Pandemics are nothing new, but we now live in a technological age – a globalised world where people and information travel further and faster than ever before. This has facilitated the prolific spread of the virus, but it also means that we have the technology to adapt in response. Online messaging platforms have come to define the way in which we continue to communicate amidst a global pandemic. In relation to religious services, it is online streaming services that now facilitate congregational worship, albeit removed from a particular place of worship.
The global events of 2020 have had an unprecedented impact on our lives and our faith, prompting us to reconsider our established beliefs. In times of crisis, we often turn to our community for support, only to find that amidst this pandemic, we cannot — physically. As a result, many begin to look inwards for answers, whether it be through religious activity or spiritual practice. The endurance of religious activity is vital to many who seek reassurance and counsel during a time of greater hardship and loneliness. Isolated from society, many have been severely impacted by anxiety, apprehension, and fear on account of lockdown and the threat posed by COVID-19. In a polling of 4,294 UK adults carried out by The Mental Health Foundation in early July, almost one in five (19 per cent) of UK adults were feeling hopeless.
In the absence of a typical congregation, religious communities around the world have had to adjust time-honoured rituals, adapting to a ‘new normal’ in order to curb the spread of the virus.
One particularly novel example of such an adjustment went viral online when a socially-distanced baptism in the US was conducted with a toy water pistol. Additionally, since moving its services online, an evangelical introduction to Christianity has seen the number of its participants double. While religion functions at the individual level, COVID has impacted the communal and collective issues, and it is this community that is at stake. The innovation and adaptation of organised religion during the pandemic is necessary in order to safeguard the survival of the communal and ritualistic aspects of religion, retaining the connection between the sacred and the profane.
Here, we present our respective experiences of lockdown in two religious contexts – a non-denominational monastery in rural South Wales and Muslim communities in Oxford and Malaysia.
While these communities represent very different cultures and practices, these personal perspectives will give insight into how religious communities have sought some common means of adapting traditional religious practices in the face of a global pandemic.
Skanda Vale, South Wales
Prior to my stay at Skanda Vale monastery, I had been in lockdown in Pondicherry, South India for about a month. I came home on the only chartered flight out of Chennai, and knew that I couldn’t risk being my immediate family for at least 14 days after the flight. It occurred to me that I could contact a monastery local to my home in rural South Wales, whose members I knew well.
The religious community of Skanda Vale was founded in 1973 by a Sri Lankan gentleman named Guru Subramanium, and most of the worship at Skanda Vale has what could be described as a predominantly Hindu character; the three temples set across the site are dedicated to Hindu deities Murugan, Vishnu, and Kali, but each temple also accommodates shrines to other faiths including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism, and festivals of other faiths are celebrated.
The monastery originally comprised a derelict farm, but has now grown to cover approximately 300 acres of land. In normal times Skanda Vale attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims annually, and although the community had closed its gates to the public at a very early stage in the pandemic, I was permitted to isolate for 14 days in a cottage owned by Skanda Vale, just outside of the monastery.
What I had planned to be a period of isolation followed by a week with the monastic community turned out to be a four-month stay. During that time, I experienced first-hand the ways in which Skanda Vale adapted to the pandemic.
I had already observed the impact of the pandemic on religious practice during my time in India – without the ubiquitous crowds of devotees, temple priests would continue the daily rituals behind closed doors, venerating the presiding deity as usual. The situation was very much the same at Skanda Vale, where six regular services, called pujas, are conducted daily. Whereas there would normally be hundreds of pilgrims, the only people in attendance when I arrived were the 25 or so monks and nuns that make up the monastic community, along with five pilgrims who had chosen to stay put during lockdown.
The first morning service that I attended was a celebration of Buddha Vesak, commemorating the life of the Buddha. The few of us who were staying at Skanda Vale gathered outside the main temple – the Murugan temple – before one of the monks came to let us in. We picked up some cushions and walked to the front of the temple, where we sat cross-legged and quietly waited in the dim, lamp-lit hall for the service to begin. A beautiful shrine had been constructed the previous evening; adorned with colourful saris that glistened in the flickering candlelight. The centrepiece was a large black statue of the Buddha, depicted in blissful meditation. Incense was offered at the shrine accompanied by chanting in both Sanskrit and Pali. Finally, everyone was invited forward to offer a lit candle before the seated Buddha. All in all, the service lasted about an hour.
