Use of bondservant

Well, its interesting! There has been something said about owning people here and it may have escaped your notice? What makes this idea particularly interesting to me is that I heard it from an ‘Ajahn’ very early in my journey in Theravada Buddhism and somehow, I had not really given that much attention to it. I had a cheerful disposition and was very happy about what I was learning so when this idea landed in my mind I just kind-of took it on board without thinking much about it.

Its this notion of the ‘kindly slave owners’ during the Buddha’s life and times! It was told to me then and, it has been repeated in this thread - at least implied - that, it would seem, the people-owners at that time and place, are portrayed and ‘believed’ to have been fairly decent-folk - relatively speaking - who did not brutalise the people they owned. At least, excessive violence was ‘frowned upon’ therefore, the implication was/is, they were more benevolent slave-owners in comparison to the more horrific examples we read about in history. On hearing this nice little story about the kind slave-owners it did not occur to me - for some strange reason - to think about the wider implications of this attitude about the slavery practiced at the time of the Buddha.

Firstly, do we have a clear idea as to how these owned-people came to find themselves as one of the possessions - the personal property of - someone else? If we are not at all shore, as to whether these people were inherited, exchanged, bought and sold, selected for sale according to their attributes and abilities, age, sex etc. should we be quick to judge - from the information available to us - that there was nothing deeply unfair, improper and, indecent about this practice - at the time?

Lets say a member of the mercantile class or a farmer found that they were successful at what they did and, they were in need of more people to help them in their profession. Did they have access to owned-people that they could buy or exchange goods for or, acquire by some other means? Could they select the people who were best suited to the tasks they had in mind? Perhaps, strong young men to work as agricultural-slaves or, petite young ladies with ‘nimble fingers’ to help in tasks that required delicate handy work? What about the warrior/ruling class - after a successful campaign and the mass killing of rivals, could prisoners be taken and then turned into slaves? It seems to have been common practice at the time in neighbouring cultures that war-lords and their soldiers could behave in this way. Is it possible that it happened in that region, at that time, as well?

We might like to know at what age one could be acquired and used as an owned-person? We might want to ask questions about the full range of services that these slaves were required to perform in that culture? We may also want some clarification on the full disciplinary treatment of these people? What could ‘actually’ be done to them for lack of compliance, including those practices that were ‘frowned upon’ by the society, were simply met with disapproval but, not explicitly punishable i.e. resulting in a gaol-term or, a prohibition against owning slaves etc.? If anyone has some of - or all - the answers to these questions then, I would be grateful if you could share what you know?

If we don’t have sufficient background information about the lives and overall treatment of these human-commodities, then, how could we conclude that life may have been fairly nice and ‘not to bad’ for these people - relatively speaking? It seems to me, that coming to that understanding of slavery in this society on the basis of information like: ‘there is a story about a slave - in the EBT’S - about how they were allowed to go on a picnic and wear their owners jewellery’ - and other joyful events in the lives of slaves we find on record - seems a bit sketchy (inconclusive)? I don’t believe the evidence from these fragments give us sufficient reason to conclude: these slaves seemed to have had a pretty good life! Some of them, may have been loved by their owners, maybe that’s a good enough reason to think they had a good life - nothing much to be concerned about?

I don’t think we can reasonably conclude that the life of these owned-people was kind of OK from the slaves-picnic story and other happy-events in the lives of slaves - do you?

To even think that way about owned-people and their masters/mistresses in the first place is something I find difficult to stomach.

Maybe we should have one of those surveys that pop-up on this site from time to time? The question could be something like this: Do you believe kind-slavery may be an acceptable form of human/human interaction - as practiced in the past or in the present? Answer: tick the YES box or, the NO box!

This survey may seem strange at first glance, but when you think about it, something like this - a positive view of kind-slavery has actually been implied in this thread.

I think many people think the dhamma is a moral enterprise or an exercise entirely in metta. It’s not and aspects like metta, morals etc are part of the broader machinery of giving rise to Nibbana. It is aimed at that and tackling broader societal issues might have grounded the training and teaching aspects to a halt.

We don’t expect all institution to solve all of societies ills, except politicians, the legal profession and the police. Religions come close but Buddhism isn’t a bona fide ‘religion’. It’s closer to a practical behavioural, psychological and social training program.

