I found this.

Yudhishthira supporteth eighty-eight thousand Snataka Brahmanas leading domestic lives, giving unto each of them thirty slave-girls.

Source: The Mahabharata, Book 2: Sabha Parva: Sisupala-badha Parva: Section XLVIII

And thus the Emperor of Indra-prastha and his family were deprived of every possession on earth, and became the bond-slaves of Duryodhan. The old king Dhrita-rashtra released them from actual slavery, but the five brothers retired to forests as homeless exiles.

I'm referring to sale of people as personal property.

Does this mean that slavery was prevalent?

Were there any rules for slavery?

Please state your sources.

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    The point of contention here is that the sanskrit word, dasa can be interpreted to servant/maid or slave or even devotee. I don't think anyone has selected one over the other with absolute certainty. Commented May 13, 2016 at 6:42

5 Answers 5


An interesting statement against slavery is found in this excerpt from Shabara's commentary on the Purva Mimamsa Sutras, the defining text of the Purva Mimamsa school of philosophy. The context in discussing the Vishwajit Yagna, a Yagna where you're supposed to give away all your possessions to other people, and the question arises whether that means that you should give away your Shudra servants to other people. Shabara says no:

In regard to the same Vishvajit sacrifice, there arises the question - should the Shudra servant be given away or not? The Purvapaksha view is that, "inasmuch the entire property has been laid down to be given, the Shudra servant should also be given away". In answer to this, we have the following Siddhanta - The Shudra also 'should not be given away'[.]... - Why so? - because he is there for being instructed in his duties; that is, he has come to serve the man for the purpose of being taught his duties; says the text 'The Shudra presents himself before a man of one of the three higher castes with the view that by serving him he would acquire (knowledge of) Dharma.' - If such a Shudra were given away to another person, it is possible that he may not be willing to leave (the man whom he has been serving); and if he went unwillingly, he would not acquire the knowledge of Dharma that he seeks. No Shudra should be acquired as property against his will; if one did acquire a Shudra illegally, he might give him away; but one who has come only for learning Dharma cannot be given away.

So Shabara characterizes acquiring a Shudra servant as property against his will as both immoral and illegal.

EDIT: To be clear, the Purva Mimamsa Sutras, which Shabara is just elucidating in the quote above, were composed by the sage Jaimini. And Jaimini lived in the time of the Mahabharata; he was a shishya of Vyasa and was present on the battlefield of Kurukahetra once the Mahabharata war was over, as described in this chapter of the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata.

  • 1
    How did Jamini write Purva Mimamsa Sutras? Did he just present thoughts of vedas in these Sutras? If yes, then they apply to all times.
    – The Destroyer
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 6:18

Does this mean that slavery was prevalent?

It's difficult to say how prevalent it was, but it looks pretty common for kings and other wealthy people to own several of them. During the infamous dice game, Yudhiṣṭhira can be seen betting both male and female slaves:

Yudhishthira said,

I have a hundred thousand serving-girls, all young, and decked with golden bracelets on their wrists and upper arms, and with nishkas round their necks and other ornaments, adorned with costly garlands and attired in rich robes, daubed with the sandal paste, wearing jewels and gold, and well-skilled in the four and sixty elegant arts, especially versed in dancing and singing, and who wait upon and serve at my command the celestials, the Snataka Brahmanas, and kings. With this wealth, O king, I will stake with thee!

Hearing these words, Sakuni ready with the dice, adopting unfair means, said unto Yudhishthira,

Lo, I have won!

Yudhishthira said,

I have thousands of serving-men, skilled in waiting upon guests, always attired in silken robes, endued with wisdom and intelligence, their senses under control though young, and decked with ear-rings, and who serve all guests night and day with plates and dishes in hand. With this wealth, O king, I will stake with thee!

Hearing these words, Sakuni, ready with the dice, adopting unfair means said unto Yudhishthira,

Lo, I have won!

