Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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A Pagan Response to the Corona Virus?

India being India, there's an entire genre of Bollywood films known as the “theologicals”: religious movies.

Back in the VHS Era, my friend Stephanie and I used to rent theologicals from our local Indian grocery store. Our shared pool of Hindi being pretty limited, it was always quite an experience to watch an unsubtitled 2½ hour film in a language that you don't understand. After a while, we got pretty good at figuring things out.

One of our favorites was a film called Shitala Ma (SHEE-ta-la Mah): “Mother Smallpox.” Shitala Ma is the goddess, not just of smallpox, but of all infectious diseases. (Stephanie, being something of an amateur epidemiologist, found this pretty engaging.) Those infected with disease are considered to be possessed by Shitala Ma, and are actually worshiped as her vehicles (note the donkey in the image shown above); the goddess is given offerings, and asked kindly to depart, leaving the sufferer unharmed.

Now there's something they don't teach you in Med School.

The heroes of the film are a poor family of farmers, pious worshipers of Shitala Ma. While working in the fields one day, they discover a murti (statue) of Shitala Ma buried in the ground. My memory is that the family dog led them to it.

Naturally, they hold a puja (worship) for the statue. Shitala Ma herself appears—this happens during pujas sometimes—and tells them that she wants a temple built for her in the field where the statue was found. The father of the family goes to tell the local rich man who owns the field of the goddess's apparition and of her request.

The rich man, of course, is loathe to lose the field and the income that it brings.

No way,” he says.

(Bollywood being Bollywood, of course, the film is punctuated by mass song-and-dance spectacles, passionate love duets in gardens with fountains, and slapstick comedy routines featuring transvestites, none of which have anything whatsoever to do with the plot. Really, what's not to love?)

Nothing daunted, our pious family sets up a small shrine to Shitala Ma in the field, and soon all the villagers are gathering there to worship the goddess.

Finally the landowner has had enough. He sends his goons to steal the statue, who drop it down a well to get rid of it.

Bad move. Angered, Shitala Ma smites the rich guy's entire family with smallpox.

Witnessed only by the family dog—you've got to love a movie with a dog in it, right?—the murti of Shitala Ma now, by its own power, rises out of the well and reinstalls itself in the little pandal (temporary altar) in the field.

The villagers all gather at the altar. Finally, the landowner realizes what a fool he's been. He has his entire ailing family, now near death, brought out and laid before the image of the goddess.

Spare them, Shitala Ma!” he cries. “Not only will I donate the field, but I'll foot the bill for the new temple myself!”

Shitala Ma herself appears and heals the man's family. They rise up and, with the dog and all the villagers, sing the praises of the mercies of Shitala Ma:

Jai Ma Shitala,

Mata Shitala:

Shitala Ma.

The End.

“When faced with a theological problem,” says Indo-Europeanist Ceisiwr Serith, “first consult ancestral precedent.”

As we consider the response to the newest Corona virus, poised to become the world's next pandemic, I wonder if there may not be something to be learned from India's Mother Smallpox. Something, perhaps, about approach.

What if the virus is, not an enemy to be destroyed, but a power in its own right, with which we need—respectfully—to treat?

 

 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

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