Devdasi: Ritual Slavery

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1.1 Overview
We, as humans believe we have progressed too far. We believe we are way ahead of our ancestors in recognizing and respecting the value of a dignified life. But are we? Can we assert to be ‘being human’ when we actually are not. It is tragic that ancient evils still exist today in our societies. Practices, which are loathed around the world, still form a part of our culture. Even the most enlightened and evolved still have not managed to shake off the malevolent horrors of yesterday. Dowry, Female foeticide and Sati are practices which even though are illegal as per law of the country are still prevalent. These practices have been outlawed across India and precisely, because of this, them being practiced in any form gets noticed leading to steps being taken. This, however is not the case with an equally, if not more heinous, practiced but comparatively lesser known practice going by the name of Devadasi. This practice has been accepted as immoral across the world and recognised as ritual slavery and banned in other countries practicing it. But, it still is not illegal in India. Sadly, total agreement on the immorality of certain behaviours does not assure there demise and these practices are still flourishing. 1.2 Ritual Slavery

Slavery is a situation in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune and liberty of another. Slavery, itself takes many forms and ritual slavery is just one of them. The practice of ritual slavery is the custom of forced marriage of girls to a deity, thereby depriving them of a right to ordinary marriage and assigning them to sexual exploitation by the deity’s priests or devotees. Miers describes ritual or cult slavery, another name for it, as follows: “Cult slavery, in which a person, usually a young girl, was dedicated to a god or goddess.” According to the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), ritual abuse involves one or more of the following elements: “ 1) terrorizing acts (e.g., threats to kill parents, pets, or loved ones if the abuse is disclosed); 2) acts involving supernatural symbolism or ritual (e.g., the use of masks or robes, the use of crosses or pentagrams); 3) acts involving real or simulated killing of animals and sometimes human infants (these acts can serve both ritual and terrorizing ends); 4) acts involving real or simulated ingestion of urine, feces, blood, and "magic potions" which might include mind-altering substances; severe sexual abuse, often including penetration with objects.”

The practice of ritual slavery is very much alive today and flourishing in India as well as West Africa. In 1995, the Anti-Slavery Society believed that some ten thousand children were dedicated annually. Howard Temperley observes that, “Cult slavery still continues in parts of West Africa. In Ghana, for instance, girls are still dedicated to shrines. Small-scale trading in children continues across borders.” Trokosi is to Western Africa what Devadasi is to India. Trokosi epitomises the plight which many women around the world suffer in the name of culture and tradition. However, before the practices and its followers are condemned, it is important to consider the ritual of Trokosi closely. The Trokosi system is an ancient practice in western Africa. Trokosi is a belief and that things do not happen without a cause. The custom is related to a traditional fetish belief system which proposes that gods or spirits live within ritual objects and shrine priests. Many believe the shrine priests communicate with the war-gods which gives them great power in the spirit realm. The Trokosi system is practiced in parts of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. It is estimated that there may be as many as twenty to thirty thousand Trokosi slaves within the four countries and approximately 160 shrines in Ghana alone. The meaning of the word “Trokosi in itself shows the slave...
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