I Met A Devadasi

A couple of months ago, we met a devadasi named Sarita.

At the risk of oversimplifying it, a devadasi is a religious prostitute. These women collect gifts on behalf of a god or goddess and serve their devotees. That service can include, once they reach puberty, sexual favors. In ancient times, a devadasi was considered a position of esteem. Today – not so much. These women hail from poor, uneducated, low-caste families and are often forced into the profession.

Even though the practice has been outlawed in all of India since 1988, there are still some 50,000 devadasis like Sarita in south India.

Sarita’s parents moved from place to place, searching for fields to work in. So, Sarita lived with her grandparents and never attended school. Like most of their neighbours, they worshipped a goddess called Yellamma.

Around the time Sarita turned 14, her grandmother declared that Sarita must be dedicated as a devadasi to Yellamma. She said it was the only way to protect the poor and struggling family from the goddess’ wrath. To refuse would rain down more curses on the family. So in spite of her parents’ objections, grandmother began preparing Sarita for a special dedication ceremony. A new sari was purchased. Together, they traveled by bus to a prominent Yellamma temple 50 miles away.

It was the farthest Sarita has ever been from her home – before or since.

yellamma temple

At the temple, she was given over to a priest.

A short and relatively secret ceremony took place. Sarita did not describe it in much detail – but did tell us that the priest marked her with a swipe of turmeric powder across her forehead and tied a necklace of red and white beads around her neck as a symbol of her “marriage” to the deity.

After returning home, Sarita began her work. Every Tuesday and Friday she would walk through her village, and sometimes nearby towns, singing Yellamma’s praises and collecting gifts from the goddess’ devotees. In exchange for donations of fruits, rice, flowers, or the occasional rupee, she “served” her villagers in the name of Yellamma.

This was her life for more than 20 years.

Then, a small church was planted in Sarita’s village. For five years, she passed by it and paid it no attention. But last year, that pastor became a partner of Mission India and started a literacy class in the village. Among his students were several devadasi including Sarita.

Literacy class

In the class she learned how to read and write in her language of Kannada. She learned how to add and subtract and began saving money. And she began to see herself through new eyes. Less and less as a devadasi to Yellamma and more and more as a beloved child of Almighty God. She asked questions. She prayed to Jesus. She attended the church.

And she turned her back on the devadasi work.

It’s a great story.

But there was something disturbing about it that stuck with us for days, even weeks, after we met Sarita. Something that bothered us in spite of the (eventual) happy ending…

Why did she do it? Why did she spend 20 years as a devadasi? Before I met her, I had a different picture in my mind. I imagined a poor woman, abused and coerced into this profession. Trafficked even. Far from home and separated from her family. Brainwashed, alone, and under the watchful eye of a dirty old man in a temple somewhere.

But Sarita lived in the village of her youth, in her own home. And while the work was humiliating and heartbreaking – nobody forced her to continue. Her grandmother – the very person who pushed her into that line of work – had been dead for years.

So, when she grew up, why didn’t she just walk away from it all?

To answer that question, consider the dominant worldview and belief systems in India. One of the guiding principles is karma – a term we’re familiar with. Karma is the idea that every action has a reaction. That you will get what you deserve. To believe in karma is to believe that there is no such thing as undeserved favor (the very definition of grace!).

So, you do what you can to earn favor. You do what is required of you. In India, this is known as dharma. Your duty. Live your life the right way and maybe, hopefully, your karma will not be bad. Maybe when you die, your good karma will allow you to come back again (much of India’s people believe in reincarnation) as something better in your next life. But deviate from the plan in this life – no matter how bad life is – and enter a terrifying downward spiral.

What utter hopelessness.

Sarita was trapped. The fear of divine displeasure, infused in her heart by her grandmother so many years ago, made her a devadasi. To avoid the threat of Yellamma’s wrath on her family, Sarita did what was required of her. And she did it until it was all she knew. Until she no longer even thought about escape.

But in 2015, because of a literacy class, Sarita was sitting in church one Sunday morning when the pastor told her a story that would change her life forever.

It was the story of Rahab. A poor, religious prostitute – a devadasi! – redeemed by God and given a place in the plan that would change the entire world! Rahab’s story resonated with Sarita.

The Gospel brings freedom from fear. It did for Rahab and it would for Sarita, too.

Sarita was overwhelmed. It suddenly became real to her that she was free. A lifetime of hopelessness melted away. She knew that she was loved by God and that God had something amazing in store for her life.

And today, you can see it in her eyes: she will never be the same.