World Vaccine Day: In spite of the Gods – A sneak peak into the history of viruses and faith

Updated: May 18, 2021 12:48 PM

With the government largely absent from the pandemic scene, suffering masses are returning to temples to find solace.

indian government, covid in india, covid pandemic, covid outbreak, covid scare, collapse of trade, weakened powerful armies,(Left) Sitala Mata and (Right) Mariamman Devi's iconography

By Pranay Lal

With the government largely absent from the pandemic scene, suffering masses are returning to temples to find solace. In Dausa, Rajasthan, a 17th century temple dedicated to Sitala mata (from Hindi, the cool mother, or one who cools the hot pox boils that surface on the skin), goddess of succour against smallpox and disease, has hopeful devotees arrive in the wee hours to pray for their loved ones. Nestled between glitzy glass buildings in Keshopur village in Gurugram, is a temple dedicated to the wife of Guru Dronacharya, Kripi (or Kirpai, one who bestows her kripa or mercy) who was later transmogrified into Sitala.

This late 18th century temple was given a modern facade with amenities when the state government took over its management in 1991 and formed a board just as it was done for other big temple complexes. Here too people arrive with hope to find comfort. The revival of prayer for Sitala mata in temples and Youtube videos which invoke the goddess is a stark reminder that people are turning to gods and goddesses to alleviate their suffering.

Human history is rife with episodes of diseases like smallpox which caused collapse of trade, weakened powerful armies and spiralled empires into decline. In the absence of any protection, gods and goddesses became the only hope for the masses. Sitala was worshipped in the region that lies between the Hindukush and the river Godavari. South of the Godavari the ruling deity was Mari-amma, goddess of wealth who was invoked during Dasara to shower prosperity. It was only later, around the mid 17th century that she also began to be worshipped for providing relief against epidemics like smallpox. Temples dedicated to her and her consorts are resplendent.

In contrast, Sitala shrines are modest and are often part of the larger temple complex, sharing space with other gods and deities. Both Sitala and Mari-amma travelled with indentured labour in the early 19th to 20th century and large temples dedicated to them are found from Fiji in the east to Guyana in the west. Before the legend of Sitala emerged, people worshipped Hariti, the Buddhist-Hindu protector of children who, when angered. caused fevers. There was also the goddess Jyestha who was appeased to reverse bad omens including outbreaks of smallpox. Every village in the Indian subcontinent has its local deities and incarnates who protect against diseases.

Before the practice of vaccination was brought into India by the British, it is said that in certain parts of India, some Brahmins and pir-babas would use smallpox exudate (called variolation) to confer protection. Edward Jenner who, in the late 1790s, showed that a jab from cowpox could protect against smallpox advocated for a wider dissemination of the vaccine in British India, and eventually the first Indian got vaccinated in 1802. On April 23, 1977, after decades of efforts to vaccinate every Indian, the country was declared free of smallpox, and in 1981, the WHO certified that the world was eradicated of smallpox. Smallpox remains the only human disease to be eradicated because of a good stable vaccine. With the end of this scourge, the worship of these devis waned.

Forty years after we eradicated smallpox, we are staring at a ‘primitive moment’ in history. A new virus has exposed our frailties, our over dependence on shallow technologies rather than getting right the basics of equitable access to clean water and air and food for all. In the global context, we have failed as a nation to respond collectively to the virus with robust science, common sense and solidarity. The streams of desperate people in temples is an evidence of this. Quite like the old times.

(The author is a public health advocate and author of a book on ‘Deep Natural History of The Indian Subcontinent’. His second book, Invisible Empire: The Natural History of Viruses (Penguin) will be released in August 2021. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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