Rise And Fall Of Buddhist Nuns

Dr. K. Jamanadas, "Shalimar", Main Road, Chandrapur 442 402
E-mail: kjdas@nagpur.dot.net.in


It was the Buddha who first time in the world introduced the system of becoming a Bhikku. No doubt there were people leading a life of wanderers and leading a celibate life even before the Buddha. But the system of monasticism for the benefit of the society, called "Sangha", for 'bahujan hitaya bahujan sukhay', was started by the Buddha himself. This is a fact well known and well accepted by all scholars. The original Sangha was made up of men only, and the Buddha was rather reluctant to admit women into the Sangha.

This fact is misconstrued by the present Brahmanic scholars and they started blaming the Buddha for the fall of women in ancient India. The Buddha is blamed for any and all the ills suffered by Indian masses during the historical times. One such new charge was that surgical science suffered because of "ahimsa" of the Buddha. This I refuted through my article some time back. But the charge of fall of women being due to the Buddhist teachings is an old one. One such article was written in "Eves weekly", on 20th January, 1950. There was a rejoinder by Lama Govinda. While praising Lama Govinda for his article, Dr. Ambedkar himself wrote a small booklet, "The rise and fall of Hindu women". Unfortunately, it is not incorporated in his "Writings and Speeches" by Govt. of Maharashtra. But it is available. That gives clear cut idea, how the Buddha considered the women as great, much in contrast to older Brahmanic teachings, and how Manu was responsible for the fall of Women in India. It is rather unfortunate that, the present day women in "Women's Liberation Movement" in India, being mostly from upper castes, do not like to talk about Manu and conveniently ignore it.

Was the Buddha against Women

As such a charge is made quite often by interested parties who cannot bear his greatness, and comes form quarters weightier in authority than the writer in Eve's Weekly can claim, Dr. Ambedkar thought it necessary to go to the root of the matter and examine the very foundation of this oft repeated charge. [Dr. Ambedkar, "The Rise and fall of Hindu woman", p. 1] He feels that there are only two grounds for such a charge. One is in Ch. V. Mahaparinibana sutta in the Sutta Pitaka, where Ananda asks the Buddha how to conduct ourselves and the Buddha advises him to shun them. As we find it now, he feels, Sutta Pitaka is disfigured by additions of purely Brahmanic ideas entirely foreign to the original Buddhist thought. He quotes Rhys Davids in this respect: [Preface (xiii) to Kindred Sayings vol. II]

"Where in these pages of (the Sutta Pitaka) is Gotama? How much of them, how little, is a blend of (it may be) original sayings clearly or confusedly reproduced, of fillings by ages of successive narrators, of memory-schemes drawn up by teachers, not teachers of the multitude but of orally learning pupils, of efforts, often clumsy, by editors to set down in writing much that had long been more fluently told? and all of them, narrators, teachers, editors, were men whose choice of ideals of life differed from the rest of the world, differed the more in proportion as they were sincerely not of the world as well as not in it. Through this distorting medium has to read, and ask himself which sayings, put into mouth of a certain accredited 'teacher and way-shower truth are likely to have come form such a man as he is recorded to have been?"

He therefore, thinks this passage is a later interpolation by the Bhikkus. The Sutta Pitaka was not reduced to writing till 400 years had passed after the death of the Buddha, and the statements attributed to the Buddha are valuable for a Monk to preserve his rule of celibacy and it is not unlikely for the Monk editor to interpolate such a rule. [p. 3]

The passage does not occur in other suttas, though many other passages are found. There is a Chinese version of the same sutta, where this passage is not found. The main question is why Ananda should ask such a question at that time, because only a few gathas away Ananda was ordained to preach women along with others. (verse 16) The Buddha knew that the women used to meet Ananda. He raised no objection before. Why should he have thought of interdicting and forbidding all contact with women? The whole passage is so unnatural that it must be regarded as a later monastic interpolation. [p. 5]

The second instance standing against the passage of Parinibbanasutta is five complaints made against Ananda include one of letting women salute the body of departed Lord first by women, thereby, it was soiled with tears. Dr. Ambedkar argues that, if the Buddha had ordered to avoid women, as mentioned in the Parinibban sutta, Ananda would never have "so flagrantly and knowingly disobey the advice given by the Buddha a few minutes before." He, therefore, concludes that, it stands to reason that no such advice had been given by the Buddha. [p.6]

From the Buddha's point of view also, the story in Parinibbana sutta can not be true, as Buddha used to see women. Vishakha had gone to monastery to hear the Buddha's preachings, and so had Amrapali. Mahaprajapati Gotami had brought five hundred women and Kokanada, daughter of Pajjuna visited the Buddha late in night. Queen Mallika used to frequently visit the Buddha. All this clearly shows that the Buddha did not shun the women. He did advise the Bhikkus to avoid making it a habit of visiting families of lay Buddhists as he was keen on maintaining celibacy.

The second argument is that he made the Bhikkhuni Sangha subordinate to the Bhikku Sangha. Behind this arrangement there was no consideration as to superiority or inferiority, but were of purely practical considerations. While admitting women to be Parivrajikas the Buddha had to decide whether there be one Sangha for men and women or have two separate Sanghas. He was afraid that in a common Sangha, the rule of celibacy would be completely lost. He thought it was necessary to have, to use his own words, a dyke between them. So he created two separate organizations. Dr. Ambedkar avers:

"Those who see a social wrong in the Buddha placing the Bhikkhunis under the authority of the Bhikkus do not realize what a revolutionary act it was on the part of the Buddha to have allowed women to take Sannyas or Parivraja (monkshood). Under the Brahmanic theory women had already been denied the right to acquire knowledge. When the question of Sannyas came, they did to the Indian woman another wrong. As a matter of history Sannyas was not an ideal of the Brahmins who worshipped the Vedas and who, for a long time, refused to recognize the Upanishadas as sacred literature. Sannyassa was to realize the Upanishadic doctrine that the Aatman is Brahma. The Brahmins were dead opposed to the life Sannyas. Ultimately they yielded but subject to certain conditions. One of the conditions was that women (and Shudras) were not to be eligible for Sannyas." [p. 13]

Dr. Ambedkar feels it is important to understand the reason why the Brahmins debarred woman from taking Sannyas, in sharp contrast with that of the Buddha, to understand the attitude of the Brahmins towards woman. The reason is stated by Manu. It reads as follows:-

"IX 18. Women have no right to study the Vedas.

