Dasa is a Sanskrit word found in ancient Indian texts such as the Rigveda and Arthasastra. It usually means "enemy" or "servant" but dasa, or das, also means a "servant of God", "devotee," "votary" or "one who has surrendered to God". Dasa may be a suffix of a given name to indicate a "servant" of a revered person or a particular deity.
Dasa, in some contexts, is also related to dasyu and asura, which have been translated by some scholars as "demon", "harmful supernatural forces", "slave", "servant" or "barbarian", depending on the context in which the word is used.
Dāsa (Sanskrit: दास) first appears in Vedic texts from the second millennium BCE. There is no consensus on its origins.
Karl Heinrich Tzschucke in 1806, in his translations of the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, noted etymological and phonological parallels between dasa and the ethonyms of the Dahae – Persian داها; Sanskrit Dasa; Latin Dahae; Greek Δάοι Daoi, Δάαι, Δᾶαι Daai and Δάσαι Dasai – a people who lived on the south-eastern shores of the Caspian Sea in ancient times (and from whom modern Dehestan/Dehistan takes its name). Likewise Max Muller proposed that dasa referred to indigenous peoples living in South Asia before the arrival of the Aryans. However, such theories have long been controversial and are considered by many scholars as inconsistent with the broader usage of dasa in the Vedas.
Monier Monier-Williams in 1899, stated that the meaning of dasa varies contextually and means "mysterious forces", "savages", "barbarians" or "demons" in the earliest layer of Vedic literature – in other contexts, is a self-effacing way to refer oneself as "worshipper" or "devotee aiming to honor a deity", or a "servant of god". In later Indian literature, according to Monier-Williams, usage of dasa is used to refer to "a knowing man, or a knower of the universal spirit". In the altter sense, dāsa is masculine, while the feminine equivalent is dāsi. Some early 20th Century translations, such as P. T. Srinivas Iyengar (1912), translate dasa as "slave".
Kangle in 1960, and others suggest that, depending on the context, dasa may be translated as "enemy", "servant" or "religious devotee". More recent scholarly interpretations of the Sanskrit words dasa or dasyu suggest that these words used throughout the Vedas represents "disorder, chaos and dark side of human nature", and the verses that use the word dasa mostly contrast it with the concepts of "order, purity, goodness and light." In some contexts, the word dasa may refer to enemies, in other contexts it may refer to those who had not adopted the Vedic beliefs, and yet other contexts it may refer to mythical enemies in the battle between good and evil.
Michael Witzel in his review of Indo-Iranian texts in 1995, states that dasa in the Vedic literature represented a North Iranian tribe, who were enemies of the Vedic Aryans, and das-yu meant "enemy, foreigner." He notes that these enemies could have apparently become slaves if captured. Witzel compares the etymological root of dasa to words from other Indo-European languages that imply "enemy, foreigner", including the Avestan dahåka and dŋha, Latin dahi and Greek daai.
Asko Parpola in 2015, has proposed that dasa is related to the ancient Iranian and proto-Saka word daha, which means "man". Parpola states that dasa referred only to Central Asian peoples. This is contrasted with arya, the word for "man" used by, and of, Indo-European people from Central Asia. Consequently, a Vedic text that include prayers for the defeat of the dasa as an "enemy people", according to Parpola, possibly refers to people from the so-called Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), who spoke a different language and opposed Aryan religious practices. Parpola uses archaeological and linguistic arguments to support his theory, but this is controversial.
Dasa in Buddhist texts can mean "servant". In Pali language, it is used as suffix in Buddhist texts, where Amaya-dasa was translated by Davids and Stede in 1925, as a "slave by birth", Kila-dasa translated as a "bought slave", and Amata-dasa as "one who sees Amata (Sanskrit: Amrita, nectar of immortality) or Nibbana".
Dasa and related words such as Dasyu are found in the Rig Veda. They have been variously translated, depending on the context. These words represent in some context represent "disorder, chaos and dark side of human nature", and the verses that use the word dasa mostly contrast it with the concepts of "order, purity, goodness and light." In other contexts, the word dasa refers to enemies and in other contexts, those who had not adopted the Vedic beliefs.
A. A. Macdonell and A. B. Keith in 1912 remarked that, "The great difference between the Dasyus and the Aryans was their religion... It is significant that constant reference is made to difference in religion between Aryans and Dasa and Dasyu."
Dasa with the meaning of savage, barbarians
Rig Veda 10.22.8 describes Dasyus as "savages" who have no laws, different observances, a-karman (who do not perform rites) and who act against a person without knowing the person.
