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Multiplicious Becomings: tantric theologies of the grotesque – III

“I salute You, Devi Sitala, and worship your feet. Wearing royal garments, yet You are space-clad. In Your right hand a broom, in the crook of Your left arm a water pot. You have with You pox-incense. A golden broom in Your hand, a golden pot on Your left side. Come, Ruler of Disease, accept the worship that is rightfully Yours, and offer salvation through Your unique quality.”
Sitala Mangal Bardhaman Pala of Kavi Jagannath (Nicholas, 2003, p133)

In the third part of this essay, I’m going to focus in on the goddess Sitala, frequently described as “the smallpox goddess” or categorised as a “disease goddess”. My impetus for writing this essay was to approach particular Indian forms of religiosity via the interpretive lens of Bahktin’s formulation of the grotesque, in order to highlight the seeming ambiguities and contradictions which so often confound would-be tantric practitioners in the west – in particular, relating to seemingly “antinomian practices” such as corpse or cremation-ground practices. My original intention was to look at three instances which feature “ghouls” – Karraikal Aimmaiyar, Siva’s Ganas, and finally, the goddess Sitala. I had initially thought to discuss the idea of a “disease goddess” and examine the Sitala-Mangal as discussed by Edward Dimock in his essay A Theology of the Repulsive: The Myth of the Goddess Sitala (which was one of the original starting-off points which started me thinking about the grotesque in relation to tantric ideas) in which ghouls take over a kingdom – which could be read as a carnivalesque “overturning” of the normal. However, in reading through the scholarly literature pertaining to Sitala, I began to realise that there is much more to Sitala than the categorisation “disease goddess” suggests. So I’m going to wander away from my original intentions somewhat, although I hope that anyone who has read the first two parts will find matters of interest here too. For this post, I’m going to look at the play or “lila” of Sitala in relation to the Sitala-Mangal, then continue, in the next post, with a more detailed examination of the relationship between Sitala and disease.

Sitala is sometimes classified by scholars as a “village goddess”, or, to use Lynn Foulston’s term, a Local goddess – concerned with the day-to-day issues of her devotees, rather than restoring (or threatening) the cosmic order. Sitala is often considered to be the mother goddess of a village and embodies the fertility cycle of the agricultural year. Like many other Indian goddesses – particularly village goddesses – she is given the epithet mata – “mother” and characterised as maternal, although she does not have progeny.

Sitala emerges in textual sources from around the beginning of the sixteenth century, although Ralph Nicholas (2003) notes that iconic representations can be found dated from the twelfth century. Sitala is often represented iconographically as having a white complexion, sitting astride a donkey, holding in her hands a broom and a pot full of water. On her head, a winnowing basket full of pulses. When she shakes her head in anger, the pulses (diseases) are distributed. When she sprinkles cool water from her pot and sweeps, she removes disease. Sitala is frequently worshipped in aniconic forms such as a black stone slab smeared with vermillion; residing within branches of the Neem tree, or stones which have indentations on them, representing the pittings caused by disease. A Bengali account of Sitala’s origin begins with a king, Nahusa, performing a fire sacrifice in order to obtain a son, supervised by Brahma. A goddess is found in the ashes of the fire, and when Brahma asked her her name, she gave no answer, so he named her Sitala – “the cool one”. The new goddess asks that her divinity be recognised by both the gods and human beings, but she is ignored. She then asks for a husband, and Siva creates Jvarasura (the fever demon) who terrifies the gods until Visnu dismembers him with his discus. Sitala is angered, and summons all the disease-spirits to attack the gods.

Worship of Sitala is particularly popular in Bengal, where there are numerous Sitala temples, major all-village festivals, and the mangal tradition (dating from the 1600s). This is a vernacular literature which eulogises particular gods and goddesses – sometimes pan-Indian deities such as Laksmi, but more frequently, regional deities which have a particular association with Bengal, such as the snake-goddess Manasa. Sections of a mangal may be performed during Sitala-oriented communal festivals, and performers are believed to be possessed by the goddess, as are the authors of devotional poetry.