"That is why their Sanskars (rites) are performed without Veda Mantras. Women have no knowledge of religion because the have no right to know the Vedas. The uttering of the Veda Mantras is useful for removing sin. As women cannot utter the Veda mantras they are as untruth is."

Dr Ambedkar further explains that, although Manu was later than Buddha, he has enunciated the old view propounded in the older Dharma Sutras. It was both an insult and an injury to the women of India, injury because without any justification she was denied the right to acquire knowledge, and insult because she was declared to be as unclean as untruth for want of knowledge. [p. 13 ff.] In allowing women to become Bhikkhunis the Buddha not only opened for them the way to liberty, he also allowed them to acquire dignity independent of sex. To her freedom she could, in the words of Mrs.Rhys Davids:

"'Wed the other austere joy of being recognized, at least by her brother 'Arahants,'as a rational being, without reference to sex. As such she breathed the spiritual atmosphere, she shared the intellectual communion of that religious aristocracy called in the pitakas, Ariyas, with whom she claimed that power of 'seeing all things as they really are' which the Buddhist called being Awake." [Psalms No. XVI, p. 16]

Mrs. Davids further avers that though technically Bhikkunis were junior to Bhikkus, they could be of equal status e.g. Bhadda associates herself with the great Kassapa. Buddha did not place any premium on virginity. He admitted all classes, married, unmarried, widows and even prostitutes. [Preface to Therigatha, pp. xvi-xxvii, p. 17]

Manu is responsible for fall of women

Dr. Ambedkar explains how a woman was entitled to upanayan as is clear from the Atharva Veda, Shrasuta Sutras say that women could repeat the Mantras of the Vedas and they were taught to read Vedas. Panini mentions that women attended Gurukuls and studied the various Sections of the Veda and became expert in Mimansa. Patanjali talks of women teachers teaching Vedas to girl students. We know many stories of women entering into public discussions with men on most a abstruse subjects of religion, philosophy and metaphysics like story of public disputation between Janaka and Sulabha, between Yajnavalkya and Gargi, between Yajnavalkya and Maitrei and between Sankaracharya and Vidyadhari. All this shows that Indian women in pre-Manu's time could rise to the highest pinnacle of learning and education. [p.17]

Women were highly respected. During the coronation the King in Ancient India made the queen, who was one of the prominent Ratnis, an offering, among others, and also he worshipped his other wives of lower castes. Similarly, he offered salutation to the ladies of the chiefs of the Srenies (guilds). This is a very high poeition for a woman in any part of the world. Who was responsible for their fall? It was Manu, the Law giver of Hindus. There can be no other answer. To leave no room, for doubt, Dr. Ambedkar quotes some of the laws made by Manu regarding women. These are II. 213, 214, 215; IX. 14, 15, 16, 17. showing how low was the woman in eyes of Manu.

To show that woman has no freedom in Laws of Manu, he quotes IX. 2, 3, 5, 6; V. 147, 148, 149.

To show that woman had no right to divorce, he quotes IX. 45. and comments that contrary to Hindu's consolation that marriage is a sacrament, he avers that the law against divorce had a different motive. It was not to tie up a man to a woman but to tie the woman to man and leave man free. Manu allows the man not only to abandon his wife but also to sell her. But even then she is not free, as Manu IX. 46, says "Neither by sale nor by repudiation is a wife released from her husband", meaning she can not be legitimate wife of others who received or bought her. Calling this monstrous injustice, Dr. Ambedkar observes that, Manu wanted to deprive women of the freedom they had under Buddhistic regime.

He quotes many verses of Manu to show how woman was made a slave in matters of property, how she had to undergo corporeal punishment, how she was denied right to knowledge, learning and sacrifices and sanskaras, and how she should be ideal wife by obeying him during life time and not insulting his memory after his death, how husband is source of her happiness and how she should manage his household economically, and lastly, how he declares killing of a woman a minor sin. [p.18 ff.] He further observes:

"In the face of these quotations can anybody doubt that it was Manu who was responsible for the degradation of women in India? Most people are perhaps aware of this. But they do not seem to know two things. They do not know what is peculiar about Manu. There is nothing new or startling in the Laws of Manu about women. They are the views of Brahmins ever since Brahmanism was born in India. Before Manu they existed only as matter of social theory. What Manu did was to convert what was a social theory into the Law of the state. The second thing they do not know is the reason which led Manu to impose these disabilities upon women. Shudras and women were the two chief sections of the Aryan society which were flocking to join the religion of the Buddha and thereby undermining the foundation of Brahmanic religion. Manu wanted to stem the tide of women flowing in direction of Buddhism. It is for this that Manu imposed these disabilities upon women and crippled them permanently." [p.24]

Quoting Manu Chapter V. verses 88 and 89, about funeral rites being withdrawn from progeny of inter marriages, ascetics, and women joining heretic sects etc., Dr. Ambedkar observes:

"This injunction is among others aimed at (1) those who are addicted to asceticism and (2) women who have joined the heretic sect. In this injunction asceticism refers to Parivrajikas i.e. those who have abandoned their homes and taken to Sannyas and, in referring to a heretic sect, there is no doubt that Manu has in mind the Buddhist religion. It is therefore clear that when Manu declares that no funeral rites and obsequies shall be performed, for an ascetic or a woman who has joined a heretic sect, what Manu does is to prohibit performance of funeral rites and obsequies of a member of a family - whether male or female who has joined the Buddha's religion. In other words he wants them to be treated as though they were disaffiliated and no longer belonged to the family. Manu was the greatest opponent of the Buddhist religion. This is the secret of the many inequities which he heaped upon women. For he knew that if the home is to be protected against the invasion of Buddhism it is the woman who must be put under restraint. And he did it. All responsibility for the decline and fall of woman in India must be fastened upon Manu and not upon the Buddha." [Ambedkar B. R., "The Rise and Fall of Hindu women", p. 24 ff.]

The glorious epoch of Buddhist Theris

This is the importance of admitting women to order of Buddhist Theris, as they were called. Their performance and high religious deeds of women are seen by the "Theri gatha"

It is well known that unlike Brahmanism where Shudras and women were not allowed to read the Vedas, the Buddha had allowed the full freedom to women after their entry into the Sangha, after its formation. Not only this, but these Theris, produced some of the most magnificent poetry in the Pali Tipitaka. Women from all walks of life, young and old, rich and poor, Brahmins and non- Brahmins were all admitted and had equal status in the Sangha.

