I first came across a reference to Santoshi Ma as a colour postcard in an issue of Azoth magazine, and was inspired to ‘work’ with her as part of a sadhana using the Major Arcana of the Tarot (see first external link below) which I later used as the basis of a freeform pathworking at a public workshop. At the time, I assumed that Santoshi was one of the many Hindu devis I had not come across before, and it was only later that I discovered that she was considered by some to be a ‘new’ addition to the company of devis and devas.
Santoshi seems to have ‘emerged’ (if that’s the right word) between the mid-1950s & early 1960s. According to art historian Michael Brand, five temples to Santoshi Ma were dedicated at seperate sites in North India in the early 1960s. Brand notes that the ‘cult’ of Santoshi Ma spread through word of mouth, poster art and puja pamphlets. It has also been claimed that it was filmaker Vijay Sharma’s wife who encouraged him to spread the message of the goddess through film, following her own pilgrimage to a Santoshi Ma temple in Jodhpur.
Santoshi Ma shot from relative obscurity to stardom virtually overnight due to a highly-successful film made in 1975. The film Jai Santoshi Ma (“Hail to the Mother of Satisfaction”) did not feature any Indian film stars, and was considered low-budget in terms of set design and special effects. Philip Lutgendorf (Who Wants to be a Goddess?: Jai Santoshi Ma Revisited) characterises the film as belonging to the mythological genre of Indian film, a genre which, by the 1970s, was generally considered to be ‘downmarket’ and not of interest to sophisticated audiences.
Unlike the other hit films of that year, the plot was dominated by female characters. Yet Jai Santoshi Ma became a runaway hit, packing audiences in cinemas both in the major cities and provincial towns alike. Audiences treated the screenings as events of religious devotion. Stanley Kurtz (All the Mothers Are One: Hindu India and the Cultural Reshaping of Psychoanalysis) notes that during showings of Jai Santoshi Ma:
the theater is transformed into a kind of temple, and the act of seeing the film is often taken as an act of worship.
Kurtz does point out that the commerciality of the cinema means that it may be regarded as a ‘less pure’ form of worship. He also notes that Santoshi is not considered to be ‘new’ by devotees, and that she is equated with other Hindu goddesses such as Durga or Lakshmi.
The film with the birth of Santoshi Ma in the world of the gods, and shifts to introduce the maiden Satyavati, Santoshi Ma’s most fervent devotee, leading a group of women in a ceremony of praise to the goddess. Through Santoshi Ma’s grace, Satyavati marries the handsome Birju, the youngest of seven brothers. But through the marriage, Satyavati comes under the baleful influence of two of Birju’s six sisters-in-law, Durga and Maya. To complicate matters further, the sage Narada stirs up the jealousy of Lakshmi, Parvati and Sarasvati against the ‘upstart’ Santoshi Ma, who conspire to demonstrate that worship of Santoshi Ma is worthless by making life difficult for Satyavati. After a row with his relatives, Birju leaves home in order to seek his fortune. The jealous goddesses cause his ship to be lost at sea, and it is only through Santoshi Ma’s intervention that he escapes drowning. Nevertheless, Parvati et al convince his family that he is dead, and Satyavati becomes a widow – treated as a slave by the sisters-in-law and subjected to various indignities. In answer to her pleas, Santoshi Ma manifests in human form and rescues Satyavati several times. Satyavati thinks of suicide, but Narada appears and tells her about the sixteen-Fridays ritual in honour of Santoshi Ma, which can grant any desire. Satyavati undertakes the ritual (with yet more difficulties) and Birju returns to her, laden with wealth, building a palatial home with a Santoshi Ma temple within it. The couple’s human and divine foes make one last attempt to ruin Satyavati by squeezing lime juice into the food prepared for Satyavati’s udyapan (festival of completion following the granting of her wish) Santoshi Ma’s wrath falls upon the sisters-in-law and their sons who eat the tainted food are struck dead. Birju’s kin naturally blame Satyavati for this, and she implores Santoshi Ma – by the invocation of the bond between devi and devotee, to right all wrongs. The goddess manifests, and lifts her curse on the sisters & restores their sons to life. Meanwhile, in heaven, Narada leads Parvati, Lakshmi and Sarasvati to take refuge at the feet of Santoshi Ma. The three say that they were merely testing Satyavati’s devotion, and Parvati acknowledges that Santoshi is her granddaughter. FInally, Santoshi Ma is elevated on her lotus throne, flanked by the goddesses and their husbands, and by her father, Ganesha. Narada solicits from the assembled devas a benediction: Now all of you give a blessing to Goddess Santoshi so that her name too, like yours, will live eternally.
