Deities of disease

Deities of disease

Myths vs Facts

Last year, when the coronavirus pandemic enveloped the country in fear and anxiety, village elders in Hulikere, a village in North Karnataka, got together to mull over a 'solution'.

They came to a unanimous conclusion— to deal with the new illness, one that they had little information about, they would have to apply an old formula. H Marappa, a panchayat member in the village, says that the vagaries of infectious diseases have always been associated with the anger of Goddesses like ‘Amma’. The decision was easy, they would have to appease this Goddess.

In March last year, Marappa explained, "The village came together, made a wooden idol and gave offerings of fruits and sweets." The idol, christened with a new name ‘Coronamma’ and satiated with offerings was then carried through the village on a cart, surrounded by her devotees chanting her name, finally to be left outside the border of the village, ridding the village of her presence. 

Only her name was new in Hulikere but the practice of associating illness and disease with Goddesses was not.

Hundreds of miles from Hulikere, in Hassan district's Thimmalapura, people worshipped ‘Amma’ when a blight had affected their coconut trees. "We even worshipped Amma when a disease affected our cattle about two years back,” said Harsha Gundappa, a farmer from the village.

Ancient fears 

This practice of invoking and worshipping Goddesses during the spread of diseases that are out of people's control is not new. As early as sixth and seventh CE, Chinese travellers have recorded the worship of Hariti, an ogress turned guardian, who people worshipped for the health and well-being of their children at the time of smallpox, a disease that affected children disproportionately. 

According to a study on 'fever Goddesses' in Andhra Pradesh, many villages had statues of Hariti and worshipped her for relief from illness, calling her ‘Amma’ or other local names. There are many versions of Goddesses like Hariti -- Shitala devi (North India), the curer of smallpox; Oli bibi (Bengal), protector against Cholera; Maaramma, guardian against smallpox and other diseases in South India and so on. 

Where there is helplessness and fear, these Goddesses and superstitious practices reign, explains Arun Joladkudligi, a folk researcher. "Fertile ground for the creation and worship of such deities is when there is a lot of fear and a lack of understanding on why these diseases are spreading, and when nobody answers common questions,” he says. In such cases, divine interference seems like the only option. 

With no relief in sight, many people fall back on old templates for solutions and express the disease in the language of folk practices that are familiar to them. "The language and the understanding that science provides is not accessible to villagers. To come to terms with death and other illness, they worship Maari or Amma and involve in other practices that they would have witnessed as children,” he said.

Self-fulfilling prophecies 

A fractured relationship between cause and effect can also factor into the prevalence of such traditions, explains Narendra Nayak, a rationalist and the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Association. "Many of these prophecies are self-fulfilling. With a fatality rate of about 2%, 98% of people will recover from Covid-19. In these places, the recoveries will be given a supernatural significance and the ones who succumb will be associated with a past sin or failure to adhere to a practice that religious leaders would have prescribed," he says. 

This month, when Covid-19 made its way to Junjaramanahalli and Tovinkere, villagers decided to observe 'Ajji habba' and worship the Devi to ward off the disease.

"The women in the village came together and worshipped a neem tree outside the village," says Janardhanaiyya G S, a resident of the village. The neem tree is only worshipped when people in the village are wary of impending sickness. As he remembers, they last worshipped the neem tree during chickenpox infections and other contagious diseases. 

In 2007, Hulikere witnessed a bout of Chikungunya. Thippesh H M, a PhD student, said how the village, even then, came together to institute an idol of ‘Kuntamma’ to ward off the infections. "Coincidentally, the disease had run its course and faded away,” he says. The residents of the village came to see it as a miracle orchestrated by Kuntamma.  

Breaking the cycle 

While such practices can provide some mental relief in times of paranoia, anxiety, and provide fortitude to get through a crisis, they may also breed complacency. "People shouldn't feel like that they have done everything in their control and ignore what medical professionals recommend," says Joladkudligi. Most of these events have aspects of community worship which can be dangerous during these times, he explains.  

"In the past, Maari's temple would be surrounded by neem saplings, known for its anti-bacterial properties, but that may not be useful in the case of Coronavirus," he says, adding that many times, these traditions can stagnate. 

The way to break the hold of such traditions that stay in place even when they can be dangerous is through advocating rationalism, explains Nayak. "We have to challenge the relationship between cause and effect," he asserts. 

Another avenue of spreading awareness, Joladkudligi says, is to intervene in how these practices spread. "Frequently, our folk traditions have the habit of publicising only success stories. Maybe, if we also publicised how reckless decisions during these events can have negative effects, it will break the chain of belief,” he suggests. 

Rational outlook

According to writer Nataraj Huliyar, the only way out is to inculcate a rational outlook from primary school level. "Such deities may provide a bit of temporary relief to the helpless people, but it seldom provides a solution. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, journalists, engineers, students etc must intervene and keep educating people. Posters and educating people through media will also work to an extent." 

There is also an immediate need to proliferate folk art and traditions with best practices to keep safe from new diseases Joladkudligi opined adding, "Janapada art is a living reflection of the times we live in. It is a medium of communication that the common person can understand and access. Using it to communicate essential questions can prevent these diseases from metamorphosing into divine forms."