Many Upasikas also had obtained name and fame like Vishakha and Nakulmata. The advice of the latter to her husband on death bed is a wonderful discourse of Buddhist precepts in Therigatha. We find a Theri advising a Brahmin the futility of bath for removal of sin in the example of Theri Punnika. We see the courage of Theri Patachara during the calamity of death of her husband, both sons, and parents. We find a bhikshuni like Shubha who plucks away her eyes and gives to a lustful scoundrel infatuated with her beauty.

Roll of Vajrayani Siddhas

With ups and down in the struggle of Buddhism against the arrogance of Brahmanism, there ensued a period of a long drawn out struggle between these two. Dr. Ambedkar calls the history of India is nothing but the history of this struggle. During this period the blame of decline of Buddhism is put, rather unjustly, upon the Vajrayani Siddhas. Even Rahul Sankrutyayan joins in blaming them. ["Baudha Sanskruti Bharat- marathi tr. by Vimalkirti, p. 79]

Siddhas were favouring social equality

The fact is, because these Siddhas were against the caste, they were defamed by the Brahmanic scholars of the past and the present. A simple question can be asked, if Buddhist Tantras were responsible for fall of Buddhism, why the Hindu Tantras flourished. Everybody knows there is hardly any difference in their practices.

L. M. Joshi, averred that Siddhas reformed, indirectly a number of ugly features of Indian society, not caring for social distinctions or the rules and regulations of Brahmanic varnasrama organization. They declared that all men are Buddhas, which meant that all men are equal, and must have equal opportunity in religious life. He further observes:

"The fact that a large number of 84 Siddhas came from lower orders of society, about half of them being of the rank of domba, chamara, chandala, washerman, oilman, tailor, fisherman, woodcutter, cobbler, and so forth, indicates that the Tantrika movement was accelerated chiefly by the members of the lower orders of society that had been always relegated to an inferior lower position in Brahmanic theology and orthodox sociology. This movements succeeded in raising some of the lowliest of men to the status of 'adepts' of 'perfect ones' (Siddhas). These men reasserted their position by means of the powers with which they got credited, and it was by their success (siddhi) that the were vindicated.

"These teachers, who wandered free from convention and social taboos, did teach through their teachings and doing that there is practically no distinction between a brahmana and a domba, a king and a slave. Some of them like Saraha, who was a brahmana by caste, became voluntary out-caste; he married a girl of the mean class, a daughter of an arrow- maker. In his very first doha, Saraha attacks his own former caste, that of the exalted brahmana. He could find no reason to regard a brahmana as the highest of men. The Brahmanic practices of study, sacrifice, samskaras and rituals are ridiculed openly. Not only the priestly class, but also the scholars, magicians, Kapalikas, Shaivas, and Jaina Ksapanakas, are taken to task for their vain practices, high claims and religious exclusiveness. The daily life and practices of the Siddhas and their pupils seem to have helped in lessening caste-distinctions, bonds of varna in matters of marriage, food, education, and religious avocation." [L. M. Joshi, "Studies in Buddhistic Culture", p.295]

L. M. Joshi thinks that most of the confusion has occurred because of their language, which they used keep their teachings within their own followers. This kind of tendency we find among many sects which were against the ruling castes. He observes:

"Perhaps we may not be justified in such a whole-sale condemnation of Tantrikism or Esoterism. It is true that the Vajrayana yogin is said to find Nirvana in the blissful embrace of a young girl; it is stated that the Buddhaood resides in the female organ; that lust is crushed by lust; and that there can be no liberation without a female partner. But the Tantras make it clear that their language is not to be interpreted literally and that the darker aspects of Tantra practices were not meant for the ordinary men. ... According to Giuseppe Tucci, apart from some exceptions, "the Tantras contain one of the highest expressions of Indian mysticism which may appear to us rather strange in outward form, chiefly because we do not always understand the symbolical language in which they are written." ... All scholars seem to agree that Tantrika mysticism became the subject or controversy in modern times owing mainly to its cryptic or esoteric language, technically known as the sandha-bhasha. ... It is generally believed that the abuses of Tantrika practices may have resulted in moral degeneration and the decline of Buddhism" [Joshi L. M., "Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India", 1977, second edition, Motilal Banarasidas, p. 296]

Situation of Society after the fall of Buddhism

During the period of general decline of Buddhism and ultimate fall by Muslim invasion, when the Rajput kings failed, may be intentionally, to protect the important Buddhist centres from the sword and fire of Muslim invaders, the majority of Monks were killed, as they were easily spotted by their yellow robes, some were compelled to run away for shelter to foreign lands. The Buddhist books were destroyed by the Brahmanic vandalism. Some temples were allowed to degenerate to ruins and some were claimed by Brahmins for their use. The Buddhist thoughts were corrupted with admixture of chaturvarna and supremacy of Brahmins and accepted by Brahmins as their own. After Muslim conquest, the Muslims called everybody who was not a Muslim as "Hindu". The leadership of this vast amorphous population, instead of going to victors, i.e. Muslims, went to the Brahmins. Thus Brahmins became the masters of "Hindus", a new derogatory term coined by Muslims to denote the rest of Indians.

Even before Muslim conquest, Brahmins had created Rajputs to fight the Buddhists. They were careful enough not to make everybody a Rajput. Only a few important ones were converted by a "Homa on mount Abu" and "hiranya garbha" rites. Rest remained lowly. That the 'broken men' among the Buddhist were condemned to be Untouchables, Adivasis and Criminal tribes. Rest were all pushed into the catagory of Backward castes.

But what happened to the Buddhist nuns, who were already within the Buddhist temples, now claimed by the Brahmins. This is the question we like to discuss. In our opinion, these nuns were degraded to present day "Devadasis".

What is the Devadasi System

Perhaps the most horrible effect of fall of Buddhism in ancient India, which is haunting us even today, is the start of devadasi system. It is the system of votive offering of girls to the deities in Brahmanic temples is a system found in all parts of India, but was more prevalent in the south. In some parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka it is still prevalent and has become a source of exploitation of lower castes. Though they had a glorious past, these girls are now a days degraded to the status of cheap prostitutes. Bombay Devadasi Act, 1934, banned the system. It states that "the performance of any ceremony intended to dedicate or having the effect of dedicating of women as a devadasi where such women has or has not consented to performance of such ceremony, is hereby declared unlawful and to be an effect to any custom or rule to the contrary not withstanding". This law also declared the marriage of devadasi valid and children of such marriages as legitimate. [Jogan Shankar, p. 153] However, nobody bothered to enforce the Law, till some Ambedkarites agitated.