This particularly special service was live streamed at 5am, and the live streaming of daily worship has since attracted a large core group who have tuned into the broadcast on a daily basis since the beginning of lockdown.
Elliot Muir manages Skanda Vale’s online presence, and shared his thoughts on adapting to lockdown and reaching out to devotees: “There’s a live chat on our broadcast, so everyone has got to know each other – there’s now a strong social aspect to the broadcast… If it wasn’t for lockdown we would never have broadcast pujas, but now it’s ingrained and we’ll definitely continue.”
Muir says that lockdown changed his approach to the potential and value of life online: “Lockdown clarified everyone’s priorities – one outcome for us was that our online offering became a simple expression of care and support for our community.”
Besides daily worship and religious practice, Skanda Vale operates an independent hospice service, providing daily care and inpatient respite free-of-charge. Due to COVID-19, the service has been suspended and will remain so for the foreseeable future, but the temporary closure has provided a chance to re-evaluate Skanda Vale’s charitable services. Whilst the religious community hope to improve delivery of the hospice service post-COVID, in the short term the wider community is lacking a valuable service. However, Skanda Vale is continuing to provide a phone-in ‘listening service’ where anyone can chat with a member of the community about their anxieties and concerns.
Brother Neil, a monk at Skanda Vale, had this to say: “During late March I received a lot of calls in response to COVID-19. The emotional response was fear – people were experiencing their mortality for the first time. The loss of control, the total change, the collapse of everyday normality and anxiety over the future pushed people into unchartered psychological territory.”
Brother Neil stressed that despite this being a period of uncertainty, the nature of the crisis serves as a reminder to live consciously and compassionately in the moment, and the opportunity can be seized to implement meaningful change.
Ramadan in Oxford, United Kingdom
For the umpteenth time during lockdown, I closed my laptop and sighed. My eyes flickered to a clumsily blu-tacked Oxford SU calendar, searching for a particular date.
One week left.
It was nearing the end of Easter vac, about a month after the United Kingdom had gone into lockdown and I, an international student, was one of few who chose to remain in Oxford.
A week until Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic lunar calendar, in which Muslims fast every day from dawn to dusk. A month of abstaining from worldly pleasures, of dedication to worshipping and getting closer to God, fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Memories of the previous Ramadan and the many before came flooding through my head once again, as I lay down in my bed alone in the middle of Oxford, about six and a half thousand miles away from home, in Malaysia.
Mama would always wake me up slightly more than an hour before fajr, the dawn prayer which marks the beginning of the daily fast. Walking groggily, half-asleep to the dining table, my family and I would eat sahoor, the pre-dawn meal; then I would return to bed while my father began his morning. The rest of the day goes about as normal, albeit with a much-needed nap in the afternoon to recharge, as it is the night that holds many blessings.
My family would always break our fast at our neighbourhood mosque, where we’d arrive early to wait patiently in line for food generously donated by members of the community. Woven mats line the empty space just outside the praying area of the mosque, where we’d sit crossed-legged on the floor alongside others waiting for maghrib, the dusk prayer which signals the breaking of our fast. During Ramadan, there are additional night prayers called tarawih, performed at the mosque in congregation after the obligatory Isha prayers. Many take the time to socialise and catch up during ‘moreh’ suppers afterwards, though my family returns home promptly after, as it is an early start again the next morning.
Ramadhan – a month where it is not only about focusing on bettering one’s faith, but fasting itself an act that brings Muslims together in the practice of self-discipline. From breaking fast together as a community at the mosque or at home with family and friends, to tarawih congregational prayers only performed during the holy month of Ramadan, it is the community connection and the sense of solidarity that distinguishes this blessed month from the others.
