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Female sleves in early india

Female sleves in early india

Author: Dr.Anita Singh ,history department BHU, ,

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B 32/16 A-Fla.2/1,Gopalkunj Nariya,Lanka,Varanasi

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Research.Letter Number V.34654,Registration Number 533/2007-2008

Published in India

By MPASVO,Varanasi

© MPASVO 2010

© Dr. Anita Singh,BHU,Varanasi

First Published 2010


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permission of writer.Enquiries should be sent to the MPASVO and writer at the address above.

ISBN 13 : 978-81-908511-3-8

ISBN 10 : 81-908511-3-8

Bookset By Maheshwar Shukla in Times New Roman 12/15

Printed By MPASVO Press

Published By MPASVO Maneesha Publication

B 32/16 A-Fla.2/1,Gopalkunj Nariya,Lanka,Varanasi

Dedicated to My Father

Raj Narain Singh




Introduction i-iv

1. Historiographical Shifts in the Studies 1-7

of Female Slaves in Early India

2. Evolution and Development of Slavery 8-25

in Early India

3. Different Types of Female Slaves and 26-56

their Functions in Early India

4. Social Attitude towards Female Salves 57-84

and Slavery

Conclusion 85-90

Bibliography 91-96



This book is the result of my observation during my thesis

study on ‘Economic Condition of Women in Ancient India’ that

female slaves were a significant section of early Indian society

but their role and contribution have not been properly recognized

till now. This was a neglected branch of indological studies and

an independent study on this topic was called for.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to Professor Laxman Rai,

Head of Department of History, B.H.U for his constant motivation

and encouragement. I would like to thank Professor Anand

Shankar Singh, Professor Sumitra Gupta, and Professor R.P.Singh

for their blessings and good wishes for the completion of this

book. I am extremely grateful to my sir Professor J.S.Mishra for

his valuable suggestions.

My father Raj Narain Singh has always been a source of

inspiration for me. This book could see the light only because of

my husband Sandeep Kumar Singh. But for his emotional support

and wonderful management, this book would not have been

possible. Lastly I have a sense of guilt feeling as I have completed

this book in a time which I should have otherwise spent on my

newly born baby. Words are ill-suited to articulate feelings, more

so, when the load of feelings is greater than the words could





This book is an effort of searching the identity of the

female slaves of early India based on historical perspective to

assign them a rightful place in the early Indian history so that

they are visible on historical stage. In history reading we often

come across such common expressions as the king and queen

and their number of dasis…. so on and so forth. We easily

recognize the king or queen and talk about them many times but

we fail to take notice of the dasis surrounding them. This is our

elitist outlook which fails to identify with the masses. The writings

of early India have been elite in nature and female slave labour

got only a passing reference in the role of assisting their masters.

It was a partial representation from above as only women of high

birth could find their way in the historical literature. History should

be depiction of masses not just the classes and in this light this

work would help in restoring the rightful place to lower order

women of early India.

The sources relied on for this book are largely textual but

with a critical analysis along with the epigraphic corroboration.

The literary sources include the secular and non-secular literature

e.g Vedic and allied literature, the Sanskrit epics, the Buddhist

texts, the Dharmasutras, the Arthasastras etc. There are some

limitations of these sources as early Indian literatures are didactic

and normative in nature with respect to women. These literature

project an ideal concept of womanhood. On the otherhand the

epigraphic records offer us variations and even deviations from

the norms of literature. The historical investigation of epigraphic

records speaks of real women in place of ideal women, those

figuring in epigraphic records are real women in flesh and blood,

who once walked on the stage of history. The actual history is

interplay between the two, one is incomplete without the other.

The early socio-philosophical texts needs to be re-emphasized

and reinterpreted to recover and restore the lost Indian tradition

and assigning a rightful place to real Indian women.

