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Multiplicious Becomings: tantric theologies of the grotesque – IV

“Dismantling the organism has never meant killing yourself, but rather opening the body to connections that presuppose an entire assemblage, circuits, conjunctions, levels and thresholds, passages and distributions of intensity, and territories and deterritorializations measured with the craft of a surveyor.”
Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

“The Supreme Lord fashions the body and the senses, corresponding (to the sphere of) duality by the power of Maya, while through His power of knowledge He generates Mantras. Their body is the self-awareness which is the expanse (akasa) (of consciousness), and they denote the wonderful diversity of things.”
Ksemaraja, commentary on the Spandakarika (Dyczkowski, 1992)

For the final part of this extended essay I will focus on Sitala and her relationship with disease and possession. Here, a “grotesque” element (from an outsider’s perspective) might well be the idea that Sitala – rather than conforming to the tendency to dichotomise deities as either helpful or harmful – is considered to be the agency which bestows and removes disease. Moreover, Sitala’s bestowal of diseases is often considered to be a “blessing” or sign of Sitala’s grace – with the person experiencing “the kiss of the goddess” and thought to be in a state of intensified “closeness” to Sitala – making the disease a form of possession and sometimes, granting the person a reciprocal power in the realm of disease-management, and as an oracular medium of the goddess.

India has had a long-established culture of possession for over three thousand years, with textual references found in the Rg Veda and the Atharvaveda with numerous schemas (and multitudinous taxonomies of spirits) emerging and cross-pollinating each other through the dharmasastras, tantric schools and ayurvedic practices, as well as yoga and devotional approaches (see Smith, 2006, for a full account) and remains popular today as a contemporary practice, and several scholars have studied contemporary possession practices, particularly in relation to the non-sanskritised village or local goddesses (for example, Foulston, 1999, McDaniel, 2004).

Possession and disease: Sitala and smallpox
Smallpox seems to have become widely prevalent in India from around the 7th century A.D., and gradually ceased to be rare and exceptional. By the mid-19th century for example, 4 million deaths were attributed to smallpox between 1865 and 1899. Smallpox was generally considered to be inevitable and inescapable. It is within this context of the inevitability of smallpox infection that much of the early anthropological and medically-oriented accounts of Sitala are situated. Prior to the introduction of vaccination by the British, the dominant approach to coping with smallpox in India was variolation – using a small portion of infected matter (such as pus) to give a person an attenuated case of smallpox (giving immunity from further infection, although 2-3% of those variolated died). Practices of variolation was described in British accounts of smallpox outbreaks in the late eighteenth century in India, and according to Frédérique Marglin (1987) was accompanied by the worship of Sitala. Nicholas (2003) cites eighteenth & nineteenth-century British accounts of inoculation which suggest that variolation was carried out by itinerant specialists, sometimes known as tikadars – “mark-makers”, who had long-term relationships with client villages.

According to Marglin, smallpox was homologised with Sitala and the sufferer spoken to and of, as though he or she were the goddess; offered cooling drinks (such as asses milk) or food and leaves of the neem tree (which have antiseptic properties) – the same substances that would be offered to the goddess in formal puja. Fabrizio Ferrari (2007, p86) states that:

“Informants all agree in saying that cold waters and cooling edibles are offered to Sitala, not to the ill person. This is because the diseased person is Sitala, quite literally.”

When Sitala is angered, she becomes heated – and the diseases she controls overheat those she possesses, so that measles sufferers are thought to have the goddess’ heat within them. Marglin argues that Sitala, angry and heated, is the diseased person, and when pacified and cool, she is the “cured” patient. In treating the disease sufferer as Sitala, gentleness is emphasised and extremes such as confrontation and aggressiveness are to be avoided, lest the goddess be angered and the disease intensified. This understanding of disease, she argues, does not view disease as an “enemy to be eradicated”. Marglin draws on Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic (1975) in arguing that just as in the prison, the enemies of society are placed in a condition of surveillance, so too the hospital or clinic, places the enemy of health – the diseased person – under surveillance, subject to disciplinary control. This, Marglin says, is the consequence of a dichotomous disease model which constructs disease as “an enemy to be destroyed” and death as a negative failure.

British colonial administrators tended to characterise the entirety of Indian medicine, religion and popular belief as superstitious and irrational. Variolation was banned by the colonial government in 1865 and replaced with vaccination, which met considerable resistance as it was conceived of as offensively polluting and another instance of coercion by the authorities – and vaccination was not immediately effective. Colonial administrators tended to interpret resistance as superstitious ignorance and further proof of the “backwardness” of Indian religions – particularly the worship of Sitala – in resisting change and improvements.