Ramadan amidst the COVID-19 pandemic was no doubt difficult for the global Muslim community; for me, it was a difficult yet rewarding solitary experience. What was once done with the company of many others, from the joy of breaking one’s fast at the end of the day to different festivities celebrated by different cultures, was limited to my own room. Mosques are usually crowded during the tarawih prayers, filled with regulars as well as people who usually do not frequent them: rows upon rows of Muslims standing ankle-to-ankle, shoulder-to-shoulder. Though it is permissible to perform tarawih prayers at home, the same powerful feeling of communal devotion cannot be replicated.
With the lockdown in place even before the beginning of Ramadan, Islam and Muslims around the world have adapted with the move to online worship. During a Facetime call with my father early on in the pandemic as he was home in Malaysia, I remember my father’s sentiments of what would be the new rulings on the congregational Friday prayers, which are mandatory for every able-bodied Muslim male. Never before had it been permissible to perform Friday prayers alone at home: with Friday sermons or a small socially distanced congregation livestreamed on Facebook or on Zoom, technology has been utilised in order to keep faith alive amongst its adherents.
For me in England, the highlight of my Ramadan was when I frequented iftaars on Zoom, held by the Oxford University Islamic Society, allowing me to be acquainted with other Muslims around the city who were also going through Ramadan alone. Iftaar, the meal consumed when breaking one’s fast, is no doubt solitary, though the joy and gratitude of being able to eat once again is the central significance and cause for celebration. As each one of us in Oxford were students isolated by the rest of our family, the iftaars over Zoom gave us an opportunity to experience that communal feeling once again as we checked up on each other – something that proved to be so important for our wellbeing during the pandemic.
Experiencing the holy month of Ramadan in isolation has made me more aware of the significance of the rituals and the prayers. At the mosques, it is easy for one to blindly follow the imam, the one who leads the prayer, merely imitating his actions and the rest of the congregation. With no one to guide or keep a tab on my actions, it was up to my own conscience to execute it. This was a blessing in disguise, as it truly strengthened my own faith. Now, as countries begin returning to a ‘new normal’ with mosque quotas, temperature scanning and tracking apps in Malaysia, the future of faith and religion still stands.
On the Future of Religion
As our individual accounts show, religious communities have adapted to the restrictions surrounding COVID-19. While the pandemic has changed how rituals and practices are carried out, the virus does not pose an existential threat to religion itself. Rather, just as religious communities have adapted to crises throughout history, modern technology has proved a vital asset under the conditions imposed by the current pandemic.
In many ways, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to adapt and re-evaluate the modern-day significance of faith. The sudden and unprecedented social deprivation has particularly highlighted the function of individual observance as opposed to institutional congregational practices of religion.
In January 2005, Linda Woodhead published The Spiritual Revolution, in which she presents a study of religious belief conducted in the English town of Kendal. The study found that people are rapidly turning away from organised religion and institutions in favour of self-guided practices that work for the individual. This ‘spiritual revolution’ is especially exacerbated when traditional religious doctrines clash with the moral codes of a secular society, particularly regarding issues like gender and marriage. In many ways, the nature of social restriction surrounding the COVID-19 virus gives further impetus to this movement from collective communal worship to individual spiritual pursuit, as a degree of isolation is compulsory. However, whether it is to have a lasting effect remains to be seen, because while individualism has long been associated with independence – a kind of freedom based on choice – the ‘individualism’ of the COVID era is more about imposition and isolation. If anything, the pandemic has taught us that we are wholly dependent on each other as a society. It is therefore possible that people’s yearning to gather and socialise could spark a renewed appreciation for interdependence and collectivism in the long term.
COVID-19 has greatly disrupted the functioning of all institutions – religious or otherwise – and yet the existential threat posed by the virus will have little effect on those individuals whose faith does not rely on access to bricks and mortar and, if anything, research suggests that natural disasters tend to make people more religious. If religious observance is taken to be a serious examination of one’s place in the universe, then it is in times of existential crisis that such observance is energised.
Artwork by: Anjali Attygalle.