The reasons for choosing the ‘dasis’ as the subject matter

of the study is to make a complete study of dasis as an independent

identity of early India. The emergence of dasis had brought

significant changes in the socio-economic and religious rights

and status of Arya women and had left a deep impact on the early

Indian society. In the Vedic age dasis outnumbered the dasas in

strength and gradually they had a distinct economic role to play

in early societies. It was a huge section of working class which

was earning its livelihood on its own and was not dependent on

the male counterpart. The dasis were given in large numbers as

gift to brahamanas in dana and dakshina as it was necessary for

them to go thorough the process of aryanisation or acculturation

and it is possible that the agency for this diffusion was the priests.

The fact that the dasis were a significant section of the society

becomes obvious as ancient lawgivers had to frame special laws

for them to safeguard their interests as they were conscious about

the vulnerability of the dasis position. The concern of the ancient

smrtikaras is commendable as they were quite affectionate towards

the dasis.

The objective of writing this book is for the removal of

invisibility of women labour force and identifying the problems

specific to them. Either the female slave labour was invisible in

the academic writings or if at all visible it wasn’t recognized by

the scholars and if recognized then it was undervalued when

compared to men’s work. The early writings were endocentric in

Introduction ii

approach. The economic theories and methodologies kept

women’s work out of its domain largely because it couldn’t be

measured in monetary terms and it was not strictly based on the

laws of conventional principle of demand and supply. Identifying

and recognizing the household tasks are still beyond the preview

of the research models and methodologies. The tool of research

needs to be modified and changed as these are woefully inadequate

to incorporate the female slave labour. There is need to change

the paradigm to study the lower order women labour of early

Indian societies.

Historically speaking women were always the equal

partners with men in the production-distribution processes. In

early Indian societies the women labour force was caste and class

bound. With the emergence of class societies and stratification

women economic role didn’t disappear but under went a change.

The creation of patriarchy did have some amount of community

and clan control over women and their sexuality but not on all

women in general e.g. Rgvedic society was divided in women of

conquering tribes i.e Aryan women and women of conquered

tribes i.e dasis. Aryan women of high birth came to withdraw

from the public production processes and their place in the

economy was taken over by the dasis who were free to engage in

any kind of economic activities. The labour and sex of dasis was

under the control of Aryans which replaced the Aryan women

labour and consequently the Aryan women receded to domestic

chores upholding the ideal concept of womanhood. The dasis

couldn’t afford to follow this Aryan model of womanhood as they

had to labour out for their livelihood. The increasing dependence

on agriculture as the major source of food, shifted the scene of

food production from outside the households to the fields, the

labour of the subjugated people including the dasis was extracted

to work in the land and this enabled the Aryan women to be

restricted to the households.

Historians have generally associated the dasis with the

domestic and low kind of tasks which didn’t require necessary

iii Introduction

skill and thus their economic activities hardly found place in

historical records. But in present globalized world the outlook

has changed towards these jobs of household. My contention is

that the dasis household duties were equally valuable as any other

economic activity and that they were not just confined to

household domestic chores but they were engaged in many other

open field tasks too. Dasi labour was available for agriculture

sector and they were employed in royal establishments in different

roles, engaged with the dasas in different manufacturing sectors

of early Indian society.

There is a need to change the perception and outlook while

studying lower class women at work in order to give a reasoned

account of their role in early Indian societies. It’s often difficult

to draw a line of demarcation between the female slave or a maid

servant or a social class (sudras) as they overlap each other in the

early Indian society.

Even in the globalized world the domestic work is not

seen as a real occupation even when domestic work absorbs a

significant proportion of the total workforce. In India of the total

domestic workers population nearly 90% of them are women.

They account for more than 12% of the women workers in urban

India. Even today the domestic workers are not covered under

any legislation. The society must be encouraged to recognize their

importance and contribution to the economy. In India even to this

day the domestic workers are not covered in any of the labour

laws, a legislation that addresses the rights of the domestic workers

is indispensable and for this the mindset of the society needs to

be changed.


Introduction iv



Historiographical Shifts in the Studies of

Female Slaves in Early India

Dasi (female slaves) performing servile labour is a

common expression of our ancient texts which drew my attention

to delineate the historiographical shifts in the studies made so far

on female slaves of early India. Scholars have been writing on

the status and position of slaves in early Indian societies and quite

a number of articles in different journals and chapters on slavery

have been coming forth hither to. In this chapter an attempt has

been made to put forward the trends of history writing on female

slaves in ancient India.