Theories of origin of Devadasi Cult

Jogan Shankar observing that, these theories have been put forth by many scholars like Frazer, Briffault, Tawney and Penzer in the past, were based after making comparisons, feels that the survey of literature and historical evidences clearly show that most of them are inadequate to explain the whole institution of devadasis. [Jogan Shankar, "Devadasi Cult", p. 62 ff.]

He lists such theories, which include : 1. as a substitute for human sacrifice. 2. as a rite to ensure the fertility of the land and the increase of human being and animal population. 3. as a part of phallic worship which existed in India from early Dravidian times. 4. sprang from the custom of providing sexual hospitality for strangers. 5. licentious worship offered by a people, subservient to a degraded and vested interests of priestly Class. 6. And lastly, the theory Jogan Shankar feels most likely to be the real cause is that Devadasi system is a deliberately created custom in order to exploit lower caste people in India by upper castes and classes as:

(a) The upper castes have influenced the establishment of an order of prostitutes who are licensed to carry on their profession under the protective shield of religion.

(b) The establishment of such system facilitates them the access to low caste women to fulfill their carnal desire.

(c) The setting up of such a system can destroy the lower castes' sense of self-respect in a society."

The first five theories can not explain, why only bahujan girls have been becoming devadasis and not the others. So his theory of exploitation of lower castes by the upper castes is very sound. But, in our opinion, it is the effect of devadasi cult, and not the cause of it.

Decline of Women started with the decline of Buddhism

It is well known that at one time girls were allowed to undergo 'Upnayana', which was a 'right' to take education, but their position declined later. It started from Manu and went on deteriorating further. Altekar identifies the period of 500 A.D. to 1800 A. D. as one of further deterioration. During this period the 'Upanayana' rite for girls was banned, marriage remaining the only alternative. The age of marriages of girls was lowered and child marriages became the rule. Widow remarriages were prohibited. 'Purdah' was observed leading women to a secluded life. Hindu sastras considered women as Shudras, and they were debarred from reading or reciting the Vedas and perform any Vedic sacrificial rituals. Women were indoctrinated through the puranic stories which inculcated blind-faith rather than rational thinking. It was impressed on their minds that they must visit temples, perform vows and observe fasts with more regularity than menfolk to accumulate 'punya', i.e. virtue. In this context Altekar explains the paradox with these apt remarks:

"Thus the very women whom religion had once considered as outcastes, were also the most faithful custodians of its spirit and traditions (1973: 176)" [Jagan Shankar, p. 9]

A stigma on Hinduism

The faith in god itself is a blind faith. The blind faith increases the exploitation of 'masses' by the 'classes'. Any time the interests of these classes are in danger, there is a hue and cry that the 'dharma' is in danger. I have a great respect for the members of 'Andha shraddha nirmulan samiti' for their work, but it is a pity, that they have also failed in removing the fear from the minds of people about these so called devis, and could not convince them that matting of hair - 'jat' - as locals call it, is not a 'call from devi' to offer their daughter as a devadasi. I think it is because they do not like to include the faith on god as a 'blind faith', though they accept in private that the origin of all blind faith starts with the faith in existence of god.

Untouchabilty has been recognized as an 'evil' of Hinduism, and a stigma, but devadasi system is still not recognized as such. The day that is recognized as such, will be the real day of beginning of liberation of women. Dr. Ambedkar has shown that the real cause of Untouchability is contempt of Buddhists. Similarly, it is the fall of Buddhism that caused the degradation of Buddhists nuns to the present state of devadasis.

Salient points

The theories to which Joga Shankar attributes the origin, it would be apt to say that, he is confusing the effect with the cause. That the exploitation of dalits is the effect and not the cause of devdasi system. The cause is the contempt of Buddhism. His theory does not explain many points. We know that devadasi system started around ninth or tenth century after the fall of Buddhism, during the so called 'Rajput period'. We know that many Buddhist temples were converted to Brahmanic ones during the period.

We know that it was the Buddhist system of at least one girl or a boy from each house to join the Sangha. We know that the Bhikkus were killed. Some ran away to foreign lands, some accepted brahmanism and became low grade brahmins. Then what happened of these bhikunis?

We know that during the last phase of Buddhism, it was Vajrayana, which prevailed. In later stages of this religious system, the importance of women in the religious practices had increased. As a matter of fact all tantras, hindu as well as buddhist, used women as media, in their religious practices.

We know the system of untouchability had started during late Gupta period around fifth or sixth century. How did the untouchable girls got entry into the sanctum sanctorium of Hindu temples after the start of Untouchability? These girls must be present in the temple service before the system of untouchability started and some of the Buddhists, residing out side the villages and refused to stop eating beef of a dead cow, were condemned to be untouchables, as explained by Dr. Ambedkar.

Devadasis were degraded Buddhist nuns

It is, therefore, our opinion, that today's devadasis are the degraded Buddhist nuns of ancient India, as put forward by us some ten years ago. [Dr. K. Jamanadas, "Tirupati Balaji was a Buddhist Shrine", p. 125 ff.] The points in favour of this theory are as follows:

Fate of Devadasis

After initiation, the ceremony of 'the first night' is celebrated. It is called 'Uditumbuvadu'. Previously the right belonged to the priest but now a days, it is well publicized within the clientele of businessmen and rich landlords. One who deflowers her gets right to her over others for the rest of her life but neither she nor the children of such union have any right over him, or his property. He can leave her any time. She has to lead a life of a cheap prostitute either near about or at metropolitan brothels. By the time her market value goes down, and she is thrown out of business, she becomes a habitat for a number of diseases including may be AIDS, and ends up in some village corner, desolate, rejected, friendless and rots to death.

Caste distribution of Devadasis

It is well known that majority of devadasis are from dalit community. According to the research conducted by Prof. Baba Saheb Ghatge for his M. Phil. the percentage of castes in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra is as follows:

Mahar (SC) - 53%, Maratha - 30%, Matang (SC) - 10%, Gurav (OBC) - 2%, Sutar (OBC) - 1%, Dhangar (OBC) - 1%, Parit (OBC) - 1%, Khatik (OBC) - 1%, Bhoi (NT) - 1% [Baba Saheb Ghatge, "devadasi pratha aani punarvasan", (marathi), Sugava Prakashan, Pune, 1996.

