The pandemic brings back disease goddesses
Lhendup G Bhutia | 28 May, 2021
A priest performs aarti in front of the idol of ‘Corona Devi’ at the Kamatchipuri Adhinam temple in Coimbatore, May 19
A LITTLE MORE THAN A WEEK AGO, AS the second wave of Covid-19 had ravaged through Coimbatore, Anand Bharathi was asked to come to the chambers of his spiritual master. A priest who doubles up as the manager at the Kamatchipuri Adhinam, an organisation that runs a temple dedicated to the goddess Shakti in Coimbatore, Bharathi recalls being surprised at being summoned so early in the morning. His spiritual master, who refers to himself as the Gnana Guru Saaktha Sri Sivalingeeswara Swamigal, told Bharathi that a divine presence had visited him the previous night and told him that they must construct a temple in the name of “Corona Devi” and begin praying to her. Only by this propitiation could the impact of the second wave be lessened.
“So we built this temple and now we pray,” says Bharathi.
At the newly constructed temple, Bharathi and his colleagues have installed an idol of the new goddess. It does not look particularly imposing. Made of black stone and no taller than two feet, she sits atop a yellow and saffron altar, unruly matted hair falling over her shoulders, clutching a trident in one hand. But over the course of the next 48 days, as the priests begin conducting daily rituals, Bharathi says, the fruits of their devotion will show in a rapid decline of cases and deaths.
“The goddess will hear us,” he declares.
Bharathi is not the only one putting his faith in divine intervention. There had been stray incidents during the first wave last year of groups, especially of women, gathering to pray to a new goddess in different states; one priest even established a small Corona Devi temple in Kerala. But with the severity of the second wave and its greater spread in rural areas, this has become far more common over the last month. There have been reports of invocations of a new goddess in states like Uttar Pradesh; of prayers to a Coronamma in villages in Karnataka; large gatherings in Andhra Pradesh to appease a goddess known as Gogulamma; processions in Gujarat to pray to a disease deity called Baliyadev; and one former gram panchayat member in Chamarajanagar district in Karnataka even established a shrine for Corona Mata only to find it razed by unenthused officials. Even in Bengaluru, Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa was spotted offering prayers to Annamma Devi, a goddess who is believed to protect people from disease. In some of these cases the virus is being propitiated as a new manifestation of an existing goddess of disease; and in others, being worshipped as an entirely new goddess.
Many may be inclined to dismiss these reports as actions of the gullible or of those seeking attention. But people across the world have always sought the divine to navigate the world of health and wellness. In Judeo-Christian and Greek myths, disease may be constructed as a form of divine punishment for defying God or the gods—evident, for instance, from the book of Genesis where God expels Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and decrees they will suffer disease as part of their punishment, and the plague thrust upon Egyptians when the Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews, to the opening pages of The Iliad, where a terrible plague lays waste to the Greek army because king Agamemnon has insulted Apollo. In comparison, epidemics in the Indian subcontinent led to the creation of a panoply of goddesses—the deities are almost always female—worshipped as both the disease and its cure. Sickness was seen as a form of divine possession, her entry into the body demanding ritual rather than therapeutic responses.
The new Corona Devi is the latest entrant to an old tradition of disease goddesses. Many of them have tribal origins. Even when they got assimilated into larger religions, they carried forth practices like sacrifices
The new Corona Devi or Amma is thus the latest entrant to an old tradition of disease goddesses. Many of them have tribal origins. Even when they got assimilated into larger established religions, they carried forth practices like sacrifices or worship by lower castes. And women always seem to have led in such worship, not unlike the few instances seen now, perhaps because women were better placed to seek intervention from a goddess. These goddesses belong to a lower rung of divine incarnations, not concerned with abstract ideas such as the better-known gods, but with the here and now issues like disease and childcare. The disease goddesses moved from their tribal origins to the Hindu pantheon, or to Buddhism, and sometimes back, each such journey accruing more myths and backstories and giving us a peek into the long history of the religious landscape in South Asia.
