Slavery in Hinduism


Written by Ibn Muhammad

While singing praises of the Hindu culture, it is often claimed that it has always believed in equality, both social and spiritual, and has never emulated the base customs of the western culture, which reduced men and women to a deplorable status of an object.

It is also said that Hindu culture condemned the sale and purchase of humans, holding man and his existence in its full glory. Several modem thinkers and philosophers have glorified Hindu culture for upholding the cherished ideal of human equality, even in its primitive stages. One among them was Vivekanand.

Evil of slavery

However, the tendency to evade reality and live in a world of make-believe has been a special heritage of India. The reality is that the evil of slavery, in one shape or the other, has always cast its evil shadows on the Indian society. Even in the days of its utmost glory, when the Vedas and Upanishads were being composed, the curse of slavery polluted the atmosphere.

The Rigveda reveals that the Aryans invaded India and defeated the original inhabitants and made them slaves. They bore the condemned label of Daas (feminine Daasi), Dasyu and Shudras. And these slaves were considered as objects to be given away as gifts and placed in the category of animals.

In one of the Valakhilya hymns of the Rigveda the following is mentioned


“You gave me 100 donkeys, 100 sheep that render wool, and 100 slaves” [Rigveda 8/56/3]

An acknowledgement thus made in a disinterested, casual tone reveals that such bargains were common in those days. Aitareya Brahman (Kaand 8, Chapter 4) disclosed that a king donated 10,000 slave girls and 10,000 elephants to the priest who presided over his coronation.

With this ceremony Udamaya, the son of Atri, inaugurated Anga. Thence Anga went conquering everywhere over the whole earth up to its ends, and sacrificed the sacrificial horse. This Anga, who was not defective in any respect had once said, “I give you O Brahman, 10,000 elephants and 10,000 slave girls, if you call me to this sacrifice.”

In the Rigveda, there are numerous places where gifts of beautiful girls as salves are made to saintly persons. For example, Rigveda 6/27/8 mentions Abhyavarti, son of Chayaman, presenting a gift of slave girls stuffed in two big wagons to Rishi Bhardavaj.


Two wagon-teams, with damsels, twenty oxen, O Agni, Abhydvarti Chayamana, the liberal Sovran, gives me. This guerdon of Prthu’s seed is hard to win from others.

Another instance of gifting slave girls is mentioned in Rigveda 1/126/3


Ten chariots drawn by bay steeds, carrying damsels, stood near me, given to me by Swanaya; and a  thousand and sixty cows followed: these, after a short interval of time did Kashivan deliver.

Another episode in Aitareya Brahman highlights the cold-bloodedness of such bargainers. It is mentioned in Aitareya Brahman Kaand 7, Chapter 3.

King Harishchandra had no offspring so he worshipped Varuna. Varuna was pleased and said, “You will have to offer a sacrifice if you desire to have an offspring.” Time elapsed and the queen gave birth to a son. King Harishchandra remembered his promise to Varuna, so he purchased Shunashep, son of Rishi Ajigart in return for 100 cows to sacrifice him.

This particular episode finds a place in many leading mythological works such as Bhagvat Puran (9/7), Brahma Puran (ch. 104) and Shaankhaayan (15/17). For your information Shunashep is a Rishi of some hymns of the Rigveda. This incident also shows that humans were sold and purchased as slaves and even human sacrifice was prevalent.

The most distinguished works of Hindu philosophy, the Upanishads, too, relate incidents that reflect slavery.

In Chandogya Upanishad, a sage who had realized the supreme truth rendered his knowledge to the king only after the king’s daughter was given to him as a slave. In Chandogya Upanishad 4/2 and 4/3 King Janasruti Pautrayana took six hundred cows, a necklace, and a carriage with mules, went to Raikva and said:

‘Raikva, here are six hundred cows, a necklace, and a carriage with mules; teach me the deity which you worship.’

However, Raikva refuses to teach him. Then King Janasruti took again a thousand cows, a necklace, a carriage with mules, and his own daughter, and went to him.

He said to him:

‘Raikva, there are a thousand cows, a necklace, a carriage with mules, this wife, and this village in which you dwellest. Sir, teach me!’

Then considering her (the princess) as the door for imparting knowledge, Raikva said:

“O Sudra! You brought these cows and other presents; this is good. But you will make me speak now only through this means (i.e. the princess).” [Chandogya 4/2/5]
This incident proves that women were gifted just like other animals and the so-called priests yearned them badly.

The Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic, gives details of the system of slavery. Yudhistira, in Sabhaparva (52/45), Vanaparva (233/43) and Viratparva (18/21) bestowed a massive number of 26,40,000 slaves on 88,000 graduates (at the rate of 30 slaves per graduate).

अष्टाशीति सहस्राणि सनातका गृहमेधिनः
त्रिंशद दासीकः एकैकॊ यान बिभर्ति युधिष्ठिरः

“And eighty-eight thousands of Santaka Brahmins leading domestic lives, all supported by Yudhishthira, with thirty serving-girls given unto each, gratified by the king, always pray with complacent hearts for the destruction of his foes.”

If such an enormous dealing in slaves was done by an individual, one can very well understand that there must have been countless number of slaves who led a subhuman life.

The Mahabharat (Adiparv 220) also reveals that slaves, especially women, were given as a part of the dowry to the bridegroom. Krishna, in his sister Subhadra’s dowry gave along with other objects, “one thousand fair complexioned, charming damsels with lustrous hair and adorned with gold and who were good at serving.” These beautiful women were to be treated as slaves or even as harlots.

