Campus & Community

Undergraduate Witnesses Birth of a Goddess

7 min read
In the Sackler Museum, Anna Portnoy '00 talks about the new Indian AIDS goddess while standing in front of the more venerable deities Kali and Siva on a 9th-10th century B.C. frieze.

Anna Portnoy had come halfway around the world to witness the birth of a goddess.

It was a difficult delivery.

As a junior concentrating in the Study of Religion, Portnoy had been looking for a topic for her honors thesis. Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, a graduate student who knew of her interest in Hindu goddesses, pointed out an article in the newspaper India Today that told of an interesting development in southern India. In one small rural village, people had begun worshipping a new deity who was described as the goddess of AIDS.

“That was all I had, that one little article, but I just decided to go,” Portnoy says. “Deities crop up all over the place all the time in India, but the idea of actually seeing one come into being was fascinating to me.”

Portnoy had written several papers on the goddess tradition in India and had some idea of what to expect. She knew that an AIDS goddess or amma (mother) fit neatly into the tradition of other diseases-inspired goddesses such as plague-amma or chickenpox-amma.

Such deities are thought to both cause and cure the disease over which they preside. They are typically part of local village-based folk traditions and tend to merge into one another in the minds of their worshippers.

“If you ask people whether one goddess is the same as another one, they’ll say, ‘Yes, all the mothers are one,’ or they’ll tell you that they’re all sisters.”

AIDS-amma was different, however. She had been created by an idealistic, civic-minded schoolteacher as part of an AIDS awareness campaign. Thus, while she might appear to an observer as a sister to the traditional Hindu mother goddesses, she could also be classified with such figures as Mr. Tooth Decay and Smokey Bear.

Last summer, with funding from the Harvard College

Research Program and the Asia Center, Portnoy took off for India to investigate this new amalgam of goddess and public service campaign, thrilled to be visiting a country she had known only through books, as well as a bit nervous about traveling alone to places too small to appear on even the most detailed of maps.

She flew to Bangalore, capital of the Indian state of Karnataka, where she met the reporter who had written the article in India Today. He warned her that she might have taken his report of the new deity too seriously. Undeterred, she traveled by train and bus to the tiny village of Menasyakethana, home of the AIDS-amma shrine.

The shrine, or "temple," devoted to the AIDS goddess in the Indian village of Menasyakethana came about, Portnoy learned, through a curious combination of religiosity and public relations. Photo by Kris Snibbe.

There she met H.N. Girish, the high school science teacher who had created the new deity, a young man whom she describes as “extremely energetic and idealistic, almost zealous.”

The idea for AIDS-amma had come to him, she learned, after a couple in the neighboring village died from the disease. AIDS has not yet reached epidemic proportions in rural India, as it has in Africa, but some observers believe its spread is inevitable. This particular couple had been ostracized by the other villagers, and after the man’s death, his wife had been locked in a shack until she too died.

The incident convinced Girish that something needed to be done to educate people about AIDS, but he doubted whether they would listen unless he could “put the fear of God in them.” After thinking the problem over, he decided that what was needed was a new deity. Thus AIDS-amma was born.

But was the idea working? Girish was very proud of the work he had done to educate the people of Menasyakethana about AIDS, but how much of it was due to AIDS-amma?

Portnoy discovered that the shrine, or temple, as Girish somewhat grandly referred to it, was no more than a stone slab resembling a cemetery headstone garishly decorated with red, black, and white paint. As Girish explained, the silhouettes of a man and woman, fused back to back, represented religion, while a circular design in the middle of their heads symbolized the HIV virus. “AIDS-amma temple” and “Scientific temple” were written in Kannada, the language used in this part of India.

Girish was evasive about whether the village people were actually worshipping the new goddess, and Portnoy says that during the three weeks of her field research the only people she saw doing puja (Sanskrit, for “worship”) at the shrine were women on their way to another nearby temple.

The fact that AIDS-amma seemed to have so little religious clout at first made Portnoy doubt whether it would make a suitable topic for an honors thesis. Mythology, ritual, and history – elements that the study of religion generally concerns itself with – were either missing or in short supply. But when she returned to Harvard, her advisor Brian Palmer, a teaching fellow in religion, persuaded her otherwise.

“It was a fascinating experience. I had a great time, but I didn’t think I could write a thesis about it, because the AIDS-amma was in such an embryonic state. But Brian convinced me that there was plenty to say and that I shouldn’t abandon the project.”

With Palmer’s encouragement, Portnoy took another look at her notes and realized that she had the makings of a study of how religion, politics, and society intersect in India. She could not answer the question of how Girish’s AIDS-amma would evolve, or how she would fit into the Hindu pantheon, but she did have data that showed how people representing a cross-section of Indian society felt about the new goddess.

Among the goddess’s supporters was the treasurer of a village union formed to protect and develop the shrine. Brimming over with enthusiasm, he told Portnoy of his plans to build a larger structure, organize a fair, and raise money to hire a priest.

In Delhi, on the other hand, she interviewed Swami Agnivesh, the head of a Hindu reform movement called Arya Samaj, who opposed the creation of an AIDS goddess because people might come to believe that the deity’s power was all they needed to protect them against the disease.

She also learned about the hostility of the neighboring village, whose people were afraid the shrine would give them a bad name. Men from this village allegedly vandalized the shrine before Portnoy arrived, and the conflict ended only after a formal truce was agreed on by the village elders.

Portnoy has also come to see herself as a significant figure in the creation of the AIDS-amma cult. Many of the people in the village had never seen a light-skinned outsider before, and Portnoy’s appearance there for the express purpose of seeing AIDS-amma was something of a miraculous occurrence.

“I was a walking billboard for the shrine.”

The stir she caused by visiting Menasyakethana may have made it impossible to gather data under “natural” conditions (data unaffected by the presence of the observer), but this limitation has ceased to trouble her.

“Rather than try to deny the effect I had on this village, I’m making it part of the story. An American student tears through this Indian village, asking people questions, taking their picture, hoping to turn them into a senior thesis. In the process she finds that she is dealing with human beings who make assumptions about her, just as she did about them, and who use her, just as she uses them. This is what my thesis is turning out to be, a narrative of this cross-cultural encounter told with as much empathy and specificity and as little cultural generalization as possible.”

With this perspective in mind, Portnoy’s perplexing experience is turning out to be a story very much worth telling.