By Swami Harshananda
Devadāsi literally means ‘servant-maids of God’. Dedicating grown-up girls to the service of God in temples and places of worship seems to have been an ancient practice. Such practices also existed in Babylonia, Cyprus, Phoenicia, Greece, Mesopotamea, Syria, Arabia and some countries of South-East. Devadāsīs were often maintained by the kings or the society through grant of lands, money and materials. They were also given a place of honor in the society.
Beginning of Devadāsi System in India
It is difficult to say when exactly this custom began in India. According to some sociologists, the practice may have started in the 3rd century A. D. Some archaeologists ‘see’ a devadāsī in a female dancer modif that was discovered at Mohen-jo-Dāro (and dated to 2500 B. C.).
It is known how well-spread the practice was but it is clear that it was prevalent more in the South than in the North of modern day India. Those who were dedicated to the god in a temple were often married ceremonially to the image. Thereafter they were suppose to serve that god devotedly. They were expected to be adepts in music and dancing. Hence they were specially trained in this art.
Duties of Devadāsi
In general the duties of a devadāsī included:
- Keeping the temple precincts clean and neat
- Preparing flower garlands and other decorative materials for the deity
- Music and dancing as a part of the temple rituals
Types of Devadāsi
A lady could become a devadāsī in several ways. Seven such ways have been mentioned in the relevant works. They are:
- Dattā - One who has offered herself to a temple.
- Vikrītā - One who has sold herself to a temple.
- Bhṛtyā - One who has given herself to the temple for the sustenance of her family.
- Bhaktā - One who has chosen to become a devadāsī out of devotion to the Lord.
- Hṛtā - One who has been abducted and offered to a temple.
- Alaṅkārā - One who was offered to a temple by a king or his minister as per some tradition.
- Rudragaṇikā or gopikā - One appointed for singing and dancing in a temple as a profession.
Types of Services offered by Devadāsis in Karnataka
In some of the edicts found in Karnataka, the service to a god in a temple has been classified into two kinds:
- Añgabhoga - It consists of direct services to the image like bath, anointing with sandal paste, burning of incense and waving of lights, offering flowers and food articles and so on.
- Raṅgabhoga - It comprises mainly music and dancing by the devadāsīs.
Consequence and Eradication of Devadāsi System
Whatever might have been the original intentions behind this system, noble or devotional, it eventually degenerated into prostitution with ‘divine’ sanction and gave rise to exploitation of the weaker sex in the name of religion.
- Jogiti tradition in the Ellamma temple at Saundatti, Belgaum district
- The devadāsis are called ‘bhāvins’ in Maharashtra.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore