Pandemics Happen When Viruses Seek New Hosts, Because We Destroy The Habitat And Organisms Which Keeps Them Inside Themselves  

Aravindan Neelakandan

Mar 22, 2020, 05:40 PM | Updated 05:40 PM IST

Street food in China (Flickr) 
Street food in China (Flickr) 
  • The research is clear. Pandemics follow large scale disruption of ecosystems.
  • The multi-colour painted statuette shows a very interesting scene. A tree is being cut by government officials and from within the tree arises a fierce Goddess and attacks the man who tries to cut the tree.

    At the southernmost end of the Indian mainland, this scene adorns the modest ‘gopuram’ of the temple. The name of the Goddess there literally means ‘She who obstructed the felling’.

    Destruction of forests makes the fierce form of the Goddess emerge; Goddess temple, Kanyakumari district.
    Destruction of forests makes the fierce form of the Goddess emerge; Goddess temple, Kanyakumari district.

    Reading a recent article in ‘Scientific American’ about how habitat destruction triggers pandemics throughout the history of humans brought to mind that fierce Goddess.

    The article quotes David Quammen, science and nature writer, and author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic:

    We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.

    The article goes on to cite the work of Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL, which was published in ‘Nature’ in 2008.

    In that paper, Jones et al have analysed a database of the origins of 335 Emerging Infectious Diseases or EIDs which happened between 1940 and 2004. They discovered ‘non-random global patterns.’

    Now, with Covid-19 as the pandemic EID, she was quoted by the paper stating this:

    We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans. Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.

    She calls these diseases the ‘hidden cost of human economic development’. So, are we as a species, the cause of these epidemics and pandemics with regular intervals?

    In his article published in January 2020, he pointed out darkly:

    The list of such viruses emerging into humans sounds like a grim drumbeat: Machupo, Bolivia, 1961; Marburg, Germany, 1967; Ebola, Zaire and Sudan, 1976; H.I.V., recognized in New York and California, 1981; a form of Hanta (now known as Sin Nombre), southwestern United States, 1993; Hendra, Australia, 1994; bird flu, Hong Kong, 1997; Nipah, Malaysia, 1998; West Nile, New York, 1999; SARS, China, 2002-3; MERS, Saudi Arabia, 2012; Ebola again, West Africa, 2014. And that’s just a selection. Now we have nCoV-2019, the latest thump on the drum.

    From a purely planetary ecological point of view, the real ‘outbreak’, according to Quammen, are not the viruses which infect us but we the humans in relation to the rest of all life:

    We are prodigious, we are unprecedented. We are phenomenal. No other primate has ever weighed upon the planet to anything like this degree. In ecological terms, we are almost paradoxical: large-bodied and long-lived but grotesquely abundant. We are an outbreak.

    Then, should we accept this with an ecological fatalist and defeatist attitude — that we are a transgression against the planet by the very fact that we live?

    Origin myth of Christianity subtly suggests something similar to that. In the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, we cleaved ourselves from the rest of creation by our knowledge, our questioning and our disobedience.

    This got us humans expelled from the ecological Eden. We exist as a self-reflective species because of the ‘Original Sin’.

    We need to accept every Armageddon scenario as the will of the God who expelled us from the Eden. He sends such pandemic deluges and confusions against His children who try constantly to build techno-science towers of Babel, challenging Him.

    But paradoxically, man, who was also the gardener of Eden, was later entrusted with the responsibility of saving all the species from the God-sent deluge to repopulate the world.

    So in the Christian view of planet and ecology, man, even when eco-friendly, is apart from nature and has a leader role over all other life.

    Naturally, a pandemic is either a ‘divine punishment’ to be endured or a ‘Satanic evil’ to be battled.

    Vedic and Puranic worldviews, however, provide another alternative.

    It brings in a paradoxical dual nature too — that of the Divine Feminine.

    As with most of Hindu traditions, this too can be traced to the Vedic texts.

    Rig Veda speaks of the Goddess of the forest — Aranyani.

