Holding onto faith in the middle of the pandemic
All large gatherings, including for religious purposes, have been barred since March. This has meant most temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras and other places of worship have either been closed or functioning under very changed circumstancesUpdated: Jul 22, 2020 14:07 IST
A pandemic can be a test of God’s existence for man. How do you worship without a church, temple, mosque? What shape does faith take as thousands die of a viral infection every day?
Back in his hometown of Bhopal since the first lockdown, Nizamuddin Siddiqui, 32, a senior research fellow at the OP Jindal law school in Haryana, has been watching with interest as his community navigates faith without a functioning mosque amid restrictions imposed for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.
All large gatherings, including for religious purposes, have been barred since March. This has meant most temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras and other places of worship have either been closed or functioning under very changed circumstances.
“The masjid is our social and religious centre,” says Siddiqui. “The main challenge for us has been how to keep the mosque alive. You meet your neighbour there five times a day and suddenly there is a void. In future, you may even develop a habit of not going.”
The issue is not one of being left without religion, he adds (he prays in his room and has access, via YouTube and WhatsApp, to his religious leaders), but of being left without a community. Even for those who do still go to the mosque, there must be social distancing; ablutions are done at home; talk and interaction are at a minimum.
In Varanasi, a city of over 2,000 temples, religion cannot be seen to be organising itself too differently from pre-lockdown times. A temple is not a museum, it can’t really be closed, says Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the mahant of Varanasi’s Sankatmochan temple. “And so, my temple is open. I’m available to devotees online,” he says. “The pandemic is for human beings, not for God.”
A recent Pew Research survey found that 24% of American adults had felt their faith become stronger during the Covid-19 pandemic; 2% said it had weakened. The majority said their faith hasn’t changed much (47%), and a large number (26%) said the question wasn’t applicable because they were not religious to begin with.
The average Indian, says psychoanalyst Ashok Nagpal, has a different alchemy. “For us, religion is a socio-cultural encounter and to be able to replicate old habits maintained through institutions like the family is to be able to draw on inner recesses, and keep hope and faith alive. In times like these, it’s a force that releases new meanings and rituals.”
Nagpal points to an interesting development — how the language of the state changed during the pandemic. “In a recent interview, the Delhi CM said no one institution can do everything on its own. That there would be lapses in management and he would learn from criticism and from lived experience. He then added that only thus can we all come together, in collaboration, something religion also preaches. In this way, he brought faith and governance together in secular language.”
For doctors, it is almost always the age of science. On a few occasions, though, Dr Hoshedar Tata, a professor of surgery, invoked god. While emerging from the OT to speak to a patient’s family, he would refer the matter upwards, says his student, Ambarish Satwik, now a surgeon with Gangaram Hospital, Delhi, and a writer.
“For a man who was famously antipathetic to any superintending deity, this referral was never done shiftily or casually, but with the highest seriousness, almost as an act of faith,” says Satwik. As the patient’s family would move away, he would then lob at the small congregation of surgery students trailing him, Marx’s line: “‘To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.’ But we do need to find out, he’d often say, “if God can heal oesophageal anastomosis.”’
Gods have been seen as crisis managers through history. The cults of Mariamman, a village goddess of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, coincided with smallpox epidemics in the areas, as did Sitala’s in Bengal in the 17th century. But pandemics are hard to navigate for priests and religious institutions.
Surender Shukla, a priest at Trimbakeshwar, Nashik, one of India’s most-visited Hindu pilgrim towns, knows he is in for a long wait. No temple is open in Maharashtra. As numbers rise steadily, months into the pandemic in India, it is unlikely that places of worship will return to anything resembling normalcy for months yet.
Pratik Sharma, an event manager and Shiva devotee from Nashik, says he would rather be safe than make the trek to the city’s famed temples; he now prays before a framed image of Shiva at home.
Donations have taken a hit, admits Sribash Bhattacharya, secretary of the Kali Mandir Society of Chittaranjan Park, Delhi. “On average, earnings from daily offerings, before the lockdown would be around Rs 2.5 lakh. To make up for low physical attendance, we started the puja online in end June and asked for a minimum of Rs 101 online deposit per person. We have had 489 deposits so far.”
People of all faiths are feeling the pinch. Santosh Kambli, a third-generation artist who makes the idol of Lalbaugcha Raja, Mumbai, one of most revered of Ganesh pujas in Maharashtra, says the pandal committee is cancelling its festivities, which were due to begin on August 22, as its puja draws huge crowds. “But Bappa lives at Lalbaug. If you pass the spot, you will feel his aura,” Kambli says.
On a YouTube channel, the disembodied voice of Father Stephen can be heard singing a psalm. He is one of three priests holding fort at south Delhi’s St Teresa church. Father Suresh fixes the camera on a stand. Father Julius leads the prayer.
“At times, it does feel like a performance,” he says. “But then people start sending messages for prayer requests so you think this has meaning. Earlier 20 people would come for Mass, now 100 people watch live…. There have been requests that we continue this even after things get back to normal.”
What does this say about the future of religious institutions and its clergy? Can access to technology, video calls, lead to a new kind of congregation? “These questions are not new,” says Archbishop Anil Couto of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Delhi. “Organised religion has always faced the question of an unmediated, private relationship with God but the vibe that I’m getting is that people want to come to a place of worship.”
Delhi churches are closed till at least end-July. “The problem is that unlike temple ceremonies where darshan involves people coming and going ours [as in Islam] is worship in a congregation,” says Father Julius.
But faith will endure. John Dayal, spokesperson for the All India Catholic Union, says religions and ideologies and persuasions including atheism and agnosticism will survive Covid-19. “This tussle is good. It keeps the quest alive,” he adds.
Jasjit Chugh, a practising Sikh, says: “Religious ceremonies require the attendance of people even if you do away with crowds. I would think the gods want us to be safe. Religious practices should not become more important than faith.”