Use of bondservant

I’m very much enjoying the plain(er) English translations of Bhante @sujato but I’m struck by the use of ‘bondservant’. Is this a usual word in other English speaking regions? It sounds quite antiquated (or foreign) to my 2018 southcoast of England ears. I’m wondering why the (perhaps) more obvious ‘slave’ was not used?


I don’t think bondservant necessarily means the same thing as slave. We would probably use the term in the US “Indentured servant”, whereas “slave” is more analagous to chattel slavery as practiced in the US and new world (of course we had a lot of indentured servitude here as well). But that is running off of modern definitions based on historical experience since the time of the Buddha. Based on what little I have read, it sounds like chattel slavery (slaves as property, their children as property in perpetuity) was not exactly practiced in the area the Buddha taught, but indentured servitude was common. “Bondservant” would imply some kind of agreement (bond) was made at some point for labor. Whether that agreement was made between the laborer or the laborer’s keeper/parent/etc. is not very clear to me.


Yes, it was one of those difficult choices. As is widely agreed, “slavery” in ancient India was quite different from what we usually perceive as being slavery today, which dharmacorps is referring to as “chattel slavery”.

A good example of this is the story in MN 21, where the “maid” (dāsī, female slave) tests her mistress by getting up late. She sees this as a legitimate way of testing her mistress’s temperament, and does so repeatedly, and is critical of her mistress for snapping at her. But when the mistress, at the end of her tether, resorts to physical discipline, the maid runs down the street and tells all the neighbours. Such a thing is regarded as being utterly beyond the pale.

Such stories are far from isolated. In the Jatakas, for example, we read of a time when a dāsī asks her mistress for the day off so she can go a picnic with some friends. Her mistress is not only happy to do so, she lends her maid expensive jewellery to wear.

And, as is well known, the Greek ambassador Megasthenes, who stayed in the court of Chandagupta, declared that there was no slavery in India. Clearly he was wrong, but it is telling that he simply did not recognize the institution.

Nevertheless, such servants were clearly owned by their masters, they were not free, and thus were a kind of slave. But since the term “slave” has such extreme and emotional connotations in modern English, I looked for a word that would be more neutral, but without hiding the fact that they were not free.

“Indentured servant” is, I agree, probably the most accurate term. But by golly, is it clumsy! I settled on “bondservant” as being both reasonably accurate and reasonably usable.

Is that right? I assumed the “bond” simply meant they were “bound”, i.e. unfree.

It’s also not clear to me. There is little in the Buddhist texts on how people came to be indentured servants. It is clear that one might move between being free and indentured, but little else. I am sure there would be more in the brahmanical texts.


Thankyou Bhante and Nick. Very interesting, and the choice makes good sense.

I had thought that indentured servant might be what was meant when I read bondservant, but I felt compelled to Google bondservant, whereas I doubt that I would’ve felt that way with indentured servant. I think this is because indentured servant feels more ‘current’.

Edit: When reading ancient texts, I tend to think of ‘slavery’ in terms of Rome rather than the USA.


You can’t reasonably say that its ‘not’ OK that people are sexist and treat females in a way that is disrespectful or, its ‘not’ OK that they are permitted to beat females if they see fit and, then say, well, its OK that people can - or did - ‘OWN’ people/slaves - that they could threaten with violence if they wished, even if it was frowned upon by others.

Why would you wish to ‘NOT’ make it clear that these people were slaves i.e. they were owned and, could be beaten by their owner? They were not free to make their own decisions, others had the culturally sanctioned right to control these people and make them do what they did not want to do - because they were property, the master/mistress had property-rights over them, is this not reason enough to make it clear how these people were regarded and what their actual status was within the culture?

Excessive abuse and violence may have been frowned upon, but the very fact they were entitled to ‘OWN’ and ‘BEAT’ the people/slaves - at all - even if ‘Mr. Anandapants’ down the road did not approve, is not acceptable - don’t you think? The very fact that they were owned and did not have the liberties enjoyed by other people in the society is an incredible act of cruelty and violence ‘in and of’ itself.

I think it is important to clearly define the status of these people. If, they were owned - the property of another human being - in that culture then, they are not free agents who were able to come and go as they pleased, at least, not far away without permission and, would be required to obey the directives of their master/mistress and, could be threatened with violence for noncompliance etc.

