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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 19, New Delhi, April 24, 2021

Ganges water and myths of immunity from Coronavirus | Chetan Sinha

Friday 23 April 2021


by Chetan Sinha *

The recent wave of coronavirus pandemic across the world has a deep impact on the people’s lives and they tried to resolve, as in the time of dearth of vaccines, by aligning with their cultural myths and faiths. One of the most interesting cases that we encountered recently is people taking bath during Kumbh mela in Uttarakhand [1], as a matter of their religious faith which also induced a carefree attitude towards the current pandemic. This was indeed politically motivated and logically construed by the authority. In Varanasi, where there was a view emanating out of common sense understanding about the Ganges water that those who live around Ganges and utilize its water in whatever form are better in their immune system. Though the current data of the pandemic rise showed a contrary picture. This was also seen in the way people engage with the river water during the festive season such as Holi. This has a wider implication on the pollution discourse also. It is in the religious myth that Ganga river water has a curative role both in terms of one’s sin and to the health. Though this view doesn’t come under the scientific criteria and there is no scientific proof of it. The association of people with Ganga also shows the collectivity and peoples activation of social identity. The religious factor is undeniably important in forming the social discourse where Ganga river is taken as mother and people recite often as ‘jai ganga maiyaa’ (Obeisance to mother Ganges). This itself shows the correlation between one’s deep-seated association with Ganga river and their derivation of efficacy to deal with the disease. Recently, during the Covid-19 times, the notion that Ganga river water has a curative value became popular. People were showing confidence in their cultural values, their memory and association with Ganga. To some extent it reminds us of social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) which marked the importance of value, emotion and knowledge about one’s membership and association with the social group. This also reminds us of the way social identity theory as an authentic theory of oppressed and marginalized, carried the agenda of social change forward differentiating itself from other essentialists’ approach. When the social identity connects with cultural values it may pose a danger of essentializing something and taking it forward in a modified way. In both the cases, whether lurking upon once culture and identifying with its rituals and faith or disengaging with the dominant notions and form collective movement, as in the case of Dalit to asserts one’s identity, it develops a positive health efficacy. The belief that Ganga water has the spiritual and medicinal value shows its emotional and historical significance and there is a different matter when same water is sprinkled when the person comes in contact with people from Dalit community or people from Muslim group.

The commonsensical understanding and the myths become facts by legitimizing the identities who hold those beliefs (Tyler, 2006). Some of the studies showed how people after taking a dip in the holy river despite its heightened pollution level feel healthier and happy (see also Tiwari et al., 2012). This showed the power of collectivity and shared space, however, this notion of shardedness needs to be deconstructed and possibility is there that deep caste, class and gender divide will be noticed, if observed closely through critical lens. Also, the re-establishing collectivity via hypotheses testing does not deny an alternative fact that stereotypes and prejudices are present deeply within the consciousness of the people, and linking virus spread to the people identity and reducing them as agents is not new, regardless of how it is masked or neutralized. Alternatively, it depicts a propensity to ignore science when it comes to faith. In one research in the western context, it was shown how taking bath has an aftereffect in terms of washing away the sins and purity of both body and morality (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). Here identification with Ganga river goes beyond the notion that it makes the people feel better and happy. It shows the way spirituality is extended to immunity from viruses and purification from something which is external and unfamiliar to the physical and social environment of the person. It can also be hypothesized that the spiritual marker of any belief also makes people exclude others like viruses and disease (as in the case Tablighi Jamaat and Muslim group) because of the ‘others’ historical social categories which are politicised in a prejudiced way and further mobilized by the mainstream and established local media.

At the outset when Covid-19 showed its presence in India, the notion of the spread of infection while taking bath in the river impelled the authority to take legal action. However, the mobilization of belief of purity and immunity enhancing capacity of river water offered counterargument and removed the barrier from taking bath in it. Even the Ganga water is purified before it reaches the household taps and it shows the paradox among the belief and action of different classes who use Ganga river water. People usually re-bath in their house after taking bath in the Ganga is another fact.

The primary reference point to tackle the situation of uncertainty, cognitive blockages and forgotten memories is to see who people are and what they do. To be more specific, in the Covid-19 times it is a medical emergency without any proper vaccine together with stigma associated with the patient and his/her family. This further creates an uncertain situation without any exact solution and clue to how people behaved previously during any pandemic. At the mass level it is hard to expect people to go collectively into the scientific examination and history. To bring clarity one looks around, in the faith and one’s deep seated stereotypes and finds the answer, which we call a populist way of adopting something into the reality. Social identity approach provides those clues where one associates with the group members, beliefs and stories and any myth or common sense which they live upon and their everyday social relationship carrying these themes (see Haslam et al., 2018; Turner, Brown & Tajfel, 1979). The theme that Ganga water cure, purify and immunity booster, is incomplete without the notion that people live upon the idea about the Ganga river and their social identity emerges when the situation of crisis arises. Similarly, the collective process of engaging with a particular form of action, and thus understanding any situation from the in-group’s eye and observers’ perspective can also have an emergence of a different meaning. For example, media reporting on social distancing and people actual social distancing in the pandemic times. It’s a social psychological observation that when people are threatened by any crisis or situation they come close, however, in the current time of pandemic people have to distance themselves from one another physically, the chances of increased anxiety is undeniable and then coming back to the lifestyle as it was earlier, may be the result of the psychological resolution of anxiety. However, physical distancing can have an impact on people both in the forced and unforced condition, wherein the former it is mandatory and in the latter, it is self-directed where one person distance himself/herself from another due to one’s group belongingness and affiliation to religion. Above all, the fact is not the faith and prejudice but the movement to trust science and agency of the people. The rise of coronavirus is unprecedented and the belief of immunity from faith is quite far from the fact.

(* Chetan Sinha, PhD., is Associate Professor Psychology at the Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana 13100 |


  •  Tajfel, H., Turner, J. C., Austin, W. G., & Worchel, S. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. Organizational identity: A reader, 56(65), 9780203505984-16.
  • Tyler, T. R. (2006). Psychological perspectives on legitimacy and legitimation. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 57, 375-400.
  • Tewari, S., Khan, S., Hopkins, N., Srinivasan, N., & Reicher, S. (2012). Participation in mass gatherings can benefit well-being: Longitudinal and control data from a North Indian Hindu pilgrimage event. PloS one, 7(10), e47291.
  • Zhong, C. B., & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313(5792), 1451-1452.
  • Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T., Dingle, G., & Haslam, S. A. (2018). The new psychology of health: Unlocking the social cure. Routledge.
  • Turner, J. C., Brown, R. J., & Tajfel, H. (1979). Social comparison and group interest in ingroup favouritism. European journal of social psychology, 9(2), 187-204.

[1Jahnavi Sen (2021) Maha-Kumbh Mela Vs Tablighi Jamaat: Not Comparable, But Not For The Reasons Rawat Thinks, The Wire, April 12

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