Virus lockdown changes how Hindus celebrate holy period

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A Hindu woman wearing a mask shops for religious items on the eve of the Hindu festival Navratri in Prayagraj, India, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Tuesday announced a total lockdown of the country of 1.3 billion people to contain the new coronavirus outbreak. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

LUCKNOW – 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.”