With metta

Yes, a social training program - interesting - related to behaviour and psychology (state of mind). When we talk about people owning other people and using them to service their desires, needs, wants etc. It would seem to me, that has something to do with psychology, behaviour and, social training. These people were socially trained in this culture to own other people and use them in their service. This required a kind of psychological disposition towards other human beings - something going on in their minds - and behaviour (fetch me some water, peel my grapes, massage my feet - is that behaviour and social training?

Could a kindly Buddhist be engaging in their psycho-behavioural social training and also be a kindly person who owns other people and puts them to service in their fields, kitchens, workshops, bathhouse and sauna etc.? I would really like to know your honest answer to this last question - yes or no?

The silence is telling!

Or, is it just unbelievable?

How could we come to this and still not ‘see’?

I believe a kindly Buddhist could, provided he took care to honour and protect the lower direction.

"In five ways should workers and servants (dāsā) as the lower direction be respected by an employer: by allocating work according to aptitude, providing wages and food, looking after the sick, sharing special treats, and giving reasonable time off work.

"And, workers and servants so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: being willing to start early and finish late when necessary, taking only what is given, doing work well, and promoting a good reputation.

“In this way, the lower direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.”

Sigalovāda Sutta


No, not a terribly clear idea. Even when all the pertinent scraps of textual data have been assembled, I think there’s still a lot that we’re in the dark about.

For example, in the Vinaya Piṭaka’s section on the 1st saṅghādisesa rule for bhikkhunīs there is a gloss on the word dāsa in which we’re told that they were of three kinds: those born as slaves (antojāta), those bought for money (dhanakkīta) and those captured in raids (karamarānīta). But the gloss doesn’t go into any more detail than this. We’re not told, for example, how it came about that the bought slaves were up for sale in the first place.

Hullo folks, the discussion seems to have strayed off topic. If anyone wants to pursue the issue of slavery further rather than the original question of the a suitable translation for a given word, please start another thread if it fits in with the theme of this forum. Thanks.


Thank you Bhante I am getting a clearer picture now - it’s helpful. When it comes to the reference to ‘servants’ above, separating them from ‘workers’, what do you conjecture was different about these 2 kinds of lower end people?

The other question that comes to me is related to the four kinds of slaves - how about the ones who were captured in raids? I am wondering if a Buddhist went out and bought some members of a family that were captured in a raid. Presumably, people who did not want to be captured and sold into slavery, people who enjoyed their free-status before they were carted off as booty from a raid on the land they occupied, who then found themselves being offered for sale as commodities in a human-market place, who may have had some of their family members sold off to another buyer, perhaps, the teenage daughter was sold to an entrepreneur, who owned a dancing troupe that provided entertainment at late night parties for the kshatriya’s or wealthy and successful merchants!

So, the kindly Buddhist slave-owner comes along and says, I will have the boy and his mother! Then, he pays the price and everybody cooperates because they are so miserable and depressed and resigned to their fate, having lost all hope and the will to live, when the daughter was sold off.

Would this kindly Buddhist slave-owner be practicing nicely, if he told his human-possessions that they were allowed to go on picnics occasionally and he promised to smile at them when they were cleaning out the cess-pit or rubbing his tired legs, fanning him and, were attentive to his every personal requirement. Emptying the spittoon etc. ?

A dāsa is owned; a kammakara is hired.


I could just move it to discussion @Aminah?

Edit: Thread moved from ‘Feedback’ to ‘Discussion’

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Maybe thats a good idea - if this is not the right place to continue - relocate. I am learning a lot that I did not understand before about Buddhist social-ethics and moral-reasoning. Its a revelation and it is helping me to understand where some of the mitta’s on this site are coming from. Frankly, I did not believe before that this kind of understanding of the nature of loving kindness, particularly, the kindness and care of awakened-beings was possible. As a Buddhist I aspire to cherish and protect sentient beings, ‘like a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child.’ I cannot help but perceive some kind of disjuncture here? So, if this is not the place to discuss this, why not move the discussion?

And, could you please provide me with an answer to the second question - as best you can?

I could have a try if Stu moves his thread to the discussion room.

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The Buddha was not a political revolutionary. He taught peace, renunciation and kindness within the social context he happened to live in, and among social institutions as he found them. A politically non-confrontational approach does not entail approval. It only means the Buddha had priorities other than the pursuit of worldly progress.

So it would be dangerous to take the Buddhist texts as politically or socially normative. The fact that the Buddha, living 2500 years ago, did not think it was skillful to challenge certain prevailing social institutions as he pursued his own mission of spiritual teaching, and exercised his leadership of a community of renouncers, does not mean he thought those social institutions were good ones. The fact that he did not agitate for revolutionary forms of government and social practice does not mean he thought the existing forms were the best ones, or even good ones.

