When the manliest of gods became a mother

Renuka Narayanan

The people told their king, Mahendravarman the First, who built a temple to Shiva as Thayumanavar in Trichy.

With the holy days of Vasant Navratri starting this week, I would like to retell an unusual story about Lord Shiva. We know that Shakti is Shiva’s other half. But in this story, Shiva did not ask Parvati to go in his place. He rushed to the rescue himself in the form of a mortal woman. Indeed, I have observed that the South has several stories in which Shiva gets actively involved in the lives of his devotees.

This story goes back to the sixth century in Tamil Nadu. There was a girl called Ratnavati who was an ardent devotee of Shiva, whom she worshipped by the name Sevadinath. She inherited this love from her father Ratnaguptan, who was a merchant and a man of faith. Ratnavati lived with her husband in Trichy. There were no elders or relatives at home, just the two of them. The husband, being a merchant himself, was often away on work. When Ratnavati became pregnant, she prayed every day to Shiva for the baby’s health. She chanted slokas and did puja, offering bel leaves, water and milk. She firmly believed that Shiva would protect her family all the way.

But naturally, Ratnavati wanted her mother by her side during the birth. Nobody else would do. She sent word to her mother who lived some distance away across the river Kaveri. When the date drew near, Ratnavati’s mother began to prepare her daughter’s favourite snacks to take along. She also made the special restorative laddoos given to new mothers, some medicinal oil, a big jar of ghee from pure cow’s milk and the herbal jam called lehiyam, known as chyavanaprash in the North. Trichy was a few days’ journey away and she set out in good time with two attendants. But when they neared Trichy, they found to their dismay that the Kaveri was in flood and impossible to cross just then.

While her mother fretted on the far bank of the Kaveri, Ratnavati went into early labour and began to panic. It was bad enough that her husband was away on work, planning to be back before the baby was due. But where on earth was her mother? As the sky grew dark and rain clouds began to empty on Trichy, she prayed desperately to Shiva, “Dear God, my saviour, my lord Sevadinath. You have two beautiful children, and all of us here are your children, too. I’m sure you understand how much I need my mother now. Please don’t leave me alone, please help me.”

Ratnavati had barely finished her prayer when she heard a knock on the door. There stood her mother, beaming, carrying many baskets and bundles. Relieved and happy, Ratnavati let her mother take charge. With her mother’s able help, she delivered a beautiful baby. Her mother saw to the house and the child. She dosed Ratnavati with healing syrups, let her sleep undisturbed, cooked nourishing meals and kept the house fresh and tidy. She did not let Ratnavati pick up even a small pot of drinking water. Ratnavati felt thoroughly pampered by all this loving care.

After a few days, Ratnavati heard a knock and went to the door. She was shocked to see her mother and the two attendants.

“My dear daughter, please forgive me for not coming to you sooner,” cried her mother. “The Kaveri was in flood and I couldn’t cross any earlier. How worried I was! I am so relieved to see you looking well. Where is my grandchild?”

While her mother sobbed in relief, Ratnavati rushed to the kitchen where she had seen her mother’s double go. But that mother was nowhere to be seen. Ratnavati looked at her mother in utmost wonder and went straight to the puja room to thank Shiva. Who else could it have been? Sevadinath Shiva had become a mortal mother for the sake of a girl who totally trusted him and had called out to him in complete faith. He had even brought the same food and medicine that Ratnavati’s mother had prepared.

Ratnavati dissolved in floods of grateful tears when she realised how perfectly Mahadev, the Great God, the Vaidishwar or god of doctors himself, had looked after her and her baby. Throughout their lives, she and her mother would often break down thinking of it. “Did Sevadinath really do such-and-such?” they would say, overcome by his maternal compassion.

That Great God beyond time and space, that Adi Guru, that Mahayogi, that demon-killer, that Trikaldarshi who saw the past, present and future seamlessly was not remote to them. How could he be, when he had delivered Ratnavati’s baby, plaited her hair, cooked her food and fed her with his own hand as her mother?

Ratnavati and her family held a big puja of thanksgiving and invited the whole town to a feast to celebrate this miracle. Everyone was deeply touched by Shiva’s kindness.

“What does he not do for us? He drank poison to save the world. He even became the mother to this girl in her hour of need,” they said, shedding tears of wonder. From that day, Shiva was given the name ‘Thayumanavar’, Tamil for ‘the Lord who even became the mother’.

The people told their king, Mahendravarman the First, who built a temple to Shiva as Thayumanavar in Trichy. The Pandya kings made the temple even bigger later. The emperors of Vijayanagar and after them the Nayak kings of Madurai are said to have restored it in medieval times. Ratnavati’s experience of ishakripa or God’s grace has thus been enshrined forever in the land. I am told that they hold a festival there every year even today, re-enacting this Shivlila, and give medicinal oil as prasadam to new mothers. Not only do they remember Shiva’s motherly mercy but teach everyone who cares to learn that a man has it in him to be as caring as a mother. Shiva, that most manly of gods, set an example for all men.

(The writer is a commentator and columnist on religion and culture)

(Courtesy: The New Indian Express)