Is owning slaves considered as wrong livelihood?

King Bimbisara, Buddha’s father both should have slaves, yet got attainments.

Wrong livelihood is of trading in living beings, so slave traders is wrong livelihood. But what of the people who buy the slaves and use them? And those who just force people into slavery for themselves but not trading the slaves?


Interesting point.

Let’s take a drug dealer vs drug user as an example. Drug use is pretty much (mostly) a self hurting breaking of the 5th precept. Being a drug dealer should be a much worse offense as you hurt others and cause people to break a precept.

Slaves, it’s a bit more different, because having slaves, you’re participating in the slavery (and potentially the suffering of others). But just because someone had “slaves” doesn’t mean they were bad people or they treated slaves badly (ancient slavery is a more nuanced subject than our modern conceptions, and there are a lot of notable slaves throughout history with great fame, education even material power).

But perhaps directly participating in the trade, making it your source of income, is different. You can control the kind of lives your own slaves lead, treating them well, so not really accumulating bad karma, but selling slaves to whoever bids higher, now you can’t really control the outcome, and can cause a lot more suffering.

It’s an interesting subject tho, one that should be considered with nuance. :slight_smile:


By what greed-driven standard is owning and controlling the lives of other humans not dark, or at least, dark-grey kamma?

A tourist asked, at what was once a southern plantation in the US that “owned” enslaved people, whether some enslaved people may have benefited from it.
The African-Amercan tour guide replied, “It’s like asking if a kidnapped child benefits from being kidnapped, no matter how they’re treated.”


My opinion say Karma Law does not abide by the Algebra Law. There are no A + B = C. In fact, A will fruit to A’ and B will fruit to B’.

King Bimbisara slavery act will result on its own. Although he was an Ariya someday he will take the fruit of slavery act he had done in his previous lifes.

It is the same with Bh. Mogallana, although he was an Arahant, but he died a tragic death. Why? Because his previous karmic act requires to be settled.

Again, if you don’t want to understand the nuances of the topic, that’s fine.

Ancient slavery was a lot more different than US Slavery. Some slaves even had their own slaves. We don’t mean the same thing when talking about “Slaves”. I’m not sure about India but in Ancient Rome and Islamic Empires, slaves had certain irrevocable rights and master were not above those laws.

Please do not understand my post as a promotion of viewing human lives as property - I don’t even enjoy that some people consider animals their property. But being able to deduce nuanced perspectives is skillful, friend.


Can you honestly complain about suffering and dependent origination and at the same time inflict just that on another living being ?

That goes for owning as well as buying …

If owning is wrong livelihood, then working in a jewelery store where one might trace the origin of the jewels to child slave labour is wrong livelihood.

Do focus on wrong livelihood, it maybe different from kamma.

Or working in a clothing company which uses exploitation of child labour etc.

[quote=“NgXinZhao, post:7, topic:33817, full:true”]
then working in a jewelery store where one might trace the origin of the jewels to child slave labour is wrong livelihood[/quote]

And possibly every profit made in capitalism that is not for manual labour or any kind of improvement …

This is serious, as wrong livelihood blocks stream entry, if lay people cannot get good clear guide on what’s the boundary of right livelihood, it’s not a good assurance for them to aim for stream entry.

Like eating meat is not a block for stream entry, but going to a live seafood restaurant to order a seafood to be killed for consumption is killing and wrong action.

One might expect some line to denote at which point does unintended consequences play into the factors of the path.

No trading in meat for example, I would say that a waiter in a restaurant that serves is wrong livelihood. But how about a janitor at hospital where they also serve meat? Or a professor of Buddhism in a university which has meat catering?

Of course, we should give up on our perceived possessions. Anything we think we own is anatta as well.

But slavery in ancient times had a lot more nuance than what it devolved into in US, even the treatment of white vs black slaves and subsequent racism was a big factor. We could even argue that, there are a lot of contractual obligations in nowadays that are like slavery with a few more steps, and thus Human Resources departments could be considered to be slave traders.

But going back in history, you would be hard pressed to find any kind of ruler who didn’t have slaves. It was literally the norm.

Slaves owned slaves. Slaves ruled districts, cities, empires. People voluntarily chose to become slaves in many cases, because the rights, privileges and livelihood the status offered. Being slaves to important figures was a prestigious status. This is clearly a different world than the one we’re accustomed to.

Just because I own (which, I actually don’t, but for the sake of argument) a laptop, doesn’t mean I’m abusing it, treating it badly, hurting it, inflicting suffering on it. Or, technically I own my cats depending on how you understand the animal passports and pet related laws. I don’t hurt, abuse, inflict suffering on my cats. Am I an evil person?

