Slavery system in Ancient India | History of Slavery in India

History of Slavery system in Ancient India

Megasthenes Remark about Slavery System in India

When Megasthenes came to India in the 4th Century B.C., he found that slavery system was unknown to the Ancient Indian society. He has declared all the Indians are free. Slaves do not exist in India.

Ancient Indians also treated foreigners with utmost consideration. Megasthenes did not travel whole of India and so his observations may not apply to the whole country. Certainly, it relates to a large part of it including Pataliputra. The Ancient Indians put ban on enslaving any fellow country-man.

Megasthenes’ observations about the non-existence of slavery in Ancient India are not supported by available evidences. From the Smritis and other Hindu Law Books it is clear that slavery was a recognized institution in India in the Vedic Age. The Rig Veda mentions the non-Aryan enemies of the Aryans as Dasyu and Dasa. The Aryans were constantly engaged in wars. Those aborigines who were defeated by the Rig Vedic Aryans were reduced to the status of Dasas or slaves. Those who were captured in battle were certainly enslaved.

In the Later Vedic Age landlords tilled their lands with the help of the Sudras. The Buddhist literature, the Majjhima Nikaya treats slavery as a normal custom in the society. Such literature narrates the Dasas as human animals. The Nikayas prohibit purchase and sale of slaves.

The Ramayana Epic refers to the story of Guhaka Chandala – a Sudra. The Brahmanical laws treated the Sudras as slaves. In the Great Epic it is said that enemies captured in battle were reduced to slavery in India. But the Great Epic prescribes education and normal training for slaves.

The Dasas were treated as Salves.

According to the Brahmanical text books, the chief duty of a Sudra was to serve the three higher classes. He was to eat the remains of his master’s food, wear his cast off clothing and use his old furniture. He could not make himself rich. The making of money by a Sudra was distressing to a Brahmin. A Brahman killing a Sudra performed the same penance as for killing a cat or a dog.  A Sudra was not entitled to read the Vedas or hear its recitation. It is reasonable to think that Sudras were hereditary slaves. Technically, it may not be so, but virtually it was.

In the light of the above evidences supporting the existing of slavery in India, Megasthenes’ observations appear to be pointless. Some scholars have tried to interpret and explain Megasthenes as such. Slavery system in India was very mild and most of the slaves were domestic slaves who were treated as members of the family.

The Dharma Shastras of the 4th century B.C. were in a protesting mood against slavery. Slave trade was prohibited in the Shastras. Different injunctions were laid down in the Shastras for the liberation of the slaves. Megasthenes was impressed by the prevailing intellectual mood of the time. The liberal rules of the Arthasastra for slaves testify the liberal attitude of the society towards slavery. It has been further pointed out that Megasthenes was impressed by the caste divisions that moulded the whole society and lower castes or Sudras already looked like slaves. So he could not conceive separate existence of slavery. Perhaps, since slavery did not exist in North-Western India, it had an impact on Megasthenes and he declared that whole of India was free from the custom of slavery.

Origin of Slavery in India

Various factors contributed to the growth of slavery system  in Ancient India. In the Rig Vedic Age the Aryans who defeated the aborigines in battle and captured other contributory factors. According to Mann and Narada, they reduced to slavery. But slavery spread due to the fact that many slaves could be acquired by purchase. Children born of slave parents became slaves. Slaves could be mortgaged. A freeman could be reduced to slavery for committing crimes or for non-payment of debt. This is how the number of slaves multiplied. While in the Rig Vedic Age only war prisoners were reduced to slavery and there was only one class of slaves, in the Narada Smriti we hear of 15 types of slaves.

Restrictions Imposed on the Slaves of Ancient India

The status, rights and duties of slaves are narrated in the Smriti literature and also in the Arthasastra. Narada says that the slaves were expected to serve his master and his family in every way. According to Mann, a slave is not entitled to any property in Ancient India. He could not serve as a judicial witness. If a slave did any legal act without his master’s permission it was legally invalid.

Rights Granted to the Slaves by Ancient Indian Law Books

The Smriti literature fixed rights of the Ancient Indian Slaves. The master should not quarrel with his slave and members of the family of slaves. The debt contracted by a slave for the benefit of the master is binding on the latter. Ancient Slaves were generally domestic servants and personal attendants. Therefore, the ancient Indian slaves were generally regarded as the members of the master’s family.

The maintenance of the slaves was the duty of the master. If a slave died without a son, the master had to perform the funeral rites for the departed slave. A slave’s property ultimately belonged to the master. A master could not abandon his slave in old age. According to law books, if a master wanted to inflict physical punishment on his slave for dereliction of duty, he could beat him only on the back and not on the head. The master had no right to take the life of his slave.

The Injunctions of Arthasastra about Slavery

The Arthasastra is very liberal about the rights of the Ancient Indian Slaves. It is more liberal than the Smriti books. The children of slaves could not be sold except under dire necessity. Slaves in Ancient India  could earn money by working during spare time.

The Arthasastra seeks to protect the chastity of a female slave. The master was expected to protect her and her children. If a master violated a slave girl, he was bound to set her free and give her compensation. If she had any child due to such violation, the mother and the child were to be set free with compensation. Ashoka in his Rock Edicts invoked kindness to “Dasas and bhatakas.”

Deterioration of the Condition of Ancinet Indian Slaves in Post-Mauryan Age

The liberal rules of the Arthasastra about the rights of the slaves lend support to the theory that slavery in India in the 4th century B.C. was mild. There were only 8 kinds of slaves according to the Arthasastra. In the post-Mauryan Age such liberalism towards the slaves vanished. The Gupta Age was marked by strong revival of Brahmanism.

Society was horizontally and vertically divided by castes. In such a caste-ridden society the condition of the slaves was bound to deteriorate. The `Katyayana Smriti’ states that if a free woman married a slave she would lose her freedom. A Brahmin could not be reduced to slavery, nor could a Brahmin woman be sold as a slave girl.

Inspite of comparative hardness of rules towards the slaves, as whole slaves in India enjoyed better social condition than the slaves of Ancient Greece. The ancient Indian economy was mainly dependent upon Agriculture. There was demand for large labour force. Some scholars have suggested that slaves were widely employed in agricultural product and slave labour became a factor of production. But it seems the picture is a bit overdrawn. The Sudras were also extensively employed in production.

The main feature of Indian slavery system was that Indian economy did not depend on slave labour. The workers and the cultivators were normally free men. These free workers were not slaves. India had no slave markets like that of Ancient Rome. India did not face slave revolts like that of Ancient Rome. Nor did India have Spartan type of slavery where the Spartan masters were at daggers drawn against their slaves. Indian slaves were mostly domestic slaves.