The Devi Dasi

Obvious question – why The Devi Dasi? 

It feels almost bizarre to call it a rebrand but I felt the need for an identifier that was as pervasive to me as my name.

I’ve written about my name and the weight and sanctity it holds to me here.  

In addition to my name, however, as long as I can remember, my father introduced me to his social circle as Radhika Devi Dasi. The theological importance of this additional moniker cannot be emphasized – Hare Krishnas are taught (in my case, from a young age) that our names have power. Being named after God  – name, attributes or form – has a special potency that gives you a sort of metacognition of Him. There is however a clear emphasis on the point that you are not named after God with the intent of ever becoming Him; you are merely His servant. You are like God in quality but you can never be God in quantity with the analogy being given of how the ocean and the ocean drop are qualitatively the same and quantitatively different.

The goal of this spiritual path is loving God by serving Him and this service, “devotional service” or bhakti yoga, is the path that practitioners are on. Your identity is simply as the servant of God. Hence, as a long standing Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, the Sanskrit suffix “das” is added to most initiated Hare Krishna names.  Shrila Prabhupada, founder and guru of the Hare Krishna movement, added the additional suffix of “devi” and then “dasi” to most of his female disciples’ names. The word “devi”/ देवी is the Sanksrit word for goddess. According to Douglas Harper, the etymological root Dev- means “a shining one,” from *div- “to shine,” and it is a cognate with Greek dios “divine” and Zeus, and Latin deus (Old Latin deivos). 

I always looked at this addition as telling – the men are simply called “das” but the women, whether or not this was a conscious choice, have the additional reminder of this divinity added to their names. That weight is quickly tampered with “dāsī,” which according to Merriam Webster, is the feminine form of the Sanskrit dāsa which means servant, handmaiden, slave. But together, the two words suffixing my name have been a part of my identity as long as I can remember.

I never liked being called Radhika Devi Dasi as a child. There would be random uncles and other practicing devotees in the community who would insist on referring to me by that entire name and I’d ask them as politely as I could to just be called Radhika. As I got older, people would try to shorten Radhika into Rad or various awkward mispronunciations of my name. I’m grateful to my mother, always, for her insistence on shutting that shit down, in the best possible way, and helping me own my name and my identity. As an adult, however, and as one who is openly grappling with her relationship to her faith, I was literally shook, (to quote modern parlance) when my dad jokingly called me one morning and boomed his greeting into the phone. “Hare Krishna Radhika Devi Dasi, my princess”. Suddenly, I began to give this title much thought. In the Hare Krishna world, the addition of these few words can almost instantly denote spiritual seniority by way of initiation. As a specialist in Postcolonial literature, I also could just gloss over the historical precedence of and pejorative use of a very close cousin term – the devadasi – temple dancers – a group of women, who, over the course of colonialism, were descended into a life of poverty and relegated to the status of ordinary nautch girls or prostitutes. There is so much historical context packed into those two words, one that Hare Krishnas can, in their modern spiritual aspirations, ignore. As an Indian woman of a Brahmin background (whose family most likely prospered in pre and postcolonial India by dint of that pedigree) who also happens to have a background in Odissi, (a very beautiful and rich but also very much appropriated form of those womens’ dance form), there is a certain guilt felt in the enormous amount of privilege these activities and titles confer upon me. While these few sentences feel reductive in their explanation and one could spend an entire book on the nuances of this subject matter alone, I decided that the terms “devadasi” and “devi dasi” were different enough to hopefully not have a full coating of colonial residue. I’ve chosen to take the latter term for its previously discussed literal definition. 

For me now, there is something poetic about juxtaposing the word devi with dasi: the balance of sheer humanity as middle ground between the Goddess and the servant. The reminder of humility and grandeur, their coexistence and the recognition of both within oneself. The faith-based interpretation – I am both named after a goddess (Srimati Radharani) and reminded of that with the additional “devi” suffix but also actively cultivating the mindset to serve her as Her “dasi”. I’m reminded of my life’s mission of serving someone far above and removed from the trivialities of our world. Reminded of the magnitude of goddess-like responsibilities but simultaneously marinating in the intent to always serve. I’m reminded of the respective powers in being both a functioning goddess, removed from this world and a servant whose livelihood by definition is in the power of service. As a writer, I’m reminded of the implicit power of my words but also the awareness of how ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, they are just words. As I explore this moniker further, I hope it will also help to shed some light on the hybrid existence I seem to be living – a foot on the path of spirituality so carefully inculcated by my parents as well my other foot, jogging along in pursuit of my material aspirations on variant paths that sometimes do not align. A grounding realization – neither one nor the other, the complete duality and hybridity of my existence – The Devi Dasi. 

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