October 23, 2009

Soshti Ma Story
When we were interviewing dais (traditional Indian midwives) about their experiences at births, their techniques, skills and rituals, everyone we interviewed (including one Muslim dai) mentioned Soshti Ma. Soshti Ma is the ‘goddess’ of childbirth and dais talked about how they ‘remembered’ or invoked her at the time of birth and the postpartum rituals. I was working on the Jeeva Project in an area called Jharkhand, one of the poorest and most medically ‘underserved’ parts of India. But this is precisely where dais continue to meet the needs, as best they can, of birthing women—and where younger women continue to learn from the elders of their families, their traditional birth work.
During one interview a village woman, Himani Nandi who was listening to this conversation about birth, told the following story about Soshti Ma. In this narrative Soshti Ma is linked with the more well-known goddess Saraswati and an explanation is given for the custom of eating bhassi khanna (or day-old food) on the day after Saraswati Puja. This is not a well-known story which you would find in fancy books on goddesses and Indian religions—and that’s the beauty of India, that each region, each area will have its own mythic narratives. Here I will first present the story, and then give my interpretation.
There was one old man. He had 60 sons and that’s why he was known as Sattha (sixty in Hindi). One night he had a dream and in his dream an old lady asks him to look for brides for his sons and he will find them. The condition is that they should be married in a family which has 60 daughters. He asked the old lady where he would find such a family. The old lady gave him a clue that he should start travelling to a distant place and where he would fall down, there he would get such family. The next day, early in the morning he started his journey. He walked a long distance and got tired and said to himself, “I don’t know where I will find those 60 girls.” After a rest he again started his journey. Then he stumbled and fell down.
A woman was washing dishes nearby. Then Sattha asked that woman if there was any family in that village which had 60 daughters. She replied, “Come along with me. I have 60 daughters.” So Sattha married his sons with those girls and they started living happily together. Saraswati Pooja came and they celebrated it. The day after Saraswati pooja which is known as baasi bhaat, according to the custom, his daughter in law offered him baasi bhaat (day-old food—bhaat being a rice and dal dish). Sattha had thought that on this day he would eat fresh, hot bhaat. This thought flashed in Sattha’s mind and Soshti ma heard it while she was in the jungle.
Suddenly it started raining heavily. Water flowed into all the houses and all Sattha’s 60 sons and daughters-in-law died in the flood. Sattha was shocked to see all this. He asked a man who was passing by about the reason for this catastrophe. The man advised him to go to Soshti ma and ask her. “But where would I find soshti maa?” he asked. The old man said, “She lives in bard gachh (a banyan tree), go there.” Then Sattha went to the bard gaachh and saw an old lady there. He fell at her feet saying that you are Soshtthi Ma. She said that she was not Soshthi Ma, but told him he had to go to 60 bard gaachh to meet Soshthi Ma.
Sattha went to 59 bard gaachh and when he reached the 60th tree, he saw an old lady whose hair was untied and dishevelled and blood and mucus streamed out of her body. She asked the old man to clean Her body with his tongue. He did this. When he spat, after cleaning her body with his tongue, with each spit one of his sons appeared before him. In this way all 60 of his sons and his 60 daughters-in-law came alive again. He asked Soshtthi maa to forgive him for complaining about the baasi bhaat. This is why baasi bhaat is eaten the day after saraswati pooja.

One of the first things to notice about this story is that despite the fantastic events that take place, the locations and activities are common to everyday life. The concerns with getting children married banyan trees, dreams, travelling (by foot), washing dishes, wise old ladies, bhaat or common food, blood and mucous, banyan trees, and even the man, Satha’s dissatisfaction with the food his daughter-in-law served him are part and parcel of everyday life.
Another aspect, and this is more relevant to the topic of birth, is the common rhetorical device in Indian tales of displacement of body parts. Let’s look at the images used here. Sattha cleans up the old lady’s blood and mucous with his tongue (phallus?) He spits and a son comes alive (ejaculation?) On one level this is like Athena being born from Zeus’s head—the male claiming the power to give birth—arrogant, just like Sathha’s dissatisfaction with the food (a not unusual Indian male reaction). On another level the anatomical correctness of it—the penis must enter the vagina, place of blood and mucous—those dirty but fertile places in many males’ imaginations—for conception to take place.
But most importantly, I would suggest, is the level of his cleaning up (with that supposedly clean place, the mouth) these oozing bodily fluids. (Anyone who has recently birthed, or works with birthing women is very familiar with these fluids!) He has to literally taste this yukky stuff in order to redeem himself of his transgression and the subsequent catastrophe. He needs to gain knowledge about woman’s creative juices. And what is his transgression? He forgot the honouring of Soshti Ma by his disappointment at baasi bhaat and was dissatisfied with his daughter-in-law—the one who will provide him with grandchildren, continuing the family line. The activities of cooking and pregnancy, involving the pot on the stove and the pot in the belly, are often conflated in the Indian imagination. I remember one dai describing labour pains as “the pot is boiling”.
Let’s now look at Soshti Ma and her role in the story. Interestingly, Himani who told the story ended by making two points. First she explained that the dai does Soshti ma’s worship so on the day of baasi bhaat, this story is told to everyone. She also said that Soshti ma changes her roop or shape—she appears in different forms. Here the identities of Soshti Ma, Saraswati and even the dai who does her worship, are fluid. Changing ‘roop’ or shape is what in shamanism is called ‘shape shifting.’
Theologically, if we can use that fancy word, there is nothing about these deities, these stories which can be defined as mutually exclusive—Saraswati and Soshti Ma and even the dai merge into one another, all signifying, guarding and helping the creative force. The name Soshti is, in Hindi Shrishti or creation. While writing this article I looked up the meanings of saras, the root of Saraswati and found that saras means water which is continually flowing, always new, renewing and flowing and fertile—the seat of all creative streams (amniotic fluid? the ocean?—both sources of life). Thus, in the high traditions Saraswati is associated with learning, culture and knowledge. It is fitting then that Saathi’s transgression, his neglect of the custom of honouring Saraswati by eating baasi bhaat, results in a flood.
I love this story because it depicts events which are earthy and so sacred at the same time. I share this story because it opens up a world view, a cosmo-vision in which the fluids of the female body, and by implication, birth, such a mundane everyday occurrence, are the central concerns.
although the interpretation above is mine, i owe thanks to Lindsay Barnes, the Jeeva Project, Jaan Chetna Manch and Sandhya for the occasion to access such wise material
Motherhood may be good for the body

