The role of a mother is unquestionably the most significant in the life of a human being. Modern psychology elaborates how a healthy childhood results in a child growing up to be a secure, responsible and valuable member of society. It also documents that most pathologies arise from early, dysfunctional dynamics between a child and its primary caregiver, in most cases the mother. The influence a mother can have over the mental and emotional development of a child is enormous and, in most cases, indelible. In the eyes of the child, the mother is his or her primary model. What the mother says, does and believes, the child imbibes organically. The Śanti-parvā of the Mahabharata states the there is no guru greater than the mother. The Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa elaborates the anecdote of Madālasa, considered by many to be an exemplary mother.
Madālasā was the daughter of the Gandharva king, Viśvāvasu. She was stunningly beautiful, most virtuous and highly evolved spiritually. Once, an asura named Pātālaketu kidnaps her from her garden. Ṛtadhvaja, a prince of the illustrious Raghuvamśa rushes to her rescue. She falls in love with the prince and ends up marrying him. In due course of time the king sheds his mortal coils and Ṛtadhvaja ascends the throne. Soon a son is born to Ṛtadhvaja and Madālasa. The delighted king names the son Vikrānta. The citizens of the kingdom are pleased with the name, the queen however, seems amused; she laughs. When asked why she was amused, Madālasa responds, ‘lord, I see no sense in a name being given to the birthless soul to begin with, especially not the name ‘Vikrānta’. The word ‘Vikrānta’ means one who marches forth (and conquers). The soul is omnipresent and all pervading. How then does it march forth, lord? I am hence amused by the name.’
The newborn babe opens its eyes and began to wail. Madālasa begins singing a lullaby to soothe the distressed child. Only, this was no ordinary lullaby sung by a worldly mother. This song was replete with Vedic wisdom.
She crooned sweetly,
शुद्धोऽसि रे तात न तेऽस्ति नाम कृतं हि तत्कल्पनयाधुनैव।
पञ्चात्मकं देहमिदं न तेऽस्ति त्वं वास्य रे रोदिषि कस्य हेतोः॥
śuddho’si re tāta na te’sti nāma kṛtaṁ hi tatkalpanayādhunaiva|
pañcātmakaṁ dehamidaṁ na te’sti tvaṁ vāsya re rodiṣi kasya hetoḥ||
Child, you are pure and unattached. This name attached to you had only just been given to you; it is but a dream. This body that is comprised of the five elements is not yours; you are but a traveller (in the vehicle called human frame). Why then do you cry?
Sometimes one is referred to as the father, sometimes the son, sometimes the husband, sometimes the lover. One is celebrated as kin sometimes and considered a stranger at other times. These titles arise due to the false identification with the body, and fall not prey to such illusions.
Vikrānta grows from babyhood to youth, listening to the wise words of his mother. A sense of detachment for the materialistic world and an affinity for a higher purpose grows along with him. He evinces no desire for the life of a householder. Yet another son is soon born to Madālasā, and the king names him Subāhu, again, much to the amusement of the queen. Subāhu too follows in the footsteps of his brother, imbibing the spiritual values his mother feeds him from the cradle. A third brother, Śatrumardana is born to the royal couple, and he too turns out to be like his other brothers. All three sons retire to the forest seeking liberation.
When a fourth son is born, Ṛtadhvaja urges Madālasā to name him, and she names him Alarka. As Madālasā sets about instructing Alarka in Vedic wisdom, Ṛtadhvaja pleads with her to not initiate him in the path of renunciation. He says to her, ‘raise him in such a manner that he is of use in this world too. Having served mankind, let him then be liberated.’ She accedes to the request. She looks at the newborn baby and says to him, ‘son, grow up to delight my lord. Attend with care to deeds that yield fruit in this world and the next. Child, you are indeed blessed, for you shall rule the earth for long, and shall bring wealth and peace to all. Having thus served mankind, you shall be liberated.’
Delight kith and kin as a child, dear son, and rejoice your parents by obeying them in adolescence. Fill noble women with joy in your youth and resorting to the forest, serve the hermits as your life nears its end.
Alarka grows up to be an exemplary king of the Raghuvamśa who worshipped truth above everything else. The Valmīki-Rāmāyaṇa states that Alarka gouged his eyes out and offered them to a blind boy because he had promised to give the boy anything he sought. Not only had Madālasā raised three perfect renunciants, she had also raised the perfect man in Alarka.