Mary-Rose Abraham: Hey Gayathri, do you ever find yourself down a “YouTube rabbit hole”? You know, you’re looking at a video and suddenly, it’s 3 hours later, and you’re still watching.
Gayathri Vaidyanathan: Oh boy, that happens to me a lot.
MRA: So I went down a rabbit hole researching this episode and I found this. It’s a devotional music video. Let me play you a bit.
Music video clip: “Corona Virus Se Raksha Karegi Maa”
GV: Very catchy. Sounds like he’s asking the goddess to protect his family from the coronavirus.
MRA: Yeah exactly. It’s by Raj Hans Pathankot. The video is super fun – I love how they mix the images of the virus with footage of the goddess — played by an actor of course. This was posted just a couple of months after lockdown started, in May.
GV: It reminds me of the news reports on TV in June – in Assam, people were praying to corona devi, the virus goddess.
News clip: “People Of Assam And Bihar Perform ‘Corona Devi’ Puja”
GV: There were also Corona Devi pujas in West Bengal, Odisha, Kerala.
MRA: So today we’re looking at rituals and practices around disease. It’s basically the non-sciency stuff people put their faith in to get through a scary health situation. Every culture has them. And they have a long history in India. We’ll tell you about two in particular …
GV: Disease goddesses and a ritual associated with them, the rather ominous-sounding scapegoating. Our guide is David Arnold.
David Arnold: I am Professor Emeritus in history at the University of Warwick in the UK. I’ve been studying the history of disease and medicine, particularly in relation to India and South Asia for many years. And I’ve been particularly interested in the way in which India is both the center of disease across a vast area of Asia and the way in which India itself is transformed by various epidemics and pandemics, particularly during the colonial period.
MRA: Happy New Year! You’re listening to Chatroom number nine, “Disease Goddesses and Scapegoats.” This is a bonus episode of Scrolls & Leaves. I’m Mary-Rose.
GV: And I’m Gayathri. We’ll be back with the rest of Season One in a couple of months. In the meantime, please help us out by letting at least one other person know about Scrolls & Leaves. And we’d really appreciate your rating or review on Apple podcasts or Spotify.
MRA: Let me set the scene for you a bit. Diseases, whether local outbreaks, epidemics or pandemics, have always been a constant in India.
DA: India always was a very densely populated country. And necessarily, diseases tend to proliferate in societies with dense urban, or in the case of India, rural populations. So, a disease like smallpox, for example, was a seasonal disease in many parts of India from a very long way back, associated with springtime in particular, and epidemics of smallpox would move out particularly from eastern India to northern India and so on. So, the simple fact that you have a dense population and a population which is in some way or another constantly in contact with each other, facilitates the movement for those kinds of diseases. But India was also from a very long time back an important center of trade, maritime trade, trade overland. A center from which people traveled out as scholars, as pilgrims, as merchants, as religious mendicants. And therefore India was an important incubator and disseminator of disease and not just a recipient of disease.
GV: So I wanna tell you about one of the deadliest diseases that plagued for centuries: smallpox. Its treatment involved a bit of science and a bit of the divine.
DA: And we certainly know something about its movements within India as a disease which spread particularly during the springtime, during the dry, hot months. And of course, there were various indigenous techniques to try to control smallpox. The technique known as variolation was something which was typically practiced in springtime, which actually meant transferring some of the smallpox virus from a smallpox sufferer to a child or to someone who required protection. Some of the therapeutic practices which were used, particularly this idea of variolation or smallpox inoculation, combined both a religious and a therapeutic strategy. Yes, it is a craft, a skill, a technique, practiced by specialists in that craft. But at the same time it was given a religious sanction. The practitioners of that craft, the inoculators, would often invoke the goddess Shitala as the protective deity of smallpox in the belief that she had to sanction this kind of therapeutic transaction. They were doing something which she had ultimate control over as to whether it succeeded or did not.
