Hinduism and Prostitution

Dancing Girls of British India

by Jayaram V

"O son of Kunti, the pleasures that are born out of sensory contacts are sources of pain. They certainly are transient, having a beginning and an end. The intelligent man is wise enough not to indulge in them. (Bhagavad gita 5.22)

Hinduism is a religion of the individuals and has many layers. If someone wants to find mud and sewage in it, he will find them in abundance...To say that Hinduism approves prostitution or debauchery is an insult to the heritage of mankind. Jayaram V

Those who are familiar with the life of Raja Ravi Varma, the famous Indian painter of 19th Century, know that the woman who served as his  inspiration and model for the paintings of goddesses and epic characters from Hindu legends was a prostitute from Mumbai. People worshipped the goddesses made in her image despite the fact that she was a prostitute. Raja Ravi Varma faced a number of accusations from orthodox Hindus for his actions and was drawn to court to defend his actions. According to the biography of the painter, the woman ultimately committed suicide, leaving the painter grief-stricken.

Prostitution has been a part of India's social milieu since ancient times. Kings indulged in it. Warriors, feudal lords and rich merchants indulged in it. Women from poor social background resorted to it to please their masters or gain freedom from the bondage to which they were subject. There were many free women who were not bound by the restrictions of Hindu society and willingly participated in it while some were forced by circumstances. The list included slave girls who were sold by their fathers into slavery because they were unable to marry them, and women who were captured during wars and sold by their captors for a profit. Some of the women served in the courts of kings as dancing girls, guards, spies, and courtesans. Such women often accompanied the kings to the battlefield either to protect him or entertain him.

Amrapali was a famous courtesan in the Kingdom of Ajatasatru. She lived a lavish life and even donated a resting place to the Buddha and his followers. Prostitution was a recognized profession in ancient India and we cannot judge them according to our current standards. Unlike today, the profession was controlled and regulated mostly by women rather than men. Women who engaged in the profession of entertainment and sensuality were both despised and admired. They were despised because they enticed men and emptied their wealth. They were admired for their beauty, artistry, and their professional skills in keeping men engaged. India had been a land of Kamasutra. However, we cannot generalize and state that ancient Indians tolerated kama anymore than they tolerated sinful conduct.

 According to Hinduism sex is not undivine, but lust is definitely. Hinduism approves sexual union between married couple, for the purpose of procreation, but not pleasure. The physical body is a seat of impurities and those who are interested in salvation should be wary of it. A man may get involved in physical pleasures but then he has to pay the price. Hindu laws forbid men to indulge in sex with unmarried women and maidens against their wish. In ancient Vedic society, women were expected to live under the protection of their men all the time and were not allowed to move freely in society on their own. They were to be accompanied by men all the time, especially when they were outside their houses.

Sexual union between a householder and a prostitute is against religious injunctions, (adharma) and therefore strictly prohibited. A prostitute is a fallen woman, who has deviated from the normal life and made her looks as the means of commerce. She is a victim of her own karma and through her charm she not only drags others into delusion and darkness but also destroys her own future. Association with her would taint the mind and the body, deludes the buddhi and hampers a person's spiritual progress. However a prostitute can turn to religion and redeem herself. So also a person who fell into bad ways.

Hinduism considers the human body as a temple of the divine. At the same time, if care is not taken, it will act as a vehicle of wild passions and innumerable impurities. Initiates into spiritualism are advised to contemplate upon the impurities and negative aspects of the body so as to develop detachment from it. Hindu scriptures advocate the control of the body, the mind and the senses in order to turn our attention inward and realize our divine nature.

The left hand tantric practices which involve sexual union to awaken the Kundalini and in which many scholars of East and West take particular interest for its implied approval to indulge in licentiousness in the name of spirituality, and the techniques of the Kamasutra, which the media often highlights for its sensational and commercial value, are but followed by a microscopic minority of Hindus in India. Even, they practice them in complete secrecy, since it is neither the norm nor an approved tradition in the majority households, whether they are from cities and towns or villages. People may read about them and may even enjoy reading them, but they understand that it does not represent their faith or its values.