Increased popularity of Sitala and the performance of her mangals has been related to outbreaks of smallpox (as well as social upheaval and political turmoil). In communal pujas, Sitala is worshipped alongside Jvarasur – the fever demon (although he is not considered a “consort”), and her handmaiden, Raktabati (“she who possesses the blood”). Nicholas notes that in communal village worship, Sitala puja is sometimes accompanied by worship of Olabibi, the Muslim goddess of Cholera. In other parts of India, there is a different emphasis placed on Sitala so that she is less associated with disease. In Gujurat, as Susan Wadley (1980) notes, Sitala is primarily a “giver of good fortune, husbands and sons.” Wadley says that it is Sitala’s “coolness” which links her three “personalities” – Goddess of Smallpox, Protector of Children, and Giver of Good Fortune. As she abhors heat, when angered (“heated”) she heats others. She is also associated with the protection of young children (in particular, keeping them safe from rashes and fevers) and also with the fertility of newlyweds. See Gloria Raheja & Ann Gold (1994) for a description of the bawdy Kesya verses which she is said to be pleased by. Raheja & Gold note that Sitala is associated with not only human fertility but the well-being of the earth and community in general. Communal worship of Sitala takes place near Holi, in the harvest season. See Patton (2002) for a discussion of a Sitala festival in rural Rajasthan – she comments that Sitala “likes being worshipped by menstruating women” (p189). Wadley says that Sitala’s association with protecting children is due to an intermingling of characteristics with the goddess Sasthi.

The play of Sitala
The Sitala-mangal is the story of a king who gets on the wrong side of Sitala. A devotee of Siva, the king is respected, happy, and full of merit. The poem also stresses that his kingdom – the city of Virata – is happy and prosperous:

“There is no injustice or unrighteousness there. All speak the truth and abjure falsehood. The policy of the king and the kingdom is devotion to Siva. There is no mischief, nor peril, nor untimely death.” (from Dimock, 1995, p193)

The king encounters a merchant who has experienced a miracle, a palace appearing in the centre of the ocean, a place of profound beauty, complete with dancing girls, flocks of birds, with predator and prey animals living together in harmony. Within the palace courtyard is a huge baici tree on which coral blossoms, beneath which sits the goddess Sitala, surrounded by maids and children. Needless to say, the king does not believe this tale of wonder, and, taking his retinue, sets forth with the merchant to see this palace for himself. When they reach the place, the king sees nothing but water. The merchant protests that he can see the palace and the lady beneath the tree (he is a devotee) but the king is furious, and threatens to execute the merchant. Sitala, by this time, is ready to intercede on behalf of her devotee, but the sage Narada suggests to her that she give the king a chance, by appearing to him in a dream:

Sitala appeared in a dream. Seated at the king’s head, she was in a most terrifying guise: naked, quelling all vanity, huge and wide, with terrible eyes. Before her danced Jvara, in his deadly form – six eyes, six hands, three heads and three feet. … And suddenly he saw the royal palace ablaze, and he saw freshly severed heads. One hundred and twenty diseases were spread all over, and assuming terrible form, these devoured the king in his dream. There were uncountable [inauspicious] shooting stars and rivers flowing with blood…(Dimock, p193)

To the king, Sitala speaks:

“Listen with a calm mind, O king. It is my grace (daya) to extend this maya to you. I am the mistress of all diseases. I will give you the four great goals of life. I will be your final deliverance, and I will prevent untimely death. Rise in the morning, o king, and worship Sitala with offerings of countless male goats and rams.” (Dimock, p193)

When the king awakes, he recounts his dream to his court, who more-or-less reply that it must have been something he ate. So the king orders again that the merchant be executed, and at this moment Sitala steps in, casting her maya on kingdom and king alike. The city of Virata becomes virata-smasana – as Dimock comments: “one does not know whether to translate virata-smasana as “the cremation ground of the city of Virata” or “Virata, the cremation ground.” In the marketplace, formerly a place of pleasure and commerce, Sitala establishes a “marketplace for ghouls”:

“Demons sounded drums, a great uproar arose, and with arms lifted the diseases danced. Having gathered all the corpses, male and female ghouls put them on abundant display in shops, and bought and sold. … The ears of corpses were sold in the marketplace as pan, and the pupils of their eyes as sali-rice. Female ghouls bought bags of brains of corpses as lime, and rotten, melting corpses as perfume. … Palates were sold as ripe cantaloupe, and human heads as vegetables. Vomited blood is the best loved drink of male and female ghouls; human blood is sugar-cane juice for them. Demons bought and ate the breasts of dead women as if they were custard apples or pomegranates, with great delight … Human ears were hibiscus flowers, fly-whisks were made of skin with hair, and blood and pus were sold as sandalwood paste”. (Dimock, p194)

