Is motherhood a social construct? How genuine is the platform of martyrdom we place the mother on? Has the persistent and socio-cultural deification of the mother goddess in the Hindu pantheon promoted, marketed and idolised for mothers to internalise the ideology of “sacrifice” as the ultimate end of motherhood?

The Indrani Mukherjee story of having killed her own daughter is not necessarily a violation of the mother-martyrdom syndrome. It is the natural tendency of men and women to go by their instincts – positive and negative and in this case, Indrani who used to introduce her own daughter as her sister and even had the children’s birth certificates naming her own parents as their parents in an illustration in point.

It proves that the ideal of motherhood we have all been educated in, is a myth, a social construct that has helped society to keep women “in their place” so that men could have it easy.

The “triple talaq” among Muslims is completely one-sided and biased against the wives who are bent under the burden of looking after their children and their upbringing. Do they enjoy it? Do they like it? Do they feel great bearing the burden all alone minus education, family support and source of livelihood? One doubts it. If they do not throw up their hands and give up and also leave the kids to live life afresh, we venerate them, bestow awards and titles on them and pay tributes through the media and other channels. But can we call this a willing martyrdom that fills them with happiness and fulfilment? One doubts it.

In Christianity, Mother Mary is referred to as the “mother of immaculate conception” which implies that she delivered Jesus Christ without consummating her relationship with her husband. This is a mythical story but it still underlines the significance of chastity in a mother who is deified as a Goddess only because she did not co-habit with a man and yet produced a baby. So, logically it follows that the mother is chaste, pure, self-sacrificing and grounded and her happiness lies in the happiness of her children.

The triumph of this screen mother goddess in Mother India in the end is undercut by the loss of the son she loved the most dearly of all. Viewed today, Mother India would perhaps appear to be little more than a soppy, sentimental melodrama geared to raise the sympathies of a mixed audience. The men would still love it because of the Indian man's famous (notorious?) obsession for his own mother. The women in the audience would not come out dry-eyed because the script in real life is written differently.

Radha offers them all a sort of a warped role model, not to imitate, but perhaps to dream about and to idolise. The thumping box-office success of Mother India spewed forth a flood of celluloid imitations including some with top actresses playing an imitation of Nargis' Radha. They vied with each other to do this dream-role of a lifetime. Smita Patil's portrayal in two films, Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984) and Waris (1988) are just two examples of a dozen cheaper and cruder imitations which could not repeat the success of the original.

Dr. Elizabeth Yardley, Professor of Criminology and Director of Birmingham City University’s Centre for Applied Criminology, through her examination of ten cases in her Murderers and Their Mothers has tried to pull at the “mother thread.” She argues that “mothers matter more in the making of murderers because of the inherently gendered nature of society. We expect mothers to be selfless nurturers and primary caregivers - expectations we take for granted and apply to all.

We defer to mothers, simply assuming that they know best and are prioritising the needs of their child, protecting them from harm both within and outside of the family. As long as mum is on the scene, surely everything will be alright?” Through her study of ten serious murderers in history, she classifies that three types of mother make a murderer - anti-mothers, uber-mothers and passive mothers.

According to Yardley, “Anti-mothers, uber-mothers and passive mothers thrive because of the considerable cultural value society places on privacy. How mothers bring up their children remains largely "none of our business".

“Privacy” writes Yardley, “can be valuable as it allows us to restrict who has access to our family places and spaces and enables us to control who knows what about our families. However, it can also be the barrier behind which violence, abuse, neglect and denial can thrive - and the making of a murderer can begin.”

For thousands of years, patriarchy has vested in women the idea of motherhood being the ideal of fulfilment for all women everywhere. So, a woman who cannot bear children is not really and fully a woman – is what the society believes. Biological truths vest also in the father but the father is not vested with the concept of the self-sacrificing martyr who can do everything for his children.

Adoptive mothers who have nurtured children not born of them also underscore that biology has little to contribute to the concept of motherhood as we have been brainwashed to understand it. One classic example is Yashoda who brought up Lord Krishna as her own though she did not give birth to him. His biological mother was Devaki but Yashoda was closer to him. So, where does that leave the biological mother?

Within the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna, born to Devaki, was given to Yashoda and Nanda in Gokul exchanging her daughter Yogmaya by Krishna's father Vasudeva on the night of his birth, for his protection from Devaki's brother, Kansa, the king of Mathura. In fact, Yashoda is so prominent in the Krishna story that Devaki is rendered almost invisible.

The legendary story of Panna Dhai the 16th century nursemaid of Udai Singh II, the heir to the throne of Mewar is well known. Udai Singh was the fourth son of Maharaja Sangram Singh and she was given charge of the small Udai Singh by Rani Karnavati, Udai Singh and Vikramaditya’s mother from the time he was born in 1522 till he was smuggled out of his own kingdom by Pannai Dhai to save him from being killed by his scheming uncle Banvir.