सत्रीणां सहस्रं गौरीणां सुवेषाणां सुवर्चसाम
सुवर्णशतकण्ठीनाम अरोमानां स्वलंकृताम्
परिचर्यासु दक्षाणां प्रददौ पुष्करेक्षणः

[Mahabharata Aadi Parv, section 220]
In simple language, it meant commercialisation of women. Under the guise of dowry, a woman was reduced to the status of a prostitute. Even Rama received such slaves as wedding gifts from King Janak when he married Sita. This is mentioned in Valmiki Ramayan, Baal Kaand, Sarg 74, shloka 5. The duty-conscious (maryada purushottam) Rama, of course, did not see anything inhuman or barbaric in accepting an enormous dowry which included slave girls.

ददौ कन्याशतं तासां दासीदासमनुत्तमम

“besides (Janaka gave) hundreds of highly decorated girls, divine in their mien, as unexcelled servant girls and handmaidens.”

Though men too were put on sale, it was particularly women who fell victim to the insatiable lust of the male-chauvinistic Hindu society.

Ancient Indian thinkers have regarded a girl as an ornament that could be mortgaged with a money-lender. Mahabharata narrates an incident in which Rishi Galav goes to king Yayati and asks for 800 horses as he had to give them to his guru, Rishi Vishwamitra. King Yayati does not give horses but offers his daughter and says:

“She is my daughter. She is extremely beautiful and virtuous. She is desired by every male in three worlds. She can charm any Sur, Asur, Aryan or non-Aryan. I offer my daughter to you. You can sell her to any king and manage to have your gurudakhshina.” (Udyog Parv, section 115).

So, Rishi Galav, without any qualms of conscience, accepts the king’s daughter and mortgages her to Ayodhya’s king Haryashaw and in return gets 200 horses. He takes 200 horses, leaving Madhavi to bear a son to the king. (Udyog Parv, section 116)

The Rishi Galav then searched another buyer for Madhavi and this time it is king Divodas who gives 200 horses in the bargain. (Udyog Parv, section117). Then he takes her to king Ushinao and manages to strike a better bargain. He receives now 400 horses. (Udyog Parv, section 118). Such were the ideals and principles of the so-called learned scholars and rishis!

Classification of slaves

Kautilya’s Arthshastra speaks about different categories of slaves – those taken captives during war, those who sold themselves in times of calamity, those born of female slaves, debts and those who were condemned by the king for the violation of rules, etc.

Manu Smriti (Chapter 8, verse 415) classifies them into seven categories:

  1. war captive,
  2. a self-volunteered slave,
  3. born of a female slave,
  4. a slave purchased,
  5. slave given by parents,
  6. inherited through will and
  7. penalised by the king

Kautilya’s Arthshastra reveals that slaves could be sold, mortgaged or even slaughtered. They were subjected to inhuman conditions. They could not ask for justice in any court. Every wealthyfamily had a number of born slaves.

Slaves led a miserable existence. To run away was the only way out but quite often they were caught and had to pay a heavy price. If a slave, who had mortgaged himself, was caught escaping, he could be condemned to a lifetime of slavery. The owners of female slaves not only had sex with them but also offered them to their guests as a part of entertainment.

Very often economic calamity drove a person to accept slavery. The famous legend of king Harishchandra supports this truth. He had to sell his wife, child and himself in his bad days. (Markandey Puran chapter 8 )

The offsprings of slaves would automatically assume the status of a slave and were bound by the same conditions as their ancestors. Thus slavery was not a mere lifetime affair but it went on from generation to generation. In the event of an unpaid penalty, the accused could be forced to become a slave.

Slaves were sold and bought in the open market like other commodities. One way to get out of slavery was to pay the owner the amount for which the slave was bought. But those condemned humans never had the resources to break the chains of slavery. And even if they did try to raise money through theft or by misleading the innocents and selling them as slaves, their attempts to buy back their freedom were frustrated. If caught, they had to undergo a terrible punishment. Even if one succeeded in procuring the money needed for his release, his owner put so many conditions that he was forced to remain a slave. It reveals the relentless brutal mentality of those days.

Religious prostitution

Another form of slavery that has shadowed the Hindu society through many ages is that of the Devdasis or the ‘temple girls’ who were forced into prostitution in the guise of religion. These girls adorn temples especially in South India. They are offered to the temple in their childhood.

As they reach maturity they are wedded to the temple deity. The privileged ones are kept by priests to satiate their lust. The not so fortunate ones become common prostitutes.

Such is the vulgarisation of Hindu religious practices.

Devadasis still exist in India today, as shown in a 2004 report by the National Human Rights Commission of the Government of India (1). According to this report, “after initiation as devadasis, women migrate either to nearby towns or other far-off cities to practice prostitution” (page 200). A study from 1990 recorded that 45.9% of devadasis in one particular district were prostitutes, while most of the others relied on manual labour and agriculture for their income. The practice of dedicating devadasis was declared illegal by the government of the Indian state Karnataka in 1982 and by the government of Andhra Pradesh in 1988. However as of 2006 the practice was still prevalent in around 10 districts of northern Karnataka and 14 districts in Andhra Pradesh. Devadasis are also known by various other local terms, such as jogini. Furthermore, the devadasi practice of religious prostitution is known as basivi in Karnataka and matangi in Maharastra. In some western and southern parts of India, unfortunate widows are offered to religious institutions and are condemned to lead the life of a prostitute. Young and innocent girls, sold as ‘temple girls’, are kept in temples, waiting to be auctioned.

Slavery in the guise of temple girls has, of course, the sanction of religion as has been proved by quoting Hindu texts.

Could Hindu culture still be considered as believing in equality? Such atrocities and vulgarities in the name of religion, though loathsome, reveal the true picture, and if Hindus still persist in their preconceived ideas, no better example of self-deception could be cited.


[(1) Download the 2004 report by the National Human Rights Commission of the Government of India. Click Here

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 3.7 / 5. Vote count: 59

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Related Articles

Back to top button