Slavery in Ancient India

Slavery has existed in India since the time of the Mauryas at least. However, since Indian society has throughout been subject to the strictly-enforced caste system, the differences between those in the lowest caste and the lot of the slaves are not very great and, in some cases, it may have been better to be a slave. For example, a low caste person had to work constantly to obtain food and water while slaves occasionally (although not very often) could have time off from work. Laws also existed as to what sort of treatment it was permitted to use with slaves: they could be beaten on the back but not the head, for example, while a woman who was made pregnant by her master would, at the moment of birth, be freed together with her child. Of course, no one can minimize the misery of being enslaved and it is almost certain that many masters were able to disregard these kinds of rules but, nevertheless, at least some structure of protection were provided. These were supplemented by both Hindu and Buddhist precepts, which will also have been influential in affecting the behaviour of some people.

A large number of slaves appear to have been sourced from Greece and Greek colony cities. This is shown both by written records and by illustrations of the people involved. The female slave armies that protected the king’s harem were frequently known as Ionians and fought hard to maintain the traditions, names and language of their homelands. Other slaves were bought by traders from the west, bringing people from Africa, Arabia and from time to time, no doubt, the European mainland as well. Traders in eastern waters surely did the same, with slaves brought from Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. It was also possible for free-born Indians to become slaves, perhaps through a court decision after having committed a serious crime. Others might be enslaved as a result of war or trafficking but it was also possible for people to put themselves up for enslavement. They could put their freedom at stake as surety for a cash loan or for a gambling stake. However, enslavement need not be permanent. A financial arrangement could be made in these cases but, if worst came to worst, slaves were allowed one chance to try to escape and, if they managed to get away, they were permitted to claim their freedom permanently.

Read more at Suite101: Slavery in Ancient India: Greek, African, Criminal and Volunteer Slaves

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