The 30% among Marathas, which is not a backward caste, is rather surprising, and in my opinion is indicative of common origin of Dalits and Marathas, as was explained by Dr. Ambedkar in "The Untouchables".

Even in those places, where worship of Yellama is in vogue by other castes, the devadasis are all dalits. Jogam Shankar observes about Karnataka that, even in a village, where almost everybody worships Yellamma deity, including a dominant caste like Lingayats, who acknowledge Yellamma as their family deity, no single upper caste woman was dedicated to the deity. But the practice is prevallent among lower castes like ex-untouchable including Holers, Madars and Samagars. Among Samagar caste there is only one devadasi who is about 70 years old. No new initiation has taken place in the caste. Samagars are placed above the remaining ex-untouchable castes. The whole devadasi population is concentrated among Holers and Madars only." [Jogam Shankar, p. 159]

Their nomenclature

In Tamilnadu the word Emperumandiyar which was used in the sense of Vaishnavas before 966 A.D got the meaning of dancing girls, attached to Vishnu temples, in inscription of about 1230-1240 A.D. in the time of raja Raya III. [K. Jamanadas, p. 125] In certain parts of Maharashtra, these devadasis are known as 'bhavin' or 'jogin' or 'jogtin'. All these words literally mean a Buddhist nun.

Temple of Jagganatha at Puri

In India, first references start appearing around tenth century or so in temple of Puri. It is well known that this was a Buddhist temple, where Buddha's Tooth Relic was being worshipped. For details on this point please see my book 'Tirupati Balaji was a Buddhist Shrine'. It is interesting to know that these dancing girls were called 'Maharis' in temple of Puri. It is well known that 'Mahar' is a prominent untouchable caste of Maharashtra. From Jogan Shankar we learn that same name is used in Kerala too. That the Kerala Nayar community were Nagas and formerly Buddhists is well recognized.

Devadasi System started in the Rajput Period

It is important to realize that, Ancient Indian literature is silent about them. It is a mistakes to trace the origin of Indian Temple dancers to Babylonian, Greek, Syrian, Phonecian or Egyptian tradition or any foreign ancient customs. Practices of dancing in these foreign temples was thousands of years before the Christian era. Indian scene is comparatively more recent, about 1000 A.D. or so. It was present neither in Harrapan civilization, nor in Vedic or Buddhist period. It should be clearly understood that Ambrapali, Vasantsena and Madhavi were not Devadasis, and there is no foreign influence on Indian Temple dancers. This system of devadasis started after the decline of Buddhism in India during the later part of so called "Rajput Period", and flourished during the "Muslim Period".

Indus Valley Civilization

Harrapan Civilization, shows no trace of offering of girls in worshiping places. The well known bronze 'dancing girl' is referred by Basham as a representation of temple dancer, but he himself admits that "this can not be proved". As a matter of fact, "historians remained silent about existence of temple or common place of worship" in Harrapan Civilization. [Joga Shankar, p. 38] Though it was a Dravidian civilization, as has been amply proved, it had no connection with the devadasi cult.

Courtesans in Vedic Age

A marathi scholar, "Itihasacharya" V. K. Rajwade, who had taken a vow not to write in English, has described many sexual practices of Aryas, whom he always referred to as "our savage ancestors". They used to have free sex openly in front of fire, so perhaps had no need of devadasis or prostitution .

Rig Veda mentions the word "Samana", which popularly meant a festival, where among many others, the courtesans used to attend 'to profit by the occasion' [Shastri Shakuntala Rao, "Women in Vedic Age", p. 6] There are references to secular prostitution in Rig Veda and terms are used like "harlot", "son of a maiden" or "son of an unmarried girl". [Joga Shankar, p. 38]. But certainly these are not the examples of temple prostitution.

Buddhist period

That way, prostitution is supposed to be the oldest profession. The known history of India starts in sixth century B.C. and we find in Buddha's time, an illegitimate child, becomming a renowned courtesan Amrapali, who later became a Bhikkuni. "Artha Shastra" of Kautilya, mentions "Ganikadyaksha" - superintendent of prostitutes, the penalties for prostitutes, dancers and singers, but does not talk of devadasis. An inscription of Ashokan times found in a cave at Ramagarh in Vindhya hills, as referred by J. Bloch, mentions a word "Sutanuka", which in later period was used to denote temple dancer. But this is no "clear reference to devadasis in early sources" [Joga Shankar, p. 39] The Jatakas also make no mention of temple dancers. (Altekar, p. 185)

Vatsayana's Kamasutra

It is expected that Vatsayana, who deals with sexual practices in ancient India, would make a note of this cult, if it existed at his times. Classics like Vatsayana's 'Kamasutra' (250 A.D.) deal in detail about courtesans. There is, however, no direct reference to sacred prostitution. He even classifies prostitutes into nine classes, the most honoured of whom is ganika. "Such a women" says Vatsayana, "will always be rewarded by kings and praised by gifted persons, and her connection will be sought by many people" (Burton : 1923 :166) [Jogan Shankar, "Devadasi Cult", p. 40]

Later Works

We find in a sanskrit drama of seventh century A.D., Mrichakatikam, a courtesan Vasantsena having courtship with of a poor Brahmin Charudatta. In South India, about the same time or a little later, two Tamil epics "Manimekhalai", a Buddhist composition and "Sillapadhikaran", another non-brahmin creation, which depict the story of Madhavi, a girl adept in singing and dancing etc. All these belonged to flesh trade. But none of them was a devadasi. This distinction is important, because the origins of these two systems are different.

Earlier accounts of devadasi system

Vasant Rajas, "Devdasi: Shodha ani bodha", (marathi), Sugava Prakashan, Pune, 1997, mentions of an inscription of 1004 A.D., in Tanjor Temple mentioning the numbers of devdasis to be 400 in Tanjor, 450 in Brahideswara temple and 500 in Sorti Somnath temple. [Vasant Rajas, p.3]

R. C Majumdar, who blames the inclusion all people with different views into its religious fold by the Buddhists for the general decline of morality in India, admits the degradation in ideas of decency and sexual morality in the Hindu religious practices. He mentions of a great Sanskrit poet of the period giving a vivid description of the deva-dasis in a temple of Krishna and adding that they made one feel as if the goddess Lakshmi had come down on earth to attend her lord the god Murari. (Dhoyi, "Pavandutam", v. 28). He also avers that contemporary epigraphic records refer in rapturous terms to the personal charm and beauty of the hundreds of devadasis assigned to a single temple. [R. C. Majumdar, "The Struggle for Empire", HCIP, vol. V, fourth edition 1989, p.400]

On the basis of literary record and inscription Ghoshal feels that they were regarded as a part of the normal establishment of temples, and their numbers often reached high proportions. The temple of Somnatha at the time its destruction by Sultan Mahmud is stated to have been served by three hundred and fifty dancing girls. According to Chau Ju-Kua, Gujarat contained 4000 temples in which lived over 20,000 dancing girls whose function was to sing twice daily while offering food to the deities and while presenting flowers. [U. N. Ghoshal, "The Struggle for Empire", HCIP vol. V, fourth edition 1989, p.495]


Al-Biruni was told that the kings maintained this institution for the benefit of their revenues in the teeth of the opposition of the Brahmana priests. But for the kings, he says, no Brahmana priest would allow in their temples women who sing, dance and play. [U. N. Ghoshal, "The Struggle for Empire", HCIP vol. V, fourth edition 1989, p.496] Al-Biruni's statements, as is well known, are all based on the learned Brahmins, whom he interviewed. So it is the Brahmins' side of the story. The truth is that Brahmins and kings used to fight for the possession of these girls.

Distribution of Devadasis between Brahmins and Ksatriyas

Brahmin priests claimed that they being the representatives of gods in heaven, the 'bhudevas', i.e. gods on the earth, they have the first claim, as anything offered to god belongs to brahmins, so also the girls offered to god must belong to them. The Kings retorted, that they make appointments of devadasis, they give them money and land and feed them, so they have greater claim. Ultimately the conflict was resolved by an understanding and devadasis were branded on their chest with emblems of 'garuda' (eagle) and 'chakra' (discus) for kings and 'shankha' (conch) for brahmins. [Rajas: p. 2]

It is interesting to note that all these emblems are Vaishnavite. We know that Ramanujam had started the system of branding on shoulders, with shankha and chakra, for the devotees embracing Vaishnava faith and it was a part of initiation rite. [See details in my book: 'Tirupati Balaji was a Buddhist Shrine']. The system of branding devadasis seems to be the further application of the same principle.

Origin is religious and not economical

One has to differentiate between Ganikas and their inferior counterparts Varaganas on one hand and Devadasis on the other. That the Devadasis were Buddhist nuns can be deducted from many evidences. They were unknown to ancient India. Jatakas, Kautillya or Vatsayana do not mention them, but later Puranas are full of them. The system started only after the fall of Buddhism and records of them start appearing around 1000 A.D.

Old Buddhist practice of offering a child for religious cause

In certain castes the system of offering at least one daughter from family for the service of god was rampant in almost all families of the caste. It well known that 95% of the devadasis today belong caste of Untouchables, who were, of course, Buddhist originally.

The term devadasi denotes female servant of deity, but they are known by different names in different areas, such as Maharis in Kerala, Natis an Assam, Muralis in Maharashtra, Basavis in Karnataka State. Though the name 'devadasi' is popular, in Goa they use the term `Bhavanis'. `Kudikar' on the West-Cost `Bhogam- Vandhi' or `Jogin' in Andhra Pradesh; Thevardiyar' in Tamil Nadu; `Murali', 'Jogateen' and 'Aradhini' in Maharashtra. In Karnataka, old devadasis are called as `Jogati' and young devadasis as `Basavi'. The term `Basavi' refers to feminine form of `Basava' a bull which roams the village at will without any restriction. Hence `Basavi' alludes to the foot loose position of the woman. [Jogan Shankar, p. 157] Most of the terms used denote religious connotations of "Nuns".

These dancing girls and their male counterparts had different names in different parts of the country, and the important point to note is that the pair was, and even today is considered not as husband and wife but as brother and sister, the relation that existed among the Buddhist nuns and Bhikshus. The practice of Ceremonial Begging also denotes Buddhist origins.

It must be realized that Hinduism is the only religion in the world, which has given religious sanction and provided with religious philosophy to the practice of prostitution. [Sugawa, p. 81]

It is well known that Dr. Ambedkar advised the conference of Devadasis on 13th June 1936, in Damodar Hall, Parel, Bombay, saying that they must give up this life of sin and be prepared to lead a pure life though it will be a life in poverty, as character is more important than money. After conversion to Buddhism, the custom of devadasis is stopped completely in families converting to Buddhism. [Prof. Archana Hatekar, Sugawa, p. 92]

Some important Devadasis

In spite of great humiliation and exploitation, and ultimate horrible fate of most of them, devadasis being expert in dancing and singing, some of them have attained high fame. Rajas mentions some of such important ones. The famous dancer Jailaxmi of Padanallur became the queen of King Ramanad. Devadasi Subalaksmi became a famous classical singer. The famous devadasi house of 'Mangeshkar' from Goa is renowned for singing all over the world. During late Peshava rule, example of Patthe Baburao, a great 'shahir', who forgot his brahmanic origin and removed his sacred thread for his consort Pawala, a Mahar by caste, is still famous [Rajas: p. 54], and people have produced films on the couple.

Classical Dance forms of ancient India

Today, we find the exhibitions over media, and festivals being organized, specially for foreigners, to show how great was our ancient art form of dance, may it be Bharat Natyam, Kuchipudi or Oddisi. It is never mentioned on such occasions that this art was the gift of these low caste women who nurtured the art under trying conditions and with great suffering. The art was later learnt by women of higher castes and now it is they who only participate in international festivals and the like. Jogan Shankar gives an account how this happened about 'Sadir' dance of devadasis. He observes:

"The revivalists wanted to preserve the traditional from of Sadir dance by purifying it. The new name was given as 'Bharatanatyam'. As a consequence of purification some modifications were introduced into the content of to dance style. The revivalists were basically belonging to Brahmin dominated Theosophical Circles. Many Brahmin girls started to learn the dance from devadasis. Hence the dance technique remained unchanged. The only change was change in the class of clientele." [p. 144]

The themes were picked up from Sanskrit texts, higher caste girls learned the dances and put them in new settings which excluded devadasi traditions, and the dance form became individual oriented from the community oriented. [p.144] Theosophical Society of India revived the devadasi dance, declaring as the aim of restoration of India's ancient glory. Rukmini Arundale was well groomed and encouraged by Annie Besant to convert the devadasi's 'Sadir' to 'Bharatanatyam', and started training the higher caste women, with the funds of the Theosophical Society, organizing a convention in 1935-36, and establishing an International Academy of Arts which was later renamed as Kalakshetra. [Jogan Shankar, p. 145]

Oddisi Dance Form

The Brahmeswar epigraph of ninth century A.D., denotes that in the reign of Kesari kings, the 'maharis' or 'maaharis' were dancing and singing in temple of Orrisa under royal patronage. King Chodagangadeva of Ganga dynasty had appointed maaharis for religious duties in Jaganatha temple at Puri, where the dance in front of deity was a part of religious ritual right from twelfth century till middle of 20th century. Anang Bhimdeva son of Chodgangadeva built a 'nat mandapa' in the temple, where these maahari girls used to dance and sing 'ashtapadi' from the Jaideva's "Gita-Govinda". King Kapilandradeva had ordered to have dance twice daily in front of deity, and his grand son Prataprudradeva ordered that only songs from "Gita-Govind" must be used. [Kosare H. L., "prachin bharatatil naaga", marathi, 1989, dyana pradip prakashana, Nagpur, p. 118 ff.] He further quotes, from an article by Sunil Kothari:

"Thus Orrisi dance found a permanent place in the form of ritual service performed by these Maaharis. The various kings who ruled over Orissa saw to it that the rituals and the religious ceremonies were maintained regularly and contributed in sustaining the institution of Maaharis, who as a matter of fact, have been the torch bearers of this exquisite dance form." [article "Orissi Dance", Bhavan's Journal, 1.11.1970]

It is note worthy, that by the time the devadasis started dancing and singing in temples, not only the brahmin gurus appeared on the scene but also a detity for dancing. The great "Nataraja" forms of Dancing Siva start appearing the same time, when these dancing girls appear in temples. But their deity was not mainly "Nataraja", they had the deities of their own.

Their deities

Their marriage to god is always a religious rite conducted at the time of their initiation and that they were looked upon with respect by the society in early days. It is also noteworthy they have the Deities of their own, which are distinct from Brahmnic Deities, and the original connection with Buddhist Deities is already forgotten.

Some of the Deities of these Devedasis are also now homologized as some Brahmins also worship these Deities, and the people whose 'Kuladdaivatam' are those deities, are of lower castes and do not belong to Brahmnic order. These deities, are of lower castes and do not belong to Brahmnic order.

Legends to support Devadasi system

To keep the bahujans and dalits under control, it was necessary that the stories are manufactured and incorporated in various mahatmyas in the Puranas. There are three important legends, of Renuka or Yellama, Renukamba and Khandoba, told by the brahmins and believed to be true by the sufferers themselves.

Legend of Renuka or Yallamma

The most important legend is of Yellama or Renuka Devi, mother of Parasurama, one of the incarnations of Vishnu. The other incarnation Krishna told "Gita" to satisfy the main concern of Arjuna on the battle field which was of 'varna sankar' i.e. inter caste marriages. If you kill the ksatriyas, the widows are likely to have 'varna sankar' which destroys the 'dharma', Arjuna asked. The Lord says he takes avatara to establish the 'dharma' meaning 'chatur-varnya-dharma' by killing the 'wicked', meaning those who do not follow this dharma. Parasurama is said to be an avatara. How does Parasuram deserve the status of avatara, when he himself killed the ksatriyas 21 times, which ultimately led to 'varna sankara'? But no scholar seems to have pointed out this inherent contradiction in his story.

According to legend, Renuka appeared from the fire pit of 'putra kameshti' yadnya performed by a kshatriya king Renukeswara. She was married to Rishi Jamdagni. The couple had five sons including Parasurama. One morning she was late in coming home from the river as she was sexually aroused by watching the love play in river, of a Gandarva raja with his queens. This enraged Jamdagni who ordered his sons to kill her. All other sons refused and were burned to ashes by rishi's curse, but Parsurama beheaded her. Later Parshurama cut the head of a woman from 'matang' caste, and Jamdagni revived his wife with the matangi's head.

Later a King Sahstrarjuna killed Jamdagni on Full moon day of Magha, and Renuka became a widow. This day is called "Rand Punav" - a widow's full moon day. "Rand" is a derogatory word meaning widow as well as a prostitute. So all the devadasis on that day assemble in the temple of Yellama at Soundatti, to break down their bangles, according to Hindu customs, as symbol of widowhood

Later Parsurama invaded Kartvirya Sahasrarjuna, killed him and brought back 'kamdhenu' along with the head of this king. On his prayer of god, his father Jamdagni again became alive, so Renuka again became a 'suhagan' - a married woman - and put back on her green bangles. So the Devadasis put on bangles (chuda) on this day - the full moon day of Chaitra, so this day is called 'chudi punav'. A 'choundak' was made out of the skull of Sahasrarjuna, so the devadasis use this musical instrument while begging a 'jogava'.

Parsurama went on rampage destroying and annihilating the kshatriyas twenty one times. He killed even the children in the womb of pregnant women. So these women started running around. Their garments fell down till they approached Renuka, who advised them to wear branches of 'nim' tree around their waist and pray Parsurama, saying 'udho udho udho'. (so 'nagna-puja'). Since then the people became devotees of Yellamma and started offering their girls as devdasis and boys as 'jogte', the male counterpart of devdasi.

Temple of Renuka was built in 13th century in Soundati hills. The Jains believe that Renuka is their 'Padmawati'. For centuries, the devotees of Renuka, who are mostly dalits and bahujans, assemble there twice a year on Magha and Chaitra full moon days for pilgrimage, offer their daughters to make them devdasis.

B. S. Kamble from Sangali dist. mentions the influence of blind faith over dalits to an extent that a backward class member of legislature had established a shrine of Renuka image in Bombay Mantralaya. ["Sugawa", marathi journal, December 1998, p. 51]

Legend of Renukamba

There is a temple of Renukaamba, built in 14th century, at the top of Chandragutti hill in Shimoga district in Karnataka. The gullible masses from dalit and bahujan communities are made to believe that Renukaamba devi is the incarnation of Renuka or Yallamma of Saundatti. The speciality of this temple is that dalit women must go naked to worship this devi. It is called 'betale seva' or 'nagna puja' i.e. naked worship. Puranas promise good fortune to those who follow this and calamities for those who do not. Due to struggle by some Ambedkarite youths, ban was imposed on this "Nagna-puja" in 1992. There was a hue and cry against it, but since then it is stopped.

Legend of Khandoba

The third deity of Devdasis is Khandoba of Jejuri, though there are eleven 'pithas'. It is the 'kul-daivat' of dalits, though many others worship him including some Muslim devotees, who presumably were dalits, worshiping this deity before being converted to Islam. Even the robbers used to attend the annual fair and finalize their plans there. They were, presumably, of ex-criminal tribes, which was a part of Dalits. Brahmins have homologized this deity and made out stories that Shankara took this form of Martanda, to protect the brahmins from the asuras.

People do votive offering of their sons and daughters to this deity. The terms used are 'waghya' for male and 'murali' for female. It is a form of Devdasi. Murali, whose token marriage is performed with Khandoba, remains unmarried throughout her life and leads a life same as devadasi of Yellama. After Ambedkarite awakening in the Matang society, who form the majority of Murlis, the practice has declined though not completely stopped.

Jogam Shankar gives more details:

'Muralis' are girls dedicated to god Khandoba in their infancy or early childhood by their parents. "Poor deluded women promise to sacrifice their first born daughters if Khandoba will make them mothers of many children. ... she is formally married to Khandoba or dagger of Khandoba and become his nominal wife. Henceforth she is forbidden to become the wedded wife of any man, and the result is that she usually leads an infamous life earning a livelihood by sin. ... Kunbis, Mahars, Mangs and other low castes make muralis of their daughters in this fashion". (Fuller : 1900 : 103). High caste people of the region also worship Khandoba and their mode of expressing reverence to the god differed. Thus "Not a few high caste people visit Jejuri to pay their vows; but they never give their own girls to Khandoba but buy children from low-caste parents for a small sum of money, which is not a difficult thing to do and offer them instead of their own children". (Fuller, Marcus B., "The wrongs of Indian Womanhood", Edinburgh:Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1900). [Jogan Shankar, p. 50]

Joga Shankar's suggestion that, Aryan invasion saw many Dravidian deities being homologized by Brahmins is correct. Many such examples are given by Bal Krishna Nair, who observes:

"Who does not know how the Tamil Muruga came to be installed as the Subramania and how the Tamilian Avai was metamorphosed into the Durgai and Parvathi in the Aryan pantheon. Even Mayon and Mal are believed to be old pre Aryan Tamil names subsequently identified with the later Aryan Sun god, Vishnu. ... An ancient 'Muruga' temple situated in the eastern ghats popularly known as "Ayyappa Swami" (also considered as Buddhist in origin) became Sanskritised as 'Shastha' and therefore the son of Vishnu. ... Deities are similarly married and the new relative assumes equal importance in a new place like the older deity whose spread encompassed the new also. The bride, of course, in this case is usually the Dravidian deity and the bridegroom is mostly Shiva e.g. marriage of goddess Meenakshi of Madurai with Shiva. ["Dynamic Brahman", pp 51 ff.] . For details of Ayyappa see K. Jamanadas, p. 28 ff.]

Similarly, Basavi or Jogati such as Yellamma, originally a Dravidian Goddess, became Renuka or Renukamba and was superimposed by an Aryan system of devadasi, which was prevalent in Somannath and Jagannath Temple at Puri and other north Indian temples where the impact of the Aryans was predominant.

Evolution of the System

The evolution of the devadasi cult has been traced erroneously to a period earlier than Aryans entry in India because of 'dancing figure' in Harrapan civilization. This is shown above to be false.

The Kerala pattern of matriacheal system, as Joga Shankar seems to suggest, also has nothing to do with this cult and it is not a relic of Dravidian matriarchal society, in which the genealogy of a child was traced only to the mother.

Contrary to what he suggests, the children of devadasis are forced to enter `Basavi' or mother's name in the slot meant for father's name in the school application forms, only because they do not have a social father and even if known, the biological father accepts no responsibility. This has nothing to do with the matriarchal society of Dravidian region and no parallel can be drawn. One might remember a story of Satyakama Jabala from Upanishada, who was placed in similar situation.

Initially the dedicated women were required to clean the sanctum - sanctorium, for maintenance of lamps in cleaning, putting oil, lighting the lamp, offering food (naivedya) to the main deity, assisting priests at the time of worship, as they used to do as Buddhist nuns. Education and learning of women had already stopped with the decline of Buddhism, so these nuns had no other work. System of washing and bathing the Buddhist images had already started in Mahayani system.

Ratha Yatra was a Buddhist practice copied by Brahmanas [K. Jamanadas, p. 160 ff.] These girls started to dance and sing in praise of the deity, and look after cleanliness of the temple complex. These women were said to be expert artists in music and dance. We have seen how Bharatnayam, a classical dance form, flourishes today because of devadasis of Tamil Nadu, and Orrisi dance because of Devadasisis of Orrisa. As society underwent changes so also patrons of devadasi changed and their service also shifted.

From Devadasi to a Prostitute

The later progress can be surmised as mentioned by Joga Shankar:

"At a later stage, devadasis were asked to serve the king as in the case of God, since the king was considered to be God on earth. In fact Kings sponsored this cult. Temple dancers along with their traditional ritual functions started rendering their services to royal palaces and assisting Kings in the art of politic. They were use in espionage activities against enemy Kings and Court dancer.

"Kings started building temples and appointed devadasis to serve God in the temples and royal palaces. This development had a far reaching impact on popularization of the cult. Other lesser Kings, chieftains and feudals also emulated their superiors and started patronizing the cult. In rural areas feudals who possessed substantial land, exercised commandable authority over other socially and economically weaker sections of society. They were de facto owners of men and material of the region. The cult served as an instrument through which they could gain the assessability to desirable low caste and poor women. The field experience supports that this cult is prevalent only among scheduled caste women who are subjugated and suppressed by upper caste members since time immemorial." [Jogan Shankar, p.157 ]

And thus the Buddhist nuns were converted to today's Devadasis, the cheap prostitutes in the name of god, and it was the most dreadful result of the decline and fall of Buddhism in ancient India, affecting mostly the bahujans.

Published on: March 1, 2001
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