MRA: Shitala is an incarnation of Goddess Durga. She’s long been invoked against smallpox and a range of other infectious diseases, especially in Northern and Eastern India. Her name translates as “She Who Cools” in Sanskrit, a reference to her curing of fevers. Smallpox is kind of a special case. More commonly, the treatment and the prayer didn’t really mix.
DA: Mostly the religious practices involved, as it were, propitiation rather than actual medical intervention. So in the course of the cholera epidemics, in the course of plague, perhaps even influenza, there was a readiness to propitiate, to worship, a particular disease goddess, who was going to be responsible for causing the disease and also protecting against it.
GV: In 1817, cholera began in Bengal and spread around the world. And another goddess became just as important as Shitala was. And she’s a great example of how religious traditions in India can sometimes cross boundaries. She’s known as Ola bibi to Muslims. And Ola devi to Hindus. You can find her temples in West Bengal.
MRA: There are many other disease goddesses throughout the country and throughout history. The counterpart to Shitala and goddess Ola in South India is Mariamman. And the very earliest reference to a disease goddess is Hariti, about two thousand years ago. Buddhists prayed to her for protection from smallpox. But no matter the name, notice they all had one thing in common.
DA Disease deities in India were female. Because it was believed that women had special powers, the power of Shakti, a dynamic power expressed in both disease and the carrier of disease which male deities, male individuals didn’t have. So women had a particular ferocity perhaps, a particular strength, a particular nurturing power, all wrapped up together. So it was female deities who were worshipped particularly in the case of smallpox, but also in the case of plague and cholera and these other diseases.
GV: There’s an irony in this … The Goddess had the power to protect and cure. But it’s almost like she protected more men — because when it came to women, they got the short end of the stick.
DA: In many instances, women were the actual carers in these epidemic and pandemic situations. And that’s particularly marked in the influenza epidemic of 1918, 1919, where mortality amongst women, adult women, was particularly marked. And that seems to have been because women looked after men when men fell sick. And then when the men died, the women were left unprotected, unsupported, unfed, uncared for. And therefore they became in many cases, the major sufferers, the major casualties of this influenza pandemic. So gender roles have a fascinating place to play in all of these kinds of situations.
MRA: Okay, let’s move on to a ritual sometimes associated with disease goddesses. It’s a lot less benign than offering prayers and poojas. It’s called scapegoating.
DA: That’s the term which has come to be used, both in India and elsewhere. Basically the idea was that you somehow capture the disease and move it somewhere else. It’s very anti-social, perhaps, but that’s the way it was thought of. So it might take the form of a particular offering, of rice, perhaps, fruits, vegetables, which would be given a kind of religious significance associated with a particular disease and its goddess. And then you would take that substance, in a basket perhaps, and dump it in some other village, which was a bit rough on those other villages. But that’s the way in which it worked. It would follow the offering, and say, oh, thank you very much, I’ll move to the next village and do my work there. But sometimes the scapegoats were actually animals, particularly buffaloes, which were taken to the edge of the village having been treated in this kind of rigorous way, and then set free in some other village. Occasionally the scapegoats were people. They were women or members of the lowest class, who were for various reasons stigmatized as being the people who transmitted these diseases, and therefore they were being ushered out of the village, and they’d go elsewhere.
MRA: So where do prayer and rituals fit into the larger picture? David says they’ve always been an important part of the choices people make when faced with disease.
DA: People always have a series of options. And the question is, what option do they take first? So it may be that when you begin to hear about the coming of a disease like cholera, your first impulse is to go to a shrine or perform certain kinds of ritual acts, to try to prevent you, yourself and your family, sickening from disease. Then if they recognize specific symptoms, and If a medical practitioner of some kind is available to them as a second line of resort. So there are a whole series of strategies that people might employ. Or my only hope is the goddess and pray to her and make her offerings that will help.
GV: You were listening to David Arnold on Chatroom. For episode notes, please visit scrollsandleaves.com/chatroom 9. Thank you for listening and bye for now.