While K. M. Ganguli, above, translates 'dāsī'/'dāsa' as 'serving-girls'/'serving-men', Bibek Debroy translates them as 'slave girls' and 'male slaves'.

Were there any rules for slavery?

The Arthaśāstra has a whole chapter ("dāsa kalpa") devoted to the humane treatment of slaves and since some of the rules are reformist and go against what's stated in Manu and Nārada smṛtis, it's difficult to say which among these was followed during the Mahābhārata time.

Book III. Concerning Law (dharmmasthāya)

Chapter XIII. Rules Regarding Slaves and Labourers (dāsa kalpa)

THE selling or mortgaging by kinsmen of the life of a Sudra who is not a born slave, and has not attained majority, but is an Arya in birth shall be punished with a fine of 12 panas; of a Vaisya, 24 panas; of a Kshatriya, 36 panas; and of a Brahman, 48 panas. If persons other than kinsmen do the same, they shall be liable to the three amercements and capital punishment respectively: purchasers and abettors shall likewise be punished. It is no crime for Mlechchhas to sell or mortgage the life of their own offspring. But never shall an Arya be subjected to slavery.


Employing a slave to carry the dead or to sweep ordure, urine, or the leavings of food; keeping a slave naked; or 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) of nurses, female cooks, or female servants of the class of joint cultivators or of any other description shall at once earn their liberty for them. Violence towards an attendant of high birth shall entitle him to run away. When a master has connection with a nurse or pledged female slave against her will, he shall be punished with the first amercement; a stranger doing the same shall be punished with the middlemost amercement. When a man commits or helps another to commit rape with a girl or a female slave pledged to him, he shall not only forfeit the purchase value, but also pay a certain amount of money (sulka) to her and a fine of twice the amount (of sulka to the Government).

The offspring of a man who has sold off himself as a slave shall be an Arya. A slave 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.


On paying the value (for which one is enslaved), a slave shall regain his Aryahood. The same rule shall apply either to born or pledged slaves.


Selling or mortgaging the life of a male or a female slave once liberated shall be punished with a fine of 12 panas with the exception of those who enslave themselves. Thus the rules regarding slaves.


Slavery was allowed during Mahabharata times.

Tuladhara said, ‘…Men are seen to own men as slaves, and by beating, by binding, and by otherwise subjecting them to restraints, cause them to labor day and night. These people are not ignorant of pain that results from beating and fastening in chains. In every creature that is endued with the five senses live all the deities, Surya, Chandramas, the god of wind, Brahman, Prana, Kratu, and Yama (these dwell in living creatures). There are men that live by trafficking in living creatures!

Mahabharata Santi Parva Section CCLXII

  • Was this actual slavery like sale of people as property?
    – Notty
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 15:30
  • I do not recall any actual example of the sale of people as property. So I am not sure. Sale of men as property is a possibility if men can own men as slaves. Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 1:54
  • The verse seems to be disagreeable with the practice. That makes sense as it is men owning men. To be honest slavery of the Asuras owning men does not seem that bad given their technology and at least an inkling towards compassion in a lot of them. Seems nicer than a lot of lives without it. Commented Nov 27, 2021 at 18:06
  • @Notty from what I know one may voluntarily serve as a Dasa and essentially the differences is very simple a Dasa is restricted as to where they can go while a Shudra or worker isn't. Here it is talking about treatment over practice.
    – Haridasa
    Commented Jun 11 at 12:41
  • @AupakaranaAbhibhaa it is look here hese, O Jajali, are some of the wicked and dreadful practices that are current in this world. You practisest them because they are practised by all men from ancient times, and not because they agree with the dictates of your cleansed understanding. One should practise what one considers to be one’s duty, guided by reasons, instead of blindly following the practices of the world.
    – Haridasa
    Commented Jun 11 at 12:45

This link answers your question.

Note: Sacrifice in the text needn't mean cutting of throat as modern so-called priests do. Sacrifice then meant rejuvenating of life through mantras.

But the point is, whether it existed or not, our conception about slavery might be wrong. Vineet's comment is important to note in your question. There is a huge difference between modern conception of slavery and the spiritual conception.

Then, air was clean and sex was considered dirty. Today sex is considered clean and the air is dirty.

In the spiritual sense, to accept the position of a servant (slavery) is a very high position. Rather, Shrila Prabhupada, founder of International Society for Krishna Consciousness said - the more one is a servant, the better he advances in spiritual life (dasanudas).

This is called paramparā system. You have to learn how to become servant of the servant of Kṛṣṇa. The more you become in the lower position—servant, servant, servant, servant, servant, hundreds times servant, servant—then more you are advanced. Here in this material world everyone is trying to be master of the master. Just opposite. And the spiritual world, the endeavor is to become servant's servant. This is the secret.
[Lecture on BG 2.2 -- London, August 3, 1973]

In material world, our experience of being subserviant to a master is very bitter but in the spiritual world, there is no difference between the master and servant. Because there, everything is Absolute.

That's why we see Krishna, although The Supreme Personality of Godhead, wants to accept the position of Arjuna's chariot driver, which is a very humiliating service if you know the ways how the chariot driver is guided to turn (through kicks). So the modern understanding of slavery is to be rectified.

Everything in those times was aimed at making spiritual progress. A shudra would be engaged in the service of a brahmana so that they can make progress towards the brahmana varna in the later births gradually. A good example is Srila Narada Muni, who was a son of a maidservant.

So I hope there is a good understanding of trading then and today. Today's trading is completely centered around gratifying one's own senses. Then, it was all centered around Vedic conception or pleasure of the Supreme Lord Krishna or other demigods.


It looks like slavery was indeed allowed.

Yudhistara "pawned his wife in a gamble". Which means his wife was treated as property. In other words slavery.

This proves that the modern definition of slavery did exist and was considered legal and moral.

Especially since Yudhistara was shown a glimpse of hell for telling a lie, but was given no punishment for slavery. Further I have found no references condemning slavery.

So, it can be assumed that slavery was considered moral, legal and accepted in the Mahabaratha age.

Infact Yudhistara did slave trade it on a mass level.

1) He pawned his wife as property, which is treating a person as property.

2) He supplied 30 slave-girls to each one of 88 thousand brahmans.

Note: It should be taken into account that none of the slaves were men. If they were used just for forced labor it wouldn't make sense to use just women in all 26400000 cases.

Yudhishthira supporteth eighty-eight thousand Snataka Brahmanas leading domestic lives, giving unto each of them thirty slave-girls. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m02/m02048.htm

  • 3
    A True Brahmana never uses Slave girls for Sex. That's against Dharma (duty) of a Brahmana (Satva Guna). They might be used for physical work. According to Sanatana Dharma, one must participate in sex only when he has wish for child. Else, he should restrain himself for sex.
    – The Destroyer
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 3:56
  • Or these slave girls were given status of maid where they would take care of these Brahmana housewives. Let me see Sanskrit Verses for these chapters of Mahabharatha. We can't trust English Translation always.
    – The Destroyer
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 4:00
  • @TheDestroyer Do you have any references of that in the Mahabaratha. It can be safely assumed that the people who wrote different Hindu texts were different people and had different moral standards.
    – Notty
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 4:08
  • @TheDestroyer Maid is a female servant. Servants are different from slaves. Slaves are property and slavery is illegal in most countries today. Maids and servants are employees and it is legal.
    – Notty
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 5:45
  • Let me see Sanskrit word for that and let's continue the discussion thereafter. However, True Brahmana is one who has predominantly Satva Guna and in modern times Varna System is corrupted to meaningless Caste System. Satva Guna is being pure, kind, generous and all such good qualities. How could any brahmana use slave girls for sex? Even i'm not sure what word was used to describe them in Sanskrit.
    – The Destroyer
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 5:54

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