Following independence, the Indian government continued to press for eradication of smallpox through vaccination (see Marglin for discussion of “forced vaccinations”). In the early 1970s, a new approach to vaccination was embarked on by the Indian government in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, which stressed sensitivity to local practices and public co-operation, rather than top-down enforcement, and India was declared free of smallpox in 1980.

Sitala and AIDS
India is estimated to have 2.47million people living with HIV ( India country review accessed 1 July 2011). A 2006 study found that 25% of People Living with AIDS/HIV (PLWAH) had been refused medical treatment on the basis of their HIV-positive status. A joint report issued in 2010 by WHO, UNAIDS and UNICEF estimated that over 1 million PLWAH in India are without access to anti-retroviral (ARV) treatments. India’s health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has been roundly criticised for the remarks he made at recent HIV/AIDS conference in New Delhi. Speaking about men who have sex with men (MSM), Azad said “This kind of act is unnatural and it should not be indulged in.”

The relationship between AIDS awareness and local religions in India has attracted some interest, particularly following the “birth” (or “creation”) of a new goddess – AIDS-amma. AIDS-amma was “created” by Mr H.H Girish, a science teacher in the village of Menasikyathana Halli, in Karnataka, as part of an AIDS awareness campaign. Mr Girish built a shrine and installed the goddess on World AIDS day 1997. Girish found out about a local couple who had died of starvation, having been ostracised from their community when it was discovered they had AIDS. Girish calls the shrine a “Temple of Science” and gives lectures, urging the villagers to seek information rather than protection from the goddess. AIDS-amma is represented by a whitewashed stone on which are solid black silhouettes of a woman and a man’s torso, standing back to back. In the middle of the figure’s merging heads is a large red circle, upon which are written AIDS and HIV in English, along with informative messages in the local language, Kannada.

link to photos of Girish and the AIDS-amma shrine

Anna Portnoy, a Harvard undergraduate who visited the shrine in 1999, says that Girish intended the figures of the man and woman to represent religion, and the red circle to represent the HIV virus, or more generally, science. He gave weekly lectures at the shrine about AIDS, and entreats villages to ask the goddess for knowledge – “Please AIDS-amma, bless me with information” – rather than seeking protection or a cure. Portnoy also interviewed villagers about their relationship to AIDS-amma:

On Friday, three or four women did straggle over from the larger Pataladamma temple, which was set back another twenty meters from the AIDS-amma shrine. With the sound of Pataladamma’s priest chanting in the distance, one of the women, a young mother, lit a stick of incense for AIDS-amma, while the others pressed their folded hands to their chests. The women were reluctant to discuss the temple or its subject. “We don’t know anything about AIDS-amma,” one said. “We don’t know anything except that there is a disease called AIDS.” I asked if there were a connection between the disease and the goddess and she told me that that is what educated people had told her.

The men in the village were more forthcoming about their knowledge of AIDS-amma. Most claimed to go to the temple every day and to pray for a “clean” or “clear” mind. They perceived the man and woman painted on the “idol” to be having sexual intercourse–a pictorial lesson in how the disease is transmitted. One man said, “The idol is quite fearsome. It’s a woman and man because [AIDS] travels from woman to man.”

Portnoy reports that in April 1999 someone – reportedly from a neighbouring village, slashed the AIDS-amma stone in two and poured red paint over it. She was later informed that people did not object to a new temple as such, but felt that the way Girish had connected sex and religion was morally wrong. Some newspapers had reported that Girish had considered placing a box of contraceptives at the shrine as an offering, but Girish told Portnoy that such an open display would incur open religious opposition. Portnoy reports that the vandalism caused villagers in Menasikyathana Halli to rally round in support of the shrine, rebuilding it and forming a union to protect and develop it. There is now a yearly jatra (“fair”) in which AIDS-amma is carried in procession around the village, accompanied by street plays, free medical checkups and blood donations (AIDS-amma Jatra).

Opinions in India about the long-term effectiveness of AIDS-amma are divided. Some critics maintain that the creation of AIDS-amma will encourage villagers to seek protection or cure from her, whilst other commentators believe that AIDS-amma will become a rallying point for raising awareness and countering the negative public perceptions of AIDS.

Although Sitala is frequently referred to as “the smallpox goddess” it would be more accurate to say that she has at her call a wide range of fevers and diseases. Although she is worshipped in order to keep these diseases at bay, there is also the homology of disease-as-possession to consider. Several scholars, notably June McDaniel (2004) and Lynn Foulston (2009) have observed that despite the eradication of smallpox, Sitala has to some extent retained her popularity in relation to diseases such as measles, syphilis, TB and malaria, but more recently, she is also worshipped as an AIDS-goddess.