The king himself is striken with leprosy and glaucoma, and after being afflicted, he is able to perceive the maya of Sitala and the wonderful palace. As the glaucoma clears from his eyes, the king agrees to wed his daughter to the merchant, and recognises Sitala’s majesty:

“Remove these afflictions from my land. I know you now to be the goddess Sarada, full of mercy. I worship your lotus feet; grant right-mindedness to us all.”(Dimock, p189)

Why does the king’s offence affect the entire kingdom? King and kingdom share the same fate; as Ronald Inden (2003) explains, in Vaisvana and Saivite models of kingship; the person of the king was deeply entwined with the well-being of the countries they ruled, and kings were therefore required to be highly attentive to auspicious and inauspicious signs, employing ritual specialists such as astrologers:

“The king, an earthly realization of the Primordial Man (purusa), the Cosmic Overload himself, was thought to include within his persona all of the constituent elements of his kingdom just as the Cosmic Man included all the constituent elements of the universe in his.”

In this model, inauspicious signs are warnings of impeding disaster, and disasters (no matter who they affect) are also disasters for the king – and vice versa. Particular weight was given to celestial signs such as falling stars, comets or eclipses. This intensifies the failure of the king in the Sitala-mangal. Not only does he threaten Sitala’s merchant devotee, but he also ignores the very clear signs She presents to him and Her own warning.

Frédérique Marglin (1987), like Inden, also emphasises the interdependencies between actors in the Hindu model of kingship, stressing that king, gods, priests and villagers are mutually bound within a matrix of dependent relationships. Thus kings “conquer” (make available for cultivation) and protect the land, beginning the chain of life, but due to their hunter/warrior role, which involves the shedding of blood, they cannot directly offer food to the gods. This is the province of ritual specialists (vedic Brahmins) who depend on the king for land, and through their power, establish temples and bring the gods to dwell in them. Absolute authority, Marglin says, is the province of deities, and all positions were determined and recognised in terms of a person’s relationship or service to the deities. Ritual, such as yearly festivals, is a communal affair, requiring the cooperation of an entire polity, along with the pooling of economic and political resources. Similarly, Nicholas points out:

“Like a mother pulling together her quarreling sons so as to remind them that they are both equally offspring of her body, Sitala once each year quietly but forcefully draws together the sons of her village and makes them forget – at least for a while – politics and the pursuit of selfish ends.” (p190)

The mangal texts serve to both enlighten and instruct, in order that listeners recognise the unity – the manifestation of Sitala’s grace within the events of daily life. Sitala’s grace is twofold – it is the both the absence and presence of disease. Kinsley (1986, p211) suggests that Sitala’s grace grants “restitution in return for the understanding of her constant presence … which in turn makes the inevitable outbursts of disease or tragic consequences less devastating.”

In the next section of this essay, I’ll look at Sitala as a bestower of – and protector from – diseases.

Edward Dimock A Theology of the Repulsive: The Myth of the Goddess Sitala in Hawley, Wulff (eds) The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India (Motilal, 1995)
Lynn Foulston At the Feet of the Goddess: The Divine Feminine in Local Hindu Religion (Sussex Academic Press, 1999)
Lynn Foulston, Stuart Abbott Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices (Sussex Academic Press, 2009)
David Kinsley Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu religious tradition (University of California Press, 1986)
Ronald Inden Text and Practice: Essays on South Asian History (Oxford University Press India, 2003)
June McDaniel Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2004)
FA Marglin, Smallpox in Two Systems of Knowledge (UNU/WIDER working paper, 1987)
Ralph W Nicholas, Fruits of worship: practical religion in Bengal (Orient Black Swan, 2003)
Laurie L. Patton Jewels of Authority: Women and Textual Tradition in Hindu India (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Tracy Pintchman Seeking Mahādevī: constructing the indentities of the Hindu Great Goddess (SUNY, 2001)
Gloria G Raheja, Ann G Gold, Listen to the Heron’s Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India (University of California Press, 1994)
Susan Wadley, Sitala: The Cool One (Asian Folklore Studies 39. (1980): 33-62)