In Hinduism, the idea of falling in love with God, popularly known as 'bhakti' holds paramount importance. Mira Bai, Kabir, Surdas, etc., are considered as the champions of Bhakti movements. Among these famous personalities, there is also a group of women who are often left out- the Devadasis.
Devadasis, literally meaning the "servants of God," were girls who were dedicated to a temple deity as his wives at a young age. Also known as the eternal brides, Devadasis played a variety of roles in the temple and were well versed in singing and dancing. As dutiful wives of the Lord, they displayed their bhakti through their love songs, and their relationship with the Lord was known as the mystic union with the divine.
According to popular belief, this unique tradition stems from the legend of Goddess Yellamma, also known as Renuka. Renuka was the wife of sage Jamadagni, known for her devotion and chastity. Every morning she went to the Malprabha river to fetch water for her husband’s daily rituals. Through her yogic powers, she made a pot of dry sand and brought water back into that by balancing it on her head with the help of a snake. But, one day, during her normal routine, she got distracted by a handsome Gandharva couple bathing in the river due to which she lost her yogic powers and thus, wasn't able to fetch water in the unbaked clay pot. On seeing Renuka returning empty-handed, Jamadagni realised the supposed adultery committed by his wife. In a fit of anger, he ordered their son Parshuram to behead her. As soon as Renuka heard of the punishment, she escaped to a village belonging to the fishing community. However, Parshuram found her and executed her along with a fisherwoman (Matangi) who tried to save her.
Parshuram beheading his mother Renuka
Pleased by his obedience, Jamadagni offered a boon to Parshuram, for which he requested his father to bring his mother back to life. However, when resurrected, Renuka had the head of the fisherwoman attached to her own body. Thus, Jamadagni named her Yellamma, meaning “Mother of All.” He blessed her saying that Renuka would be worshipped by unmarried girls as Goddess Yellamma and these girls shall forever remain dedicated to her. After that, Yellamma moved to the forest and started blessing people. As Matangi belonged to a lower caste, she became a symbol of worship for the people of that community.
Reading the story, one cannot help but feel sympathy for Renuka who is beheaded only because she could not control her thoughts. Another interpretation of the same could be a hidden message that uncontrolled thoughts can cause one immense harm.
Undoubtedly, only such kinds of folktales can support a tradition like that of Devadasis- who are also defined as "women who can control natural human impulses, their five senses and can submit themselves completely to God." However, there are more pragmatic reasons as well regarding the practice of dedicating women in the name of religion, also termed as ‘theogony.’
Some researchers claim that theogony stemmed from the Mother Goddess concept in Ancient India wherein religious women occupied a divine status, and their roles were personified in the form of Mother Goddess. However, with time patriarchal values and new myths started emerging, resulting in a fall in their status and influence in society. Another possible reason for the origin of this tradition could be the trend of constructing magnificent temples for Hindu gods that were said to resemble heaven on Earth with dancing and singing girls representing the heavenly nymphs- "apsaras." Thus, the expansion of temple movement and the growth of Bhakti movement gave a major boost to the system of offering girls to temples in the name of devotion.
While numerous theories and legends can be associated with this tradition, it is interesting to know that the ritual of dedicating girls to temple deities was not confined to India only. Countries like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Babylonia, and Cyprus also had similar customs.
Pratha Content Writer