Drawing on her scholarship as a cultural anthropologist of religion, Luce-ACLS Fellow Tulasi Srinivas describes the Hindu worship of “goddesses of contagion” in India as people’s lives are upended by the pandemic. Srinivas examines how, for centuries, many Hindus have made offerings to these deities who are believed to have the power to contain and kill pestilence. In this day of COVID-19, the goddesses have even been conscripted against the coronavirus with updated iconography that includes masks and hand sanitizer.
“Here science and faith are not seen as inimical to one another, but as working together, hand-in-glove.”
Hindus in India have had a helping hand – several in fact – when it comes to fighting deadly contagions like COVID-19: multi-armed goddesses co-opted to help contain and kill pestilence.
Collectively known as “Amman,” or the Divine Mother, the goddesses of contagion – and it always goddesses, not gods – have been called on for their services before. They have been deployed in many of the deadly pandemics India has experienced from ancient times until the the modern age.
In conducting my fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist who studies religion, I have seen small shrines all over India dedicated to these goddesses of contagion, often in rural, forested areas outside village and town limits.
The goddesses act as “celestial epidemiologists” curing illness. But if angered they can also inflict disease such as poxes, plagues, sores, fevers, tuberculosis and malaria. They are both poison and cure.