‘Love Me Two Times.’ From Smallpox to AIDS: Contagion and Possession in the Cult of Śītalā
Issue: Vol 1 No. 1 (2007) June 2007
Journal: Religions of South Asia
Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s but the cult of Śītalā, the Bengali ‘smallpox goddess’, has resisted. With the spread of AIDS some modifications occurred. Śītalā is increasingly worshipped as an AIDS-goddess. Devotees look at contagion as a (desirable) form of possession and believe their faith will protect them. As it was for smallpox, when variolation was preferred to vaccination, the contact with the goddess is looked upon as a form of love, in both maternal and sexual terms. The relation between Śītalā, smallpox and AIDS will be analyzed from an indigenous perspective and according to modern ethno-psychoanalytical theories. The issues herein discussed are: (1) the identification of Śītalā with smallpox; (2) the existence of a pan-Indian ‘plague goddess’; and (3) the consolidated presence of a ‘smallpox myth’. I wish so to demonstrate the fallaciousness of those theories which look at Śītalā as a response to the irrational or as a manifestation of the untamed female nature. By identifying Śītalā with the fertility/agricultural cycle rather than with one or more diseases, I hope to explain the mechanics at the origin of Śītalā’s worship, a ritual system grounded in the paradox of the ‘barren mother’.
Author: Fabrizio F. Ferrari