Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Devadasi and Sati; Evils (?) in Hindu Society

Many a times, some inevitable nuisances which can't be prevented (can be anything, from diabetes to traffic jam) need to be accepted. Denial is an easier option. Acceptance needs boldness. Acceptance not necessarily is an endorsement.

Prostitution is the world's oldest profession. Every culture tolerated it, but struggled to accept it.  A recent example is one of the controversial decision of first allowing and later banning sex industry job advertisements in UK job centres. Those who are pro-ban have argued, they do not want their children/(daughters) who go out looking for jobs to come across such advertisements. Those who opposed the ban have argued, anyway job is not imposed. Burden on the tax payer gets lessened if one person claiming benefits takes up the job voluntarily and start paying tax. My intention is not to stand on any side. It is just to show, how civilised society still struggle to accept/admit sex workers.

Ancient Indian society (/Hindu) accepted these people in the society, including temples; called them Devadasis. They were claimed to have got married to God. In Tamilnad, their presence in the marriage was termed auspicious. They were invited to insert a black beed in bride's Mangal Sutra, as these people were referred as Nitya Sumangali (One who never gets widowed). They also preserved and cherished the art forms of India (very similar to Geishas in Japan, who were also respected by the society). Bharat Natyam was retrieved from Sadir, the dance form performed by Devdasis in temple. Many highly respected singers from India are actually from Devadasi lineage like M.S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Amonkar.

Advantages of this system was, it gave legitimacy to these people's profession and their children. Statue of Chinnambe, who was a devdasi and mistress of Vikrama Deva Raya, still stays at Tirupati temple. Secondly, they could contribute towards the society from the money they earned. Vinapoti and Shantavva were two such courtesans from Karnataka who are remembered for their charitable work. Vinapoti (who was a mistress of Chalukya king Vijayaditya, 7th century) claimed to have made generous donations towards temples. Shantavve (probably 10th century CE) built a tank for the irrigation, which is Asia's second largest irrigational tank. People generally referred to it as Sulekere ('Prostitute Lake"). But decades back, government brought in a "civilised name" called Shanti Sagara as it did not like the old name. But historians protested against it and said, it does not bring in the memory of the philanthropist lady as the previous one. Right now, both the names are present.

Today, the existing Devadasi system no way resembles the old system. Poor parents with the help of a priest, force a minor child to become Devadasi. Though we need to condemn this practise (child trafficking), the blame is not entirely on the Devadasi system itself. It is actually the poverty which is causing this. (This does not happen in Devdasi system alone. In fact in India prostitution ratio is higher in Muslim community, again not because of religion but due to poverty. There needs to be strict laws against all child trafficking). But even at this juncture, Devadasi system gives little relief from regular prostitution. A Devdasi lives in the society, with family back up. Other lives in a Koti (a place reserved for sex workers, in a  red light area), away from regular society. This isolated atmosphere adds greater mental stress. Devdasi's children can have better upbringing than a regular prostitute's kids, because of the social acceptance. (They grow up along with children of other background). I would say, Devadasi system was the most rational response a civic society could give to the world's oldest profession.

Another controversial social evil - Sati. (when a wife voluntarily joins her dead husband on the funeral pyre). One thing is certainly clear. Except few stories in mythology, widow remarriage was never considered here. (This practise is just not understandable, considering society was flexible otherwise). But did the widow have to die? Questions are; Was Sati a voluntary act or imposed? Second, even if it was voluntary, how could the society accept it? The first question (being made compulsive) could have boiled down to individual circumstances (like exploitation by greedy family members) rather than imposed by society as a whole. It's because, society has accepted both kinds of  people (who wanted to enter Sati and who wanted to live and raise children or contribute towards society). In Mahabharata, Madri went for Sati, Kunti didn't. Society did not disrespect Kunti for her decision. In 10th century Karnataka, Gundamabbe (let's remember, she was a Jain) preferred to die  after her husband Nagadeva passed away. (There are different versions, whether she entered the funeral pyre or chose Sallekhana for the death). Attimabbe, first wife of Nagadeva decided to stay and raise her child. Till now, she is known and praised for her philanthropic work. Lakshmibai of Jhansi or Chennamma of Kittore did not die with their husbands, instead they chose to continue the fight with British. Society bowed to them. Having said these, I am not disputing the fact that Sati was allowed in the society.  My understanding here is similar to my views on Devadasi system. Acceptance does not mean endorsement.

Sati is a controversial topic because it involved a woman, a widow. But that does mean, there were/are no other voluntary deaths. Sallekhana (practiced by Jains) is still not banned. Some Hindu Sanyasis took up Sajeeva Samadhi (Raghavendra Swami is one such). This society which has the culture of celebration, celebrated these deaths too. In Karnataka, most of the time Sati was associated with the death of a soldier. Stones were erected in honour of both wife and husband (Mastigallu and Veeragallu). Mastigallu is the abbreviation of Maha Sati Kallu (Stone to honour the Maha Sati), Veera Kallu means Stone to honour the brave man (Kallu = Stone). It feels like these stones are glorifying both these men and women equally, as the people who sacrificed their life for saving their kingdom (though the women did not literally participate in the battle).
While discussing about these voluntary deaths I get reminded, how people give away their life (also take away another life) for ideologies. Sometimes in the same of socialism (Marxism), sometimes religion (Jihad). But one ideology has always been held high since time immemorial, despite throwing away one's life or taking away someone else's life; ie patriotism. Why should that bother me, who is born in one country, citizen of some other country? I am just amused, how much people care for the lady whose name is etched in Mastigallu but are not bothered about those names etched in Veeragallu (as if, those guys were meant to die).

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