Sex, Death and the Gods (Part I) by Vibha Shetiya


Vibha 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

[1] 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?

[2] 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.

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Categories: Feminism and Religion, General, Hinduism, Sexual Ethics, Women's Agency

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16 replies

  1. As we know, young girls were often locked in nunneries in medieval Europe, too. An example is Hildegard of Bingen, who was “given” to the church by her family at about age 10. I don’t know what happened to other child nuns. Nuns were (maybe still are) called brides of Christ. It sounds to me like the brides of the gods in India were far less fortunate. Is there any hope for the young Indian women today? Can they rise above their caste? Above poverty and abuse and slavery?

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    • Barbara, I was aware of the fact that nuns were/ are called brides of Christ. But I didn’t know about the young girls “given” to churches. Thank you for updating me on that. As far as the Devadasis are concerned, as the film discusses (and as will I in Part 2), there are different views – insiders’ as well as outsiders’ – who are trying to bring about a change. Caste, however, is fixed; it is very very difficult to rise above one’s caste – one is born into it. As far as poverty, abuse and slavery is concerned, now that is an entirely different question, and as I mention, there are many factors that go into it – morality, socio-economics and legality.

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  2. When forms of patriarchy collide and colonialism is added, it is hard to say what is “good” for women. Look forward to your next series of thoughts.

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    • Carol, it wasn’t until I read Bernard Cohn’s book that I came to understand the deep psychological impact of colonialism. We all know the devastating effects of mental abuse in personal relationships which can often lead to denial and “acquiescence” on part of the victim. It seems to work the same way in any relationship which is founded on an abuse of power. The most interesting thing about the British was the fact that they were concerned about moral issues, not about the age of the girls who were dedicated to temples. I wonder how much of a role morality also plays in the outlawing of the practice today.

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  3. A must see website on this topic is women-without-borders.net — the site says:

    “The practice was legally abolished over 150 years ago, yet poor parents in southern India and Nepal continue to give away daughters as young as five years old in “marriage” ceremonies to Hindu gods or temples… Today’s temple slaves are exploited until the priests tire of them, then sold to the highest bidder as child concubines. Eventually the girls (and any children they conceive) are turned out on the streets to survive any way they can.”

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  4. Reblogged this on Vacation and travel.

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  5. A thought provoking & heart-breaking topic. Women sadly have been used by religions of all types.
    I had an Aunt who was a cloistered Visitation nun for decades. Entering as a young teenager, she seemed happy to me, but I was a young girl.Was She? I will know when I cross over the veil to my ancestors.
    As I teach on Ancient Pagan spirituality, young girls were dedicated to Temples & Deities. There too, they were trained in the arts of sacred rituals, song, dance and being a sexual lover as her role demanded. Is being sold as a sex slave by your parents better? No, too horrible to imagine this fate for a female.But its is what happens.
    There is a genocide against babies born female in China & India, yet their countries now has too many men with no mates. Women are the spiritual force in this world. Men rule over this world & Women with violence and an iron fist.
    This is an excellent, but seemingly depressing topic.
    May Women reclaim their spiritual power. “For no one owes your soul. It belongs to you alone.”.
    I appeal to the Goddesses for justice for all underfoot.

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    • I was not aware of ancient pagan practices involving young girls – thank you for sharing that. The Devadasi system as practiced today is far more complex than simply being addressed in dichotomous terms – as good or bad, or right or wrong, as seems to be the approach of many activists and law-makers. I will touch on some of that in Part 2. I agree with you that this is indeed a very sad and depressing topic – my heart goes out to the young girls who would rather be in school than be involved in sex work.

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  6. I’d never heard about this before but I’m really looking forward to reading the second part. I think a lot of cultures had things like this, I guess the problem is that instead of fading away or becoming institutionalised, the practice continues in this perverted way. I wonder how society can go about countered something like this?

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  7. oh there are resonances with what apparently happened at Delphi … the decline of the priestesshood there over time with the incoming patriarchy, and then when the christians came how horrified they were by the sexual nature of the oracle’s atunement.

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  8. Vibha, Do you think the men who have sex with the girls are respectful of them, at least? They are after all “extensions the divine.” Also, can a temple servant refuse to have sex with a man? Somehow I doubt it, but perhaps it depends on the temple?

    Also: it’s tempting to think that this system perhaps dates back before the patriarchy (Indo Aryans) hit India, back into Indus Valley Civilization times, and that back then temple servants had more or less total power over their lives, religion and profession. What do you think?

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    • Jeri, in modern times, the practice has been outlawed – as I mentioned, these girls/woman for the most part are Devadasis or slaves to god in name only. However, as I will mention in Part 2 of my post, some of the woman and their families derive a sense of empowerment/ justification from the fact that they are associated with the divine, however peripheral. As far as men are concerned, perhaps some feel closer to the older Devadasi women than they do to their wives, but I doubt respect – if any – comes from the fact that they are associating with the “divine.” Unfortunately, I do not know how it may have been in ancient times, or the times before the practice was outlawed. Perhaps it was different. That relates to your next question – can a temple servant refuse to have sex with a man? Again, let me do some research on that and get back to you. My guess is, in its ancient form, there were many factors that went into being a concubine, for it was more of a long-term relationship. Economics, temple patronage, social prestige, all played a factor into being a Devadasi. In modern times, however, since this traditional form no longer exists, and since it has basically come down to exchanging money for sex for economic survival, there is a lot of pressure on the young girls from their families to prostitute themselves, while for some of the older women, it may be a question of choice. As far as historical origins are concerned, it is difficult to conclusively say if the practice dates back to the IVC. However, there is evidence that it may go back to the bhakti movement, which developed in South India, thus giving it Dravidian origins, which was distinct from Aryan culture. Whether there is a definite link between the Dravidian culture and IVC has been more difficult to prove. I hope these answers at least partly answer your queries. Please let me know if I can be of any more help. And thank you for reading the post, and for your interest in the subject – it certainly made me think more about it.

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      • Thank you, Vibha, for contributing this. Very interesting work. The IVC is a fascinating and unique ancient civilizations, technologically advanced but with few signs of social hierarchy. How did they manage it?!

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