Slavery in Ancient India

The terms dāsa and dāsyu in Vedic and other ancient Indian literature have been interpreted as "servant" or "slave", but others have contested such meaning. The term dāsa in the Rigveda has been also been translated as an enemy, but overall the identity of this term remains unclear and disputed among scholars.

According to Scott Levi, if the term dasas is interpreted as slaves, then it was an established institution in ancient India by the start of the common era based on texts such as the Arthashastra, the Manusmriti and the Mahabharata. Slavery was "likely widespread by the lifetime of the Buddha" and it "likely existed in the Vedic period", states Levi, but adds that this association is problematic.

Upinder Singh states that the Rig Veda is familiar with slavery, referring to enslavement in course of war or as a result of debt. She states that the use of dasa (Sanskrit: दास) and dasi in later times were used as terms for male and female slaves. In contrast, Suvira Jaiswal states that dasa tribes were integrated with the lineage system of Vedic traditions, wherein dasi putras could rise to the status of priests, warriors and chiefs as shown by the examples of Kaksivant Ausija, Balbutha, Taruksa, Divodasa and others. Some scholars contest the earlier interpretations of the term dasa as "slave", with or without "racial distinctions".

According to Indologists Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, known for their recent translation of the Rigveda, the dasa and dasyu are human and non-human beings who are enemies of Arya. These according to the Rigveda, state Jamison and Brereton, are destroyed by the Vedic deity Indra.

The interpretation of "dasas as slaves" in the Vedic era is contradicted by hymns such as 2.12 and 8.46 that describe "wealthy dasas" who charitably give away their wealth. Similarly, state Jamison and Brereton, the "racial distinctions" are not justified by the evidence.

According to the Indologist Thomas Trautmann, the relationship between the Arya and Dasa appears only in two verses of the Rigveda, is vague and unexpected since the Dasa were "in some ways more economically advanced" than the Arya according to the textual evidence. According to Asko Parpola, the term dasa in ancient Indian texts has proto-Saka roots, where dasa or daha simply means "man".

Both "dasa" and "dasyu" are uncommon in Indo-Iranian languages (including Sanskrit and Pali), and these words may be a legacy of the PIE root "*dens-", and the word "saka" may have evolved from "dasa", states Parpola.

According to Micheline Ishay – a professor of human rights studies and sociology, the term "dasa" can be "translated as a slave".

The institution represented unfree labour with fewer rights, but "the supposed slavery in [ancient] India was of a mild character and limited extent" like Babylonian and Hebrew slavery, in contrast to the Hellenic world. The "unfree labour" could be of two types in ancient India: the underadsatva and the ahitaka, states Ishay.

A person in distress could pledge themselves for work leading to underadsatava, while under ahitaka a person's "unfree labour" was pledged or mortgaged against a debt or ransom when captured during a war.

These forms of slavery limited the duration of "unfree labour" and such a slave had rights to their property and could pass their property to their kin, states Ishay. The term dasa appears in early Buddhist texts, a term scholars variously interpret as servant or slave.

Buddhist manuscripts also mention kapyari, which scholars have translated as a legally bonded servant (slave). According to Gregory Schopen, in the Mahaviharin Vinaya, the Buddha says that a community of monks may accept dasa for repairs and other routine chores. Later, the same Buddhist text states that the Buddha approved the use of kalpikara and the kapyari for labor in the monasteries and approved building separate quarters for them.

Schopen interprets the term dasa as servants, while he interprets the kalpikara and kapyari as bondmen and slave respectively because they can be owned and given by laity to the Buddhist monastic community. According to Schopen, since these passages are not found in Indian versions of the manuscripts, but found in a Sri Lankan version, these sections may have been later interpolations that reflect a Sri Lankan tradition, rather than early Indian.

The discussion of servants and bonded labor is also found in manuscripts found in Tibet, though the details vary. The discussion of servant, bonded labor and slaves, states Scopen, differs significantly in different manuscripts discovered for the same Buddhist text in India, Nepal and Tibet, whether they are in Sanskrit or Pali language.

These Buddhist manuscripts present a set of questions to ask a person who wants to become a monk or nun. These questions inquire if the person is a dasa and dasi, but also ask additional questions such as "are you ahrtaka" and "are you vikritaka". The later questions have been interpreted in two ways. As "are you one who has been seized" (ahrtaka) and "are you one who has been sold" (vikritaka) respectively, these terms are interpreted as slaves.

Alternatively, they have also been interpreted as "are you doubtless" and "are you blameworthy" respectively, which does not mean slave. Further, according to these texts, Buddhist monasteries refused all servants, bonded labor and slaves an opportunity to become a monk or nun, but accepted them as workers to serve the monastery.

The Indian texts discuss dasa and bonded labor along with their rights, as well as a monastic community's obligations to feed, clothe and provide medical aid to them in exchange for their work. This description of rights and duties in Buddhist Vinaya texts, says Schopen, parallel those found in Hindu Dharmasutra and Dharmasastra texts.

The Buddhist attitude to servitude or slavery as reflected in Buddhist texts, states Schopen, may reflect a "passive acceptance" of cultural norms of the Brahmanical society midst them, or more "justifiably an active support" of these institutions. The Buddhist texts offer "no hint of protest or reform" to such institutions, according to Schopen. Kautilya's Arthashastra dedicates the thirteenth chapter on dasas, in his third book on law.

This Sanskrit document from the Maurya Empire period (4th century BCE) has been translated by several authors, each in a different manner. Shamasastry's translation of 1915 maps dasa as slave, while Kangle leaves the words as dasa and karmakara. According to Kangle's interpretation, the verse 13.65.3–4 of Arthasastra forbids any slavery of "an Arya in any circumstances whatsoever", but allows the Mlecchas to "sell an offspring or keep it as pledge".

Patrick Olivelle agrees with this interpretation. He adds that an Arya or Arya family could pledge itself during times of distress into bondage, and these bonded individuals could be converted to slave if they committed a crime thereby differing with Kangle's interpretation.

According to Kangle, the Arthasastra forbids the enslavement of minors and Arya from all four varnas and this inclusion of Shudras stands different from the Vedic literature. Kangle suggests that the context and rights granted to dasa by Kautilya implies that the word had a different meaning than the modern word slave, as well as the meaning of the word slave in Greek or other ancient and medieval civilizations.

According to Arthashastra, anyone who had been found guilty of nishpatitah (Sanskrit: निष्पातित, ruined, bankrupt, a minor crime) may mortgage oneself to become dasa for someone willing to pay his or her bail and employ the dasa for money and privileges.

The term dasa in Indic literature when used as a suffix to a bhagavan (deity) name, refers to a pious devotee. However, the Greek writer Megasthenes in his work Indika, while describing Mauryan empire states that slavery was banned in Indian society.

Of several remarkable customs existing among the Indians, there is one prescribed by their ancient philosophers which one may regard as truly admirable : for the law ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave, but that, enjoying freedom, they shall respect the equal right to it which all possess: for those, they thought, who have learned neither to domineer over nor to cringe to others will attain the life best adapted tor all vicissitudes of lot : for it is but fair and reasonable to institute laws which bind all equally, but allow property to be unevenly distributed.

The same writer (Megasthenes) tells us further this remarkable fact about India, that all Indians are free, and not one of them is a slave.