I recently re-watched a BBC documentary my students and I had discussed in class last Fall. “Sex, Death and the Gods,” directed by Beeban Kidron, takes a close and rather intimate look at the Devadasi system as currently practiced in Karnataka, a state in southern India. In its ancient form, young girls were dedicated to temples, and their duties included dancing and singing to the deities, a form of worship in itself. Delivering on its provocative title – one that describes how prostitution and sexually-transmitted diseases such as AIDS intersect with the realm of the divine – the film sheds light on how a practice once sanctioned by religion came to offend public sensibilities because of changing mores regarding sexuality, ultimately leading to its being outlawed in twentieth century India.
Despite the ban and denials by government officials, however, the practice continues to exist in some villages and towns, albeit watered-down from its historical form. In the first part of this post, I present the background of the system; in the second, I discuss how “Sex, Death and the Gods” problematizes the concept of women’s agency, a thorny matter especially when issues of morality enter the picture, as it almost always does with “problematic” professions that involve an exchange of money for sex.
“Devadasi” is a combination of two Sanskrit words – deva which means god and dasi or female slave/servant. Thus, in literal terms, a devadasi is “slave to god.” The practice most likely originated in the bhakti or devotional movement which began in the fifth or sixth century in southern India, and there is evidence that in its ancient form, the Devadasi system lent women a powerful social position. Not only were they associated with the divine, thus elevating them to auspicious status, their association with kings and other influential temple patrons accorded them a high standing in society. As concubines of the latter (they could not marry, as they were “married” to the gods), they had their own living quarters, large amounts of wealth, as well as land and property rights. But alas, the British arriving in the seventeenth century, brought with them a puritanical sense of morality, and were offended by what they saw as an immoral practice; non-conjugal co-habitation coupled with the sexual overtures in the dancing were seen as a corrupting influence on society.
In time, the Indian elite too came to internalize British notions of what constituted good and bad, right and wrong, and the Devadasi system no longer held any appeal, at least in its historical form. The women had to look elsewhere to earn their livelihood, often leading to their exploitation by temple priests and men of “high social standing” who now visited them surreptitiously. Historian Bernard Cohn points out that one of the most harmful effects of colonialism was the psychological impact it had on Indians. What this essentially meant was that the British basis of power lay within the epistemic realm; through a thorough knowledge of the native people – their religions, laws, languages, artifacts and customs – the British were able to convince Indians themselves that they were an inferior people, and most importantly were able to colonize them on an intellectual level by creating a perpetual divide between the “civilized” and “uncivilized,” the rulers and the ruled.
And so it came to be that by the time of Independence in 1947, the Indian government had outlawed this ancient practice. And what became of the Devadasis? Today, they live on the margins of society – as prostitutes. A note of clarification – while all Devadasis are technically speaking, prostitutes, in that they exchange sex for money, not all prostitutes or sex workers belong to the Devadasi community.
In the past, the practice included women from all social castes and classes, but in modern times, Devadasis belong to the Dalit community, the lowest rung on the Hindu hierarchical social structure known as the caste system. Caste and class often go hand-and-hand, and Devadasis are among the poorest members of society, for whom being a Devadasi is often a means of economic survival. It is a hereditary system, in that you are born into it; a girl-child is almost always destined to be a Devadasi/prostitute, but boys can marry and have their own families, thus explaining why the Devadasi community is often populated by women.
The biggest problem with the system in its modern form is that families dedicate girls who are as young as seven or eight to a specific god or goddess. Historical records demonstrate that even in ancient times, girls were required to be of a pre-pubescent age in order to be dedicated to a temple, thereby raising the question of agency or lack thereof on part of minor females. The difference however is that the Devadasi of yore – before the practice was outlawed – was trained in the arts. She was a skilled dancer, a singer, an entertainer, not to mention proficient in the art of love-making; she partook in temple rituals and as a “consort” to the gods, she was an extension of the divine.
Thus, while dedication may have involved young girls, it was only once she had acquired all the skills required of a Devadasi, would she have taken on a mortal lover, who would have served as her long-term patron. In modern times, however, the outlawing of the practice – one in name only – has led to underage girls being pressured into sex work by members of their family who see them solely as a means of economic survival within a poverty stricken life-style. No longer protected by the state, and bereft of the social, religious, and legal prestige that went with being a Devadasi, the practice in its current form is far more exploitative of young girls and women whose families extort them for money, and who end up with children they have to raise on their own, at times even battling illnesses such as HIV and AIDS.
Having said all this, does the solution lie in forcefully putting an end to the practice without presenting the community with alternate life choices, as activists have often tended to do? It is fair to view it only as evil – don’t get me wrong, it is indeed heartbreaking to see the young girls protest their “fate.” But can we live in denial that these very minors often have no alternative but to turn to the sex-trafficking trade after the government has taken upon itself the task of “saving” them from being Devadasis? These are just some of the questions I would like to address in Part 2 of my post.
 As Professor Davesh Soneji reminds us, however, as wards of the state, they belonged to the state, which essentially meant they were at the beck and call of the state, which leads one to the question – How independent were they really?
 Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: the British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.