[ by Charles Cameron — the plague as precursor to COVID-19 and other intersections in art and devotion ]
The Plague Mariyamman temple, see below
It’s quite a strong double-barreled question: Will Religion Deliver Us From or Doom Us to the Pandemic? We don’t think of such questions too much in the secular west, so I’m encouraged to keep on looking at examples of the intersections of coronavirus with religion, in this “episode #11” of my series — this one based on reports from the Indian news and opinion website The Wire.
The article focuses first on “the gathering of the Islamic sect Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi at Markaz, Nizamuddin” in early March this year, which the Washington Post termed India’s first “super-spreader event” — but goes on from there to make analogies:
As the pandemic continues, people practicing their faith have become unwitting but powerful vectors in the spread of the virus. A cultlike church helped fuel the pandemic in South Korea. A synagogue north of New York City was at the center of an early outbreak. An evangelical congregation in France was the source of hundreds of infections.
You can dismiss this — hey, religion is one of the drivers that brings folk together in numbers — or you can note that is has extremely deep roots, calling on a spectrum of “calls” from the primordial to the contemporary. Epidemiology, medicine, sociology, political science may be the obvious disciplines of the moment, but cultural anthropology, depth psychology and comparative religion are the disciplines intent on the roots..
Let’s zoom in on the analogy from the Indian perspective:
During these times, it is perhaps easy to forget that just over a month ago another country was similarly captivated by its own religious hotbed of contagion. South Korea, on February 17, appeared to have its number of coronavirus infections under control at 30. But the very next day, in came Patient Number 31, a 61-year-old woman who was a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which mainstream churches considered a cult.
Within days the number of infections soared into the hundreds at both the church and neighbouring areas of Daegu, a city of 2.5 million. It is believed Patient 31 was able to transmit her infection so efficiently thanks to some of the church’s practices which included praying in close proximity in an enclosed space and prohibiting the wearing of glasses and face masks. As per the Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, as of March 7, 63.5% of all confirmed cases in the country were ‘related to Shincheonji.’
And then, zooming in further on how the religious aspect plays out — in bigotry and conflict:
The Shincheonji case, it’s worth noting, is analogous to the Nizamuddin one in another respect too. Given that they were religious minorities, both groups bore the brunt of majoritarian prejudices. Just as the Presbyterian Church of Korea claimed that the founder of the Shincheonji church held “heretical” and “anti-Christian” views, WhatsApp forwards in India accused the Tablighi Jamaat – the orthodox Muslim group who organised the ‘super-spreading’ meeting at Nizamuddin – of waging a “Corona Jihad”.
Another perspective on the coronavirus comes from Tamil culture in the south of India:
It seems there’s a temple — or perhaps I should say,a a group of temples — going by the name the Plague Mariyamman temples:
“There are at least two more Plague Mariyamman temples in Coimbatore, besides this one,” says 62-year-old G. Rajasekaran, an administrative committee member of Plague Mariyamman Temple at Venkatapuram in Coimbatore.
The story has survived. “My grandmother used to say how she had left home with five kids and spent three months in the wild, to escape the plague. People would leave their houses if they saw a dead rat. It was the sign that the plague was coming for them.”
The family decided that they would worship at the already existing Mariyamman temple – maintained by them – by rebranding it the Plague Mariyamman temple, if they survived the plague. The temple [ image above ] continues to be busy though the disease itself no longer threatens.
Finally, let me return to the theme of pilgrimage, and its minor subset, procession, which has long interested me.
A chariot pulling ritual in the Kalaburagi district of Karnataka on Thursday saw the participation of many devotees who violating the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Kalaburagi has been deemed a COVID-19 hotspot and reported the first death in the country.
There were apparently thousands in the crowd accompanying the procession: coronavirus meets religion.
The Indian singing legend S.P.Balasubrahmanyam sings devotional Songs On Siddalingeshwara: