March 31, 2007
Professor James Redington
The Lost and Endangered Religions Project (L&ERP) is a program directed by The Interfaith Center at the Presidio of San Francisco. L&ERP helps South Indian families and performance artists, who have dedicated themselves to the Hindi gods. While the performance artists continue to pay homage to the gods and goddesses, volunteers of the L&ERP improve their basic living conditions. Volunteers ensure safety and security for the families.
The Lost and Endangered Religions Project preserves a sacred art form, the dance of the devadasis. Volunteers of the Project also consider the economic conditions of the devadasis and their families. In this essay, I will evaluate the expression of Bhakti Hindu values through the dance of the devadasis. Additionally, I will show the reader how the Project can improve the lives of South Indians.
The greatest service projects are those which celebrate a culture's artwork and religious observances. The Lost and Endangered Religions Project goes beyond celebrating South Indian culture and improves the living conditions of the families. The Project has devotional and social objectives. The Lost and Endangered Religions Project is the movement which informs this essay.
In our course, Hindu Paths of Love, we have learned some of the factors that distinguish Bhakti Hinduism from all other Hindu paths. The factors include emphasis on devotion, Love, and an openness to converts. Bhakti Hinduism (including the Virasaiva movement) differs from classical Hinduism in that Bhakti Hindus proselytize. While in classical Hinduism, faith practitioners most often keep their religion to themselves, Bhakti Hindus share their faith with others.
Ramanujan continues: since the Bhakti Hindu or the Virasaiva saint "…believes in acquiring merit … by living and believing certain things, then there is room for choosing and changing his beliefs. He can then convert and be converted. If, as these saints believed, he also believes that his god is the true god, the only true god, it becomes imperative to convert the misguided and bring light to the benighted." According to the above, Virasaiva theology includes a belief in salvation or redemption. The Virasaiva saints believe that they strengthen their connection to the one true god if they invite others to worship the god.
In contrast, classical Hindu belief holds that one is born into the Hindu faith. Virasaiva Hinduism encourages the proselytization of newcomers. Classical Hindus do not tolerate this practice. Love is a virtue that should be shared. Consequently, Bhakti Hindus share their beliefs with others.
I will focus on the Lost and Endangered Religions Project for this final paper because the Project seeks to preserve the culture of devadasis, Indian priestesses who dance in service to the Goddess. Devadasi literally means "servant of god." Through their creative dance, the devadasis serve their deities: Lord Siva, Shakti, and Krishna.
In some traditions, devadasis are women who become prostitutes in service of the gods. The Lost & Endangered Religions Project devadasis are dancers, not prostitutes. But all devadasis share some similar behaviors.
Many spectators consider the devadasi dance a subdued variation of sacred prostitution. Cults dedicated to goddesses sometimes include a class of temple priestesses. Sometimes the men leave offerings (jewels or coins) to the goddesses. If not, the sexual act itself is an offering. The beauty of the goddess manifests in the graceful dance. For both groups of priestesses, movement is sacred.
The devadasis perform a spiritual dance. The dance is an expression of the gods' love. The dance is also an act of devotion. Like temple prostitutes, the devadasis are priestesses of the Goddess. The devadasis dance for each other and for faithful observers.
The Lost and Endangered Religions Project serves social and spiritual ends. Socially, L&ERP removes South Indian families from poverty. Spiritually, L&ERP credits the devotional work of the devadasis and other ritual artists.
When the devadasis perform, the gods show themselves through the dance in the following ways. The devadasis practice their exercises, which they have learned through study. Certain movements catch the attention of the gods. The devadasis enjoy the dance that they perform and know that the gods will appreciate them all the more for their offering.
In Bhakti Hinduism, there are paths to a state of progress. Bhakti Hinduism is defined by the concept of bhakti: devotion, or love. But, Bhakti Hinduism also includes a system of paths towards an end. One could become a practitioner of Bhakti Hinduism by following the paths.
Phases of the vacanas are devotion, discipline, and prasadi. The latter is a Sanskrit word, denoting a state of peace. After developing devotion and discipline, the devotee becomes more secure in his or her position. The devotee knows God in a new way and sees the Lord's impact on the devotee's world.
The dancer contorts her body in service to the gods. She might feel as if she experiences the gods as the dancer twists her body in devotion. The dance is an act of devotion, but can be a divine experience in itself for the dancer. The devadasi experiences all three phases. First, the devadasi practices devotion in the dance itself. The dance is a devotional act. The movements catch the attention of the deities. The devadasis discipline themselves. If the devadasis are fortunate, their dance might lead to a state of peace. In short, the devadasis practice Bhakti Hinduism. They are disciples to the deities of the Hindu pantheon. The devadasis perform in service to the gods. They exercise their devotion, and create a pleasant spectacle for anyone who will watch.
The Lost and Endangered Religions Project targets indigenous peoples with a particular faith and with specific social and economic conditions. The Lost and Endangered Religions Project accepts that each indigenous culture possesses certain religious beliefs. The volunteers are aware that the people's belief systems either contribute to or reflect their social and economic conditions. The Mangala Initiative joins with organizers from the L&ERP for a more successful outcome.
L&ERP and Mangala Initiative are separate organizations. Both team up together to ensure greater outcome. The Mangala Initiative provides economic assistance to disenfranchised South Indian communities. The Mangala Initiative's values include the preservation of South Indian artist culture. Mangala is an Indian word for the planet Mars. Mangala denotes the bold, fiery energy of the devadasis. The dancers have the power to transform and to spark revolutions. The Mangala Initiative encourages the dancers to work divine energy, while volunteers of the Initiative ensure that the dancers can return to safe homes.
The Lost and Endangered Religions Project assumes that certain indigenous cultures could use assistance. The Project seeks to bring resources to the communities and to assist in the replenishment of the culture. Since the advisors and the volunteers from the Lost and Endangered Religions Project believe the devadasis' culture is worth preserving, they show a true understanding for the sacredness of the devadasis' art.
In our course, Hindu Paths of Love, we have learned about certain Hindu traditions, which place Love above all else. Worshippers perceive the gods as sources of Love. Practitioners read the sacred texts and search for representations of Love within the verses.
In the Lost and Endangered Religions Project, advisors and volunteers demonstrate Love by honoring the work of the devadasis. Many people might observe the devadasis and immediately perceive their dances and worship strange. Those who value the work of the Project know that what the devadasis do is sacred.
The Project is connected to Bhakti Hinduism because the workers place Love at the forefront of their work. The devadasis act in service of Hindi gods, particularly those associated with Love, Krishna, Shiva, and Shakti.
The Lost and Endangered Religions Project is a project with humanitarian objectives and some political agenda. Besides the preservation of the devadasi dance, the Lost and Endangered Religions Project ensures the social well-being of the performers.
The student of Hindu Paths of Love should search for values taught in the course within the Lost and Endangered Religions Project. How do the volunteers of the Project act in correspondence with Bhakti Hindu values? An ideal service project of faith connects values from the faith tradition with productivity. Volunteers live out their faith by helping people and improving their living spaces.
According to The Interfaith Center's website, "The Lost & Endangered Religions Project…seeks to find, safeguard, and restore sacred texts and oral traditions whose survival is threatened. Disarmingly simple rescue tactics are planned." The directors of the Project first agree that certain religious texts are worth preserving. The texts contain significant information, acting as the foundation for religious movements. The sacred texts and oral traditions are theological necessities for the continuation of certain religious traditions, some of which are "indigenous" traditions.
Bhakti Hinduism places an emphasis on specific verses in sacred texts, specifically the vacanas of Speaking of Siva. The vacanas contain wisdom and teachings from the Virasaiva tradition. Introducing the vacanas, Ramanujan writes, "Some of the incandescence of Virasaiva poetry is the white heat of truth-seeing and truth-saying in a dark deluded world; their monotheism lashes out in an atmosphere of animism and polytheism" (Speaking of Siva, 27). Ramanujan expresses the monumental power of Virasaiva poetry. "The white heat" describes the impressive power of the sacred poetry. The poetry emerges from the lips of the speaker in a flame of universal truth.
Virashaivism depends on the concepts of Panchachara (codes of conduct). The concepts include Sivachara, Lingachara, Sadachara, Brithyachara, and Ganachara. Sivachara is the acknowledgement of Shiva as the one God and an equality among members. Lingachara is the daily worship of the personal Sivalinga (symbol of the Lord Siva). Sadachara is the attention to vocation and duty. Brithyachara is the granting of humility towards all creatures. Ganachara involves the preservation of the Virasaiva tradition.
The motivation behind the Lost and Endangered Religions Project resonates with Bhakti Hinduism. The Project restores sacred texts, similar to the vacanas. The Lost and Endangered Religions Project values the wisdom of the texts.