अकर्मा दस्युरभि नो अमन्तुरन्यव्रतो अमानुषः ।
त्वं तस्यामित्रहन्वधर्दासस्य दम्भय ॥८॥
Around us is the Dasyu, riteless, void of sense, inhuman, keeping alien laws.
Baffle, thou Slayer of the foe, the weapon which this Dasa wields.
– Translated by Ralph Griffith
The Dasyu practising no religious rites, not knowing us thoroughly, following other observances, obeying no human laws,
Baffle, destroyer of enemies [Indra], the weapon of that Dasa.
– Translated by H. H. Wilson— Rigveda 10.22.8
Dasa with the meaning of demon
Within the Vedic texts, Dasa is the word used to describe supernatural demonic creatures with many eyes and many heads. This has led scholars to interpret that the word Dasa in Vedic times meant evil, supernatural, destructive forces. For example, Rigveda in hymn 10.99.6 states,
स इद्दासं तुवीरवं पतिर्दन्षळक्षं त्रिशीर्षाणं दमन्यत् ।
अस्य त्रितो न्वोजसा वृधानो विपा वराहमयोअग्रया हन् ॥६॥
The sovereign Indra attacking him overcame the loud shouting, six eyed, three headed Dasa,
Trita invigorated by his strength, smote the cloud with his iron-tipped finger.— Rigveda 10.99.6, translated by H. H. Wilson
Dasa with the meaning of servant or slave
Dasa is also used in Vedic literature, in some contexts, to refer to "servants", a few translate this as "slaves", but the verses do not describe how the Vedic society treats or mistreats the servants. R. S. Sharma, in his 1958 book, states that the only word which could possibly mean slave in Rigveda is dāsa, and this sense of use is traceable to four verses out of 10,600 verses in Rigveda, namely 1.92.8, 1.158.5, 10.62.10 and 8.56.3. The translation of word dasa to servant or slave varies by scholars. HH Wilson, for example, translates Dasa in Rigvedic instances identified by Sharma, as servant rather than slave, as in verse 10.62.10:
उत दासा परिविषे स्मद्दिष्टी गोपरीणसा । यदुस्तुर्वश्च मामहे ॥१०॥
Yadu and Indra speaking auspiciously, and possessed of numerous cattle, gave them like servants, for the enjoyment.— Rigveda 10.62.10, Translated by HH Wilson
R. S. Sharma translates dasi in a Vedic era Upanishad as "maid-servant".
Later Vedic texts
The three words Dasa, Dasyu and Asura are used interchangeably in almost identical verses that are repeated in different Vedic texts, such as the Rig veda, the Saunaka recension of Atharva veda, the Paippalada Samhita of the Atharva veda and the Brahmanas text in various Vedas. Such comparative study has led scholars to interpret Dasa and Dasyu may have been a synonym of Asura (demons or evil forces, sometimes simply lords with special knowledge and magical powers) of later Vedic texts.
Sharma states that the word dasa occurs in Aitareya and Gopatha Brahmanas, but not in the sense of a slave.
Kautilya's Arthasastra dedicates the thirteenth chapter on dasas, in his third book on law. This Sanskrit document from the Maurya Empire period (4th century BCE), has been translated by several authors. Shamasastry's translation in 1915, Kangle's translation in 1960s and Rangarajan's translation in 1987 all map dasa as slave. However, Kangle suggests that the context and rights granted to dasa by Kautilya, such as the right to the same wage as a free labourer and the right to freedom on payment of an amount, distinguish this form of slavery from that of contemporary Greece. Edmund Leach points out that the Dasa was the antithesis of the concept of Arya. As the latter term evolved through successive meanings, so did Dasa: from "indigenous inhabitant" to "serf," "tied servant," and finally "chattel slave." He suggests the term "unfreedom" to cover all these meanings.
According to Arthasastra, anyone who had been found guilty of nishpatitah (Sanskrit: निष्पातित, ruined, bankrupt, a minor crime) may mortgage oneself to become dasa for someone willing to pay his or her bail and employ the dasa for money and privileges.
According to Arthashastra, it was illegal to force a dasa (slave) to do certain types of work, to hurt or abuse him, or to force sex on a female dasa.
