The Silent Killer: The Ass as Personification of Illness in North Indian Folklore
Journal: Religions of South Asia
Śītalā (‘the Cold One’), a mother goddess worshipped in Northern India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, is traditionally represented as a beautiful young lady riding a donkey. But the ass is a rather marginal character in both oral narratives and devotional/auspicious literature. Unlike the majority of divine mounts in classic and popular Hinduism, the animal has no proper name and is speechless. Vernacular and Sanskrit literatures do not indulge in descriptions, nor do they mention its gender. In brief, the donkey is an annihilated mythological character. In this article I will discuss the ass as a living symbol of illness. My analysis will examine narratives in Sanskrit and vernacular (Hindi, Bhojpuri and Bengali) texts where the ass is associated with goddesses of death, disease and misfortune. By reflecting on several years of fieldwork in India, I will then confute past and present readings of Śītalā as a ‘smallpox goddess’ and will explore the role of the ass as a metonym for illness. So rather than being disease per se, Śītalā is a controlling deity, a performance symbolically rendered through riding the ass. Besides shedding new light on the worship of an extremely popular goddess, this article eventually reflects on the origin of mechanisms of cultural blame and pollution originated at the convergence of the praxis and social behaviour of human and non-human animals (as well as other-than-human persons) in Northern India.
Author: Fabrizio M. Ferrari
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