By Sadhana advisory board Dr. Anantanand Rambachan (Professor of Religion, St. Olaf College, MN)
The sentence, “Matr devo bhava”, occurs as part of a graduation address given by a Vedic teacher to his students in the Taittiriya Upanishad. These words are commonly translated as “Honor your mother as God,” or even “Mother is God.” Although the intent underlying these translations is noble, let us look at the sentence closely beginning with the word, ‘deva.’
“Deva” comes from the Sanskrit root, “div” which means “to shine” and it is used to describe a being deserving of honor, reverence and respect. Although “deva” is used in some contexts to refer to the Supreme Being, this is not so in all cases. When used for the Supreme, it is usually qualified by Maha-deva, Parama-deva or even Deva-Deva.
The verb-"bhava"- occurring at the end of the sentence means "to be" or "to become." We may therefore, translate ‘Matr devo bhava’ as “May you be/or may you become one for whom mother is a deva (a being treated with reverence and honor).” In fact, the Sanskrit word for mother (mātā) comes from the verb-root mān meaning to honor. Mātā therefore, means a respected or honored person.
Mother signifies a relation; such a relation may have a biological basis but this is not its primary quality. Yashoda’s relation with Krishna, we should not forget, was not biological and she is honored and revered as his mother.
The three words of the teacher are unqualified by time, place or circumstances. Mothers are not to be honored publicly and disrespected privately. They are not to be honored once a year and ignored every other day. They are not to honored in life and forgotten in death or vice-versa. The teacher does not ask us to honor our mothers only if we think that they are perfect beings. In fact, he does not qualify mother with the pronoun. ‘your.” All mothers deserve to be treated with honor.
Personally, I prefer to translate ‘bhava,’ as ‘become’ (May you become one for whom mother is a deva). Becoming is a process involving learning, effort and growth. Similarly, the teacher exhorts his students to cultivate the attitudes and behavior appropriate to treating mothers as devas. If the practices of honor, reverence and respect for mothers came naturally with birth, there will be no need for the teacher to ask his students to become human beings for whom the mother is a deva.
These three words embody an ideal, but not one that is already accomplished. These words represent the hope of a teacher for his students continuing growth and one towards which, across cultures, religions and nationalities, we can all learn from and aspire to embody in our relationships.
Painting of Mother and Daughter by S. Elayaraja