With the Vatican closed, Rome’s Easter celebrations on hold, pilgrimages to Mecca suspended and the Swaminarayan sect closing temples globally, you’d think that religions across the world have taken stock of the Coronavirus pandemic. Not so fast.
Large religious gatherings in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh continue to take place with state authorities giving them a green light. This, despite a nation-wide advisory against mass events, including Holi, where the virus can spread like wildfire.
The contagion is growing in India, having already claimed three lives and infected 126 people. Schools, malls, restaurants, bars and public spaces have all been closed to the people, with health experts saying the next two weeks are critical before the virus grips large sections of the Indian population.
If it’s not already obvious, the contagion knows no religion. Everyone is vulnerable and no one is special. But followers of the Kadiri Narasimha Swamy Brahmotsavam and Ayodhya Ram Navami Mela, or those in Patna, it appears, either don’t understand the gravity of the situation, don’t care or are being egged on by state authorities to stay open.
Whatever may be the reason, it shows that India is home to blind, stubborn and irresponsible faith.
What’s happening in Andhra Pradesh and UP
On Sunday, almost 1.5 lakh devotees flocked to the narrow roads of Kadiri town in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh to attend a chariot procession of the annual Kadiri Narasimha Swamy Brahmotsavam. During ‘rathotsavam’ ritual, chariot is moved by devotees pulling the huge ropes as a sign of respect for the deity. Meanwhile, the rest of the country is practising 20-second countdowns while washing hands, keeping hand sanitizers at the ready and flexing on how namastes have replaced handshakes.
Devotees came from neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) was kind enough to arrange “special services” to facilitate their travel. This took place five days after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
One might argue that the number of attendees this year is an improved reduction from three years ago, when a stampede occurred among four lakh devotees.
Uttar Pradesh’s age-old Ayodhya Ram Navami Mela goes a step further than blind faith. The festival that draws lakhs of pilgrims every year is to be held from 25 March to 2 April — within the critical two-week timeline.
This year’s mela is the first one since the Supreme Court’s verdict in November 2019 that allowed for the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed Ayodhya site. This was a victory for Hindus in a decades-old court battle between Hindu and Muslim parties.
Therefore, this year’s mela is not just about keeping to tradition, but making a political point and commemorating the judgment.
Ignoring the advice of Ayodhya chief medical officer, the Uttar Pradesh government has given the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) the green light to place lord Ram’s idols or photos in 2.75 lakh villages and perform puja. In fact, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath plans to perform the first aarti in front of the 21-foot Ram idol placed inside a bullet-proof, water-proof fibre glass structure. If only devotees would consider self-quarantine as grand as the one made for the idol.
But not everyone is going the UP way. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal recently banned religious, social, political gatherings of over 50 people in the city until 31 March (expected since the city recorded its first death last week) while Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray discouraged people from visiting temples, mosques, churches and other public spaces.
Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak temple, Ujjain’s Baba Mahakal temple and Madurai’s Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple have been shut. In Madurai, the 17th-century structure, Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace, has been shut for the first time in its history. Coronavirus has also led to the suspension of Vaishno Devi yatra.
What mosques are doing
Aligarh Muslim University, home to around 20 mosques, urged students and college staff to stop “wuzu” (collective washing of hands) and avoid Friday prayers on campus “if they have any symptoms of flu”. This means services are still underway but people have to sit at a distance from each other leaving a row empty in between. Considering the scenario, under such circumstances, Ramadan, which is just six weeks away, could face similar disruptions.
In the UAE, congressional prayers have been suspended in mosques and all places of worship. Last week, a muezzin in Kuwait was apparently heard saying ‘al-salatu fi buyutikum’ or ‘pray in your homes’ instead of the common ‘hayya alas-salah’ or ‘come to prayer’.
This is just one instance of how mosques across the world are getting creative with worship. In Singapore, people have been asked to bring their own prayer mats to mosques and avoid shaking hands, while a medical team was called upon to spray disinfectant at a holy shrine in Iran. Even the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) evoked ideas of purity and hygiene while advising Islamic schools to keep soap and hand sanitisers ready.
At the churches
The Church of England has advised against placing wafers directly on the tongue by those administering Eucharist, and most churches around the world have banned sharing of communion cups. But the Greek Orthodox church has refused to suspend the ritual of sipping from the same spoon during Communion.
It must be painful for places of worship to close their doors on people, to deny them ritual and tradition. However, it is a decision that follows a basic tenet of every religion–protect the common good. In this way, the festivals in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have spat in the face of religion and the political ecosystem has helped them aim.
Views are personal.