In addition to restoring sacred texts, the Lost and Endangered Religions Project inspires indigenous peoples with appreciation for their faith traditions. The Project includes appreciation for sacred texts and for the religious traditions which have created the texts.
The Project is holistic because it incorporates indigenous culture and sacred writing. L&ERP understands that the dance of the devadasis is connected to Hindi culture. The devadasis do not separate their religious beliefs from their daily life.
The performance of the devadasis is a regular practice of their daily lives, as is non-devotional exercise, eating, and socializing. The dance is an important activity, especially since it is a manifestation of piety or devotion. The Mangala Initiative acknowledges what is sacred about the devadasis' dance. The Initiative also takes into account the practical conditions of the artists' lives. The L&ERP attempts to honor the devadasis for their devotion, while simultaneously responding to poor economic conditions.
Donald Frew, High Priest of Coven Trismegiston, first introduced me to the Lost and Endangered Religions Project. Pagans have shown support for this Project from the beginning because the Project reflects Pagan values.
In Paganism, the natural world is revered as sacred. Indigenous cultures teach wisdom. It is natural for Pagans to take an interest in this particular Project because the Project prioritizes the wisdom of certain indigenous cultures.
The devadasis' practice – a sacred dance – is an act of worship Pagans can understand. Politically, Pagans embrace the project because of its preservation of indigenous cultures. Theologically, Pagans understand the divinity invoked by the devadasis' dance. Visually, Pagans see the Goddess in their actions.
Gus DiZerega is one of seven research advisors for the Lost and Endangered Religions Project. In a brief autobiographical document, diZerega identifies his motivations in his professional work. Di Zerega writes, "And one of the tasks that became mine as a result was to integrate these two worlds: the world of modernity with its science, technology, and material abundance, with that of a spiritual practice rooted in experience that the world and its elements are more than simple resources, they are powers and entities with awareness of their own, and with whom we can enter into relationship." DiZerega intends to apply technological resources to a spiritual practice.
A spiritual hunger guides Gus DiZerega's career. He makes use of natural skills and directs them towards areas related to his spiritual values. DiZerega does not want to compromise his spiritual needs for a career. Instead, DiZerega hopes to practice spirituality and professionalism simultaneously.
DiZerega's priorities shed some light onto the motivations behind the Lost and Endangered Religions Project. Although other individuals designed the Project, the values of each advisor say something about the Project. DiZerega approaches the project with a scientific mind.
DiZerega is one mind on the advisory panel for the Project. The objectives of the other advisors would shape the Project. Hopefully, the advisors would not have such strong personal goals that they might sway the Project in a direction to satisfy their own needs.
The Mangala Initiative is an organization that supports the Lost and Endangered Religions Project. "Mangala" is a Sanskrit word, meaning well-being. The Mangala Initiative restores self-worth to disenfranchised families of performing artists and ritual experts from South India.
According to the bulletin produced by the Mangala Initiative, the displaced devadasi communities of South India live on the social and economic fringes. The Mangala Initiative acknowledges the devadasis' contributions as devotional artwork. The Initiative also understands the unfortunate economic status of the devadasis. The Mangala Initiative does not look condescendingly towards the devadasis. Rather, the Initiative praises the devadasis' artwork and strives to ensure better social and economic conditions for them and for their families.
Born into Brothels, a recent film promoted at Sundance, demonstrates some of the social and economic conditions faced by South Indian culture. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski selected a different demographical group -- prostitute women and their children in the red light district of Calcutta – for a story involving real people's lives and their struggles to maintain integrity while making income.
The women and children in Born into Brothels are not identical to the South Indian devadasis protected by the Lost & Endangered Religions Project. But, some of the concerns for the devadasis' welfare mirrors those for the families in Calcutta. Additionally, Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski emphasize the grace and beauty of the women in the brothels. The filmmakers turn to the children, so that the viewers identify with them. The film viewers enter the lives and minds of the children. The children show the audience their talents and interests, so that the viewers understand the preciousness of these children, despite their parentage.
Often, in projects assisting sex workers, the writers or directors glorify the work of the prostitute women. The directors compare prostitution to the devotion of sacred priestesses dedicated to Pagan goddesses. The devadasis perform dances in devotion to Indian goddesses. The devadasis' dance is much different than women in Born into Brothels. Directors of the film can turn the political and economic issues into religious issues, should they emphasize the devotional nature of sex work.
The Lost & Endangered Religions Project acknowledges the spiritual wealth of South Indian culture. The Project understands that the workers might be deprived of certain resources. A lack in certain areas does not mean that they are in complete poverty.
