The Ramayana, Hinduism's most famous epic, is set in motion because Rama's stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi, banishes Rama to the forest so her own son can rule the kingdom. Rama, ever the dutiful son, takes this to heart and gives up kingdom, wealth, title, and power because Mother Kaikeyi said so.
The Mahabharata, another great Hindu epic, features five Pandava princes who marry one princess, Draupadi, because their mother inadvertently commands them to. Arjuna, one of the Pandava princes, wins Draupadi's hand in a contest. He triumphantly returns home with his new bride and his brothers. "Look, mother," he says from the door. "Look what I won." Without turning around, the mother replies, "Whatever it is, share it equally with your brothers." And so it is that Draupadi becomes the wife of all five brothers because Mother Kunti said so.
Even modern-day Hindi movies feature heroes who risk life and limb because their mother is captured by the villain; or in other instances, heroes who bring villains to the sword's edge only to spare them because the mother says, "No, son. Thou shalt not kill."
It is a known fact that sons are more prized than daughters in India, as with China. The fact that these daughters grow up to become mothers who are prized members of Hindu society is something that isn't thought about or acknowledged. As a woman who grew up in India, the message I got was that my value would increase as I got older. As an adolescent girl, I was a burden to my parents, who had to find the appropriate spouse and pay for my wedding. As a young bride, I was full of responsibilities--toward my husband, my in-laws, and their extended family.
It was only after I became a mom that I gained "status" within the community as a bearer of progeny, a promoter of the family lineage. When I become a mother-in-law and then a grandmother, the respect that Hindu society will accord me will increase. I am exaggerating, of course--no parents, not even Hindu ones who have to pay for their daughters' weddings, think of their daughters only as burdens--but there's a good deal of truth in it.
This is not to say that I didn't have strong female role models while growing up. Indira Gandhi, mother of two, was the prime minister of India; Sirimao Bandaranayake, another mother, was prime minister of neighboring Sri Lanka; and Benazir Bhutto, trained in Radcliffe, had just become prime minister of rival country Pakistan. Then there was Golda Meier, the head of Israel, and Corazon Aquino, who won the elections in the Philippines. Women and mothers all.
The Hindu pantheon is full of role models as well. There is the strong and brave Goddess Durga, who rode on a tiger and vanquished her foes; there is fierce Goddess Kali, with skeletons around her neck in a garland; there is Saraswati the learned; and there is the Mother Goddess of all Hindu Gods, worshipped all over India as Devi-ma.
That, perhaps, is the biggest difference between the Indian and American attitude toward mothers. Indian feminism may not have reached the heights that Western feminism has; Indian girls may still be valued less than boys, and Indian women may not be able to participate in Hindu rituals, but wherever they go in India, women are revered as incarnations of Devi-ma.
When my mother made a trip to North India, she was commonly called "Ma-ji" (a respectful way of saying "Mother") and treated with respect and courtesy. When I meet older Indian ladies in America, I instinctively help them with their suitcases or offer them a chair. It has been drilled into me that these women are like Devi-ma, and by helping them I am earning their blessings, and thus good karma.
Happy Mother's Day, all of you Devi-mas out there!