“Have a nice picnic dear-slave, here’s some nice clothes you can wear, but, be home in time to make my dinner and massage my back. Don’t forget to get up before dawn to milk the cows!”

There is a difference between a bond-servant and a slave. For instance, a bonded labourer or servant may be in that sorry situation in order to pay back a debt. Can a bond-servant be bought and sold, inherited or, given away by their ‘owner’ like any other piece of property they may own - like a bicycle or, a magazine collection or, a record player? A ‘bonded’ work arrangement is not good but the person in that situation is not owned by the person they are working for - correct?

It does not matter if the slave-owner was/is kind-hearted or that the society may have had less cruel standards in their treatment of their slaves - a slave is a slave - and this is an obscene practice that should not be ameliorated by saying something like: oh, at least they were kind to their slaves! That’s not so bad is it?

If you went to a Dana-offering for lunch and were served by slaves - ‘smiling ones’ in nice clothes - how would you feel about that? Would you be happy to go back to the slave-owner for lunch the next day and not ‘bat an eyelid’ about what he was doing to other human beings?

The slaves may have been as happy as can be and treated like royalty and that would not change the fact that they were still being treated as ‘objects’ - possessions - which is wrong (plain and simple). Slavery was a bad thing to do in the ancient world and its still not a good idea in today’s world - is this not the case? Or, do you disagree?

It would be disrespectful to the life of slaves to portray their situation in a light that would suggest that they were quite lucky really - relatively speaking. Would you like to be a slave? Maybe you would, but if you did, it would not be fair and reasonable for you to say to other slaves: ‘what are you complaining about, your master treats you in a kind way and you should be grateful for this, slavery is OK if you are treated in a kind way, treated nicely ?’

If these people were ‘owned’ by others, then they were slaves - correct?

It’s best ‘not’ to candy-coat slavery - that’s not a good idea! Human beings do not have a right to own other human beings as this is clearly ethically on the nose - in a big way! I don’t care if a slave owner is a kindly Buddhist, if they were to buy my daughters and turn them into slaves then we would have a big problem!

These people who were slaves in the Buddha’s time were the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandma’s and cousins, relatives of people who were not slaves.

Would you be happy about it if one of your close relatives or friends was kept as a slave? Would it be OK with you that a loved-one or good friend was bought, sold or, exchanged as someone’s personal property? Its important to point out that these people - in the Buddha’s time - were slaves!

Its just because these people lived long ago and you have no personal connection with them as relatively free-agents in your personal life, people who you could feel sad about if they were ‘TAKEN’ into slavery, that you/we have the luxury of distance to be ‘casual’ about their lives?

Even if they were ‘BORN’ into slavery and were treated nicely all their lives, would that make slavery an acceptable practice - in your eyes? Oh, what lucky slaves they were in the Buddha’s day, they weren’t forced to work on the plantation and were whipped and tortured in the course of their slave-lives! Firstly, we don’t actually know exactly how these people were treated? Apparently, they could be threatened with beatings if they did not obey the orders of their owner - isn’t that bad enough for you to see that this practice is/was deeply offensive - deeply unethical? If they were owned people ‘slaves’ you need to tell the truth! Do not sugar-coat slavery! Its not good!

The last problem in this is it may give people who are new to Buddhism a false and misleading impression that slavery was not part of the fabric of society during the Buddha’s life and times. If you don’t make it clear in your translation that these people were owned - that they were ‘slaves’ - and slavery was accepted there, then you are distorting something about the nature of that culture that is important to understand. You would be giving the false impression that that culture was more enlightened and progressive in a way that it clearly was not! I am sure you don’t want to make Buddhism appear more palatable by omitting the simple fact that people were owned in the culture the Buddha lived in and, probably bought and sold to the highest bidder! Let people know the truth about this - these people were not free citizens - free agents, they were just another possession like farm animals and other privately owned property.

