Mother India

   Mother India was a controversial book, written in 1927 by Katherine Mayo, an American medical missionary and journalist, that condemned Hin-duism as a cause of India’s suffering.
   The book was inspired by Mayo’s encounters with Indian women and customs during her travels to the country in 1925 and 1926. It raised consciousness of important gender and caste issues that needed to be addressed; however, it also served as an indictment against Indian society and Hinduism in general.
   Mayo claimed that Hindu customs were dan-gerous not only to India but to the entire world. She believed the customs weakened the human “stock” with poverty, disease, and physical and mental frailties. Historians have interpreted the book as a racist tract that emerged from the age of British and American imperialism. The book negatively influenced popular Western percep-tions of India for decades and hindered support and sympathy for Indian independence around the world.
   The main thesis of Mother India was an asser-tion that Hindu practices made Indians weak, incapable of self-rule, and unable to become eco-nomically self-sufficient. A primary indictment concerned the roles of women. Mayo charged that the Hindu religion enslaved women, forced them to be sexually subservient to men, and demanded that they follow social patterns that produced impoverishment and ignorance. Mayo cites factors such as child marriage, lack of edu-cation, the burdens of having many children, child widowhood, prostitution, and epidemics of venereal disease as significant problems for women in India.
   Some American feminists during the 1970s revered Mayo as a pioneer who created awareness of the plight of Indian woman. Indian critics, by contrast, dispute Mother India’s representa-tion of all Indian women as weak, passive, and incapable of resistance. Mayo made no mention of the Indian women’s movement or of efforts by the Indian National Congress to support women’s rights. While depicting Indian women as helpless victims, the book lauds the British imperialists as a civilizing force, saving India from the customs of a decadent religion.
   The book prompted outrage and criticism from Indian nationalists. Mohandas Karamchand GANDHI referred to it as a “gutter inspector’s report,” and it received further condemnation from Indian women’s organizations. In Britain, however, Mother India received enthusiastic reviews. Indignant Hindus in America rebutted the publication with many books and pamphlets; they tried to turn the tables by condemning American society as rampant with crime, political scandal, and marital infidelity.
   The book did succeed in raising awareness of some issues and fostering British reforms in India, such as the Child Marriage Act of 1929. Ironi-cally, Mother India also contributed to an alliance between Indian nationalists and women’s move-ments, which organized to refute and neutralize Mayo’s indictments. The alliance helped to pass the Sarada Act, a law enforcing a minimal age for marriage.
   Mother India continues to influence Western perceptions of Hinduism and India. Its whole-sale rejection of Hindu beliefs and practices and its depiction of a sexually deviant culture have influenced popular media to represent India as exotic, forbidden, and dangerous. Yet, Mother India remains inspirational to others who use its thesis to promote heightened awareness for reform in India.
   Further reading: Elizabeth Bumiller, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey among the Women of India (New York: Random House, 1991); W. Estep, An American Answers Mother India (Excelsior Springs, Mo.: Super Mind Science, 1929); Katherine Mayo, Mother India (New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1927); ———, The Isles of Fear; The Truth about the Philippines (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925); Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Mas-culinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Man-chester University Press, 1995).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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