The institution of slavery was universally prevailing in

societies across the world in different modes and forms. Dasis in

India were a working section carrying out different functions of

the society. Early lawgivers were conscious about the vulnerability

of this working class and made enough provisions to safeguard

their rights and interests. The legal protection extended to female

slaves is elaborately dealt with by ancient smrtikaras which also

reveals that they must have been in great number that drew

attention of the early thinkers. Female slaves were engaged in

different tasks and based on their nature of work they had different

nomenclatures. Historians have till now looked upon the dasis

work as works of low nature which didn’t demand any skill and

proficiency, but on the basis of this very work being performed

by the present day women they are considered emancipated and

empowered. If this is the case then early women slaves were

equally empowered as the women of contemporary society. In

the recent years scholars have come to recognize the domestic

tasks of women in the role of wives and mothers as their labour

contribution. There is a need to change the paradigm of research

studies to incorporate the women labour within the four walls of

the household as this could not be measured in monetary terms

and did not fit in the conventional laws of demand and supply of

economic discipline. In this light the dasis performing many of

the domestic chores assumes greater significance.

There is a need to change the outlook towards the dasis

and accord them their rightful place in early historical writings.

Although in recent decades there is a trend of subaltern studies of

historical writing (from below) but this seems to have had least

impact on the studies being made on the dasis of early India. We

need to study dasis both on gender lines and as labour class of the

early society. The early history writing was elite in nature and

dasis as servile labour class got only a passing reference in the

role of assisting their overlords. If they were to be looked upon

from gender point even then ‘women studies’ as a stream of studies

has appeared relatively late in the decade of 80’s and 90’s. It was

only daughters, wives and widow with whom early writers were

obsessed with i.e., women in family institution and viewing this

as an index of their status in Hindu civilization broad

generalizations have been made so far about the women’s

condition in early India. The reason for this is that early historians

were chiefly preoccupied with brahmanical sources as a result

only women of high birth could find their way into the history

books. It was a partial view from the above, for them society

constituted of only daughters, wives and widows. Of late limited

attempts are made to focus on women outside the domesticity,

women other than the royalty i.e the female labour class of early

societies. Dasis were a significant section of ancient India and

only an analytical microscopic study of this subordinate and

2 Female Slaves in Early India

marginal section would do justice to them in understanding their

psychology and their socio-economic position in early India.

‘Slavery’ became the point of attraction because of

industrialization in Europe where slavery was abolished by

adopting legislative measures and colonial India followed the

shoot. An attempt to trace the historicity of slavery was made

then on. Another factor that gave encouragement to studies of

slaves was the emergence of the industrial working class interalia

including women workers. Prior to independence, women

workers in ancient India didn’t find a place for exclusive study

among Indian scholars, who were generally influenced by

nationalism. Even the British impearlist and colonial outlook

didn’t allow western scholars and British historians to work on

the working class of ancient India, but the emergence of trade

unions, organizations and the freedom struggle motivated some

Indian scholars such as N.C.Bandopadhaya1, Prannath2 who have

thrown light to some extent on female labourers along with dasis.

Bandopadhaya has opined that most of the dasa and dasis were

domestic servants and were probably well treated, though violence

to them was not illegal. S.N.Basu3 in his article has put emphasis

on domestic slavery at the time of Jatakas. Female slaves were

mostly studied in the light of modern maid servants; a parallel of

them was sought in the dasis of early India. They failed to

recognize that female slaves had numerous duties outside the

domesticity. Right from the Vedic age onwards female slaves can

be noticed labouring out in agriculture fields and participated in

the productive processes of the society. In 1940, A.N.Bose4 made

the first attempt to make an independent study and according to

him female slaves were often kept for enjoyment and sometimes

it is difficult to demarcate them from prostitutes or concubines.

