Dasa (दासः)

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Dasa is a Sanskrit word found in ancient Bharat's texts such as the Rigveda and Arthasastra.[1] 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.


Some early 20th Century translations, such as P. T. Srinivas Iyengar (1912), translate dasa as "slave".[2]

Kangle in 1960,[1] suggests 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.

Hindu Texts

Rig Veda

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.[3]

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.

<poem> अकर्मा दस्युरभि नो अमन्तुरन्यव्रतो अमानुषः । त्वं तस्यामित्रहन्वधर्दासस्य दम्भय ॥८॥[4]

[5] </poem>

— 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,

{{Quote| <poem> स इद्दासं तुवीरवं पतिर्दन्षळक्षं त्रिशीर्षाणं दमन्यत् । अस्य त्रितो न्वोजसा वृधानो विपा वराहमयोअग्रया हन् ॥६॥

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:

{{Quote| <poem> उत दासा परिविषे स्मद्दिष्टी गोपरीणसा । यदुस्तुर्वश्च मामहे ॥१०॥[6]

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[7] 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.[8]

According to Arthasastra, anyone who had been found guilty of nishpatitah (Sanskrit: निष्पातित, ruined, bankrupt, a minor crime)[9] may mortgage oneself to become dasa for someone willing to pay his or her bail and employ the dasa for money and privileges.[8][10]

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.[10]

Views of Sri Aurobindo

Authors like Sri Aurobindo believe that words like Dasa are used in the Rig Veda symbolically and should be interpreted adhyatmikly, and that Dasa does not refer to human beings, but rather to demons who hinder the adhyatmik 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[11] 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."[12]

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)[13]

Aurobindo explains that in this verse the struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, divine and undivine is described.[13] 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 adhyatmik 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."


  1. 1.0 1.1 R.P. Kangle (1960), The Kautiliya Arthasastra - a critical edition, Vol. 2 and 3, University of Bombay Studies, ISBN 978-8120800427
  2. P. T. Srinivas Iyengar (1912), The Myth of the Aryan Invasion of India, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 60, No. 3113 pages 841-846
  3. R. C. Majumdar and A. D. Pusalker (editors): The History and Culture of the Bharat's People. Volume I, The Vedic age. Bombay : Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan 1951, p.253. Keith and Macdonell 1922, ISBN 978-8172764401
  4. Rigveda Sanskrit text, Wikisource
  5. Rigveda 10.22.8 H. H. Wilson (Translator), Trubner & Co, pages 57-58
  6. Rigveda 10.62 Sanskrit text, Wikisource
  7. Rangarajan, L. N. (1992) [first published in 1987], Kautilya — The ARTHASHASTRA, Penguin Books Limited, Chapter VIII.x, ISBN 978-81-8475-011-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Kangle, R. P. (1997) [first published 1960], The Kauṭilīya Arthaśāstra (Part III), Motilal Banarsidass Publ., p. 186, ISBN 978-81-208-0041-0<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. निष्पातित Sanskrit English dictionary
  10. 10.0 10.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named ss
  11. Sethna 1992:114 and 340, Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, p. 220-21
  12. Sethna 1992:114 and 340
  13. 13.0 13.1 Sethna 1992:114-115 and 348-349