It may also give people a false-impression about the religion of the time - including the Buddha’s dispensation. People need to know that slavery was practiced in the Buddha’s lifetime. They should also have the opportunity to get their head-around the fact that the Buddha may well have lived in his aristocratic life - before the renunciation - in the company of slaves. He may even have been a slave owner when he was a rich aristocrat? We may get some insight into why the Buddha did not seem to see a major ethical dilemma with slavery if we get a sense of how he was born-into a culture were this was normal-practice. At that time, it may have been hard to imagine why slavery - owning people as a personal possession - was wrong, indecent. It was just there and nobody had any perspective with which to think of an alternative - perhaps. This can tell us things about negative conditioning and the harm that it brings to our lives. Even the Buddha could have been blinded to this injustice because it was simply a cultural-given.

In our society and culture in the modern world we also need to question socio-cultural ‘givens’ and the harm that they can do. Our survival may depend on it - don’t you think? By telling the truth it can help us all see more clearly and act responsibly.

Do you own an iPhone? Bought clothes from Uniqlo? Tasted Thai shrimp?

All of these things have been, or are still being created with bondservants, too.

The real message we should take from it, instead, is that we are so lucky to be alive in good health in good status. Let us practice the dharma instead of contemplate how the Buddha judged slavery, or how we can possibly act ‘responsibly’ or ‘respectfully.’

That’s because the debt we incur by being alive is simply too great to pay back in this lifetime via worldly means. Instead, one must go past worldly means to do so.

1 Like

I did some googling and you are right-- “Bound” is probably the origin–complicated by the fact that the word “bond” originates from the word “bound” in English.
Interestingly, the word bondservant is used often in the bible and is also interpreted with difficulty among Christians-- somewhere between slave and servant (sometimes a period of servitude, sometimes indefinitely but certainly less than “free”). But I think your translation is accurate, Bhante, it is merely our own modern understanding of past concepts which is challenging.


This is not a clear definition or understanding of the status of these people in the EBT’s or anywhere else. We may all be in a service role - sometimes for a period of time and sometimes indefinitely? What would this actually tell us about our status in society? What does this actually tell us about the status of these people in the culture in that day and age? To use modern terminology: are they slaves or are they free? Are they owned or are they under some kind of obligation to serve but are not owned? What’s the difference? Can you see a difference - or not? Ajahn says (from above):

What is the reason given for not making it ‘crystal clear’ that this was a culture where slavery was practiced?

As far as I can tell, whether a slave is treated like a V.I.P. or whether they are treated poorly there is still good-reason to have this strange histrionic modern reaction to it? Are we meant to consider slavery as something that we should feel calm and accepting about - not that bad really - if the slaves are treated with kindness? If its such a benign and undisturbing practice in and of itself as long as the owners are good natured and benevolent then, why not reintroduce it? I don’t understand why they even bothered to get rid of it? Maybe, they just should have reformed the system and made it clear that those people who were owned by other people were given legal protections? For instance, they could not be bashed without sufficient cause?

There may have been some kind of social-norm that slave owners conformed to that deemed it ‘distasteful’ and improper for owned-people to be assaulted by their owners but, what if the Master/Mistress had just received some bad news? What if they were feeling a great deal of stress and ‘slaveee’ was filling up the water pots and, a nice one gets knocked on the floor? What if the owner/Master lashes-out and assaults the slave? Does the slave have a way of accusing the owner of assault - unjustified cruelty etc? Could a slave demand a socially-determined form of protection from his moody and violent owner etc. Maybe, just maybe, not all slave-holders were civilised and good-natured people. Because it was an accepted practice, very un-nice and violent people may have been permitted to own slaves as well. This may be seen as a glitch in the system?

Surely, there must have been many instances of abuse just because these people were ‘human’ and not all humans are good people, at least, not all of the time. Is that not reason enough not to candy-coat slavery under any circumstances for any reason?

If a non-slave was beaten by another non-slave (equals) in that society then, this would have ‘NOT’ been something that was merely ‘frowned upon’ but unacceptable. If it was acceptable, then, this would be another sign of the unacceptable violence practiced in that culture and, it could ‘not’ be justified by the fact, that this kind of violence is still prevalent today (even when the law prohibits it).

The argument that, people are just cruel, selfish and, violent by ‘nature’ and, this is just how it is - is not good enough! We cannot just accept violence and assault because it is deemed ‘normal’ - just human nature - by people who believe this is so?