We should not hide from ourselves the distressing realities of the Buddha’s social and political world, nor look to the Buddha, who was the teacher of a path toward spiritual liberation, for authoritative answers to the questions of social and political living.


I now have reason to doubt that this is not entirely true. He did seem to be careful in what he had to say to rulers and their representatives but, I have now seen a teaching attributed to the Buddha where he does appear to be accommodating of the slave/master relationship - the slave wife. Slavery seems to have been an integral part of the social fabric in the world he inhabited. He describes that relationship - the slave-wife/master-husband (including the violence involved) - and finds no reason to caution against it, when one of his female followers chooses to take on that role. Instead of advising her to steer away from abuse and to not put up with it without complaint, he says nothing. Is that the case? Or, does he commend her on her choice to be a slave-wife to her husband? Either way, this is something I cannot accept. If my daughter’s had found a teacher who did not actively steer them away from abusive relationships where they were treated like slaves I would be deeply troubled by this and suggest they find a new teacher.

Again, the fact that the Buddha does not counsel resistance to prevailing social institutions does not imply that he found those institutions wholesome or acceptable. Remember that he even recommended a kindly attitude in response to being sawed in half. That does not mean that he endorsed the practice of sawing people in half.

The Buddha, as far as I can tell was a complete and total pacifist, in all spheres of life. I don’t think we can find a single place where he recommended struggle or resistance against oppressive circumstances.

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I don’t understand your interpretation of the slave-wife teaching, how you could come to that conclusion after reading it.

It seems to me that all the Buddha is telling people in that passage is to be kind to each other, the same thing he always told people, without expressing any views on the underlying justice or injustice of the institutions themselves.

Of course, we also can’t say for sure that the Buddha even made such statements. They could be the creation of some later Mauryan empire court monk.

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I think this kind of internet activism is a dead end in the practice. It helps nobody including the person agitating- it aggravates others as well.

Buddhism is a journey inwards -towards peace. This is with the knowledge that trying to change the world can only happen when the inward journey is unhindered.

Buddha wasn’t perfect, and neither is the Dhamma, because it will never be able to please everyone’s aspirations for it. But it is good at one thing- the Path of (inner) practice. It is an example of ‘role confusion’- expecting it to perform a role that it doesn’t and practically cannot play. In a community of people with various inclinations, when withdrawing and dependence is part of the procedure, how much social action will happen, is a question. The alternative is a lot of struggle and 0 enlightenment with some benefit to society a hundred years later. Yes its worth it for some, but not for others seeking enlightenment.

No practicing Buddhist has slaves. Its a joke to even assume thai pimps are good Buddhists, or that prostitution was caused or even condoned by the Dhamma. Its an international problem caused by poverty, lack of education, lack of social safety nets, bad parenting, and lack of morality in the predators. Every country has this- just see the porn industry and prostitution in the all countries, including the West. For the soap box to work, one must assume moral purity, at some point in their practice.

I think there are those who have a slave like mentality- look at modern masochism- they are willing and capacitous. While we might judge them to have made the wrong decision, people in progressive societies are allowed to make unwise decisions, assuming they are fully informed and have the capacity to make such decisions. See the number of people working their entire lives away- an apparent free choice which in another 200 years might seem absurd and be subject to controversy as no one has talked against it now.

I think the Buddha was just stating a fact when he said some husbands (or wives), the sex is reversible, are slave like- not that they were actual slaves. Its wasn’t that he was condoning it. There are shades of grey. Even now some might consider marriage as form of bondage. The Dhamma can help the oppressors and the oppressed escape the mental shackles that keep ‘dysfunctional’ relationships intact. Being critical in front of that woman who said she was like a (willing) slave wouldn’t have helped her, as she wasn’t suddenly going to alter her entire psychological attitude right then and there. Besides I don’t know what connotation the word had back then- maybe it was seen as quite a virtuous things, as in ‘service’.

with metta


I don’t see how you could come to this conclusion. We must be reading different teachings. That’s fine if a Mauryan monk is the author, but if you don’t find anything troubling about it, I guess that conjecture is not an issue. If you find it insightful and kind in some way I am happy it floats your boat! All I saw in it was something that I never expected to find in the teachings.

We seem to be talking past one another.