Drawing on an observation made by sociologist Veena Das that Santoshi Ma has particular appeal to lower-class urban women seeking respite from the everday tensions of existence through devotion to a goddess who is gentle, benevolent and dependable, Lutgendorf explains Santoshi’s appeal in relation to her being the daughter of Ganesha. ‘Santoshi’ has connotations relating to satisfaction, contentment and fulfillment. Thus, like Ganesha, she is primarily oriented towards the devotee’s worldly endeavours – emotional contentment, wealth, happiness, health – rather than spiritual liberation or salvation.
Lutgendorf locates the worship of Santoshi Ma as belonging to the Vrata tradition which is sometimes described as a form of ‘folk’ worship that developed in parallel to the mainstream sacrificial and ascetic practices, and which has, historically, been primarily an oral tradition. Santoshi Ma’s vrat is observed on a series of Fridays (the film specified a period of 16 weeks for example) or until one’s desire is granted. Santoshi Puja involves worshipping an image of Santoshi Ma with flowers and offering her raw sugar and roasted chickpeas and a recitation of the vrat story. Lutgendorf says that these food offerings underscore Santoshi’s benevolent character and her accessibility to poor devotees. Following the puja, the foodstuffs may be offered to a cow or distributed as the goddess’ prasad. The worship also contains the discipline that the devotee should eat only one meal during the day, and should not eat or offer bitter or sour foods to anyone else. When the devotee’s desire is granted by the devi, the devotee should perform a ritual of thanksgiving and serve a festive meal (of sweet foods) to eight boys.
Lutgendorf summarises Santoshi’s vrat story as follows:
“An old woman’s seven sons were all hardworking except the youngest, who was irresponsible; hence his mother served him each night, without his knowledge, the leavings of his brothers dinners, food that was jutha or polluted. His wife became aware of this and told him; horrified, he left home to seek his fortune. He found work with a wealthy merchant and became prosperous, but forgot about his wife. Years went by and the abandoned wife was abused by her in-laws, forced to cut wood in the forest, and given only bread made of chaff and water served in a coconut shell. One day she saw a group of women worshiping Santoshi Ma; they told her about the sixteen-week vrat that fulfills wishes. The wife successfully performed it, wishing for her husband?s return. As a result, Santoshi Ma appeared to him in a dream and told him of his wife’s plight. By her grace, the husband quickly closed his business and returned home with great wealth. Angry at his wife?s mistreatment, he set up his own household, where his wife conducted the udyapan ceremony. But his in-laws contrived to have sour food served to the eight boys, offending the goddess; as a result the husband was imprisoned for tax-evasion. His wife prayed for forgiveness and performed the vrat and udyapan a second time, successfully. Her husband was released from prison and she soon gave birth to a handsome son. Later, Santoshi Ma paid a visit to the family, assuming a fearsome form. The couple’s in-laws fled in terror, but the pious wife recognized her patron goddess and worshiped her. Her in-laws then begged for forgiveness, and the whole family received the goddess’s blessing. As Santoshi Ma gave to this daughter-in-law, so she will give to all.”
An early scene in Jai Santoshi Ma shows the birth of the Goddess. Ganesha and his family (his wives Riddhi – prosperity & Siddhi – success, and his sons) are celebrating the festival of Rakhi. Ganesha’s sons are pleading with him to give them a sister when the sage Narada appears, and reminds Ganesha that the fulfiller of wishes should not disappoint his own sons. Ganesha is initially displeased, but after more pleading (his wives and his sister Manasa join in) he makes the boon-giving gesture and flames leap from the breasts of his wives where they take the shape of a young girl. Narada says: This mind-born daughter of Lord Ganesh will always fulfill everyone’s desires, will cause the Ganges of gratification to flow, and known by the name of ‘Mother of Satisfaction,’ will promote the wellbeing of the whole world. Hail Santoshi Ma!
his mind-borne birth narrative, Lutgendorf notes, is not untypical of the praising of deities through their lila (play) – which stresses their human-like qualities – and exists alongside of the formal worship and philosophical of deities which emphasises their greatness and otherness.
Other elements of Jai Santoshi Ma which reflect characteristic Indian religious practice are its use of music and gaze. In the film, the heroine Satya sings praises to Santoshi Ma and music becomes the ‘place’ where devotee and devi meet. In response to Satya’s musical praise, Santoshi Ma manifests on earth to assist her devotee with her misfortunes. For example, when Satya’s husband, Birju, is lost at sea, she implores the goddess:
I am caught in midstream
Steer my boat ashore
Change the course of my destiny
Perform this miracle
If you so desire it, I can be saved.
Lutgendorf, in his analysis of Jai Santoshi Ma, highlights the way that the film makes use of the experience of darshan – of seeing and being seen by the goddess: The camera repeatedly zooms in on Satyavati’s face and eyes, then offers a comparable point-of-view zoom shot of the goddess as Satyavati sees her. Finally, it offers a shot-reverse shot from a position just over the goddess?s shoulder, thus approximating (though not directly assuming) Santoshi Ma’s perspective, and closing the darshanic loop by showing us Satyavati and the other worshipers more or less as She sees them.