Measles: A Gift from a Goddess?

One of the more ridiculous falsehoods spread by Meryl Dorey in her promotion of disease as better than vaccination, is that in ancient Sanskrit “measles” means “gift from a goddess”.

She further claims that this is so because robust health and “huge” growth follows measles. Which is not exactly what I’d expect to see in a child who’d been bed ridden, suffering fevers perhaps seizures, diarrhea, exhaustion, malnourishment, drowsiness, muscle pain, photophobia, dry cough, bloody nose, possible brain damage, etc, etc and of course the chance of death. This entire claim is utterly bogus and toweringly irresponsible given that some listeners will be influenced by it.

From page 26 of Dorey’s Iverell Forum presentation slides (AVN seminar teachings)

In fact the Sanskrit मसूरिका or “masuurikaa” translates variously as measles, lentil, eruption of lentil shaped pustules, procuress (female procurer) and smallpox. So, with apologies to Sanskrit we shall move on to examine exactly what relationship a Goddess may have with this disease and why. As with many early cultures and belief systems, significant phases in life are assumed controlled by divine power. Diseases are believed to come in response to divine retribution, anger, punishment or even the working of an evil witch or sorcerer.

With respect to this Merylism we at least have enough to visit the beliefs of rural Indian folk. Here we find the goddess Sitala Mataji also known as Shitala, Sheetala or just Sitala. Broadly speaking Sitala Mataji is the Hindu pox goddess, worshipped in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and particularly in Northern India and Western Bengal. With Bengal situated in the north-east of the Indian sub-continent geographical proximity supports a common anthropological view of infectious disease.

Sitala Mataji loves cold and coolness and this is reflected in her name. She likes cold food offerings cooked the day before. One derivation Shitala Devi means the Cold Goddess. Measles is caused by the anger of Sitala Mataji. When we talk about measles and this goddess it’s important to realise this is understanding measles in strictly religious terms. Hindus may refer to measles as choti mai or choti mata (the smaller mother) whilst smallpox is bari mai or bari mata (the larger mother). Before the eradication of smallpox in the 1970’s Sitala was associated with smallpox.

According to legend Sitala is one of seven sisters who live in the neem tree and who bring epidemic diseases. She is often in the company of Gheṇṭukarṇa, the god of skin diseases, Jvarāsura, the fever demon, the Cauṣaṭṭī Rogas, (the sixty-four epidemics), Olāi Caṇḍi/Olāi Bibi, the goddess of cholera, and Raktāvatī, the goddess of blood infections. The measles rash represents “heat” and “dirt” that must come out lest the child die. Child talismans of goat, lion or bear hair warding off the fear which measles brings, and indeed the way measles “frightens” children strongly reflect links to the spirit world.

Shrines to Sitala Mataji can be found near neem trees. Other talismans against evil spirits and fear include spreading neem leaves and rose petals across a child’s bed in the case of Punjabi Christians who also spread neem leaves on the floor and use them to brush the measles rash. Hindus place neem leaves over the entryway to the house and under the infected child’s bed.

They would also keep a can of wet cow dung at their door or child’s door so that people entering – who may be “impure” – can put their feet or leg in the wet dung which is “pure”, before entering to visit the victim. A herb kala dana which is also used for Evil Eye infections should be burnt as it’s smoke is good for measles, assisting the rash to “come out”. Some herbal teas assist in promoting fever which is viewed as assisting the heat and rash to leave the body.

Although Sitala looks out for children and mothers she is simultaneously destructive and protective. In An anthropology of infectious disease: international health perspectives, Inhorn and Brown (1997) cite a number of authors, writing:

Although Sitala is by nature cool when she is angry she becomes heated and attacks with pox diseases, overheating her victims as well. Excess heat in the body then causes the skin rash to appear. The idea is that the disease of measles is the goddess and that when measles occurs the goddess herself is within her victims, burning them. From this it follows that measles victims themselves are in something resembling a “godlike” state and it is appropriate for them and their families to follow a restricted “purification” diet while the disease is in progress [p. 308].

In order to placate Sitala Mataji parents wait until about the fifth day and having wrapped their child tightly in a white cloth take them for a blessing at the temple. The tight wrapping also increases perspiration and the progression of the rash. On returning from the temple wet cow dung is used to make symbols resembling on the wall of the house or house compound.

Cotton wool is spaced out evenly stuck to the dung. Red ceremonial worship powder is dabbed onto the cotton wool as Sitala is further encouraged to chill out (no pun intended) with prayers said in the child’s name. The symbols also serve to warn others away.

As expected in areas of counterfeit vaccines/medication and where less than half of “allopaths” are properly qualified there are stories of families following doctors orders to the letter only to loose the child. Others who sought to placate Sitala Mataji and went to the temple found their child recovered. Some Hindu women suggest these beliefs and strong relationship between measles and Sitala are a “carryover” from when smallpox was a major killer.