In areas where poverty exists, people learn to live under limited circumstances. Whenever possible, people adjust to the new circumstances. They learn to find spiritual wealth where material wealth is lacking.
Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of life in South India (poverty and unavailability of resources), the Mangala Initiative emphasizes the virtues of the South Indian performers. The Initiative can evoke greater change after it focuses on the positive gifts the devadasis have to offer. There are strengths wherever there are weaknesses. With some assistance from these initiatives, South Indian performers might escalate to a social status which befits them.
A common misunderstanding about poverty is that it is all-consuming. People living under abject conditions are often wise individuals. They learn from the experience and gain momentum to work towards social causes. The devadasis and others involved with the Lost & Endangered Religions Project need not begin with significant sums of money.
Value in this circumstance depends upon the wisdom of the volunteers. If the volunteers for the Lost and Endangered Religions Project learn something through their experience, they have lived up to external expectations for them. Material poverty does not equate to spiritual poverty. The devadasis and other South Indian ritual artists possess great wisdom and spiritual knowledge. Observers should tend to the positive attributes of these South Indian artists.
Volunteers from the Mangala Initiative and from the L&ERP understand that South Indian families may have found themselves under conditions of poverty. Lack of material wealth does not reduce the spiritual value of South Indian families. The Mangala Initiative attempts to restore South Indian families to their appropriate economic and social status.
Since the performance of the devadasis is sacred, the devadasis deserve a high social status. The Mangala Initiative sees beyond visible borders. Things are not always as they seem. What appears as a group of individuals in poverty might actually be a collection of hidden jewels. The jewels (artists and dancers) have much to offer their community and their gods. Poverty is a social condition, subject to change.
The Lost & Endangered Religions Project stands in alignment with values of Bhakti Hinduism. The Project also progresses beyond Bhakti Hinduism, as it deals with larger political and economic issues.
The Lost and Endangered Religions Project reflects lessons learned in the Hindu Paths of Love course. The Lost and Endangered Religions Projects puts social justice as a priority. The Projects sets a positive example for religious social justice activists. As well as serving religious objectives, volunteers from the Lost and Endangered Religions Project work to balance out any social injustices for Hindu families. The Lost and Endangered Religions Project includes economic injustice as one of its main tenets. Many religious not-for-profit organizations combine their theological objectives with social justice purposes.
The devadasis demonstrate the deities' love through their dance. The directors of the L & ERP depend on a dance authentic to the devadasis. The L & ERP, with an interest in social welfare, directs the performers in a devotional dance. The Project combines performance art with social justice.
When most people first observe the dance of the devadasis, they notice the beauty of their movement. Upon further research, the observers then understand the deeper meaning of the social investment of the Project. L & ERP relies on a sacred performance for keys to the social world.
In this essay, I have reflected on lessons taught in the Hindu Paths of Love course. The Lost and Endangered Religions Project is an independent initiative. The student can exercise one's knowledge from the course by applying it to a service organization. The Lost and Endangered Religions Project does not claim any association with Bhakti Hinduism. One who understands concepts of the Bhakti Hindu tradition can find parallels between the movement and the Project. The parallels are best expressed through the quotes from Ramanujan (see page 7 of this essay). "Description of the Project" on page 6 also shows the importance of Love in Bhakti Hinduism and in the work of the L&ERP.
Albert, Alexa. Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women. New York: Balantine Books, 2002.
The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna's Counsel in Time of War. Translated by Barbara Stoler-Miller. New York: Bantam Classic, 2004.
Born Into Brothels. A film by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski. New York: THINKfilm, September 2005.
DiZerega, Gus. "About Gus." 2006.
Frew, Don. "Interfaith Center Sponsors the 'Lost & Endangered Religions' Project." Interfaith Center's Spring 2003 Interfaith Newsnotes. April 20, 2003.
"Projects in South India." The Lost & Endangered Religions Project, South Asia Program. Contact Person: Devesh Soneji, The Mangala Initiative & LERP South Asia Program Coordinator,
Sex Workers Outreach Project.
Speaking of Siva. Translated by A.K. Ramanujan. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.
St. James Infirmary, 1372 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.
Speaking of Siva, 27.
Speaking of Siva, 27.
See "Projects in South India" bulletin.
See Speaking of Siva, 173.
Professor Redington taught this information in class on March 15, 2007.
See from Bibliography: Alexa Albert; Sex Workers Outreach Project; and St. James Infirmary.