These considerations tells me that slavery is never OK - whether slaves are treated kindly - or not. If these people were owned and could be assaulted without any consequences other than an admonition - or even ostracisation - by a free-peer/peers, then we have a serious problem in that culture - don’t you think?

We need to remember that these ‘slaves’ in the Buddha’s time were threatened with violence - its made clear in the teaching by the Buddha: in the teaching about the ‘slave wife’ in the ‘Anguttara Nikaya’. In that teaching, it seems to say, a slave-wife accepts the violence of their husband - without complaint. They can be beaten and are expected to humbly and submissively accept this - without question! Perhaps, feign normality - the potential for violence was accepted in the relationship - and, just get on with their daily duties etc.

I think this is sufficient reason to not candy-coat this practice - slavery - in order to buffer and protect the sensitive minds of a modern audience. Just in case, they get a bad impression of Buddhism. Just in case, they experience a disquieting emotion if they hear or read about slavery - heaven forbid!

One of those bad impressions might be: why was this not challenged by the Buddha? Why did he not speak out about this? I believe these are questions that people should rightly ask and seek to understand - for the insight it can provide. To cover-up this fact by sanitising the language or, diluting the meaning, would be misleading.

Are you saying we should find more sympathetic and benign understandings of slavery? Something like: slavery was not a bad-thing if the ‘Masser’ was kind!

“I hazza kind Massa he don’t whip me and he let me go on picnics and give me a mighty-fine setta clothes to wear! Well, my Massa is mighty fine, mighty fine!”

Sorry, there is nothing acceptable or mighty fine or, commendable about believing you can own other human beings and use them for your personal interests - period!

No matter how well someone is treated, if they are held in captivity then, they are a prisoner. If someone is ‘owned’ by another person - no matter how well they are treated - they are in a state of slavery. By definition, the master owns the slave - true or false?

What does it mean to be possessed? If our minds are overrun with defilements, if our minds are possessed by ill-will, greed, ignorance, what does this mean? It means that we are not free - we are possessed - we are enslaved by that which keeps us from freedom (liberation). Its important to know what freedom and slavery really means - in the Dhamma - and in our relationships. In our lives together - as Buddhists - we try to realise greater freedom through unconditional love, practical care and mutual support.

1 Like

The fact that people sometimes treat their slaves kindly does not mean they aren’t slaves. Roman slaves were also sometimes treated well, and were in some cases esteemed and highly educated members of the household. But they were the property of their masters.


Also, here in the US, and I assume many other places, I can be arrested and prosecuted for mistreating my dog. Nevertheless, my dog is my property, and I lead him about on a leash. In some countries, there might have been similar legal restrictions on the acceptable treatment of slaves.


As a consequence of the observations about slaves you have drawn attention to in your comments, what do you think is the right word or term that should be used - as an English translation?

Nobody except you is debating the morality of slavery so I have no idea how that became a soapbox for you to stand on here.

1 Like

It seems to me that the main purpose of the suttas isn’t to become indignant about ancient Indian human rights abuses, but to provide us with teachings that point the way to freedom from craving. The word slave is more distracting than bondservant and so to my mind is a more appropriate translation.


Translators shouldn’t introduce euphemisms into historical texts to coddle the sensibilities of faithful.

1 Like

a person bound in service without wages.
a slave or serf.

It’s only euphemistic in affective connotation but is fully accurate in cognitive content. Therefore, it is an appropriate translation conducive to the maintenance of a dispassionate perspective.

1 Like

The translator’s job is not to introduce or maintain a dispassionate perspective. It is to render the language that is there with its most accurate translations.

1 Like

How is bondservant less accurate than slave? They’re synonyms.

1 Like

It depends what the actual historical circumstances were. There are various ways a person might be bound to service without wages. As mentioned earlier, they might accept some kind of bondage in order to pay a debt. Or the social traditions of the society might allow a parent to deliver a child into bondage to pay off the debt. A question that then arises is how the society views that bondage. Is the bound person literally part of the property of the one holding the bond? Can the person be bought and sold? Can the person be passed down to inheritors as part of an estate?

I suppose part of the problem here is that not enough is known.