It is common for Catholics in India to assume that Independence Day was timed to coincide with the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. This is simply not true. Whereas the state of India was released from British rule on 15 August 1947, the ancient Marian belief was dogmatically defined three years later, on 1 November 1950. 

What, then, is the relation between the two momentous occurrences? It is true that a feast commemorating the natural death (Dormition, 13 August) of the Mother of Jesus, the reception of her soul by Christ, resurrection on the third day and physical elevation of her incorrupt body into Heaven (15 August) existed since the sixth century. The Eastern churches celebrated this feast, preceded by a fourteen-day period of fasting.

The Catholic Church adopted this date as a holy day of obligation, without formally defining whether or not Mary died; however, the near-universal consensus is that she did die. Either way, the integrity of the doctrine of the Assumption would be unimpaired. Pope Pius XII, in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus (‘The Most Bountiful God’), simply stated that Mary, “after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven.” (Not to be confused with the ‘Ascension’ that is only true of Christ). 

The Bible is silent on the death of the Mother of God, but it is agreed that she died in Jerusalem – where church of the Assumption at the foot of the Mount of Olives upholds the oral tradition; or perhaps in Ephesus – a lesser claim, which rests partly on the Gospel account that Christ on the Cross entrusted the care of Mary to St John, who later went to Ephesus. Apparently, neither city nor any other claimed her remains, as they used to in those days, vying for the title of ‘last resting place’ of famous saints. Thus the crypt in the said church has a tomb but no trace of the bones. This circumstance, in association with the possibility of a bodily assumption before the Second Coming, as suggested by St Matthew (27: 52-53), gives strong credence to the claim that God assumed Mary into heaven.  

It is common for Catholics in India to assume that Independence Day was timed to coincide with the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven.

Interestingly, the feast is observed in England too, although in the Anglican faith the word “Assumption” has fallen into disuse. Despite the millenial connotation going back to King Alfred the Great, who declared it a public holiday, the date played no role in the scheduling of the transfer of power which, as is well known, happened with terrible sense of urgency. This explains how it was only at the fag-end of a crucial press conference in Delhi – only the second addressed by a viceroy in the entire history of Britain’s Indian Empire – that Lord Mountbatten on the spur of the moment announced a date in response to the anonymous voice of an Indian journalist. 

According to the authors of Freedom at Midnight, the voice of the liberator of India constricted with sudden emotion as he announced: “The final Transfer of Power to Indian hands will take place on 15 August 1947.” It would indeed be the second anniversary of the formal announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II. In Mountbatten’s memory, the date linked to the most triumphant hours of his own existence as he received his troops in Singapore in his capacity as Supreme Commander of Southeast Asia.

Does the association of a solemn celestial event – the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – and a solemn terrestrial event – the birth of a country, end here? The precise time of the Assumption is immaterial; suffice it to know Mary’s role in the history of salvation is immeasurable. Contrast this with the fact that the ceremony of the transfer of power was advanced to midnight, to appease the country’s astrologers, who had found a Friday to be inauspicious! A Bengali swami is said to have dashed off a letter to the Viceroy: “For the love of God, do not give India her independence on 15 August. If floods, droughts, famine and massacres follow, it will be because free India was born on a day cursed by the stars.” A compromise solution was found: the midnight hour, since a new day begins at sunrise, according to the Hindu calendar!

If the stars can curse, there can’t be a better reason to invoke the Mother of God in our country and to place our lives in her protective hands. She is a Star par excellence: the Star of the Sea who guides us through our many troubles! And may she, the Morning Star, who was free from fault and had intimations of immortality, come to the aid of poor mortals who through no fault of their own sometimes receive intimations at midnight! And suddenly the date at stake may begin to bubble with even greater significance.