So far as the treatment is concerned, he opined that the horrible

and inhumane treatment meted out to female slaves by their

masters5. Even Bose’s study doesn’t reflect scientific vigour as

the conclusions drawn are inadequate as this was not the general

feature but some instances quoted out of proportion because there

Historiographical Shifts in The Studies of Female Slaves in Early India 3

are numerous instances of dasis being well cared for and treated

by their masters. B.C.Law6 in his article has thrown ample light

on different kinds of slavery based on Vidhurapandita Jataka,

Manusamhita, Arthasastra, Jain literature. S.A.Dange’s7 work is

remarkable for he has attempted to depict the role of women and

their participation and control of productive processes.

Any study of slaves/female slaves would be incomplete

without going through R.S.Sharma’s8 book ‘Sudras in Ancient

India’ wherein he has raised some basic issues as to whether dasa/

dasis always belonged to the sudra caste as very often sudras

were reduced to slaves, ‘there is evidence to show that the dasas

mostly belonged to the sudra varna. This can be deduced from

the phrase, suddo va sudda-daso va9, which is used by the Buddha

to define the position of the sudra after his enumeration of the

first three varnas10. For R.S.Sharma it means the sudra, who is a

slave, but not all slaves were sudras as men and women of high

birth might be reduced to slavery. K.M.Saran11 in his book fails

bitterly to do any kind justice to the title as the author’s undue

reliance on Arthasastra lacks historical objectivity. The author

has covered the entire range of dasis in just a paragraph. On the

other hand D.R.Chanana’s12 work is a pioneer step to bring forth

a complete picture of the institution of slavery based on pali texts,

epic literature and the Arthasastra. He has made a through study

of female slaves and their origin, types of slaves, their mode of

payment etc. Except for this book only articles and chapters

devoted to slavery have been put forward by the early historians.

D.D.Kosambi13 in his work states that a social formation based

on the slave mode of production in the classical European sense

never existed in India at any period and the importance of chattel

slavery in the relations of production as the supply of labour for

production was negligible. Marxist scholars were of the opinion

that slavery didn’t constitute the main basis of production at any


P.C.Jain14 seems to throw significant light on dasis as a

labour class in ancient India. L.Gopal15 discusses that there is

4 Female Slaves in Early India

nothing to show that the slaves (dasi-dasi) were exclusively used

for economic enterprises or that upon them depended the

economic life of the times. Rekha Rani Sharma16 has presented

Kautilya as a very liberal lawgiver who took a bold step to abolish

this institution of slavery, “Kautilya’s ideas on slavery reflect a

revolution of the slaves for freedom and a systematic attempt to

abolish this institution for all in a secular state.’’ I disagree with

her derivation of Kautilya as his legal provisions are more to

provide legal security and protection rather than freedom to slaves.

Saroj Gulati17 has dealt women slaves with an analytical approach.

By the mid eighties the women’s liberation movement

had gained momentum and the current phase of debate on women

empowerment is a by product of an urbanized middle class in

academic circles and as a consequence of it the women working

class was recognized gradually as a subject of women studies.

The article of Uma Chakaravarty18 was an attempt in this direction;

she draws our attention to a host of problems associated with

early dasis. She talks about the predominance of women slaves

over male slaves in Vedic period. According to her the dana (gift)

of dasis in huge numbers to the brahamanas was made because

dasis provided cheap labour, they were producers and replenishers

of the declining stock of the Aryans, thus it was necessary for

them to go through a process of acculturation and aryanisation.

The article of Lavkush Dwiedi19 extends an exhaustive list of

dasis in premedieval age and throws enough light on their status

in the society, master and dasi relationship, functions performed

by them, different kind of dasis found in the premedieaval age

and a comparison with the female slaves of the west. Another

crucial work is that of A.K.Tyagi 20which while providing a

detailed list of women workers is actually talking about the female

slaves in ancient India. The line of demarcation between the dasis

and labouring class is not very clear. If his callousness in putting

up the reference is to be ignored then it is an extremely useful

piece of literature for the study of female slaves in early India.

Historiographical Shifts in The Studies of Female Slaves in Early India 5


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