In India, a country where Christians account for only about 2.3 percent of the total vast population, the image and iconography of Mother Mary, the Blessed Virgin, are venerated by untold millions of Hindus and other non-Christians. Devotion to Virgin Mary in India (among non-Catholics) takes many forms, from simple shrines in private homes (right next to Hindu gods and goddesses) to pilgrimages to public Marian shrines, which are found all over the country.
Asia News reported that at least 80 percent of pilgrims who formally honor Mother Mary at shrines come from non-Catholic backgrounds, including burqa-clad Muslim women. Moreover, a number of miracles have been reported at Marian shrines, much like in the West (i.e., alleged sightings of Mary crying or speaking, etc.).
This seemingly strange phenomenon might be explained by India's long history of respect, love and adoration of "mother goddess" figures. "The mother goddess has always been venerated [in India] from the earliest times,” Father Errold Fernandes, a Jesuit scriptures scholar, told Asia News. “[Hindu goddesses like] Durga and Kali are some examples of this veneration... People [in India] are able to see in Mary... a figure who will fulfill their aspirations and answer their prayers." Fernandes suggested that Indians who pray for intercession from Mary seek divine assistance in such earthly concerns as finding a job, conceiving a child, or alleviating medical illnesses, as they would with any number of Hindu saints and deities.
Dr. Corinne G. Dempsey, Associate Professor and Asian Studies Program Director at Nazareth College outside Rochester, N.Y., who has observed and studied Hindu-Christian relations in the southern Indian state of Kerala, told International Business Times that Mother Mary enjoys a powerful following in some parts of India. “She is the patron of many prominent churches and is the focus of famous pilgrimage sites visited by Hindus as well as Christians,” Dempsey said. Dempsey indicated that Mary may be considered a “goddess figure” for some Hindus simply because she "acts" like a goddess in the Christian context, where she is understood to be a source of blessings and miracles. “If she is a source of power and comfort for her Christian devotees, there is no reason she would not be powerful for Hindu devotees as well,” Dempsey added.
Dr. Andrew Walker, Professor of Theology at King’s College in London, indicated that Mother Mary fits perfectly into India’s ancient tradition of mother goddess veneration. “[She] resonates with many pre-industrial associations with an earth goddess or divine fertility feminine figure,” Walker told IBTimes. Walker cites the example of Russia, where a very strong attachment to the female representation of nature helped facilitate the incorporation of Mary, as the mother of God, into their existing folk religion. “What Mary offers [to Hindus] is a more focused and particular mother figure,” Walker explained. “She brings into focus, through icon and prayers, the admittedly anthropomorphic but not clear-cut animistic nature goddess.”
Dr. Matthias Frenz of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes (German National Academic Foundation) in Bonn, Germany, posits that Mary strikes a deep chord in many Indians, regardless of faith. “Mary is the mother par excellence,” he told IB Times. “For her devotees, Christians and non-Christians alike, she embodies the ideal of a benign and well-wishing mother.” But particularly for Indians (who not coincidentally refer to their nation as “Mother India”), the motherly figure has an immediate, emotional appeal, because people can connect their own family experiences with Mary, Frenz added. Frenz further noted that understanding the ‘Matha’ (mother) does not require theological expertise nor even any Biblical knowledge. “Visitors of Marian shrines in India rarely care about Catholic theology, but they follow the call of 'their mother,' as they say,” he noted. “Although Catholic tradition has developed sophisticated teachings and doctrines around Mary, the ordinary clergy will mostly stress the motherly qualities of Mary.”
However, Walker asserts that Mary is not viewed by Indian Hindus as a reincarnation of prior Hindu mother goddess figures. She is simply one of many female goddess figures Indians are enamored with. Also, the Hindu view of Mary and Jesus differs quite dramatically from Catholic theology. For Roman Catholics, Jesus is God and inseparable from God, Walker noted, while Mary, who is believed always to be without sin, receives special honor as the mother of the human Jesus who was also divine by virtue of being fathered by God. But Hindus generally do not regard Mary as divine. Yet, on the other hand, in contrast to some ambivalent (and even intimidating) Hindu goddesses, Mary is usually understood as a benign and nurturing figure.
Mary also shares some similarities with one of the most popular of all Hindu goddesses, Sita, the beautiful wife and consort of Rama, who embodies the very sweetness and tenderness of the idealized Indian Hindu woman.
As for Muslims venerating Mary, that is not at all unusual either, considering that the Virgin is frequently and explicitly mentioned in the Holy Quran. “The Koran believes in [Mary’s] Immaculate Conception and, also, in her Virgin Birth,” Fernandes explained. Dempsey indicated that the Quran refers to Mary more times than even the Christian Bible does. Walker cautions, however, that while Islam has no trouble with belief in miracles, the Muslims do not regard either Jesus or Mary as divine. He cited, for example, that in the Quran, Jesus dies on the cross, but unlike the story told in the New Testament, there is no ensuing resurrection.
Frenz also cautions that Muslims’ veneration for Mary has its limits. He said that although Muslims do respect Mary as part of their own tradition, many are critical toward religious practices that look more like adoration than veneration. “In this respect their attitude is similar to Protestant Christians, who do come to shrines and churches dedicated to Mary, but often hesitate to show the same [fervent] involvement like their Hindu and Catholic fellow devotees,” he indicated.
Separately, the veneration of Mary may pose at least an annoyance (or worse, a threat) to Hindu nationalists and traditionalists who resent the encroachment of Western culture into India – particularly the centuries-long efforts by Western missionaries to convert Indians to Christianity. Ironically, Walker notes that much of the proselytizing being conducted in India are by evangelical Protestants (not Catholics), who totally oppose any veneration or representation of Mary and even deny the notion of Mary as the bearer of God altogether. “My assumption is that currently active Hindu nationalist groups would probably consider Mary and Jesus alien to their understanding of Hinduism,” Frenz said. “Such groups would wrongly interpret the inclusion of Mary and Jesus in a personal pantheon as conversion to Christianity and thus oppose it.”
One of the interesting facets of Marian shrines in India, Frenz pointed out, is that Mary has supremacy over baby Jesus to many Hindus there. Indeed, in the devotees' mind, Mary is the powerful "Matha" who takes care of her children, the devotees. “Jesus hardly plays any role; all religious practices and prayers are directed to Mary,” he said. “Pilgrims pray the Rosary, give offerings in front of the image of Mary, and receive blessed food, oil or water from Mary's altar.” Moreover, When Mary is depicted carrying her infant son, Jesus is mostly perceived as an attribute to emphasize Mary's motherliness, he added. (Dempsey counters, however, that among Indian Catholics, particularly in Kerala, Jesus enjoys the highest level of devotion and acclaim.)
At any rate, perhaps the devotion to Mary across India reflects a kind of universality in the world’s faiths that sometimes gets lost in the constant debate between East and West. Along these lines, the Jesuit scholar Fernandes noted that the newest Pope, Francis, has made statements that appear to celebrate the commonality of outwardly different faiths. “God is bigger than anything we can ever imagine, and as human beings we need to realize this,” Fernandes told Asia News. “Often we tend to make God in our image and likeness and so restrict God to a Church/Mosque/Temple or other place of worship. This is a disservice to God. It is a wonderful example of religious harmony when we see people of all faiths converge to pray to God who is all and in all. "
Fernandes added that "anyone who is devoted to Our Lady is on the right track. It was never known that anyone who fled to her protection was left unaided. Mary will never let any devotee stop at her, but will always leads people to God."
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.