Employing a slave (dasa) to carry the dead or to sweep ordure, urine or the leavings of food; keeping a slave naked; hurting or abusing him; or violating the chastity of a female slave shall cause the forfeiture of the value paid for him or her. Violation of the chastity shall at once earn their liberty for them.— Arthashastra, Translated by Shamasastry
When a master has connection (sex) with a pledged female slave (dasa) against her will, he shall be punished. When a man commits or helps another to commit rape with a female slave pledged to him, he shall not only forfeit the purchase value, but also pay a certain amount of money to her and a fine of twice the amount to the government.— Arthashastra, Translated by Shamasastry
A slave (dasa) shall be entitled to enjoy not only whatever he has earned without prejudice to his master's work, but also the inheritance he has received from his father.— Arthashastra, Translated by Shamasastry
Words related to dasa are found in early Buddhist texts, such as as dāso na pabbājetabbo, which Davids and Stede translate as "the slave cannot become a Bhikkhu". This restriction on who could become a Buddhist monk is found in Vinaya Pitakam i.93, Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikāya, Tibetan Bhiksukarmavakya and Upasampadajnapti.
Use of religious "devotees"
In Gaudiya Vaishnava theology Smriti statement dāsa-bhūto harer eva nānyasvaiva kadācana, living entities (bhuto) are eternally in the service (dasa) of the Supreme Lord (Hari). Thus designation for Vaishnava followers of svayam bhagavan Krishna was the status title dasa as part of their names as in Hari Dasa.
As a surname or byname
Dasa or Das is also a surname found among Sikhs and Hindus, typically north, eastern and western India, where it literally means "votary, devotee, servant of God." For example, Mohandas Gandhi's first name, Mohandas, means servant of Mohan or Krishna. Also, the name Surdas means servant of Sur or Deva. In the past, many sants of bhakti movement tradition added it in their names signifying their total devotion or surrender to God.
Views of Sri Aurobindo
Authors like Sri Aurobindo believe that words like Dasa are used in the Rig Veda symbolically and should be interpreted spiritually, and that Dasa does not refer to human beings, but rather to demons who hinder the spiritual attainment of the mystic. Many Dasas are purely mythical and can only refer to demons. There is for example a Dasa called Urana with 99 arms (RV II.14.4), and a Dasa with six eyes and three heads in the Rig Veda.
Aurobindo commented that in the RV III.34 hymn, where the word Arya varna occurs, Indra is described as the increaser of the thoughts of his followers: "the shining hue of these thoughts, sukram varnam asam, is evidently the same as that sukra or sveta Aryan hue which is mentioned in verse 9. Indra carries forward or increases the "colour" of these thoughts beyond the opposition of the Panis, pra varnam atiracchukram; in doing so he slays the Dasyus and protects or fosters and increases the Aryan "colour", hatvi dasyun pra aryam varnam avat."
According to Aurobindo (The Secret of the Veda), RV 5.14.4 is a key for understanding the character of the Dasyus:
- Agni born shone out slaying the Dasyus, the darkness by the light, he found the Cows, the Waters, Swar. (transl. Aurobindo)
Aurobindo explains that in this verse the struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, divine and undivine is described. It is through the shining light created by Agni, god of fire, that the Dasyus, who are identified with the darkness, are slain. The Dasyus are also described in the Rig Veda as intercepting and withholding the Cows, the Waters and Swar ("heavenly world"; RV 5.34.9; 8.68.9). It is not difficult, of course, to find very similar metaphors, equating political or military opponents with evil and darkness, even in contemporary propaganda.
K.D. Sethna (1992) writes: "According to Aurobindo,(...) there are passages in which the spiritual interpretation of the Dasas, Dasyus and Panis is the sole one possible and all others are completely excluded. There are no passages in which we lack a choice either between this interpretation and a nature-poetry or between this interpretation and the reading of human enemies."
Dasa and related terms have been examined by several scholars. While the terms Dasa and Dasyu have a negative meaning in Sanskrit, their Iranian counterparts Daha and Dahyu have preserved their positive (or neutral) meaning. This is similar to the Sanskrit terms Deva (a "positive" term) and Asura (a "negative" term). The Iranian counterparts of these terms (Daeva and Ahura) have opposite meanings.
Asko Parpola states the original Dasa is related to the Old Persian word Daha which also means "man", but refers specifically to a regional ethnic minority of Persia. Parpola contrasts Daha with Arya, stating that the latter also referred to "man" but specifically to the incoming Indo-Iranians from Central Asia. The Vedic text that include prayers to help defeat the "Dasa as enemy people", states Parpola, may refer to the wars of the Indo-Iranians against the bearers of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) culture. The latter spoke a different language and opposed Indo-Iranian religious practices. Parpola uses archaeological and linguistic arguments to support his theory, but his theory is controversial.