Slavery is Anathema to Hinduism

The practice of enslaving innocent people was not a part of the Vedic social system. We examine this view with regard to the unsubstantiated claim that Śrī Rāma allegedly gave away “slave-girls.”

Selfless devotion to Bhagavān being the core principle of Vedic civilization, as illustrated here by Mother Sītā towards Rāma, the common people understood and attained this otherwise abstract principle by practicing it towards each other in the form of their varṇa duties.

Having refuted the contention of Milin Patel that Rāma had multiple wives, this article addresses the claim brought up by him that Rāma had slaves. According to Patel, Rāma, Who was of such a disposition that He could renounce all of His wealth in an instant to accept the austerity of forest-exile, nevertheless lived a life in which He was served by humans who were bought and sold as property:

Now, let us move later on in Ayodhya Kanda, to the point where Rama agrees to take Lakshmana along with him to exile. After allowing Lakshmana to go to exile, Rama distributes his wealth among many brahmins. He asks Lakshmana to grab a share of his (Rama’s) wealth and give it to the brahmins. Among this wealth, are included slave girls of Rama (Ayodhya Kanda Section 29, translation by Pollock):

So Rama spoke, and Suyajna accepted all the gifts and conferred gracious blessings on Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. As Brahma might address Indra, lord of the thirty gods, Rama then addressed his kind, attentive brother Saumitri with these kind words: “Summon the two eminent brahmans Agastya and Kaushika and in homage shower precious objects on them, Saumıtri, as crops are showered with rain. As for the learned preceptor of the Taittirıyas, the master of the Vedas who devotedly serves Kausalya with his blessings—present that twice-born with a palanquin and slave girls, Saumitri, and silken garments to his heart’s content. And give precious objects, garments and money enough to content Chitraratha, the noble adviser and charioteer, who has lived with us so long. Present a thousand draft animals, two hundred oxen and a thousand cows, Saumitri, to provide for dairy needs.”

First, it is important to note that Patel’s views appear to be based on the highly biased translation of Sheldon Pollock, a known provocateur whose polarized views on Indian politics color his perceptions of Hinduism. His writings reveal an obsession with superimposing theories of class conflict onto Hindu literature, for example, calling varṇa as an “oppressive construct” and the Rāmāyaṇa as a text of “othering” of “sexual, dietetical, and political deviants.” Thus, it comes as no surprise that he saw the word “dāsī” and concluded without a second thought that it must mean “slave girl.”

As it turns out, the verses in question are not in the 29th sarga (which is about Sītā’s insistence that Rāma allow her to accompany Him to the forest), but are the 15th and 16th ślokas of the 32nd sarga, for which the Sanskrit is given below, along with several commonly-available translations:

कौसल्यां च य आशीर्भिर्भक्तः पर्युपतिष्ठति ।
आचार्यस्तैत्तिरीयाणामभिरूपश्च वेदवित् ॥ वा.रा. २.३२.१५ ॥
तस्य यानं च दासीश्च सौमित्रे सम्प्रदापय ।
कौशेयानि च वस्त्राणि यावत्तुष्यति स द्विजः ॥ वा.रा. २.३२.१६ ॥

Desiraju Hanumanta Rao & K.M.K. Murthy: Oh, Lakshmana! Which brahman is studying Taittiriya (a school of yajurveda), a preceptor, a man of conformity; a knower of Vedas, serving Kausalya with his devotion and blessing, to him see that he is duly gifted conveyance, servant maids and silken clothing till he gets satisfied.

P. Geervani, K. Kamala, & V.V. Subramaniam: O Lakshmana, give away chariots, maidservants, silk clothes to learned brahmins of Taittiriya branch and well-versed in the Vedas, to agreeable and faithful brahmins attending on Kausalya with their blessings till they are fully satisfied.

M.N. Dutt: Do you confer upon that good Brāhmaṇa, the preceptor of the Taittirīya portion of the Vedas, who crowns Kausalyā with blessings every day, silk cloth, conveyances, maid-servants, and such other things, till the twice-born one is satisfied.

Gita Press: Further see that to the Brahman who waits upon Kausalyā with benedictions (every day), devoted as he is to her, nay, who is a teacher of those studying the Taittirīya recension of the Black Yajurveda, is a knower of all the Vedas and (as such) worthy (in every way), O son of Sumitrā, are duly gifted a conveyance and servant-maids and silken robes and as much wealth as that Brahman may feel satisfied with.

Clearly Pollock is in the minority in translating dāsī as “slave.”

