Swati Parashar | 17 September 2020
With COVID-19 taking the world by storm, can art, aesthetics, religion and spirituality remain untouched by its impact? A picture recently circulated on social media, of an artist’s imagination of corona, portrayed the round-shaped virus as the Hindu goddess Kali. Other write-ups have talked about the destructive force of Kali as being realised through these times of the pandemic. One such ‘well-being’ piece suggests, “COVID-19 is Kali working on a macro scale”. Another warns the faithful of the fate that befell America with Coronavirus, after embracing Kali. It says,
In 2015, the Empire State Building was lit up in spectacular fashion with the image of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. It was almost as if they were inviting her in. In 2020, that same Empire State Building is now flashing a red distress signal. Why? Because death has come to their streets, and the people are terrified.
The article also considers the abortion law passed in New York City in 2019, which eliminated restrictions on abortions, as the result of embracing the death cult of Kali. Apparently, enlightened and educated America with its mighty scientific and technological wherewithal is supposed to be scared of an Indian ‘heathen’ goddess!
These are dangerously gendered, communally sensitive and problematic conflations that need to be challenged in these difficult and sombre times. Many polytheistic and indigenous traditions have deities (both male and female) associated with health, diseases and healing; and in many cases, the sacred and the secular can hardly be differentiated.
Simplistically and often sloppily associated with ‘death’ and ‘destruction’, Kali is a highly misunderstood Hindu goddess. Located outside the pantheon of gods in the Vedic Hindu tradition, the Goddess, in her dark and fearsome iconographic representations, stands as a contrast to Western concepts of fair, exotic, chaste and alluringly dangerous goddesses. While Hinduism and Buddhism have popularized the pantheon of goddesses in their benign and benevolent roles, their role and significance can be traced back into antiquity with many indigenous communities invoking their benevolence through the worship of nature and fertility.
In times of suffering, the impulse of the religious is to turn to their faith and their deities for protection and alleviation. It is not surprising, therefore, that Kali and other goddesses have been invoked during times of epidemics and diseases, through prayers, rituals and sacrifices in search for relief and cure. Hinduism and especially the Shakti traditions recognise the Devi (female deity) in the form of Durga, Kali and Sheetala as goddesses who both inflict and cure diseases in the preservation of human life and the planetary environment. For several years, smallpox and chicken pox were referred to as badi (big) and chhoti (small) mata (mother). Buddhism and several other indigenous, tribal traditions which have an active discourse on goddesses, also recognise the power of the ‘feminine’ form to generate and cure diseases.
Sheetala mata (cooling mother goddess) worship is widespread in India where the Goddess is depicted with a broom, fan and a pot full of medicinal water. Her abode is the neem tree which remains an important medicinal plant in the cure of many diseases. Jwarasura (fever demon who is also invoked as a deity) is considered her consort and the two are worshipped together to bring cooling relief and cure for various kinds of fevers.
There is also the Goddess Olachandi, Olabibi or Bibima typically worshipped by Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Her origins lay in shared folk traditions of both Muslim and Hindu communities. When cholera epidemics were common, she was worshipped with offerings and prayers for a cure.
Vajrayogini, the Buddhist tantric Goddess is known to be a slayer of diseases and suffering; Parṇaśabarī is another Buddhist demi-god with both human and divine qualities, effective in preventing outbreaks of epidemics and in bringing solace to the disease-stricken.
Colonial and orientalist understandings and interpretations of these ‘pagan’ and ‘outlandish’ goddess cultures and religions, treated the followers and believers as disease afflicted, primitive and backward. These understandings and criticisms are not just derived from the certitudes of enlightened modernity pitting faith against scientific temperament but are also expressions of deep prejudices about the racialised and gendered ‘other’. There remains a profound inability to grasp people’s spiritual connectivity with nature and the sense of community derived through rituals and prayers, especially during times of epidemics and natural disasters. In such cases, the believers source and deflect the suffering to the ‘outer’ world and the ‘wrath’ of nature. Numerous travelogues and writings during the British colonial period, for example, describe the ‘feminised’ disease ridden bodies of Indians that needed to be saved, from their own cultures and traditions; women needed additional saving from their respective patriarchies. This rescuing mission of ‘whiteness’ and colonialism is a gendered project that never fails to find ‘subjects’ in need of saving, even from their gods and goddesses.
At the same time, it would be a travesty not to recognise the existence of several superstitious beliefs regarding the connections of diseases to ‘feminine’ forms, both divine and earthly. This has meant, attributing certain kinds of diseases to women, on account of their ‘feminine weaknesses’ leading to hysterias, possessions by spirits and hyper imaginative evil eyes. As a consequence of these superstitious beliefs, women and girls are regularly accused of sorcery and witchcraft in many parts of the world, making them extremely vulnerable to gender and sexual violence. The practice of women being lynched if the neighbourhood or nearby families get afflicted with diseases is widespread in parts of India and other countries, and some indigenous communities.
Any simplistic and out of context misreading of goddesses, ‘femininity’ and women as carriers of disease in cultures ‘out there’ is deeply colonial, gendered and troubling. It requires a nuanced and sensitive understanding and unpacking of complex traditions, beliefs and practices at the very least. Most of these practices and belief systems have evolved over centuries, and have provided comfort and healing to people in times of suffering and disease.
It was artist Android Jones, whose fierce portrait of Kali went up on the Empire State Building in 2015, as a powerful reminder that the Goddess of nature, time and change was going to be our best ally in raising awareness about the extinction and protection of wildlife. Maybe, Kali should go up again on the Empire State Building, if only to demonstrate that we now face human extinction, and to remind us, yet again, that the only way out of this universal suffering is in the recognition and realisation of our common humanity, our spirit of tolerance and compassion. In her fierce way, Kali would also remind us of the enormous suffering and violence that diseases and disasters bring to women world over.