The overall percentage of people who practice uninhibited sexual mores in Hindu society is very insignificant. It is outrageous to judge Hinduism on the basis of such deviations and exceptions as it would be equally outrageous to judge humanity on the basis of few sexual perverts and morally deprived people. The problem of prostitution in India is essentially a problem of poverty and gender and caste discrimination, aggravated further by organized crime and weak law enforcement at many levels. Religion plays very little role in it, except providing a contrast to the dismal reality and providing solace to the unfortunate victims, who take refuge in it. Hinduism neither promotes it nor approves it nor condones it.

Hinduism is against Prostitution

There is a misconception among many that Hinduism supports or formalizes prostitution in the form of such institutions as the Devadasi system. There are a number of scholars and critics who rile and ridicule Hindu society for it. Prostitution is a product of social and economic factors and prevails in every society and in the shadow of every religion. In some societies it is hidden and in some it is open. Hinduism is a religion of the individuals and has many layers. If someone wants to find mud and sewage in it, he will find them in abundance, without ever realizing the fact that Hinduism is a product of the collective consciousness of humanity where one can find its glorious heights as well as its abominable depths. If sex is legalized in some Christian dominated communities it does not mean that Christianity has anything to do with it.

The Devadasi system was originally introduced as a part of the tantric beliefs and methods of worship in certain temples of India to provide regular female attendants to the presiding deities. But over a period of time the system degenerated and was put to great misuse, giving enough scope and opportunity to the critics of Hinduism to speak about it disparagingly. It is completely wrong to believe that Hinduism favors the Devadasi system. If that was so it would have been practiced in every Hindu temple, not just a few.

Hinduism is against sensual pleasures that degrade human beings and put their salvation in jeopardy. It prohibits immoral sex which is against the injunctions of dharma and which is harmful to the material and spiritual welfare of a person, his or her family and society.

The Essence of Hinduism is Tolerance

Whether it is homosexuality or the promiscuous behavior, the fact is that Hinduism tolerates the ignorant souls of this whole wide world without crushing them with the weight of its scriptural authority. If the transvestites of India have their own gods and goddesses whom they worship under the umbrella of Hinduism, and if Hindus accept them as a part of their community with aplomb, it is because Hinduism inculcates among its adherents the virtue of compassion and an inherent ability to see life in a larger frame work. The eunuchs in India are believed by the masses to be blessed with supernatural powers because of the special rites performed during their initiation and for this reason they are usually invited into homes and shops on certain auspicious occasion to purify the place and bless the people in their own special ways. It does not matter whether the same people indulge in prostitution as their regular profession.

Hinduism accepts the diversity of the world as an integral part of this reality that we call our world and accepts all the people in it as the children of God who are in various stages of ignorance or spiritual progress. Like a perfect yogi it views them all with equanimity. It accepts their wisdom as well as their ignorance, without passing snobbish judgments. Hinduism may not favor prostitution, but expects that those who engage in it are treated with tolerance and compassion.

Prostitution is a reflection of society rather than the individuals who engage in it. In ancient India prostitutes enjoyed a good status and often hobnobbed with kings and spiritual masters. If you visit Hampi, you can see a long line houses where prostitutes lived and entertained customers. It is possible they might have even paid taxes to the king for staying so near the palace. Amrapali was a well known courtesan who arranged a residence to the Buddha for his stay during the rainy season, besides giving generous donations to the Buddhist monks for their monastery. Courtesans were received by kings for their entertainment value and treated with respect, since most of them were skillful in various arts.

Prostitution and Karma

Hinduism does not condemn a prostitute, but may consider prostitution a bad karma. It is indeed more difficult to say who is more sinful, an adulterer or a prostitute. People indulge in adultery because of lust, but in most case people enter the profession of prostitution for survival. From a moral or spiritual point of view, the same rules that apply to a priest, teacher, or soldier, apply to a prostitute also. If she is forced into the profession, the people who are responsible for it will suffer from terrible consequences that may not only effect them for several lives but also their descendants. No one can rule out the possibility that a person may become a prostitute because of the karma incurred in previous lives. If a prostitute engages in the profession for pleasure or personal reasons she will suffer from negative consequences. However, if she engages in it as a duty with detachment, or as a service to God, she would not be held responsible for her actions. A prostitute cannot engage in her profession by herself. She needs a support system and involvement of several people. Therefore, the profession of prostitution reflects the sexual mores of not only individuals but also society as a whole. Since prostitution has a social dimension, one cannot rule out the collective karma that may arise from it and effect society as a whole.

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