Yet, someone trading animals for a living might be in a different predicament, actually participating in the trade.

I think bhante raised an important and interesting topic that challenges our modern notions considerably. Of course, giving up householder life, we should relinquish our (notions) of possessions entirely. But perhaps, several kings and holy people from the past, despite owning slaves and still attaining attainments, teaches us a humble lesson in compassion and redemption, which I think it the most important part of this inquiry.

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Thanks for your response.

Of course there have been different systems of enslavement, some apparently less brutal than others.
The point was in response to “not really accumulating bad karma.”

Even when slavery was common and the social norm, it intrinsically was/ is involved with greed and ignorance. In the end, the owning of a person – even if they have some rights and are well-treated – is opposed to nekkhamma and the gradual extinguishment of lobha and avijjā,.

How is this not a form of “bad” and obstructive kamma with respect to liberation?

@NgXinZhao asked the interesting question

This is offered as a response to that question and to no accumulation of “bad” karma.
Turning this around, what would be the kamma of a person who freed their slaves with metta and compassion so they could choose to live their lives without being owned?

What happens afterwards to those who are freed is not the point here so much as the intention and mind state of the one who lets go. It seems to me they are less fettered and obstructed with less bad karma.

King Bimbisara, despite his attainments – if true – would still, imho, be obstructed and blocked by the grasping of ownership, power, and the self-sense that goes along with owning other humans who, in all such systems, are deprived of their ability to choose to live life as they wish, to freely go where they wish to go, etc.

In other words, with respect to “not accumulating bad karma”, the ownership of people, falls under sāvajja kamma, as in AN4.263.
Anyway, that’s my understanding.


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Also interesting to compare the parallels between the 5 wrong livelihood.

Alcohol: Buy and own alcohol, make alcohol.

Weapons: (especially USA) buy and own guns, make guns.

Poison: buy and own insect poisons, make poison.

Meat: buy and eat meat, make meat (is killing, so definitely wrong on action part of the path)

Trade in living beings: buy and own pets, make a wild animal into one’s own pet (eg. wild cat just happened to like oneself and follow one around), and the slave as mentioned above.

Would there be different standards to different trades? Like buying and eating meat is totally ok to even get to arahanthood, but why is that not ok if it is slaves? Or pets, are pets ok?

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The Buddha, in answer, would probably hold a meditation session :sweat_smile:

One aspect is the connection between right livelihood and right speech which assumes a social aspect - you’ve got to speak honestly in front of an assembly and also right action.

I have argued in the past that one needs to be open and honest in your income from livelihood, so that you are not, for example, stealing from the common wealth by not paying your due taxes by making a false tax declaration. I think that in most countries you would need to lie (or at the very least withhold information when requested) in order to own slaves or else you would be in big trouble. In those countries that have not directly criminalised slavery, there are often other laws such as tax laws that effectively make it a bad idea to openly declare income in kind from owning/using slaves. Internationally any country openly encouraging slavery is frowned upon these days I believe.

How to define “slavery” or “slave labor”? What made someone a slave in the 19th century, when slavery was a recognized institution identified with ownership over people? How can someone be defined as a slave, with any precision, in the 21st century, when ownership of people is not permitted by law? At first glance, one might imagine that the term “slave” in the 19th century meant a person over whom there was a true right of property; and it would therefore be misleading to use the term in the 21st century, as there are no legitimate property rights over people in a world in which slavery has been abolished.

I think another curious point here is that, as a prince himself, Siddhartha probably owned slaves before he was even born. That was just how common a practice it was.

Okay, I’ll go away now… :dotted_line_face:

I found this article interesting

@NgXinZhao - thanks for bringing this subject up Bhante

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When we examine the texts produced by the League of Nations and the United Nations, and other documents pertinent to the topic, we see that slavery is defined in international law as follows: “the state or condition of an individual over whom slavery is exercised, total or partially, some or all of the attributes of property rights.” It is important to note that the formulation does not speak of “property”, but of “attributes of property rights”. It may be useful to think of this definition as an algebraic formula: the exercise of powers – opens parentheses – inherent to the right of property – closes parentheses – over a person.

In other words, there are powers that are inherent to property and, if these powers are exercised over a person – even if they are not owned by anyone – the relationship can, in international law, be legally described as one of slavery. In some recent decisions, several courts have recognized the usefulness of this definition (which dates back to 1926, made by the League of Nations) and considered that various abuses committed both in times of war and peace can be understood as slavery. But if we separate the exercise of these powers from the property title itself, why use the word “slavery”? Wouldn’t it be an anachronism, since the word “slavery”, since at least the time of the Roman Empire, has referred to the ownership of people?

De jure slavery Vs de facto slavery? Interesting

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