In ancient times, diseases were often considered as curses or wrath of gods. Since there was no proper medication for common diseases such as fever, malaria, skin disease and many such common diseases. Since there were no medications available the common disease would at times be fatal. This gave rise to stereotyping disease as demon or curse. As the medicinal science grew and people became aware these diseases were counteracted by gods of health. Gods or health are predominant across religions and culture. There is demon dedicated to causing and gods dedicated to curing the diseases. The most common disease in ancient times was a fever. The fever as we know caused high temperatures and needed cooling. The Indian Mythology gives us the story of Jvarasura a fever demon and Shitala the goddess that cures fever.
Jvarasura and Shitala- Heat vs Cold
According to Devi Bhagavat, once Mother goddess incarnated as Katyayani, daughter of sage Katyayan. While she was playing with her friends a demon named Jvarasura started to inflict fever to the children and people. Jvarasura, a fever inflicting demon was born from the forehead of Shiva while he was meditating. Seeing her friends and loved ones in trouble Katyayani assumed the form of Shitala. Shitala means one who provides Shitala or cooling effect. Shitala is depicted as a four-handed young girl, riding a donkey and holding a short broom, pot of cold water, winnowing fan, a drinking cup or Neem in her four hands. Katyayani with her healing powers cured every one of fever. As per some legends, Katyayani then fought Jvarasura and took control of him or her friend batuk who assumed a form of Bhairava and killed Jvarasura. Jvarasura is resurrected who later agrees to serve Katyayani.
Another legend says that once when Vishnu was in Hayagriva form, Jvarasura inflicted fever to Hayagriva, Vishnu then cut Jvarasura into three pieces using Sudarshan Chakra. Jvarasura’s separated body parts grew head and libs. Later Jvarasura was resurrected by Brahma who joined his three parts. Jvarasura is thus depicted with three faces, three feet and an ability to move in all directions at once. Some denote Jvarasura to be the consort of Shitala.
Let us look at the iconography of Jvarasura once again, Jvarasura has “three faces, three feet and ability to move in any direction”, The three heads can be symbolized as the effect of fever on the head where eyes start to burn and headaches badly. The three feet can denote the condition where the limbs start to weaken or even rapid growth in temperature. Multiple feet is a symbol of speed. The iconography of Shitala is holding a pot of water, fan, broom, Neem or drinking cup. The cold water, fan and drinking cup is a symbol of cooling effect that is needed to bring down the temperature. The broom, however, can be a symbol of purification or as a means to ward off evil spirits. Broom has always had a close association with evil eye and spirits. Neem since ancient times is considered as a natural antibiotic and a natural healer. Thus the goddess holds Neem as medication against fever. The Neem tree is also known to give cold breeze which symbolizes the cooling effect. Pairing the demon of fever and Shitala together certainly means a cure to the fever.
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