Although some Sanskrit dictionaries such as and Monier-Williams give “female slave” as a translation of “dāsī,” this is in addition to other meanings such as “female servant,” as can be seen here:


Why, then, do Pollock and his professional agitators arbitrarily assume that dāsī in this context means “slave?” The masculine form of the word (dāsa) was an honorific used by śūdras when performing abhivādaye, a ceremonial introduction used in Hindu rituals. Not only that, but even dvijas (the twice-born classes) who took spiritual initiation had a practice of affixing the name “dāsa” to their name, like “Rāma dāsa” or “Kṛṣṇa Dāsa.” It clearly does not mean “slave” in those contexts.

Throughout human history, systems of involuntary servitude were an answer to the shortage of manual labor, but Vedic civilization had no such shortage. Indians did not need to compel people towards service-oriented labor because the Vedic religion formally recognized an entire class of individuals, the śūdras, for the performance of this work as their religious duty and means of worship:

परिचर्यात्मकं कर्म श‍ूद्रस्यापि स्वभावजम् ॥ गीता १८.४४ ॥

“And the duty of a Śūdra is one of service, born of his nature.” (Bhagavad-gītā 18.44)

वर्णाश्रमाचारवता पुरुषेण परः पुमान् ।
विष्णुराराध्यते पन्था नान्यस्तत्तोषकारकः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.९ ॥

“The supreme Viṣṇu is propitiated by a man who observes the institutions of varṇa, āśrama, and purificatory practices; no other path is the way to please Him.” (Viṣṇu Purāṇa 3.8.9)

ब्राह्मणः क्षत्रियो वैश्यः शूद्रश्च पृथिवीपते ।
स्वधर्मतत्परो विष्णुमाराधयति नान्यथा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१२ ॥

“The Brāhmaṇa, the Kṣatriya, the Vaiśya, and the Śūdra, who attends to the rules enjoined by his varṇa, best worships Viṣṇu.” (Viṣṇu Purāṇa 3.8.12)

It’s beyond the scope of this essay to explain the concept of karma-yoga. Suffice it to say that in traditional Vedic culture, Hindus regarded their varṇa-dharma as their means of worshiping Bhagavān through the performance of prescribed work, and that śūdras who performed their dharma were also regarded as worshiping Viṣṇu through it. If service-oriented duties were glorified as a means of worship for the common people, then why would such a culture need to compel people into slavery to provide it?

That the śūdras were not slaves is borne out by direct textual evidence describing their role in Vedic civilization. For example, the Mahābhārata indicates that they had a political voice equal to that of the other sections of society:

अभिषेक्तुकामं नृपतिं पूरुं पुत्रं कनीयसम् ।
ब्राह्मणप्रमुखा वर्णा इदं वचनमब्रुवन् ॥ महा १.८५.१९ ॥

“Yayāti became desirous of installing his youngest son Pūru on the throne. But the four orders of his subjects with Brāhmaṇas at their head thus addressed him.”

(Mahābhārata 1.85.18) [translated by M.N. Dutt]

Here the point is that all four orders addressed their objections to King Yayāti, which would be unheard of for slaves. The word “varṇāḥ” is plural, and it is commonly understood that Vedic society consisted of four varṇas of which the śūdras were the fourth. Nothing in the text specifies that only three of the four varṇas verbalized the objections, so by implication all four varṇas, including the śūdras, addressed King Yayāti. Thus, the śūdras were an integral part of Vedic society as free citizens like the members of the other three varṇas.

Other śāstric descriptions of the śūdras contradict the idea that they were slaves:

शुश्रूषणं द्विजगवां देवानां चाप्यमायया ।
तत्र लब्धेन सन्तोष: शूद्रप्रकृतयस्त्विमा: ॥ भा.पु. ११.१७.१९ ॥

“Rendering sincere service to twice-born castes (Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriyas, and Vaiśyas), cows and gods and satisfaction with what one gets therein are the natural characteristics of Śūdras.”

(Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.17.19) [translated by Ganesh Tagare]

Note here the complete absence of any mention of compulsion. The śūdra’s natural attribute is the sincere service (śūśrūṣaṇam amāyayā) of others, meaning that he works out of natural respect and fondness for his employer without misrepresenting the quality of his work. Further, he was to be satisfied with whatever is obtained (tatra labdhena) from such service. In other words, he was compensated (in stark contrast to a slave) for his labor, and he was supposed to remain non-greedy, since the work (like all varṇa-dharmas) had to be meditated on as worship rather than as a means to wealth. As his worship of Bhagavān, the śūdra thus took care of his employer; he was not merely a paid mercenary:

शूद्रस्य सन्नति: शौचं सेवा स्वामिन्यमायया ।
अमन्त्रयज्ञो ह्यस्तेयं सत्यं गोविप्ररक्षणम् ॥ भा.पु. ७.११.२४ ॥

“Submissiveness, purity, faithful service of the master, performance of the five daily sacrifices by bowing down only (without uttering the mantras), abstention from thieving, truthfulness, and protection of the cattle and the Brāhmaṇas – these are the characteristics of the Śūdras.”

(Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa 7.11.24) [translated by Ganesh Tagare]

Here, the key point regarding the śūdras is that they practiced go-vipra-rakṣaṇam “protecting the cows and the Brāhmins” which would be a bizarre thing to say about a slave. While slave-masters in many cultures may euphemistically describe themselves as “protecting” their slaves, there is no culture in which slaves are described as “protecting” their masters. The concept here is that śūdras took care of their employers just as children might take care of their elders; they were definitely not “slaves.”

There is no question that Rāma told Lakṣmaṇa to give away the dāsīs in the text in question, but “giving away” a śūdra girl does not make her a slave. In many cultures, there is a concept of “giving away” a bride (known as kanya-dhāna in Hinduism), yet in most of those cultures the daughter is not considered a “slave.” As mentioned previously, the śūdras were responsible for protecting their employers as children did to aged parents. The texts indicate that their employers also, like affectionate parents, had to take care of them:

अधर्मस्सुमहांस्तात भवेत्तस्य महीपतेः ।
यो हरेद्बलिषड्भागां न च रक्षति पुत्रवत् ॥वा.रा. ३.६.११ ॥
युञ्जानस्स्वानिव प्राणान्प्राणैरिष्टान्सुतानिव ।
नित्ययुक्तस्सदा रक्षन्सर्वान्विषयवासिनः ॥ वा.रा. ३.६.१२ ॥
प्राप्नोति शाश्वतीं राम कीर्तिं स बहुवार्षिकीम् ।
ब्रह्मणस्स्थानमासाद्य तत्र चापि महीयते ॥ वा.रा. ३.६.१३ ॥
यत्करोति परं धर्म मुनिर्मूलफलाशनः ।
तत्र राज्ञश्चतुर्भाग प्रजा धर्मेण रक्षितः ॥ वा.रा. ३.६.१४ ॥

O Lord, a king who collect one sixth of the produce as tax and yet does not protect his subjects like his children commits an act of grave injustice. O Rāma, whoever protects the inhabitants of his kingdom at all times like his own son whom he loves more than his own life will attain the world of Brahmā and remain there for long years and will achieve prosperity thereafter. One fourth of the supreme merit a sage earns by living on fruits and roots, accrues to the king through which the people are protected righteously.

(Vālmīki-Rāmāyaṇa 3.6.11-14)

Rāma’s own instruction to Bharata clearly states that one’s subjects are to be cared for as one’s own children, and describes the spiritual benefit of doing so. Naturally, this includes all subjects of the kingdom, not excepting the śūdras. As no parent would want his children bought and sold as if they were property, is it logical to assume that the same person who gave this instruction would treat his servants as slaves? Or is it more likely that the one who “gives away” such subjects would do so in the same mood as a father giving away a daughter in a wedding?

Thus, it is proven that the dāsīs “given away” by Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa were not slaves by any stretch of the imagination. Nor were they paid laborers to be discarded as unwanted resources whenever convenient, as per a modern, impersonal employment contract. The relationship between the twice-born and the śūdras in ancient Vedic culture, guided by śāstra and exemplified by Rāma’s own actions, is like that of an extended family in which the parents and children were responsible and cared for each other. The “parents,” were supposed to be the spiritually-mature, twice-born classes whose men had gone through the austerity and rigors of Vedic education. They were expected to be compassionate, knowledgeable, austere, and able to inspire others towards greater virtue and spirituality by their personal example. The “children” were the majority common people who did not undergo this rigorous Vedic education, and might therefore not be mature in their spirituality. But they were still Hindus eligible to seek mokṣa, and they were still expected to be generous, humble, honest, and protective of those virtuous Āryas who employed and inspired them. This standard of affectionate interdependence is integral to Vedic culture and is anathema to cruel institutions like slavery in any form. Thus, we can understand Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa’s giving away of the dāsīs for what it really was – an arrangement for their continued employment by a worthy employer.

The distorted reading of this text by Pollock and Patel is yet another example of how foreigners and post-modern Indians raised on a steady diet of “class conflict” and individualism for its own sake could misapprehend Hindu culture so pathologically.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s