By Kalyani Shankar
What is the impact of coronavirus on religion? As the well-known German philosopher and economist Karl Marx said, religion is the “opium of the people.” For believers, world over it provides psychological and emotional as well as moral support. But the novel Coronavirus is a pandemic, which threatens the believers and atheists alike, which knows no religion.
However, the religious leaders have a lot of moral hold over the millions of believers. Almost all of them have risen to the occasion to contain the Coronavirus pandemic crisis. From Mecca to Vatican, the doors are shut to public. Pope Francis had urged the Catholic priests to have the “courage to go out and visit the sick” after taking precautions. The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem was closed after a coronavirus case was confirmed in the area. Many countries like Japan, Israel, South Korea and Iran have also shut their religious institutions. In an unprecedented manner, Saudi Arabia has temporarily suspended visitors coming for Umrah. Riyadh also briefly shut the Great Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.
India, which believes in religion, spiritualism, gurus and godmen, is no exception. That is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 2 called upon the religious leaders in India to take lead and ask their followers to adhere to the government guidelines to contain the pandemic. Roping in the chief ministers, Modi also asked them to convene a meeting of religious leaders across all faiths and urge them to convince their followers to adhere to government guidelines.
Significantly, Modi’s appeal came in the wake of the recent Nizamuddin Markaz religious gathering in violation government guidelines, which had turned into a major hotspot for spreading the Coronavirus. Nearly 2,100 people have been evacuated from “Markaz Nizamuddin”, the Delhi headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat group and over 1,100 are now quarantined in different parts of the city near the religious Centre.
Prior to that, at least 15,000 people might have caught the virus from a Sikh spiritual guru who had returned from Europe and went preaching in more than a dozen villages in Punjab. He later died of the Covid-19. All the 15,000 are now under quarantine. It was indeed a good sign that communal clashes did not follow this event.
How have the religious leaders and institutions responded to Modi’s appeal? For many religious leaders, the decision to shut their doors of their institutions was difficult but they had realized the severity of the pandemic had responded positively.
This was significant with Easter and Ramadan and other holy days approaching and it was imperative to prevent the believers from gathering in large numbers. They believe that in times of pandemic, people need more spirituality and not less.
In an unprecedented manner, several temples in India have also closed darshan for the devotees. These include Siddi Vinayakswamy temple, Kamakhya temple, Tirupathi Balaji temple and Puri Jagannath temple among others. Eventhe ‘Ganga Aarti’ at the Ghats of Varanasi and the ‘Garbhagriha’ (sanctum sanctorium) of Kashi Vishwanath temple has also been made off-limits.
Setting aside their differences, responding to the Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s appeal, the Kerala religious leaders including cardinals, bishops, Muslim religious leaders and leaders of Hindu communities issued a joint statement on March 20, asking the people to ‘stand together with determination and to overcome the trauma caused by the outbreak of novel Coronavirus.’
Hundreds of people from various religions came together in Patna to offer ‘sarva dharma prarthana’ (All Religion Prayer) to ‘crush’ the outbreak of Covid-19. Wearing their respective religious garments they offered prayers in their own ways on March 17.
Wiser counsel prevailed on the religious and political leadership of Uttar Pradesh to scale down the Ramanavami celebrations in Ayodhya, which had huge political significance after the Supreme Court verdict.
Spiritual gurus and god men, who depend on huge political support, are also not lagging behind. Spiritual leaders including Amritanandamayi, Jaggi Vasudev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have shut their ashrams and asked their followers not to congregate until the pandemic faded away. ‘The virus knows no caste, creed or religion. “Let us beat the virus” is their dictum to their followers. They also offer remedies like practicing yoga and pranayama. They are gurus for rich and poor. Many of them command huge followings at home and abroad. Their followers include politicians, film star, sportsmen and bureaucrats. Many like the yoga guru Baba Ramdev are also successful entrepreneurs and run massive business empires.
The role that faith leaders can play in getting the word out about public health measures is considerable. In India, where religion plays a role even in politics, it will go a long way to help contain the pandemic. It is a welcome measure that they have joined the fight against the virus along with their followers. After all India is home to innumerable gurus and god men – genuine and fake! (IPA Service)