One of the most popular such goddesses is Sitala Devi or the goddess of smallpox. It is argued that smallpox was absent or not particularly malignant in ancient India. Old Ayurveda texts, such as the Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita, compiled before the fifth century, make only a passing reference to a disease that resembles smallpox. But later works like the Madhavanidana, compiled in the eighth or ninth century, offer more detailed description, indicating the presence of the disease. By the 19th century, the disease had taken on epidemic proportions. It erupted epidemically roughly every five to seven years in most parts of India. David Arnold in Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India even quotes a saying that goes, “never to count children as permanent members of the family until they have been attacked with and recovered from smallpox.”
In earlier ages, an epidemic as destructive as this, especially at a time when no treatment was available, could only be conceptualised through the lens of religion. According to Harvinder Singh Bhatti, a former professor of sociology in Patiala who has studied the cult of Sitala worship, she is often considered one of seven disease goddesses. But while the worship of others declined or became limited to certain areas, that of Sitala Mata grew with the scourge of smallpox. “Sitala did not appear in the original Hindu pantheon. She probably originated as a folk deity who gradually became assimilated with Hinduism,” he says. Smallpox epidemics were so pronounced and severe that physicians in the 19th century considered the disease beyond their grasp. The only appropriate course, Bhatti says, was to seek the intercession of Sitala. Sitala also became intrinsically connected with the practice of variolation. This practice, where smallpox matter was drawn from a person afflicted with a mild case of smallpox and a new person infected with it so as to produce a controlled and moderated form of the disease and thus grant the person immunity from it, was known in the Middle East and other parts of Asia by the 18th century. In India, variolation was part of Sitala’s worship. Inoculators purified the smallpox matter with water from the Ganges and recited prayers to her throughout the process.
One of the most popular disease goddesses is Sitala Devi or the goddess of smallpox. Perhaps a goddess whose worship has become conspicuous in its absence is the Buddhist deity Hariti
When vaccination was introduced, a strong resistance built against it in India. In part, this was because of its secular character. Unlike variolation, which was seen as a religious act and a celebration of Sitala’s rights over the body, vaccination involved no rituals or incantations. As a result, Arnold writes, “…vaccination was slow to gain public acceptance…It took almost the whole of the nineteenth century for vaccination to become established as an acceptable form… and a further seventy-five years beyond that before the dreaded disease was finally eradicated.”
WHILE SITALA REMAINS A POPULAR DEITY, SHE HAD very little presence in southern India. There was another disease goddess there, Mariamman. Historically, every time an epidemic has broken out, her worship has grown. In the 1970s, when smallpox was eradicated, many speculated that her popularity would dwindle. But that hasn’t happened. In the Fabrizio Ferrari edited Health and Religious Rituals in South Asia, William Harman writes that her worship is only getting bigger: “Her temples are appearing more frequently in larger cities, and her worship has developed an increasingly Sanskritized character, with a de-emphasis on blood sacrifices and an increasing emphasis on her character as benign, gracious, and generous…She continues to cause and to cure illnesses involving fever, especially tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid.” Harman says this is because, as her name suggests, she is a “changing goddess”, with smallpox being just one of her revelatory repertoires. “Her ability to change is a clear testament to the esteem in which her devotees hold her, and to the persistence of the many traditions that coalesce in the image of a gracious, loving, but unpredictable mother worthy of fearful respect, but concerned profoundly with the health and welfare of those devoted to her,” he writes.
This is an interesting facet of disease goddesses. Since they do not belong to the higher class of permanent gods and their existence is deeply intertwined with disease, their existence is forever under threat with the advent of antibiotics and vaccines. To survive they must reinvent themselves. Not all of them can. The worship of the disease goddess Parnashavari has declined in India. Yet, after her absorption in Tibetan Buddhism, she enjoys an elevated spiritual status today as a manifestation of the female bodhisattva Tara.
