During 1961–66, James Mellaart, an English archaeologist, excavated many feminine statues at Çatalhöyük, situated at the north of the Taurus Mountains in South Anatolia of modern Turkey, which he suggested, represent forms of a Great Goddess. He also discovered in a grain bin, a seated female figure flanked by lionesses, which he believed to be the goddess of harvest. Mellaart said that these sites were shrines dedicated to Mother Goddess that indicate the matri­archal society which was in vogue at that time.

Also, we find pieces of evidence to prove that people belonging to Sumerian and other Mesopotamian cultures worshipped the Supreme Being in a goddess called Inanna as early as 4000 BCE.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, there are several prominent goddesses. Some of them are: 1. The sky goddess called Nut, often referred as ‘Mother’, since she was believed to have given birth to stars and sun-god. 2. Goddess Neith, patroness of victorious weapons and the art of weaving. 3. Goddess Isis, the goddess of wisdom, and 4. Goddess Hathor, another sky goddess, who has assumed various forms.

We find the worship of goddesses even among early Jews. Asherah and Anat (a wrath-like warlike lady) were worshipped by the Hebrew people. There was even a temple in Jerusalem dedicated to Asherah built by Rehoboam, the son of Great King Solomon.

In ancient Greece, we find a cluster of goddesses: Goddess of Greece usually connected with vegetation, Gaia, Mother of Earth, and the gods and goddesses—Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Hestia, Artemis, and Demeter,—who are included in the twelve famous deities of Olympics.

Some feminine images belonging to the Neolithic age of about 25,000 years ago were discovered in several places and were said to be those of goddess Venus. The earliest of them found in the Dordogne region of France is about 32,000 years old. In the later period, we find mention of Venus as a Roman goddess who embodies love, beauty, fertility, and victory. Perhaps, the Roman goddess has its ancestry in those images of the distant past. Roman mythology glorifies Venus as the mother of Aeneas, the ancestor of the Roman people. She was central to many religious festivals and revered in many cults under different titles.

Terracotta figurines of Mother goddesses have been found in the Indus valley which is dated 2500-1500 BCE. Also, several stone rings and Lingams have been excavated showing that the worship of Shiva and Devi was in practice in India even in the pre-historic period. A hymn called Devi-Sukta, a part of Rigveda, and the mention of the Goddess Uma in Kena Upanishad—clearly indicate the antiquity of the worship of Mother Goddess in India.

In the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet and Mongolia, the Divine Power was worshipped in both male and female manifestations. The goddess Tara, a female bodhisattva was considered the universal protectress. In Japan, the goddess was worshipped both in Buddhist and Shinto tradi­tions. The Shinto tradition believed that the world has come out of the divine couple—the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami.

In the Christian tradition, the Catholic and Orthodox churches worship Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. She is regarded as Our Mother or the Blessed Mother, as she gave birth to Jesus Christ.

Freudian Concept of God as Mother3

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was one of the important psychologists who studied the phenomena of worship of the Mother Goddess from a purely psychological point of view. In general, Freud considered only the anthropomorphic idea of God to be worthy of any psychological investigation. In his study, he showed that an anthropomorphic god is but an exalted father. Yet he conceded that such a God would not only serve as a father-substitute but also as a mother-substitute. It means, according to Freud, humans develop an intense aspiration to worship God as Mother due to the overwhelming influence they had of an earthly mother in their childhood. The child completely depends upon the mother for the basic psychological necessities of love and protection. Though after some years, the child overcomes this dependence, the desire to substitute the role of a mother with something else still lingers on. And the child, now an adult, finds such a substitute for the earthly mother in the cosmic form of Mother Goddess, who provides one with an abundance of love and protection that one yearns for.

Freud noted that infants are affected by frequent tensions which only their mother can help relieve. If a mother fails to do so, these notions, born out of a need for warmth, nourishment, and so on, accumulate and lead to anxiety in the later period. Infants associate the absence of the mother with the onset of anxiety. This anxiety-laden fear persists even in adulthood and one feels the need for a mother-substitute, which one ulti­mately finds in the Mother Goddess. In all, what Freud says is that Goddess worship represents the infantile desire to be reunited with the mother, who seems to be all-powerful to the child.

