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

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