How to pandemic-proof a Hindu (or any other) pilgrimage



“Some people say there is a God; others say there is no God; the truth probably lies somewhere in between”
– W. B. Yeats

One of my grandmothers died after contracting small pox at the Kumbh Mela less than a hundred years ago. Her husband, my grandfather, had already passed, so my father was left an orphan. He went on to become a doctor, both his profession and his personal story making him sceptical of large religious gatherings. (As well he might. From a cholera outbreak at the Kumbh Mela in 1783, this quadrennial gathering has often been stricken by infectious disease and dispersed it far and wide as the pilgrims leave the banks of the Ganges to return home.)

This fragment of family history invests the ongoing Kumbh Mela in India with special significance for me. The Hindu pilgrimage, complete with the ritual dip in the Ganges River, is currently playing out against the backdrop of a pandemic. But until April 17, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, made no move to stop pilgrims from arriving in Haridwar for the Mela.

In fact, on March 21, when the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic had already hit India, Mr Modi and his fellow BJP leader, Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat, ran adverts in the major newspapers, welcoming pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela, even claiming that the festival was “clean” and “safe”.

Mr Rawat had also previously suggested that the Kumbh Mela was somehow safe from the pandemic, as if religious devotion threw up an invisible forcefield around a Hindu event.

“We are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus,” he said on March 20. On April 13, Mr Tirath added his view of the superior protection offered by ‘Mother Ganga’. He said, “Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona.”

It took a further four days for the Indian authorities to start to rein in the smart talk, which conflated a person’s performative religiosity with their allegedly coronavirus-proof constitution. By then coronavirus infection rates were surging all over India and making headlines around the world, while Indian television news channels showed massive crowds ignoring social distancing protocols at the Kumbh Mela.

That was when Prime Minister Modi made the case for a more “symbolic” participation in the event. But it would be too late for some. A senior Hindu priest who attended the Kumbh Mela had already died and dozens of others had tested positive for Covid-19, as well as hundreds of pilgrims.

It would be appropriate to lament the lack of sense and sensibility – as well as leadership – on the part of Mr Modi and other senior BJP politicians. But this goes much deeper.

Pandemics, as Howard Phillips of the University of Cape Town has written in the ‘Journal of Global History’, throw “a sharp light on both religion and science”.

He uses the example of cholera, “the first pandemic of the modern globalizing era”, which began to spread across Asia from the Ganges delta from 1817. The response of faith communities to the cholera pandemic was remarkably similar to what we see today.

In India, Hindus generally assumed that the cholera pandemic was a sign local deities were displeased by villagers. Muslims in Hindu-dominated regions also decided that they had annoyed local jinns.  Muslim Kazakhs in central Asia added “demons and spirits as possible sources of the rampant disease and so acted to appease them”.

Sunni Muslims beyond [south and central] Asia, writes Mr Phillips, “saw the cholera as a divine test of their faith”, to be patiently accepted as fate, and “Shi’ite clerics in Persia attributed it to Allah’s wrath”, with talismans bearing Quranic verses a possible remedy.

Buddhists too thought the pandemic was the consequence of angry local demi-gods and asura. Mr Phillips recounts an interesting story: “In 1820, the Buddhist king of Siam, Rama II, even organized a mass religious festival with processions by monks chanting sutras in honour of local gods to appeal to them to keep the hah-lang (as cholera was known in Thai) away. It failed to do so.”

Plus ca change.