The Jungian Postulate of the Great Mother Archetype4

Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) was another savant in the field of psychology, who analysed Mother worship in detail. In contrast to Freud, Jung gave importance to religious impulses in his studies. He proposed four universal archetypes in the human psyche: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, and Trickster. Like any other archetype, the Mother archetype has an infinite variety of aspects. Carl G Jung explains some of the characteristics of the Mother archetype in his book Four Archetypes as follows:

  1. A personal mother and grandmother, stepmother and mother-in-law—for that matter any woman we come across, might be termed as mothers in a figurative sense.
  2. The Goddess also belongs to the same category, especially the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God in the Christian tradition. Carl Jung writes: ‘Mythology offers many variations of the Mother archetype, as for instance the mother who reappears as the maiden in the myth of Demeter and Kore; or the mother who has also the beloved, as in the Cybele-Attis myth.’5
  3. The symbols of the mother in a figurative sense appear in things representing the goal of our longing for redemption such as paradise, the kingdom of God, and so on.
  4. Also, many things arousing devotion or feelings of awe like heaven, earth, the woods, the sea or any still waters, the underworld, and the moon can be Mother symbols.
  5. The Mother archetype is often associated with things and places standing for fertility, fruitfulness, a ploughed field, a garden, and the like. It can be attached to a rock, a cave, a spring, a deep well, or vessel-shaped flowers like the rose or the buds.
  6. Since the Mother archetype implies protection, it can also be represented by a magic circle or a mandala.
  7. All the above symbols can be of positive or negative, that is, either divine or evil connotation. There are historical examples of both types like goddess Kali, who paradoxically is a loving as well as terrible mother. Mother symbolises the three fundamental attributes (gunas) of Prakriti or Nature—sattva, rajas, and tamas, corresponding to goodness, passion, and darkness respectively.

The ‘Great Mother Goddess’ of Neumann

Eric Neumann (1905–60) was a German psychologist, philosopher, and student of Carl Jung. In his seminal book The Great Mother—An Analysis of the Archetype, he elaborates on the Jungian concept of the Great Mother archetype. He observes that the earliest form of creation in myths is that of the womb of the Great Mother as the universal vessel of the world. This contains in itself the entire existence of every human being and so becomes an archetype feminine, which functions as a powerful and protective force to the whole of humanity.

Neumann says that the whole scope of the basic feminine functions such as the giving of life, nourishment, warmth, and protection makes the feminine occupy a central position in human symbolism and bears the character of ‘Greatness’. It is great, since that which is contained, sheltered, and nourished is dependent on it and utterly at its mercy. ‘Nowhere it is so evident that a human being must be experienced as “great” as in the case of the Mother. A glance at the infant or child confirms her position as Great Mother.’6

Neumann also proposes that the ancient myths believed that women and earth—both give forth life and, as such, are sacred. They both have the sole aim of creating biological life. According to Neumann, ‘they are not just myths or historical entities, but psychological realities whose fateful power is still alive in the psychic depths of present-day man’.7 This explanation of symbolism reveals the dependence on the earth by the early humans for basic necessities of life like food, shelter, and the very life itself. As they noticed that life was created in the body of a woman, it was natural for them to conceive that the all-powerful creator should be feminine. This is the reason why our ancestors worshipped a powerful Divine Mother-Goddess and adored her as the mother of all life. The great contribution of Eric Neumann is that he developed the proposal of Mother Goddess into an extensive theory of human spiritual development. He also used shreds of archaeological evidence to prove his theory apart from the above psychological factors.

Goddess Feminism 8

The feminine movement began as a political movement in the West and then encompassed a spiritual dimension also, that resulted in Spiritual Feminism; this further led to a sub-movement called Goddess Feminism. It is a movement that started in the late 1960s and is still popular in the United States, Europe, and Australia. It is but spiri­tual feminism with an emphasis on the Mother Goddess. This movement aims at the exploration of the nature of the Goddess as a catalyst for women’s empowerment and liberation. The followers say that the Goddess religion is the oldest religion and was only later eclipsed by male God worship, an insignia of patriarchal society. What was prevalent in the ancient societies was a matriarchal society centred around Mother Goddess. In the United States, some feminist women, inspired by the Jungian proposal of the Mother Goddess archetype, sought new roles for women in society. They believed that the Goddess archetypes are the powerful inner forces that would shape the destiny of women for the better. Hence, they invoked Mother Goddess as a new metaphor for the greater importance and role of women in contemporary society.