Ferrari describes the situation thusly:

“According to my fieldwork in rural West Bengal, AIDS tends to be seen as the result of erratic social and ritual behaviour. Especially among less educated people, AIDS is a punishment for not regularly worshipping the goddess and the acceptance of a modern/Western lifestyle, especially concerning intergender relations. The awareness that AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease is not sufficiently rooted, especially among women. … In rural communities diseases are invariably related to the action of deities and spirits. Further, the existence of sexual taboos makes it difficult to understand that a disease – considered a state of possession – can be caused by sexual activity. Śītalā is believed to visit her sons and daughters through AIDS as she used to do with smallpox. The persistence of this pattern has led Śītalā’s devotees to believe in the possibility of recovery from HIV positiveness through worship (pūjā) and sacrificial offering (balidān). Contagion is not always seen as a life-threat. In fact, it can be a privileged condition.”

Ferrari says that devotees of Sitala view contagion as a desirable form of possession and – just as smallpox victims were identified with Sitala, so too PLWAH are experiencing “the kiss of the goddess” (a euphemism previously associated with smallpox) – “an extreme form of love which can eventually devour them.” Ferrari describes specialists known variously as Khalsis, ojhas or rojas who communicate with the goddess as trance oracles, and who suffer, or have suffered from, diseases which they claim to be able to cure, and give advice to clients on healing methods, preventative measures, and offerings to be presented to the goddess. He says that in some case, PLWAH in Bengal are identified as healers in this way and play a similar role in relation to HIV/AIDS. According to Ferrari, some of his informants not only expressed a belief in the possibility of recovery, but also expressed “happiness with their condition, as it gives them social recognition.”

David Arnold Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India (University of California Press, 1993)
Suparna Bhaskaran Made in India: Decolonizations, Queer Sexualities, Trans/national Projects (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
Mark SG Dyczowski, The Stanzas on Vibration: The SpandaKarika with Four Commentaries (SUNY, 1992)
F Ferrari, Love Me Two Times.’ From Smallpox to AIDS: Contagion and Possession in the Cult of Śītalā (Religions of South Asia, North America, 1, jun. 2007. Available at: [Purchase/Login required] Date accessed: 28 Jun. 2011.)
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)
Frederick M. Smith The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilisation (Columbia University Press, 2006)
Susan Wadley, Sitala: The Cool One (Asian Folklore Studies 39. (1980): 33-62)

web sources
Stigma and discrimination in India accessed 28 June, 2011)
Undergraduate Witnesses Birth of a Goddess the Harvard University Gazette Archives ( accessed 28 June, 2011)
Anna Portnoy A Goddess in the Making (Whole Earth Magazine, Fall 2000, online article accessed 27 June, 2011)


  1. Alistair Livingston
    Posted July 30th 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this series of articles Phil. What I am going to have to do is print them out and set aside some time to properly engage with them. They have a depth and substance which requires several steps back from the ceaseless flow of ‘information’ in this spectacular age.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that it can take the ‘blessing’ of Sitala – the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness or the death of a loved one for example- to make us pause and see/ experience the world in a deeper way. Such blessings can lead people to adopt different value systems.

    But to the extent that such different value systems conflict with those of the dominant ideology (consumer capitalism in this society) they are immediately marginalised. Or, as seems to be happening now with the long term sick/ disabled – demonised.

    This makes me wonder – could the category ‘queer’ extend to include people with long-term/ severe illness and the disabled? The overlap with AIDS would seem to suggest this, but until reading this series of articles it is not a possibility I had considered. [Note- my youngest son is very disabled].

    Hmmm. Perhaps I haven’t sat down to engage with these articles because I sensed that following your line of thought through would become too personal and painful. Oh well, I have now made a connection at the intellectual level. Now I will have to wait to feel what follows. I thank Sitala for this blessing.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted July 30th 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink


      Thanks, as ever, for the great feedback.

      – could the category ‘queer’ extend to include people with long-term/ severe illness and the disabled?

      Yes. There has been an increasing dialogue between queer theories and disability studies. There’s Robert McRuer’s “Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability” (New York University 2006) for instance – which I’ve kind of flipped trhough but definitely need to go back and read properly.

      • Alistair Livingston
        Posted August 4th 2011 at 12:05 am | Permalink

        Found McRuer’s book on google books so will have a look through it. On queer theory- I got Common Women Uncommon Practices, the queer feminism of greenham by Sasha Rosneil (Cassell, 2000) after reading her Disarming Patriarchy (1995) which was also about Greenham.

        I then found in final chapter- A queer new world? a description of the ‘extraordinary scenes’ at Kensington Palace following the death of princess Diana in 1997- which Rosneil described as ‘magical and deeply moving’ – and compared favourably with the 1982 Embrace the Base at Greenham.

        I know I shouldn’t have, but this rather put me off queer theory.