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Shitala Devi (Sheetala Devi), also called Sitala , is the goddess of Small pox and disease in folk Hinduism. She is popular primarily among the people of North India and the Indian diaspora. She is identified with an aspect of Parvati, the consort of Shiva in elite literature. In general worship, she is invoked to get rid of small pox or chicken pox and to grant fertility or children. Some tribal shrines were eventually changed to temples dedicated to her. She is very similar to the South Indian deity, Mariamman.

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Associations

Although she is commonly referred to as the Goddess of Smallpox, presently this generic goddess is actually related to other epidemic diseases as well, like cholera. Her protection is invoked when a village is attacked by any epidemic. She is also worshipped as the Village Goddess (Sanskrt: Gramadevata). She is often venerated as a form of Bhagavati or Kali.

The worship of Shitala is often conducted by Brahmins who consume meat (unlike orthodox Brahmins). The name Sītala means "the cold one" in Sanskrit. She is primarily worshipped in the dry seasons of winter and spring, the breeding seasons of smallpox.[1]

Legend

A prince, wishing to be blessed with a son, made elaborate sacrifices to propitiate god Brahma. But something went amiss in the performance of rituals and instead of a son, a beautiful maiden arose from the sacrificial fire. Brahma named her Shitala, the cooling one. Shitala asked Brahma about her status in the world. He assured her that humans would always worship her, provided she carried on her seeds of the urad (black gram), signifying that she embodied the powers of this particular lentil. Shitala then expressed desire for a companion and was directed to Shiva. Impressed by her devotion Shiva agreed to give her a companion.

From the sweat of Shiva's asceticism was born a demon of prodigious size, who was cut into three pieces by Shiva. Brahma put him back together again, but the demon now had three pairs of arms and legs. He was given the name, jvarasura, or the demon of fever. Shiva assigned him to be Shitala's companion.

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Association with Small Pox

Shitala required a beast of burden to carry her load of lentils, so Jvarasura suggested an ass for the purpose. Shitala then disguised herself as an old woman and Jvarasura as a young boy. With their bag of lentils on the back of their ass, they visited all the divine beings. The lentils got converted into pox germs, and whoever they visited was afflicted with fever and small pox. Thus affected, the gods asked for her mercy and promised her that they would worship her, provided she went to the earth carrying her packload of germs with her.

Agreeing, Shitala descended to the earth. To display her prowess she first paid a visit to King Birat, an energetic worshipper of Shiva. Birat, though acknowledging her status as a goddess, refused to give her precedence over Shiva. Shitala threatened him by apprising him of her power to inflict small pox, but the king did not budge from his position. Thus incensed, Shitala called seventy-five different types of the pox to her service, which wreaked havoc on the people of Birat's kingdom. But the king even then refused the citizens permission to worship her, the outcome of which was widespread epidemic and deaths. Finally the king, realizing his folly, relented and was miraculously restored to health, without any residual blemishes, as were all others who acknowledged her supremacy.

Iconography and symbolism

Shitala is often depicted as white complexioned, two or four armed, wearing a red sari and seated on a donkey. She embodies both the disease and its remedy. She hates dirt, so the householder who wants her to visit his place to cure it of disease, especially small-pox, must first thoroughly clean it. For this purpose, the goddess carries in her hand a silver broom. Sometimes, she is said to be carrying a bunch of neem (azadirachta indica) leaves, as neem is very much an effective remedy to most skin diseases even today. The winnow fan she holds in her upraised right hand is to collect the results of this cleansing operation and to sift the healthy grains from the diseased ones. The small bowl in the other right hand is to collect the rogue germs, which are then banished from the house. The cleaned house is to be ritually purified by sprinkling of river Ganga's holy water. She thus also holds a water pot in one of her hands.

See also

Notes

References

  • Kolenda, Pauline Pox and the terror of Childlessness: Images and Ideas of the Smallpox Goddess in a North Indian Village in P. Kolenda Caste, Cult and Hierarchy: Essays on the Culture of India (New Delhi: Folklore Institute, 1983) 198-221
  • David Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition
  • Theodore Elmore, Dravidian Gods in Modern Hinduism
  • H. Whitehead, The Village Gods of South India
  • Xavier Romero-Frias, The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom. Barcelona 1999.

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Sitala, Sītala Devi or Māri (Tamil) is the Goddess of Smallpox or the Goddess of Disease in popular or non-Vedic Hinduism. She is also generically referred to as the Village Goddess (Skt. Gramadevata).

The worship of this Goddess is very extended among the lower castes in India. The name Sītala (Skt. "the cold one") is used in Northern India, while the same goddess is known as Māri (probably from an ancient Dravidian word meaning "rain") in the Southern areas of the Subcontinent.

Although she is commonly referred to as the Goddess of Smallpox, presently this generic goddess is actually related to other epidemic diseases as well, like cholera. Her protection is invoked when a village is attacked by any epidemic. She can therefore be compared with the orisha Babalu Aye of the Yoruba tradition.

Village Goddesses are local. They are always connected with a specific locality or place. Therefore their name is always preceded by the name of their location, like for example: Karumari Amman (Tamil Nadu) or Attukal Amma (Kerala).

Villagers in South India usually erect humble little shrines to this Goddess. During worship she is referred to as "Amma" or mother. Certain trees, like the Neem, the Bo tree, the Palmyra palm, the Ashoka tree and the Papaya are related to this deity, therefore some of the Village Goddess' shrines are under a certain tree.

Most caste Hindus and members of modern Hindu politico-religious movements claim that all these village goddesses are but a version of goddess Kali, incorporating thus these non-Vedic deities into the mainstream Hindu pantheon. However, this view is challenged by certain militant Dalit intellectuals, like Kancha Ilaiah, who claim that village-deity worship in India is a separate religion.

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Blood Sacrifices

There are a number of festivals connected with the village goddesses, but they lack the regularity and steadfastness of Vedic rituals. Traditionally villagers were prompted to worship the Goddess only when in trouble, but modern-day goddess shrines have increasingly introduced scheduled regular festivals.

In case of epidemics, villagers try to propitiate their goddess by means of blood sacrifices, usually sacrificing a cock or a goat at her shrine. The often deadly disease is interpreted by villagers as having incurred the wrath of their divine Mother because of having neglected her.

Iconography

Unlike the Vedic goddesses, there is not much in the way of established iconography for the Indic village goddesses. They are usually portrayed wearing a red dress, red being the colour of the goddess. The iconography of the village goddesses is mostly derived from the stories related to them.

Sitala Devi, the Northern version of the village Goddess is usually portrayed as a woman sitting on a donkey holding a broom in one hand and a winnowing fan in the other. She might be naked or wearing a red dress.

Māri is portrayed in the sitting or standing position mostly holding a trident (trisula) in one hand and a bowl (kapala) in the other. One of her hands may display a mudra, usually the abhaya mudra, to ward off fear. She might have more than two arms and might be represented in two optional ways, one displaying her pleasant nature, and the other her terrifying aspect, with fangs and a wild mane of hair.

See also

References

  • David Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition
  • Kancha Ilaiah, Why I am not a Hindu.
  • Theodore Elmore, Dravidian Gods in Modern Hinduism
  • H. Whitehead, The Village Gods of South India
  • Xavier Romero-Frias, The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom. Barcelona 1999.

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