Rukmani Sharma fears the virus that has turned the world upside down. But as a devout Hindu, she also fears for her soul.
COVID-19 restrictions mean that the 71-year-old woman won’t be allowed to go to temple Thursday to celebrate the birthday of the Hindu god Ram, and she says she’s “feeling guilty.”
Hindus around the world are in the midst of a nine-day period called Chaitra Navaratri that began with what for many is considered the Hindu New Year and will culminate with the festival of Ramanavami. Normally there is fasting, masses worshipping together, offerings in temples and festivals.
But this year, celebrations and prayers are home-bound events and if there is group worship, it’s livestreamed. India, where most of the world’s billion Hindus live, is in a government-ordered 21-day lockdown. People are allowed to leave their homes only for essentials. Religious gatherings are explicitly banned.
The significance of that ban is especially striking in Uttar Pradesh. Yogi Adityanath, the top government official in the north Indian state, had planned a grand festival over five of the nine days leading up to Ram’s birthday. It was expected to draw more than 1 million people from across India, to celebrate a recent Supreme Court ruling that will allow a Hindu trust to build a temple on a long-disputed site where the religious believe Ram was born.
Instead, Adityanath, a former monk, is urging the faithful to stay home. “No one should come to temple. This is a time of crisis and people should realize that prayers from home are as acceptable as prayers offered in temple,” Adityanath said.
Sharma, a resident of Uttar Pradesh’s capital, Lucknow, is distraught that she wouldn’t be able to perform a customary food ritual at the temple. She consulted a temple priest, and was advised to instead feed stray cows, which Hindus revere and worship.
“The priest told me to cook food as usual and feed the same to the cow,” she said. “Cow is our mata (mother) and feeding mata is like feeding daughters.”
Some temple priests in Uttar Pradesh said they have declined requests to visit homes, suggesting instead that people should donate the money they would have spent cooking food to the chief minister’s virus relief fund.
“It is our responsibility to follow social distancing,” said Pandit Shubankar, a priest at Gomati Nagar Kali Bari temple in Lucknow.
Hindus in the U.S. are also following social distancing protocols.
Normally, Suhag Shukla would be scrubbing her Philadelphia home more intensely than usual, a sign of the renewal the holiday signifies. There would be guests and Temple worship. But the temples are closed, and the bells that worshippers ring when they enter are silent.
Her family’s prayers are confined to the altar in their home and worship and celebrations are happening in cyberspace.
“Normally, in the absence of a global pandemic India would have been seeing a lot of celebrations,” said Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. That would entail special foods and sweets, prayers and rituals and gatherings of guests and family. “You would also be planning on joining your community at a local temple to celebrate as well.”
With temples closed, Facebook and Zoom have become the way to connect for a religion where connection to all things is imperative.
Shukla said it is important during a time of “unprecedented anxiety and uncertainty” that people have a way “to continue to commune with the Divine in kind of a sense of community.”
Shukla said her plan for Thursday, which is also her birthday, was to participate with the wider community through livestream and perform altar prayers at home. She planned to prepare special foods for her family, probably a fruit-based meal with some sweets.
“For everything and everyone life was on this fast forward,” she said. Moving at that pace “you don’t have the time to stop and actually listen, which all contributes to kind of a polarized world that we had created. It just was going so fast. This is like, ‘Hey guys, you need to slow down.’”