Cross-Cultural Capers: Divinities and the Corona Demon

‘The epidemic is a demon and we cannot let this demon hide’

Chinese president Xi Jinping, January 28, 2020.

I am not religious but have always been fascinated by the myths and legend that proponents of every religion have created to depict the fight between good and evil. I read with equal avidity the stories of the Hindu, Christian, Egyptian Norse, Roman and Greek deities and their battles with demons or evil in general.

The stories which were most alive to me were the Hindu ones as these goddesses and gods are still widely worshipped in different settings not only in India but in every country where there is a sizeable Hindu population. My favourite festivals even now are Durga Puja (worship of the goddess Durga who descends to earth to defeat the demons the male gods couldn’t vanquish) and Diwali (the festival of lights which also commemorates the defeat of the demon king Ravana and his followers). There are many enactments of these battles by human actors which both entertain and inform.

Since the advent of the world-wide coronavirus pandemic I have been perusing the reactions of some of the major religions to this twenty-first century ‘demon’. In a recent article in The New York Times, Vivian Yee writes, “Religion is the solace of first resort for billions of people grappling with a pandemic for which scientists, presidents and the secular world seem, so far, to have few answers. With both sanitizer and leadership in short supply, dread over the coronavirus has driven the globe’s faithful even closer to religion and ritual.”[1]

While Xi Jinping is an atheist who simply has used a religious image, adherents of every major religion appear to be divided into two camps. There is one group which believes corona is an evil spirit that has come to earth in response to the perceived sins of some groups or humanity in general. The closure of places of worship and the cancellation of pilgrimages, ceremonies and festivals are seen as signs of evil forces taking over the world. Some groups have been made scapegoats for the pandemic and subjected to verbal or even physical abuse.

Thankfully, there are many others who have said the fear the corona virus generates must not be used as an excuse to marginalize and mistreat. As one Christian commentator says, ‘It is not a “foreign virus” but endemic to our common nature as humans and thus a means of drawing us together for the good of all.’[2] Similarly, the Dalai Lama and other senior monks and Buddhist organizations in Asia and worldwide have emphasized that this pandemic calls for meditation, compassion, generosity and gratitude.

Technology has provided a vital way for the faithful to stay connected with their religious leaders. Many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have offered worship through livestream amidst the pandemic. One study has shown that devotees of a particular religious organisation reported that the social and collective dimension of the ritual has in fact been enhanced through these webcasts. As Rebecca Irons notes ‘The digital has become sacred!’[3]

Hindus have come up with their own unique take on this phenomenon for the festival of Dussehra. October-November which celebrates the goddess Durga defeating a demon that the gods couldn’t vanquish. The images of the goddess show her wearing a mask with sanitiser and other ‘weapons’ while the face of the demon is often made to resemble the corona virus!

Durga showing the way with mask and sanitizer
Photo: Indrani Ganguly 2020

[1] Rebecca Irons, ‘Hinduism and Coronavirus: How the Digital Becomes Sacred’, https://medanthucl.com/2020/04/13/hinduism-coronavirus-how-the-digital-becomes-sacred/

[2] Daniel Harrell, ‘Is the Coronavirus Evil? Or is this part of life in the world God made?’

| https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/march-web-only/coronavirus-evil-covid-19-disease-theology.html

[3] Rebecca Irons, op cit.

2 thoughts on “Cross-Cultural Capers: Divinities and the Corona Demon

  1. Thanks Indrani! Good reflection for these times.

    I’m with Durga – she knows her stuff.

    Changing topic … I find it helpful to look at the various modes of on-line worship and conversation during COVID.

    Ie … those who rely on the live streaming/webcast mode (from the one to the many) tend to be the more hierarchical, Daddy knows best groups in my opinion. Alternatively, there are others Uniting Church is one) who do some of this BUT also go to great lengths to incorporate Zoom groups, coffee sessions etc – to bring an inclusive, fellowship interaction to the occasion.

    😊

    Like

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