An article in the newspaper the other day, “Is motherhood a boon for the body?” presents a radically different view from contemporary ideas about women’s bodies and reproduction.
“There is an increasing body of evidence that the biological changes of pregnancy may improve both physical and mental performance,” the article states, noting that a growing list of sportswomen have excelled in competitions not long after having a baby. Research suggests that pregnancy may improve both physical and mental performance.
What makes this view so radically different? Biomedicine has historically ignored the amazing gifts of the human body: the immune system, the linkages between emotional and physical health as well as concepts of a life force (recognized as chi, ki, and prana in Eastern traditions and ‘vital force’ in homeopathy). Western medicine has also ignored the specific powers of the female as a life bearing and nurturing body, rather viewing these capacities as potential problems. So many women, thanks to their encounters with their doctors, have come to view the very things that make them female as a liability. Gynaecology and obstetrical textbooks are full of what can go wrong with little elaboration of what is normal and healthy. Thanks to the self-fulfilling prophecies of their doctors and popular media, women from New Delhi to New York experience menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum and menopause as problematic, to be viewed with fear and trepidation. Real medical conditions do exist, and then thank God for doctors, surgeons and pharmaceuticals.
The problem is that women are completely losing touch with their bodies. Consider the “Caesarean epidemic.” In Delhi hopsitals, 60% of all births occur through Caesarean section. Clearly women and doctors just don’t think they can do it “naturally” anymore. Even the rather conventional World Health Organization has stated that the C-section rate, which is major abdominal surgery, should never be more than 10-15%.
So what a breath of fresh air that we now we have experts coming to a different conclusion—women’s bodies are doing something right! And it has taken research on elite sportswomen, and their successes in a traditionally male-dominated field, to show us that women, all women and especially those physically active, are compensated by Mother Nature for their birth work.
Having a baby is not simply carrying a load about for nine months and enduring pain to push it out. Women have the potential for enhanced capacities, physical and mental, postpartum. While the exact mechanisms at work are still being investigated, it is known that most organs of the mother’s body work harder to support the pregnancy and blood volume increases dramatically. At the time of birth, hormones loosen the hips and increase flexibility. But most surprisingly, the hormone fluctuations during birth and breastfeeding appear to increase the size of cells in some areas of the brain.
This is great stuff, ladies. No longer do we have to think of ourselves as fat and befuddled postpartum. This is not to say that one should hop up and run to the gym a week after birthing. We can turn instead to traditional cultures to look at the time frames they observed. In India (and also in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic texts) the period of ‘confinement’ was 40 days to allow the body to heal and return to pre-partum form. During that time, women were only responsible for the care of the newborn and themselves. They were relieved of domestic, social, sexual and familial duties—they were secluded and protected from the outside obligations.
Indian civilization has other contributions to how the female body, motherhood and reproduction are viewed. Eve, in the Old Testament of the Bible—the foundational text of the Semitic religions—is cursed to bring for children in pain and suffering for having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. But in Indian thought and imagery, the yoni—the place from which the infant emerges—is a divine passage. The word yoni, first mentioned in the Vedas, is drawn from yog, meaning ‘to join’, the same root as in yoga and yogini. The birth process is likened to the creation of the universe. The name of the birth goddess Shosti Ma, still invoked by traditional midwives in Eastern India, is the same as the Hindi shristi—creation. The birthing woman is akin to the cosmic creatrix—the Devi, Shakti. Of course all this is buried in history, iconography, myth and ritual performance. But this view of female reproductive power and the goddess often continues to give strength to poor rural childbearing women and their caretakers, traditional midwives.
I once met such a midwife and healer and she told me that postpartum women could be healed of many previous ailments she may have suffered because her body was in flux, full of the energy of life. Maybe this is the old-fashioned correlate of “motherhood is a boon for the female body.”
Janet Chawla