News agency ANI reported on Saturday that a ‘Corona Mata’ Temple has been established at Pratapgarh district in Uttar Pradesh. Villagers said that the temple was constructed with the belief that praying to the deity would provide people respite from the Coronavirus.
‘Corona Mata’ temple comes up under a neem tree at a village in Pratapgarh district— ANI UP (@ANINewsUP) June 12, 2021
"Villagers collectively decided & set up the temple with belief that praying to the deity would definitely offer respite to people from Coronavirus," a villager said yesterday. pic.twitter.com/jA3SGU0RQE
Along expected lines, there was great mockery in the comments section. Some called the villagers fools and illiterate while others bemoaned the lack of scientific mindset. Perhaps, it is not the best idea to have a Science versus Religion debate over Covid-19, given that the virus was most likely manufactured in a lab by scientists.
This is what happens when you're uneducated— Glenn (@glenn12321) June 12, 2021
Hahahaha hahahaha. Can't stop laughing at the fools !— Vaibhav Dhamija (@VaibhavDhamij12) June 12, 2021
Such comments bear a semblance of arrogance on the part of the users. The villagers are not harming anyone with their practice. Moreover, they can be seen wearing masks. The deity, too, is depicted as wearing a mask.
Such outbursts of divinity only reflect the continuing sustenance of Hindu philosophy among the residents of India since antiquity. Throughout history, there are numerous examples where Hindus have worshipped specific deities, believing that the deity would rescue them from specific diseases.
In its essence, the worship of Corona Mata reflects the distinct outlook of the Hindu mind, which believes that humans will be rescued by divine forces if the Gods are paid adequate tributes in the form of offerings.
One of the Goddesses who gained prominence across India is Sitala Maa, who was worshipped for respite from small pox, which was a debilitating disease once upon a time. Anthropologist, Ralph W. Nicholas, noted in a research paper, ‘The Goddess Śītalā and Epidemic Smallpox in Bengal’, “there is no evidence of the Goddess of Smallpox before the tenth to twelfth centuries, and she appears to have attained her present special significance as goddess of the village in southwestern Bengal abruptly in the eighteenth century”.
Historian David Arnold explained, “when an attack of smallpox occurred, cooling drinks were offered to the patients as the abode of the Goddess, and his or her feverish body was washed with cold water or soothed with the wetted leaves of the neem (or margosa), Shitala’s favourite tree.”
Nicholas quoted the following prayer by Nirmalananda in his research paper:
White-bodied one, mounted on an ass, in your two
hands a broom and a full pot,
To mitigate fever, you asperse, from the full pot,
with the broom, the water of immortality.
Naked, with a winnowing fan on the head, your body
adorned with gold and many gems, three-eyed,
You are the quencher of the fierce heat of pustules;
Sitala, I worship you.
Another ode to Sitala Maa mentioned by Nicholas is as follows:
I celebrate the goddess Sitala-mounted on a donkey and having as her garments the quarters of the world [i.e., naked]-whom, having approached, one may turn back the great fear of pustules.
Whoever, afflicted by fever, should say, “O Sitala! Sitala!”, his dreadful fear of pustules immediately vanishes.
A man who, having resolved in his mind in the midst of ablutions, should deeply
revere you, in his family the dreadful fear of pustules does not arise.
O Sitala, for a man scorched by fever, become foul smelling, and whose vision is destroyed, you they regard as the living medicine.
I bow down to Sitala Devi, mounted on a donkey, having for garments the regions of the world, accompanied by her broom and pot, and having her head, decorated with a winnowing basket.
(Bhava Misra 1958, 2:380; cf. Sabdakalpadrumah 1931-34, s.v. masurika)
Scholar Fabrizio M. Ferrari emphasized that Sitala Maa ought not to be confused with the disease itself. “…Sitala is not to be identified with disease, as the label ‘smallpox goddess’ seems to imply. Smallpox, measles and fevers exist independently, and they are already in our body—though inactive. Sitala simply controls them, as many of her names suggest,” he wrote.