She had a son Chandan who was as old as Udai Singh and the two were close playmates. When a maid informed her that Banvir had already killed Vikramaditya and was coming to kill Udai Singh, Panna Dhai did a strange thing. She concealed Udai Singh in a basket and covered him with fruits before smuggling him out of Banvir’s reach. She placed her own sleeping son Chandan on Udai’s bed. When Banvir’s men came in, they unknowingly killed Chandan in a case of mistaken identity. Some years later, she contacted the chieftains of Mewar and told them that the heir to the throne of Mewar was alive. What kind of martyrdom by a mother would you call this?

Woman as mother was not prepared to surrender to martyrdom thrust on her. The Mahabharata offers some strong examples. It begins with Ganga, the Goddess in human form, who placed a condition to Shantanu who had fallen in love with her and wanted to marry her, that Shantanu, once married to her would not ask any questions about her actions. But after marriage, she drowned seven sons one after the other. But Shantanu stopped her before she proceeded to drown the eighth son. She may have explained why she had done what she had done but that does not present an ideal mother image, the word “ideal” her defined by the commonly understood patriarchal notions of motherhood.

The Devi Bhagavata Purana records a very important detail absent in the Mahabharata. In VI.24.15 Vyasa laments that his mother, Satyavati, abandoned him immediately after his birth; his survival he attributes to chance. Satyavati was the beautiful woman who Shantanu fell in love with. But before they had met, Satyavati had borne a son, initially named Krishna and later named Vyasa, through repeated sexual unions with the sage Rishi Parashara, who, lusting for her, persuaded her to agree to sleep with him.

Satyavati was unwilling but he assured her that he would restore her virginity after the acts. But once Vyasa was born in minutes and grew up as a young man immediately, Satyavati returned to serve her father and did not look after Vyasa who, true to Parashar’s blessing, turned out to be a great scholar. Satyavati acknowledged Vyasa as her son but did not bring him up . Years later, grievously upset by the death of his son Shuka, Vyasa returned to his birthplace in search of his mother.

He found out that she was now the queen and wishing to remain close to her, settled on the banks of the river Saraswati. He was accepted much later and he was accepted and later became father to the future kings Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura! However, fact remains that Satyavati placed her ambitions for her heirs to Hastinapur over her motherhood at all times. Was she a martyr like we expect mothers to be?

Dhanalakshmi Ayyer, author of Satyavati: Blind Ambition, introduces Satyavati as "the embodiment of the driving force of womanhood, with motherly ambition blinding her vision at every turn" and further says that “in a way, Satyavati exemplifies what Rudyard Kipling succinctly put": - The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

In this, Kunti parallels Satyavati, each abandoning her pre-marital first-born to fate.Kunti did not only abandon her first-born Karna but also refused to recognize him as her first-born. Yet, one needs also to remember that unwed motherhood was not really a stigma at that time and Satyavati had proved this already. Kunti did not have the courage to acknowledge Karna as her son even when Pandu, desperate for the children he could not sire, asked her if she had had a child before marriage. One version states that once she learnt she was pregnant, she did not come out of her private room for ten months and only her best friend /maid knew about her secret. Once Karna was born, the two young women cast him into the river waters, not knowing whether he lived or died. When he sees Karna as a grown man at Rangbhoomi, she recognizes him by his two birth gifts, the kavach and the kundal. But she does not admit this truth.

In fact, Kunti never admitted to Karna that he was her first born. It was Lord Krishna who took the truth to him. Just before the Great War between the Kauravas and the Pandavas was to begin, Krishna visits Karna and tells him, “since you are the son of Kunti and according to the tradition of the land whomsoever a woman marries all the children she has, take the name of her husband. So you automatically become a Pandav and being the eldest of all you will inherit the throne.” But that was all the usual politically diabolic strategies indulged in by Lord Krishna who was the charioteer and advisor to the Pandavas.

Kunti finally met Karna only after the peace talks between the two warring factions failed. She told him the truth of his birth. But it was not a confession nor was it an admission of her guilt of having neglected him and not even recognised him. It was the final straw she was clutching at to make him to change sides and join the Pandavas. But Karna was a principled man and he refused either to change his identity or to switch support from the Kauravas to the Pandavas. The tragedy is that both Krishna and Kunti’s admission of the truth of his birth was to win him over at the last minute. They were not bothered about him either before or after the peace talks failed. They were harping on Karna’s strength and courage as a soldier who formed a very powerful support system for the Kauravas.

Pradip Bhattacharya, author of Of Kunti and Satyawati: Sexually Assertive Women of the Mahabharata, praises Satyavati's handling of her encounter with the sage Parashara. He notes that although young, she tackles the persistent sage with great maturity and presence of mind. Bhattacharya remarks, "With a maturity and frankness that astonishes us even in the twenty-first century, she points out that coitus ought to be mutually enjoyable." She is not deluded by the belief that the sage will marry her, and asks for virginity to ensure her future status in society.

In his famous long poem Karna Kunti Sambad (Dialogue between Karna and Kunti) at one place, Tagore through Karna’s voice asks,

Then why
did you discard me so ingloriously –
no family honour, no mother’s eyes to watch me –
to the mercy of this blind, unknown world? Why did you
let me float away on the current of contempt
so irreversibly, banishing me from my brothers?
You put a distance between Arjun and me,
whence from childhood a subtle invisible bond
of bitter enmity pulls us to each other
in an irresistible attraction. –
Mother, you have no answer?