May 18th, 2016
Transcending Gender, Caste and Creed: The Devadasi System and the March towards a Tagorean Future | HART Prize for Human Rights
This essay, by Srinidhi Akkur, received 3rd prize in the 2016 HART Prize for Human Rights, Senior Essay Category.
“Civilization must be judged and prized, not by the amount of power it has developed, but by how much it has evolved and given expression to, by its laws and institutions, the love of humanity” (Tagore, 1913). Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s masterful meditation on the importance of a culture rooted in harmony, cooperation and an all-encompassing respect for human dignity remains a marvelous encapsulation of his humanist philosophy. Tagore’s vision for Indian society was one liberated from the vestiges of feudal constructs like the caste system, a form of social stratification that entraps marginalized groups – the so-called “untouchables” – within a vicious cycle of poverty, injustice and exploitation. Tagore’s commitment to social justice further embodied the reformation of India’s entrenched patriarchal structures, which systematically subordinate women and render them susceptible to persecution and abuse. His vast canon of literature, which beyond helping mobilize the call for abolishing casteism and emancipating women from the shackles of patriarchy, serves as an endearing testament to his iconoclastic spirit and visionary force.
Yet more than half a century after its independence, India remains far from the land of unity and syncretism that Tagore exemplified in his writings. One particular ongoing manifestation of caste and gender-based prejudice in the nation is the devadasi system, an ancient custom practiced extensively in many parts of South India, involving the consecration of young females to a Hindu deity (Mishra, 2011). Devadasis or “servants of god,” as the Sanskrit translation reveals, are forced to remain unmarried, but serve the sexual needs of the men in their communities – a concept summarized by the old saying, “a devadasi is a servant of god but wife of the whole town” (Torri, 2009). Condemned to a life of temple prostitution and forced to endure physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, devadasis are the victims of a perverse institution sustained by religious fanaticism, caste discrimination and socio-economic pressures (Dutt & Munsi, 2010). An examination of these interrelated factors is central in understanding the continuity of the tradition despite its illegality, as well as in developing effective measures towards its eradication.
“The devadasi tradition is singular due to the strength of the relationship between religious beliefs and sexual exploitation” (Shingal, 2015). Annually, thousands of young females, as young as five or six, are inducted into this system of sexual slavery under the pretext of appeasing the gods (Shingal, 2015). While in different states and regions the deity differs – being alternatively known as Yellamma, Hanuman, Renuka Devi, or Hulganga – the religious grounds for consecration remain unchanged (Misra, Mahal & Shah, 2000). Characterized by its blind acquiescence to centuries-old beliefs, the devadasi cult continues to normalize and propagate the systematic abuse of young women through sanctions provided by religion.
While the secularization of education has diminished the potency of the ritual element sanctifying the system, the practice has found longevity by blending “into commercial prostitution under the garb of religion” (Mishra, 2011; Nair & Sen, 2005). A recent investigation uncovered that among 300 brothel-based sex workers in Sangli, Maharashtra, more than one-half were devadasis (Misra, Mahal & Shah, 2000). The line of demarcation between the devadasi custom and commercial prostitution has grown increasingly faint, with the only distinction remaining that the former continues to be perpetuated under the cloak of religion (Kumbhare, 2009).
Deep-rooted divisions along caste lines further play a decisive role in sustaining the pernicious custom. Dr. Maria Costanza Torri adds the dimensions of gender and caste into the narrative, arguing brilliantly that the “hegemonic masculinity of upper caste men is asserted and maintained through defilement and appropriation of lower caste and ‘dalit’ women’s sexuality” (Torri, 2009). Case studies of 85 devadasis in Karnataka’s Yellampura village revealed that the practice was only followed by women of lower castes like the Holers, Madars and Samagars (Shankar, 1990). The inexorable link between caste and forced prostitution not only underscores the ongoing exploitation faced by lower-caste women, but more generally, serves to reinforce the argument that the problem of the devadasi system is in essence, the problem of caste lines.
Moreover, with the strong positive correlation between caste status and socioeconomic status, it is unsurprising that lower castes are found amongst the poorest echelons of Indian society (Kinjaram,1998). Abject poverty and landlessness among lower castes further perpetuates the heinous practice by forcing families to dedicate their daughters out of the desperate need of the money paid for them (Cummings & Parrot, 2006). As historian William Dalrymple perceptively remarks: “For the very poor, and the very pious, the devadasi system is still seen as providing a way out of poverty while gaining access to the blessings of the gods, the two things the poor most desperately crave” (Dalrymple, 2010).
With the devadasi practice arising from the interplay of religious beliefs, caste discrimination and economic necessity, truly effective reforms must tackle these root causes. Dismantling the religious underpinnings of the system necessitates targeted interventions by state governments into areas understood to still practice the custom – a responsibility enshrined into Article 25 of the Indian Constitution (1949), ordering government actions against religious practices recognized to violate public order, morality and health.
The practice of untouchability, although banned in the Constitution, continues to survive through institutions like the devadasi system, wherein Dalit women are predominately subjugated. The oppression endured by this subset of females remains complex and manifold as they face discrimination along multiple axes (Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), 2007). Dalit women not only encounter severe limitations in access to services, employment opportunities and justice mechanisms due to their caste-status, but also face gender-related persecution within their communities (CHRGJ, 2007).
Alongside vigorous government enforcement of anti-discrimination measures, there must be joint partnership efforts between NGOs and local governments to provide rehabilitation and vocational training services to women from Dalit communities. Equally important in helping embolden these females are development programs focused on economic empowerment through provision of microcredit loans and business management training. Above all, significant efforts must be directed towards educating Dalit women – a belief that was expounded by Tagore himself. Education is the single most effective means of emancipating Dalit women from lives of impoverishment and exploitation – it instills hope, confidence, and most importantly, the courage to take command of one’s future.
One can only imagine Tagore’s dismay towards modern-day India – a country that although has embraced many democratic principles, has fallen short in its efforts to protect women’s rights. India’s devadasi system – originating from the crossroads of religious beliefs, caste persecution and economic deprivation – serves as a harrowing reminder of the ongoing abuse and violence encountered by women in India. Eradicating the exploitative custom is not only possible through collective efforts between communities, local governments and NGOs, but is compulsory for the socioeconomic advancement of the nation. The relevance of Tagore’s humanist teachings in contemporary Indian society remains more significant than ever. His poignant verses reverberate across time, reminding nations that there exists no greater duty than in preserving human freedom.
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Shingal, A. (2015). THE DEVADASI SYSTEM: Temple Prostitution in India. UCLA Women’s Law Journal,22(1), 107-123. Retrieved January 9, 2016, from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/37z853br#page-17
Tagore, R. (1913). Sādhanā; the realisation of life. New York: The Macmillan Company.
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