Servant of God, or Prostitute?
The Devadasi, a centuries-old caste of sacred temple priestesses, struggles to have it's own renaissance. One woman leads the way...
The origins of the practice are often disputed, but historians agree that in India by the 10th century this caste of sacred temple servants enjoyed great wealth & property as signs of respect & clout.
Considered married to the Hindu deities, the Devadasi were talented dancers, singers & even viewed as political advisors. At the core of Devadasi faith is the belief all men are incarnations of the male deities & so in addition to performing sacred temple ceremonies, Devadasis offered sexual services. In the act of making love, a man & a Devadasi enact the sacred marriage of god & goddess which therefore allows them to become divine themselves.
Not surprisingly when Europeans first arrived in India, they found the Devadasi & their practices shocking.
Beginning in 1892 with an appeal to the Viceroy and Governor General of India and to the Governor of Madras that "these women are invariably prostitutes," the moral indignation coupled with a cultural ignorance created an outrage to outlaw. By the mid-1940's most Devadasi practices were prohibited in India.
Respected in the past, yes, but now the Devadasi have been reduced to little more than prostitutes. Even now, most human rights & feminist groups, as well as academics view the Devadasi as a social problem ~ as forced prostitution. They see the Devadasi as victim to lack of resources, poverty, & misogyny. None of these groups which view the Devadasi as victims see the connection between the maligning of a culture & faith which took away the legitimate role of Devadasi.
One woman, a 20-something London university student, is actively working towards a Devadasi renaissance. Kama, who practices her faith as an Devadasi escort, honors us with an interview...
Please define what Devadasi is, and how you define if personally.
The Devadasi literally means “servants of God” and describes a class of South Asian women who have devoted themselves in marriage and service to their Deity. This phenomenon has grown and evolved since at least the post-Vedic era, as a female oral tradition and practices that has principally developed outside the male dominated written religious scripts.
Personally being a Devadasi has allowed me to have a South Asian identity that celebrates my autonomy and sexuality, I realized after I came to London that I did not want live as a liberated Western woman but nor did I want to live as a typically servile South Asian wife so being a Devadasi has meant a voyage of cultural rediscovery and emancipation.
Is this related to tantra?
Tantra, is a development of early Hindu-Vedic thought. Tantra embraces the Hindu gods and goddesses, especially Shiva. The deities may be worshiped externally but, more importantly, they are the object of meditation, where the devotee visualizes the deity in question. The ancient devadasi tradition of sacred temple-dancing is an example of such meditation in movement. During such visualization any man can become a representation of the Deity and as such the genuine object of love and desire for the devadasi. The sexual pujas associated with the Tantra and performed with men visualized as the Deity are the means by which the devadasi honour their Deity through sexual love which is an integral part of their divine marriage with the Deity.
The role is not merely sexual: what was, historically, the life of a Devadasi?
The life of the Devadasi has always been one of religious service and devotion. Historically the Devadasi have taken care of the Temples and sought to ensure the pleasure of the Deity through their dance and song. The Devadasi have always been considered auspicious and they would often be asked to bless weddings and entertain visiting Princes and other dignities.
How did you come to be a Devadasi?
My Grandmother was a Devadasi, but in earlier generations, my Devadasi ancestors broke with tradition and having left their place of origin, had been able to marry, enabling them to live more normal lives. I decided to become a practicing Devadasi so I could gain sexual and financial autonomy, and live independently of the South Asian patriarchy.
While studying in London I had become sexually active and I decided in that my dealing with men I could commercialize many sexual exchanges while still enjoying genuine intimacy and friendship. These relationships were often very temporary and transient, but they were also transparent, honest and allowed me to maintain my own independent identity. So having been born a Devadasi I finally came to place where I could reclaim and live a Devadasi identity.
I've read that your 'Devadasi ancestors broke with tradition & having left their place of origin, had been able to marry, enabling them to live more normal lives.' Do you mean literally your familial ancestors, or the sisterhood?
When the Devadasi were increasing subjected to legalized discrimination during the 20th century and the dispossession of their temple endowments many Devadasi women left the Devadasi life. These women married and tried to live “normal” lives. My matrilineal ancestors were part of this general Devadasi diaspora.
How does your family feel about your choice, your faith?
My Grandmother is particularly pleased about my new Devadasi life and spends a considerable amount of time giving me advice. My mother was quite concerned at first, but acknowledges that I am old enough to make my own choices and she is pleased that I am taking my faith so seriously.
Some would argue that marriage diminishes the true faith, how do you respond?
The Devadasi is married to her Deity and as such is not really free to marry anyone else. However I am aware that some Devadasi practice a form of polyandry that allows them to marry or consort with a mortal man as well as their Deity. As every man is a type of incarnation of the Deity it seems that a mortal man who is particularly devoted might make a suitable life partner for a Devadasi. Many Devadasi historically only had a single patron.
Did you have any special training to become Devadasi? Are there any teachers? Any rites, blessings or initiation?
I believe that a devadasi spirit is a gift from the Deity and as such is a reward to those who through meditation are allowed to see the Deity. I received much of my teaching about the Devadasi from my Grandmother, and I have subsequently spent a lot of time reading about the various Devadasi controversies. I practice my circumambulation and devotions and keep a shrine to Shiva in my guest room. I was devoted to Krishna and Shiva as a child and consequently I was kept from early marriage because I was considered auspicious for my family of birth and because I was married to the Deity.
Historically, do you feel that the loss of physical temples marked the decline of the preservation of the traditional way?
The destruction of the temples and especially the confiscation of the temple endowments caused the collapse of Devadasi society as it was practiced in the 19th Century, & many people believe that as such the Devadasi are condemned to cultural oblivion and that without the temples a Devadasi renaissance is not possible. However certain aspects of classical Devadasi dance has been preserved and as such I believe the Devadasi can reinvent themselves for the 21st Century.
19th Century Devadasism was not the same institution as the post-vedic Devadasism of the 4th Century, & many people would argue that the Devadasi have evolved through a series of identities. Who is to say that a particular expression of the Devadasi culture is the “true” identity? The devadasi have now been reduced to a socially excluded and persecuted minority and it is time for the Devadasi to reestablish themselves and no longer allow others to dictate what is acceptable about a Devadasi life.
Do you have (or have you had) personal sexual or romantic relationships? If so, do personal relations differ from professional relations? If so, how?
I do not make a secular/sacred divide in my life and as such I consider all of my experiences with men to be personal, and the personal is definitely as spiritual as it is political.
Do you believe your clients are of the same faith?
I am often visited by very devout South Asian and other men who want to share a religious experience with me. Many other men do not share my faith but have a longing for an experience of affection and sensuality that involves being received as a lover and a friend.
How do clients benefit?
My guests benefit in a variety of ways but for many the time of being with a loving and caring woman who affectionately gives her self freely & passionately to them is a very special experience. For many men who have been involved in relationships where they are not unconditionally accepted and loved, it is very life affirming to realize that if I can love them like that, then it must be possible for them to find another woman equally able to love them in such a way. I bring the hope of being unconditionally loved to men.
If sexual service is but a part of Devadasi, where do you see yourself years from now? Will what you are doing still be a part of the faith?
I expect to grow and evolve as a devadasi and I certainly hope to be able to take part in a general devadasi renaissance rather than just a personal journey.
How do you feel about the current status of your sisters in India?
The Devadasi are mostly poor, exploited, & socially excluded. Much of their poverty and exclusion is the result of institutional middle class prejudice that legislated the Devadasi into further exploitation. Devadasism has been collapsed into the issue of coerced prostitution and this conflation hinders the Devadasi from renewing their culture.
Are you aware of other women following the tradition?
There are many women in India who are not part of the exploited and oppressed Devadasi and who are continuing a variety of Devadasi traditions. However the need is to support these women and encourage renaissance rather than subject all Devadasi to debilitating victim-hood.
Obviously your status as a woman who can afford a college education allows you some benefits that other women, Devadasi by choice or not, do not have. How do you see yourself then, in this struggle?
I was only able to come to the UK because of a competitive scholarship that I won, however my high school education was a consequence of considerable sacrifices by my mother, so I am incredibly grateful that she considered me worthy of such effort. I am the first woman in my family who can read and write. I believe that these privileges require that I build the skills and resources necessary to be able to participate in a Devadasi renewal. I would like to be a resource for such a Devadasi renewal.
What do you view as necessary as part of the Devadasi Renaissance?
I believe that it is essential that the Devadasi internalize the spirituality of their faith so that they are no longer dependent on physical Temples and specific geographies, but can practice their faith from within rather than relying on external structures to validate their lives. If the Devadasi have the temple within, then the loss of physical temples is a loss but does not mean the complete destruction of their being.
Where would a person 'go' to learn more about Devadasi, or to follow
that path of one?
This is the greatest problem because the Devadasi identity is contested and there were many authentic threads that have evolved in a variety of ways. So there is nowhere to "go" but there is a state of being that allows a woman to live independently of any male supremacy, while maintaining congress with men.
The Devadasi in many ways acted out a Feminist dream in that they did not mimic men to achieve status and power, but negotiated with men a series of relationships that properly rewarded and acknowledged their reproductive labour. Therefore the destruction of the Devadasi was a priority for the patriarchal forces of the new Indian bourgeoisie.
You have your own blog dedicated to your faith, your work. (UPDATE: Link removed as the site is now a bad splog.) What is your goal with your blog? What do you feel would be your greatest accomplishment with it?
My blog is a personal record of my thoughts and struggles since I came to the UK, it meant to remind me who I am and from where I have come. In a way it is intended to make me accountable to myself and others. If my blog allows me to remember who I am and why I am this person and what are my responsibilities to others I will be very happy.
See more from the Sex Kitten Spirituality & Sexuality Issue of 2005.