Mariamma is the South Indian equivalent of Sitala Maa. Mari means both small pox and transformation and Amma means mother. Mariamman is worshipped to ward off contagions and she is worshipped for rains as well.
There is also a Sri Circle Maramma Temple in Malleswaram, Bengaluru where She is worshipped for protection by drivers. Bengaluru also has Plague Amma Temples where the deity is worshipped for protection against plague.
The idea of a shrine to ‘Aidsamma’, a deity for protection against AIDS, was first floated by school teachers in Karnataka. The idea was propped up at a time where awareness about the disease was still low among villagers.
Every morning, villagers light incense sticks or camphor and offer Puja. The inscriptions on the Temple pillars contain information about the disease. K.S. Nanjunda Dixit, a temple priest, mentioned how even school-going children are now aware about the disease due to the religious medium of conveying information.
The shrine has the painting of a boy and a girl with a red virus marked on it.
Hariti, a Buddhist deity
The story of Hariti is unique in that she was initially a demoness and a devourer of children. She was eventually made to see the error of her ways and brought over to the side of the good by Buddha himself.
It is believed that she was born as a Yakshi due to a vow in previous birth and gave birth to 500 Yaksha children. The official website of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has an article on Hariti.
It says, “To teach Hariti a lesson, Buddha came to the city to beg his meal and then arrived at Hariti’s dwelling house. Seeing Hariti away he hid Hariti’s youngest and most beloved son Pingala in his begging bowl and came back to his monastery. Returning home and not finding Pingala Hariti became over-whelmed with grief and began to search him here and there restlessly. Ultimately she came to Buddha and requested him to find out the boy.”
It adds, “Buddha agreed to help her provided she gave up cannibalism and follow his precepts. She accorded readily to Buddha’s command. Buddha then gave Pingala back to Hariti. Buddha ordained her as a lay worshipper to the Sangha. Hariti, however, asked Buddha how she and her children would obtain food for their sustenance. Thereupon Buddha sent for the monks and asked them to supply abundant food everyday to Hariti and her children. Buddha’s order was followed by the monks faithfully.”
Hariti is worshipped for the well-being of children, childbirth, fertility and to ward off diseases afflicting children. However, scholars have noted that Hariti has folk origins.
Histortian Sree Padma observed, “The Goddess of smallpox and other contagious diseases who are also regarded as guardian deities are ubiquitous in Andhra. The names of these smallpox Goddesses might vary from region to region. Some of these are called Mutyalamma, Pochamma, Peddamma, Nukalamma, Ankalamma etc.”
She explained that “some smallpox Goddesses are deified human women who died during their pregnancies or when delivering children. Devotees believed that the spirits of these women would bring destruction and death to their children unless they are approached with proper offerings and prayers.”
Images of Hariti have been discovered dating back 10 between 150 BCE and 100 BCE. Scholar Entienne Lamotte noted in his 1988 book ‘History of Indian Buddhism’, “She is still invoked in Nepal as the Goddess curing smallpox, and the monks are expected to ensure her daily nourishment”.
Interestingly, the first Corona Mata Temple appears to have been established in Kerala. “I am worshipping the coronavirus as a goddess and doing daily pujas for the safety and well being of healthcare professionals, police personnel and scientists, who are toiling to discover a vaccine,” the Temple priest at Kollam district in Kerala explained.
Worship of ‘Corona Maa’ has been observed in Assam and that of ‘Corona Mai’ has been observed in Jharkhand too. Two ‘Corona Devi’ Temples have come up in Tamil Nadu as well.
“We have had similar temples for smallpox, chickenpox and plague in the past,” temple manager Anandbharathi K said. “We are worshipping the virus in the form of a goddess and praying to her every day to reduce the impacts of this disease,” he added.