The followers of Goddess Feminism also rely upon deities, myths, and beliefs of several ancient cultures and utilise several philosophical perspectives to make home their point. This movement allows them to formulate their own set of beliefs and practices for the invocation of Mother Goddess in any form they desire. With all these varieties, they have a holistic view of the cosmos, which they say, is represented through the symbol of the Mother Goddess. They also believe that the Great Mother is an allegory for the interrelatedness, and is the cosmic energy that unifies the cosmos.

At the social level, Goddess Feminism challenges existing social and political institutions, which are patriarchal and so, allow for the subjugation and persecution of women. The adherents of the Goddess Feminism movement believe that the mythic ideal of the Mother Goddess, being a symbol of feminist spirituality and nobility is a powerful instrument in countering these institutions, which are run on the ‘principle of dominance’. The Goddess Feminism movement wants to revive such a matriarchal society, which was prevalent in the ancient cultures, in which women had an exalted status, being custodians of fertility, love, and protection.

The worship of the Goddess has a special meaning in this movement. As an author writes: ‘Goddess is not separate but is everything. We are here and She is us. Her agency is our energy. It is in all of us at a deep personal level as a source of power.’9 The worship of the Goddess is termed as a self-affirmation of the strength and wholeness of women. It gives them profound emotional satisfaction and spiritual sustenance.

Conclusion

We have seen how the idea of Mother Goddess and her worship was not limited to India, but was a global phenomenon. However, Dr Aruna Gnanadason, a reputed woman activist and writer, rightly observes: ‘India is the only country where the goddess is still widely worshipped today, in a tradition that dates to the Harappan culture of 3000 BCe. Mother-goddess and fertility cults in which female divinities predominate appear to have constituted the indigenous religious beliefs of the prehistoric period.’10

The worship of the Mother Goddess is the adoration of the Shakti aspect of the ultimate Reality. Sri Ramakrishna gave special prominence to Mother worship in modern times, emphasising that She, the dynamic aspect of Reality, is in no way separate from Brahman, the absolute aspect of Reality. Swami Vivekananda hoped that the worship of Shakti in India would awaken the national spirit of India and would pave way for the empowerment of Indian women.

The Divine Mother, whom we adore, is the Mother of all people, belonging to all races and all nationalities. It is the same Mother, who was and is being worshipped in different forms in various parts of the world since pre-historic times. It shows that Mother captures the hearts and minds of all, being the cosmic energy of the whole universe. In no uncertain terms, Our Mother is the Universal Mother.

References

1 Devi Mahatmyam, 5.32–34.

2 See ‘The Re-emergence of the Great Mother Goddess’, Louis Lagana University of Malta and other sources from internet.

3 See C G Schoenfeld, ‘God The Father—And Mother: Study and Extension of Freud’s Conception of God as an Exalted Father’, American Imago (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 19/3 (Fall 1962), 213–34.

4 See <https://carljungdepthpsychologysite.blog/2020/03/22/the-mother-archetype/#.Yt-AJnZBxjs>.

5 Ibid.

6 Eric Neumann, The Great Mother—An analysis of the Archetyple, Tr. from German by Ralph Manheim (Princeton Univesity Press, 1974), 43.

7 Ibid., 44.

8 See Kathryn Rountree, ‘The Politics of the Goddess: Feminist Spirituality and the Essentialism Debate’, Social Analysis: The International Journal of Anthropology, 43/2 (July 1999); and Backwaters Run Deep: Locating New Zealand Social Anthropology (Berghahn Books, 1999), 138–65.

9 Urusula King, Women and Spirituality: Voices of Protest and Promise (Hong Kong: Macmillan Press, 1993), 141; citing Women Spirit (Spring, 1982), 2.

10 Aruna Gnandason, ‘Women and Spirituality in Asia’, Ed. Urusula King, Feminist Theology from Third Word: A Reader (New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 354.

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