The legend of the vengeful burning arises from the story of a poor daughter in law ordered by her cranky mother in law to prepare sweets and food for the Sitala Satam celebrations, which were the next day. The daughter in law did but exhausted and having fed her child about 11pm, fell asleep. At the stroke of midnight Sitala Mataji came by and was burnt by the stove which had not been put out. Sitala cursed this woman and said “As I was burnt so let your child be burnt”.

On waking the woman realised her folly and saw her child was burnt. Other villagers pointed out it was the young mother’s fault that Sitala had been pained by the hot stove, become angry and thus, that her child had become burnt. The woman got permission to seek Sitala in the forest and eventually came upon an old woman with dandruff and “some tiny microbes” in her hair. The old lady asked where she was going and if she could spare time to clean her hair of insects and such. The young mother being a rather selfless type complied, handing her baby to the old woman.

After about an hour the baby revived and cried and the mother suddenly realised the old woman was Sitala Mataji in disguise. Showing devotion she fell into the holy lotus position and begged forgiveness for her mistake. This made Sitala very happy who forgave the young mother and promised to always be helpful to her – as long as no stoves were left on on that particular day. The next year the young mother’s jealous sister in law purposely left her stove on so her child would be burnt by Sitala Mataji. She journeyed into the forest but ignored the old woman and returned with a dead baby.

Devastated, crying, seeking forgiveness from the young mother and praying with true devotion to Sitala Mataji she begged the goddess “to make the dead child alive”. Sitala Mataji then blessed this child and later the jealous daughter made a confession and asked for forgiveness. So, the festival became one celebrated with devotion. All sweets and food are prepared the day before. Stoves are turned off and sprinkled with water. Devotees have a cold bath in the morning, and it is women and small children who worship mostly seeking blessing from the goddess Sitala Mataji.

The impact of this legend may be rightly gauged as profound. The life and death of a child is solely down to offending or proper appeasement of the goddess Sitala Mataji. In some North Indian villages as reported by Inhorn and Brown [p. 311] 74% of mothers believe measles cannot be prevented “whether through immunisation or otherwise”. It is a dangerous yet essential part of life. 70% believe no doctors should be seen lest the goddess – who resides within measles – is offended. Of 18 cases among Sikhs in India none were taken to a doctor. Three died [p. 313].

Apart from increasing perspiration, wrapping also prevents “measles-associated pneumonia” – a widely held fear. It is believed pneumonia is caused by cold. Even after recovery, isolation and wrapping continues to prevent “breathing problems”. Sitala has a brother god who causes the gasping for breath seen in pneumonia which suggests measles-pneumonia is also a part of Hindu mythology. In families with severe poverty and illiteracy other children die of dehydration from measles induced diarrhea, which is also seen as a means of removing the heat inflicted by Sitala Mataji.

In simple terms, in the cultures Dorey was misrepresenting, measles is seen as a curse from a goddess. One who demands in response such absolute devotion that children die as their superstitious parents fear offending her with medicine and instead smear cow dung on the walls of their home, pray and burn ritual herbs. In a fit of anger she attacks and burns small children through the fault of the mother who must then carry the burden of hit and miss spiritual appeasement. It is these very beliefs and others like them that will for a long time prevent significant reduction of measles in developing nations.

Clearly there is no gift from any goddess. No “huge” growth spurt. Only a pitiful struggle for survival and the fear of Sitala’s brother god. Ken McLeod on page 24 of Meryl Dorey’s trouble with the truth part 3: lies and fraud offers [bold mine]:

In a Sanskrit dictionary the word “masuri ” means “small-pox,” and the Sanskrit equivalent of the English word “measles” is “masurika मसूरिका”, from ‘a kind of herb’, ‘lentil’ or ‘pillow’, as in “an eruption of lentil-shaped pustules.” There is no etymology involving gifts from goddesses. The World Health Organisation tells of a superstition in the Indian subcontinent that smallpox resulted from a wrathful kiss by the Goddess of Smallpox, Shitala Mata. That is quite the opposite to Dorey’s claim.

One must pause and wonder if Dorey has any remote appreciation of the harsh living conditions and unbridled suffering such villagers may endure. Or if she understands their struggle as she sprouts her own cow dung over the simple truths that control their quality of life. If she is so inclined then why not smear cow dung on her own walls or offer a can full at the next pox party?

Strange isn’t it. We won’t see the antivaccination devotees stepping in wet cow dung before crossing the threshold to visit a sick child. Nor would we see devotees of Sitala Mataji giving their children the saliva of children already infected with measles. All things considered I’m pretty sure who is the most misguided.

Gift from a Goddess? I call cow dung.


10 thoughts on “Measles: A Gift from a Goddess?

  1. Her bourgois thinking makes me so angry … I’m sure there are poor people the world over who would give their eye teeth to vaccinate their children!

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