The Buddhist scriptures contain numerous words for love such as ādara, atthakāma, dalhabhatti, hita, kāma, lokassādara, manāpa, mettā, paṭibaddhacitta, paṭisanthāra, pema, petteyya, piya, sambhajeyya, sampiya, siniddha, sineha and vissāsa. Some of these words are synonyms, others refer to distinct types of love. Although it is not always easy to find exact English equivalents for them, some can be identified with certainty. For example paṭibaddhacitta means infatuation, petteyya is paternal love, kāma is erotic or sensual love, and vissāsa means a warm trusting acceptance. Matteyya means mother love, both love of one’s mother and maternal love. The Buddhist tradition has long had personifications of the different types of positive feelings; for example Avalokitesvara can be seen as the personification of manifestation of compassion. And if mother love or maternal love has a personification it would be Harati.
Legend said that Harati and her husband Pañcika lurked in the forests and rocky crags around Rajagaha. They had scores of offspring, their favourite being Pingala. Hariti would snatch unguarded or lone children so she and her brood could devour them. One day the distraught citizens of Rajagaha came to the Buddha begging him to do something about Hariti. Moved by compassion and agreeing to help, he tricked Pingala into following him and then hid him under his alms bowl. Hariti spent a week looking for her beloved son but without success, and in desperation finally came to the Buddha asking for his help. The Buddha asked her why she was so upset and she replied: “How could a mother not be upset when her child goes missing?” The Buddha replied: “What of the mothers of all the children you have eaten? Do not they feel the same pain as you?” Realizing the truth of this, Hariti promised to give up her child-eating habits. To make up for all the pain she had caused others she also promised to do everything in her powers to protect children. Seeing the sincerity of these promises, the Buddha showed Harati where Pangala was concealed.
For centuries Hariti was honoured as the embodiment of maternal love. She was believed to protect children from all kinds of harm, to see that mothers always had sufficient milk to feed their babes, and to ease the pangs of childbirth. She was also believed to protect from smallpox, a disease that children were more susceptible to. Hariti was particularly popular wherever Mahayana prevailed although shrines to her and images of her have been found in Thailand and Indonesia and she is mentioned in the Sri Lankan epic, the Mahavamsa. The worship of Hariti had declined throughout most of the Buddhist world in recent centuries but she is still popular in Nepal and in Japan, where she is known as Kariteimo.