Known as Lo ma gyon ma in Tibetan Buddhism, many scholars believe that her origins lie with the Savaras, a tribal group living mainly in Bihar, Odisha and Bengal. “Although she is being appealed to today by a Buddhist contingent, this ancient figure reflects diverse religious traditions (Indian tribal religions, Hinduism and Buddhism of India, Nepal and Tibet) as well as an association with the environment and healing,” Ivette Vargas-O’ Bryan writes in Health and Religious Rituals in South Asia. Every time disease has broken out, like the 2003 SARS outbreak or the H1N1 influenza attack in Malaysia and other areas in 2009, Parnashavari or Lo ma gyon ma has been the go-to goddess for several high lamas. Even in this current pandemic, her mantra is being invoked within the Himalayan region, both in India, Tibet and elsewhere.
During the first wave last year, one priest even established a small Corona Devi temple in Kerala. But with the severity of the second wave, such worship has become far more common over the last month
Perhaps a goddess whose worship has become conspicuous in its absence is the Buddhist deity Hariti. The story of her conversion to Buddhism—a goddess who devoured children but who was converted by Buddha and made into a protector instead—is recorded in many ancient Buddhist texts and accounts. One of these texts, the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya is believed to have been compiled in either the first or second century, around the time of the Antonine Plague. Her wide-scale worship is also mentioned in the accounts of 7th century Chinese pilgrims such as Yijing and Xuanzang.
According to Sree Padma Holt of Chicago’s Divinity School, Hariti was one of the earliest goddesses to appear in the emerging Indian Buddhist pantheon of deities. She was a smallpox goddess in the Gandhara region since very early times, she says, and cites in one of her papers an inscription on the plinth of a stupa dedicated to Hariti that contains a prayer to the goddess to take the smallpox away into the sky.
“When Hariti was worshiped as a smallpox deity in the northern parts of India, Buddhists were likely to have felt a responsibility for diverting people away from violent forms of worship. The result was that Hariti, herself, became a Buddhist goddess. When Hariti’s cult was presented in Buddhist guise, the lay people, in fact, were happy that they could continue to worship the mother to ask for their favourite boons, while remaining as Buddhists. Buddhists themselves consciously attributed the same Hariti myth to other guardian deities as well,” Holt tells Open.
While her worship disappeared with the decline of Buddhism in India, she was carried along with Buddhism elsewhere, reaching as far as China and Japan. “The reason (for her popularity in those regions) was the same…that there were local goddesses (seen as both protectors and devourers) serving the same function. Now they were either conflated or replaced with Hariti,” she says.
Holt believes the worship of Hariti did not entirely disappear in India. She simply reincarnated herself as another goddess for a post-Buddhist era. She points to the various smallpox goddesses who continue to exist in Andhra Pradesh; goddesses whose myths and the process of praying to them, resemble Hariti’s. In a paper titled ‘Hariti: Village Origins, Buddhist Elaborations and Saivite Accommodations’, she points to the goddess Erukamma in Andhra Pradesh. “What these details about Erukamma indicate is a very rich and varied amalgamation of practices and beliefs encompassing aspects of religious cults originating from pre-Buddhist, Buddhist, Saivite, and village origins. Erukamma, in her former incarnation as Hariti, started her origins as a smallpox deity but travelled to Andhra in the incarnation of her Buddhist rendering. In post-Buddhist Andhra, when her sculpture was worshipped as the mother of the village with the name Erukamma, she might be viewed as a smallpox goddess…In the absence of smallpox, now her protective function is extended to the well being of families and especially as a goddess with the power to produce male offspring,” she writes.
A couple of years ago, I joined a group of Tibetan pilgrims at dawn to circumambulate the sacred hill atop which lies the Swayumbunath stupa in Nepal. As I reached the top, the sharp stone steps worn into deep grooves by the feet of countless worshipers over centuries, I could see the striking white dome and golden finial of the stupa gleam in the morning sky. I had been there countless times. But the devastation the 2015 earthquake had wreaked on nearby structures cast this area in a new light. That was when I noticed the crowd thronging the two-story temple, built in the beautiful Newari style of gilded pagoda rooftops, adjacent to the stupa. Almost all of them were women, some of them with kids who trembled in the winter cold.
It was the temple of Ajima, I was told. The word ‘Aji’ being the Newari word for grandmother. It was yet another form of Hariti.