The controversy over the “anti-COVID-19” potion popularly dubbed “Dhammika Paniya” after its discoverer and promoter Dhammika Bandara, a Shaman at the Sri Weera Badra Kali Devalaya in Hettimulla, Kegalle, has three aspects.
Firstly, questions are being asked about the scientific basis of the potion as per Western standards of inquiry. Secondly, there are questions over the place accorded to indigenous medicinal concepts in a globalized medical world which has a bias towards Western concepts. Thirdly, there is the issue of the potion’s association with the Goddess Kali, which, according to Dhammika Bandara, gives it a spiritual potency lacking in Western cures.
The moment masses queued up to get a quarter bottle of Bandara’s potion and government MPs too imbibed it giving a hint of State patronage, the powerful Western medical fraternity condemned it and portrayed it as a danger to public health. Unnerved, the government assured that scientific tests were being conducted in Western medicine hospitals and that the potion had been approved only as a food supplement to increase resistance.
But supporters of traditional medicine asked whether it was fair to subject indigenous medical concepts and preparations to Western testing as the two systems rested on different principles. Pointing out the danger in this, a Sri Lankan researcher at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, Dr.Nirekha de Silva, said that if this were to go on, the survival of traditional knowledge in Sri Lanka, an invaluable heritage, will be in question.
Dhammika Bandara’s invoking the Hindu Goddess Kali to cure COVID-19 has also been mocked and criticized.A Colombo-based Hindu Tamil leader publicly slammed him for misusing the Hindu Goddess by claiming that his potion is imbued with Kali’s spirit. But what is forgotten is that Kali is widely invoked in India and Sri Lanka, both by Hindus and Buddhists, to fight diseases. And Kali is part of the Sinhala-Buddhist pantheon of deities as much as it is part of the Hindu pantheon
Tulasi Srinivas, Professor of Anthropology, Religion and Transnational Studies, Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, Emerson College, Boston, Mass., notes in her paper that during the pandemic-induced lockdown in India, science and faith were not seen as inimical to one another, but as working together, hand-in-glove. Hindu artistes portrayed Kali as a fighter against the coronavirus with the necessary gear like masks and vaccine syringes.
In his paper: The History of the Kāli Cult and its Implications in Modern Sri Lankan Buddhist Culture, in the journal Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (2018) Wimal Hewamanage of Colombo University shows that Kali has become integral to Sinhala Buddhism as a instrument to solve non-spiritual, secular problems including diseases. Hewamanage says that Kāli is seen as a mother Goddess like Lakṣhmi, Durgā, and Saraswati.
The Kali cult is but part of the Pattini cult, and both came to Sri Lanka from South India, Hewamanage says. When Buddhism and Jainism went into decline in South India between the 8 th., and the 13 th., centuries, Buddhists, who were pushed out of South India, settled on Sri Lanka’s western coast. They brought with them the Pattini cult which had already been absorbed into the Sanskritic cults of Kāli, Durgā or Bhagavati in South India.
But the Sinhalese separated Kali from the rest and saw her as a folk deity and not as a mainstream Goddess. The main reason for this was that the iconography of Kali represented blackness, intolerance, evil, and danger—attributes which did not gel easily with pacifistic Buddhist beliefs, Hewamanage says. But given her growing popularity, Kali is being slowly transformed from a Demon to a Goddess, he adds. Sinhalese believe that there are seven forms of Kāli: i) Bhadra Kāli; ii) Mahā Bhadra Kāli; iii) Pēna Kāli; iv) Vanduru Kāli (Hanumā Patra Kāli); v) Rīri Kāli; vi) Sohon Kāli; and vii) Gini Kāli.
The Munneśwaram temple complex located in the Puttalam district is one of the main centers of Kali worship. It attracts Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindus alike. The complex has shrines for Śiva, Gaṇeśa, Ayyanāyaka, Kāli, and the Buddha. While the Śiva temple is the most prestigious, both among Hindus and Buddhists, the Kāli temple is also very popular mostly attracting the hoi polloi.
Anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere refers to a Sinhalese Buddhist myth, according to which, when Kāli came from South India and landed at Chilaw near Munnēśvaram, she started devouring human beings. But Pattini, already an established Sinhalese deity by then, prevented her from killing. Soon, Kāli became Pattini’s maid servant. Obeysekere says that Kali’s duties, as outlined in the ritual called “Killing and Resurrection” (Marāipæddīma), are exactly the same as those of any servant in a Sinhala household.
The Mōdara temple, one of the most famous Kāli temples in Sri Lanka, has an image of Kāli with sixteen arms, and she is named Sohon-kāli. Hewamanage notes that although the names of the other Gods’ shrines (like those of Viṣṇu and Īśvara, for instance) are written in Tamil, Sohon-kāli’s name is written in Sinhala. The shrine is very popular among troubled souls. Those with health, familial and business problems make a beeline for it.
Like the Hindus, Buddhists and also Muslims, use Mantras and Yantras in Kali worship. The Mantra is an incantation and a Yantra is a design which is used as an instrument to aid worship. This “instrument” helps utilize resources lying in the depths of the worshiper’s subconscious.
The mantras intoned during worship with Yantras are in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Sinhalese. Hewamanage points out that since Muslims also flock to the Kali temple to solve their secular problems, one of the Mantras is partly in Arabic, demonstrating the syncretic nature of Sri Lanka’s culture.
The partly Arabic Mantra goes like this: “Bisibillārahimānarahim, ākunp ayark undi dālām ata hārī mukkumukaa libādan kubādan mohanmat lāilāi llallā mohemmad sulallāhi.” This is to be repeated 108 times like many Mantras. However, according to Hewamanage, non-Muslim devotees are given the option of dropping the Islamic part of the Mantra if they want to.