    The hymn for the Goddess of the forest reveals both Her motherly and fierce nature. More relevant to the present context is her relation to the wild life of the forest:

    … This man calls his cow, another cuts down the timber, tarrying in the forest at eventide, one thinks there is a cry. But Aranyani injures no one unless some other assails; feeding upon the sweet fruit, she penetrates at will. I praise the musk-scented, fragrant, fertile, uncultivated Aranyani, the mother of wild animals. 
    (Rig Veda X.146. 3-6)

    She gives humanity her resources, but the hymn makes it clear that she can injure if she is assailed or if her subjects — the wild animals — are hurt. If one reads the hymn carefully, it speaks of her ‘feeding upon the sweet fruit, she penetrates at will.’

    Today, with the understanding of the virus, we can see that the hymn becomes quite relevant.

    Sitala Devi and Mariamman — Goddesses who nurture growth, limit within boundaries and heal.
    Sitala Devi and Mariamman — Goddesses who nurture growth, limit within boundaries and heal.

    There are many studies on the ‘disease Goddesses’ of India – particularly Sitala Mata and Mariamman along with the process of ritual variolation.

    Ultimately, variolation gave way to vaccination. Western scholars and their Indian counterparts who studied the ‘disease Goddess’ traditions have been intrigued by both Her fierce as well as motherly nature.

    More often than not, they resort to the Aryan-non-Aryan binary.

    But if the village and the ‘disease’ Goddesses are seen as localised manifestations of the archetypal Aranyani, then that puts the Goddesses in proper perspective.

    When the vaccination campaign was made in post-independent India, the Sitala Mata tradition was belittled as ‘pseudo-science’ and superstition.

    Philosopher of science, James Robert Brown, in a detailed study of Sitala Mata tradition and its encounter with modern medical science makes the following interesting observation:

    Sitala Mata is both the cause and the cure of smallpox, and variolation uses smallpox to achieve immunity from it. Anyone inoculated with smallpox matter became immune. The Indian population had enough experience of variolation to know this; it was a well-established fact. It would be wrong, it seems to me, to call this account of smallpox a pseudoscience.

    Sitala Mata or any ‘disease Goddess’ in the context of the newly emerging and spreading diseases acquire a quite different dimension.

    Even as we search and discover vaccination and other cures against them, we cannot ignore the fact that our development and our own relation to nature also play a role in their creation.

    Between ecological or theological fatalism and battling the nature to establish human sovereignty over nature, there indeed is a third path.

    In one way or the other, it is to the Divine Feminine that we see humanity return irrespective of the superficial religious differences.

    Even Pope Francis had to appeal to the Divine Feminine when humanity is having this encounter with this pandemic.

    Catholic religion has appropriated the pagan Goddess who was the creatrix and matrix of all existence and downgraded Her into an intermediary between the extra-cosmic God and the powerless humans.

    It was to Her, nevertheless, that Pope would turn to, as if guided by the collective unconscious.

    When he went to ‘the Basilica of Saint Mary Major to pray before the venerated Byzantine icon of Our Lady — the protectress of the people of Rome’, he was re-enacting what previous Popes like Gregory of 6th century and yet another Pope Gregory as late as 19th century did — outwardly invoking her ‘intercession’ when cholera struck Rome, but in reality returning to a more primordial source of the Goddess — the Divine Feminine.

    We may soon discover a vaccine against Covid-19 also. But it should not again delude us into an arrogance that would lead us to the next pandemic for yet another generation.

    We need to take the larger lesson home as a species. We need to stop being an outbreak. We need to control our mindless consumerist expansion destroying the web of life. There is, of course, no forbidden knowledge.

    The more we learn the secrets and mysteries of the nature around us, it should make us more sensitive to the sacredness of existence that surrounds us.

    As the last standing pagan culture rooted in the Divine Feminine, Hindus have a responsibility to be the vanguard of such a synthesis of science and sacred ecological veneration of all nature.

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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