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Priests and Prostitution, Sound Unsettling?

-Hritika Ahuja

Disasters occur when women are asked to fit into a mould. It’s almost catastrophic to imagine women being subdued to a twisted society. It’s unnatural to see her being anything but her dignified self. And yet, time and again, humanity brings this upon itself, the deepest crevice in its socio-cultural and historical ley lines i.e. the changing roles and contrasting conditions of women, the kind of black blotches we can never wipe off. And it is this innate realization that the stories of women are not only marginalized, but also pitied, glamorized, ignored, and for the most part shut out, that I must make one aware of their societal/ religious/ cultural doom.

I would not be the first one to talk about the respected and rightful status of women in the Vedic Period of India aka Bharatavarsa. But the medieval period witnessed changes, which led to what we know today as: the Devadasi System. It may not be as infamous as sati or female infanticide or dowry deaths or domestic abuse or rape cultures due to the lack of awareness and action, but know this: it is as grave and as prevalent even today.

What is the Devadasi System?

Let’s establish this: Devadasi System is temple prostitution, nothing more nothing less. Established back in the medieval period, it's been a palette of abominable colors. ‘Devadasi’ literally translates to female servant of God, women who dedicate themselves to the service of the temple and are believed to have been married to the said God. It is also hailed as the ‘Jogini System’ in some parts of the country. This tradition arose and is still prevalent in states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Orissa, etc. The devadasis sang, danced, and preached in praise of the Mighty while those of high status sat like on-lookers expecting sexual favors. As horrid as that sounds, the children of devadasis at the least were given an equal right to inheritance. By the time centuries passed, people began to look upon devadasis with low regard. All these women, predecessor after predecessor, began to not only be exposed to priests but also to other men who were willing to pay for her time. Her status in society dropped, so did the definition of her role.

Why does it exist?

The Devadasi system, to begin with, seemed faulty and deplorable. What happened to the nation where temples were considered as purifiers for the smallest of sins? Well, the answers lie in the economic shift that took place at the start of the medieval era, which led to a spiral of changes within the religious, cultural, and political scenario. This phase marked the prevalence of the feudal economic order where aristocrats/land owners gave economic impetus to political and religious change in their ulterior favor. Secondly, this was also an age where the Bhakti (devotion) Movement of Shiva and Vishnu grew exponentially among the masses. This brought the system of devadana; charity to the construction of temples which made temples the wealthiest of institutions. This was also where Tantrism and the Goddess Cult took birth from the feudal social polity, wherein the fight for temple grants made the Brahmanas and the aboriginal tribes adopt the art of Tantra. Wine, women, and the blissful sexual union of bodies played a major role in the tantric rituals. Such rituals transpired to be easily abused.

The economic, political, and social conditions were ripe for the priestly order to take over. They were the sole interpreters of the sacred texts as well as God’s will for Earth. Accordingly, the Matsyapurana of the Gupta Period first spoke of temple prostitution; women who were Krishna’s abducted wives that were defiled by the dasas and were asked to accept their fate as sex workers. In this way, devadasis were employed in temples across the expanse of Bharata. In the name of pleasing the Almighty, the priests slept with the devadasis and soon she was forced to sleep with other commoner men too. Reading between the lines of 'dancing girls of the Sun Temple' will now indeed make you uncomfortable. Well, you are only reading.

Why is the Devadasi System still prevalent?

This twisted tradition, this Devadasi system was abolished in different states in different years, but it was formally outlawed in all of India in 1988. Even after being criminalised by the Government of India, this social evil seems to be biting us in the back, specifically in the southern states. As per a 2011 estimate, 48,358 devadasis still exist in India. If the sexual abuse was not enough, their status has been lowered with the burden of the caste system, poverty, and misconstrued perceptions regarding sex work and sexual illnesses. The modern functioning is such that families from within the community put their daughters into the system as they hit puberty all in order to pay for their meals. She is made to have sexual relations with multiple men, she is abused, and stripped off her dignity; all in the name of God. They contract sexual illnesses, have lesser means and support to care for their offsprings who are considered illegitimate unlike in the past, and after the age of 45 are forced to beg as jogathis (destitutes).

The reason for its widespread prevalence, after its criminalisation, is the lack of supportive action from various State Governments as well as the Centre. Devadasis depend on the sex workers’ community for their livelihood, they have not been introduced to enough avenues of alternate income for them to be able to leave the system. Their economic status is poor and sexual health is often compromised due to the lack of HIV/AIDS awareness or medical resources. Mindsets in most such regions are still prejudiced and primitive, they lack social and emotional support. This makes them hesitate from standing up to the evils around them, and leaves them no choice but to comply. Criminalisation is not enough if the Government doesn’t actively aid the devadasis nor probe into the illegally-run temple flesh trade. The Yellamma and Mathamma Community among others are known nationwide for pledging young girls to the said fertility cult in praise of the Goddess.


My question to society is this: Why did we allow priests and aristocrats to abuse our socio-religious sentiments? Why have we always turned a blind eye to religious crimes? India’s cultural rootedness lies in the fact that we all must choose the right path to a good life. Lord Krishna is known for ‘Leela’, his charming nature with gopis, his expression of love, his innocence, but does it even slightly imply towards an evil like the Devadasi tradition? Lord Shiva is hailed as the ‘Nataraj’ (Lord of Dancers), gifted dancers fill the courtyard of his temples, but does it imply that priests and wealthy men must abuse temple dancers? No, it doesn’t. Yes, for centuries, the Indian folk has managed to ignore such polluted interpretations, acculturations, and myths. Sex work is not a crime, in fact even the Vedas include mention of some form of prostitution. Yet taking advantage of having known the scriptures, forcing young girls into flesh trade, especially in the name of fertility rites and divine marriages since time immemorial is A HEINOUS CRIME.

Indignity is not acceptable, mistruth is not acceptable. Do you see the gravity of how the status and treatment of women across centuries has been misdirected and defiled?

If you’re a student, go volunteer at organisations that work to emancipate the devadasis. If you’re a media personnel or journalist, follow their stories and demand better laws. If you’re a human, RAISE YOUR VOICE.

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