The Sanskrit term ‘Devadasi’ translates to ‘servant of God’. Devadasi pratha or Devadasi system is an institution in which girls are ritually and ceremonially married to certain temple Gods before or on reaching adolescence. In contemporary times, this system has been identified as temple prostitution not unlike those found in ancient Greece, Egypt and other ‘pagan’ civilizations. Although the intent and purpose of such institutions may not have been the exploitation of women, the current scenario in India is indeed worthy of being called as prostitution as young girls of lower castes are sexually abused by upper caste priests and other privileged individuals. Besides, Devadasis often provide their carnal services for money, and are hence reduced to street prostitutes. However, it is significant to note the operation of the institution in pre-colonial India in order to understand the ideological, political and socio-economic impacts of colonisation.
Although a precise demonstration of the Devadasi system in Ancient India may not be possible due to a lack of detailed historical records, we can attempt to deduct a basic structure of the system from what we know. Looking back at the prevalence of sacred prostitution in almost all ancient ‘pagan’ civilizations, it is obvious that monotheism (belief in one God) refuted the notions of such civilizations and introduced a new set of doctrines which paved the way for an ideological transformation around the world. If we take Ancient India as a primary representative of ‘paganism’, we find the prevalent form of patriarchy different from that of the monotheistic Muslim rulers and later the colonialists. Ancient notions of sexuality and gender do not seem to agree with contemporary times. The fact that sexual images classified as erotic by the Western mind are found elaborately sculpted on the walls of temples, speak of a sexual freedom not yet widely accepted. Neither is it unsurprising to find instances of homosexuality (denounced as sodomy in the Bible) in religious literature. When a combination as disparate as ‘sacred prostitution’ is used (mainly in Ancient Greek, Egyptian and other non-Indian civilizations), we need to understand the structural differences between such societies and our current social fabric.
The discipline of Economic Anthropology introduces two basic approaches to the study of economies- formalist and substantivist approach. In simple terms, formalist studies emphasise on the importance of money and markets in all societies, guided by the notion that all natural resources are scarce and so man must make choices to survive and thrive. Substantivist studies, on the other hand, recognise the cultural differences of all societies and the absence of a definite market system in societies where nature is considered as abundant and bountiful. However, it was recognised later that the approaches did not exist independent of each other; rather, the study of every society required the employment of both approaches to draw an elaborate demonstration of their economies. Hence, it is necessary to understand that though an Indian society operates differently from a European society, the inevitable significance of markets and commodification aided by capitalism and globalization, assures a homogeneous foundation for all societies.
Since the introduction of the market as a primary institution of society during colonial rule, the Devadasi system was bound for extinction. Although there was a large-scale degradation of the institution with the destruction of temples during the Mughal era, it was only when colonial ideology seeped into Indian society that the original intent of the system began to digress. With the commodification of all goods and services, the growing emphasis on a material life prohibited the existence of institutions affiliated to as abstract a notion as God. Where the Devadasi once had a patron, she now had a client. Appearances are still kept up as a means of conserving the institution. However, such reservations have only worsened the living and working conditions of the members of the Devadasi system. A system which claims to comprise entirely of art and religion and depends primarily on a system of gifts and exchange must necessarily clash with a market-oriented society. For in the contemporary society, everything must have a set price and hence, requires a rigid classification on the basis of monotheistic values like honour, purity, prestige and so on. According to such an ideology, a servant of a ‘pagan’ god is no more than a slave of Man. Thus, the notion of being intimate with one’s God is a ridiculous one because the Creator can never stoop to the level of Man and his temporal pleasures.
The Devadasi system has been traced back to as early as the 7th century, especially in South India. Under the reign of the Cholas, the system attained its full glory. Girls from diverse castes were part of this system. They were extremely skilled in different forms of singing, dancing and other classical arts. Being allotted the responsibility of maintaining temples, they enjoyed a higher ritual status than other women. Their liberal lifestyle was beyond the imagination of an ordinary woman in a patriarchal society. They danced for their Gods as well as their kings. The Devadasis travelled with kings even where their wives were restricted access. It was not an anomaly to consider their children as legitimate. Rather, their presence was significant in weddings, if not mandatory. They were entitled to a share of the gifts received by the temples. Although the priest, guru and the patron formed a patriarchal power triad to reign in their liberality, the Devadasis were always economically independent. Their liberal lives were not denounced as immoral because they symbolized the sacred. There were also significant instances of Devadasis living celibate lives which brought about notions of purity contradicting the supposed liberality of their lives. Interestingly, they were always either married to a Goddess or had their marriages mediated in the name of a Goddess. Such a system has been found in all civilizations worshipping Mother Goddesses. Yellamma is such a South Indian Goddess in whose care most Devadasis are vowed to. They represent the spirit of the Sacred Feminine which is considered as essential as its male counterpart. The Devadasis were accompanied by Nattuvanars or their male counterparts who served as accompaniments to their performances. It was usually the children of Devadasis who grew up to become nattuvanars though the profession did not require any such eligibility. However, there are no records of boys being married to gods. While this seems to point out a major inequality in the perception of male and female children, it could not have been otherwise. For, marriage is one of the most significant institutions from which patriarchy derives its power structure. Thus, to alter such a structure would be to replace patriarchy with another social pattern. One of the basic commonalities of all patriarchies is the suppression of women’s social status through marriage. However, the notion of allowing women (even if a select few under an institution) to live at par with men is not surprising in a patriarchal system when coupled with polytheism.
The colonial ideology was backed up by such tremendous political and economic force that the changes made to the basic structure of society became irreversible. High caste men severed links with Devadasis and considered their status as degrading as other low caste individuals. The Devadasis, now devoid of patrons and adequate means of livelihood for quite some time, expanded their services to all members of the society by setting prices for them. The sacred artist was cast out of paradise and was forced to survive. Stepping down from heaven, she stumbled upon a world agitated by an endless search for reason. An economy governed by market utility was generally viewed as the most rational form of existence. In the clutches of utility, she found her carnal services to be more in demand than her arts. In the era of specialization, she found that her occupation gradually altered her own existence until she found herself no different than the prostitutes and pimps. Lady Lucifer, now cast into Hell, found out that the devils were to be despised ever more for every evil committed by the men of their own accord. If the men wanted to gratify themselves, it would always be the Devils who would have to bear the hatchlings of those vices as well as be despised for inspiring such evil in the hearts of men.
While once it might have been perceivable that the body could be offered for services not unlike those of the mind, now we no longer possess such imagination. The body cannot be of sexual service without stigma anymore. Therefore, to coerce the continued existence of an institution which is denounced by Society is to assure its participants of a miserable existence even if they belong to God. We must not forget that we do not live in an era where gods and men were intimate with each other. Rather, we live in an age where the Gods are either beyond us or beneath us. While Herbert Spencer’s theory of Social Darwinism may be flawed on a lot of grounds, it does support one thing – if a cog in the wheels of society is deliberately misplaced, it must be allowed to get lost or die out in order to restore to society whatever harmony it can afford.