It has to be stated at the very outset that the Eastern conception of slavery is quite different from that of the West. Slavery and allied forms of servitude constitute one of exploitation of human beings by human beings. Basically, slavery results from an outlook nurtured on values which breed individualism and ethnocentrism and which therefore considers the world as having been given to one group to be thoroughly exploited for its own gain. This pernicious attitude is totally alien to Buddhism with its doctrine of "no soul", "egolessness" or "selflessness (anatta), of universal flux of change aññathatta, aññathabhava or viparinama), of interdependence (idappaccayata) and with its conceptions would enable a people to realise their interdependence and be "group centred" or "collective" as opposed to being self centred. In Japan one sees well the Buddhist ethos. With such a phylosophical outlook and psychological tuning, there is no justification in Buddhist philosophy for slavery in any form.
At the time of the rise of Buddhism "menials" loosely referred to as "slaves" by pioneering Western scholars, were known to exist in ancient Indian society. But there is no evidence (either in Buddhist or non-Buddhist Indian sources) that slavery and slave-trade, in the Western sense, particularly after "European Expansion", ever existed in the Indian sub-continent. It should be noted that the term implying "slave" in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist Indian literature is the Vedic word dasa (or dasyu), by which term the invading Aryans referred to certain original inhabitants of North India whom they conquered and to whom they assigned "menial tasks and gave an inferior position in society".
Thus, the more appropriate rendering
for this term should be "servant". By the Buddha's day the dasas were
no doubt the lowest rung of the social ladder, and together with "workmen
(kammakarä) who came next, are jointly mentioned in the Buddhist texts
(Cf e. g. Vin. i, 243, 272; ii, 154).
The Buddhist term Vasala too does not mean a slave. Vasala really means an inferior person, a wretch or a foul man, etc., yet a human being. The word also carried with it the connotation of "little man (cf. e.g. Vin. ii, 221; Sn. 116, 136; 1. iv, 388; SnA. 183).
The Shüdras of the ancient Indian Caste system were also not "slaves in the real sense of the term as understood, for example, in the West. The Shudras are referred to in the early Buddhist texts (e.g. Vin. ii, 239; D. i, 104; iii, 81, 95 passim) which maintain that caste-distinctions arose in society with the inevitable division of labour natural to social evolution, as explained, for instance, by the Aggañftasutta (D. iii, 80ff).
Buddhist sources, especially the Jãtakas, suggest that, on occasion, people may have been reduced to servitude due to circumstances beyond their control (Cf e. g. J. iv, 220). It did so happen, for instance, at Asoka's conquest of Kaliñga, prior to his conversion to Buddhism. One may also be deprived of freedom as a penal measure (cf. J. i, 200) or one may voluntarily submit oneself to servitude as atonement for a crime, or as repayment of a debt. Children born to such persons generally acted as servants. It is important, at the same time, to note that people could, under certain circumstances, secure "emancipation from servitude - dasavya muccati (Cf D. i, 73 passim).
Referring to the position of these so-called "slaves Rhys Davids remarks, "We hear nothing of such later developments of slavery as rendered the Greek mines, the Roman latifundia, or the plantations of Christian slave-owners, scenes of misery and oppression. For the most part, the slaves were household servants and not badly treated and their numbers seem to have been insignificant (T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, 1955 ed. p. 34).
As the Samannaphalasutta of the Dighanikãya (D. 1,47 if.) points out, it was possible in ancient India even for a slave of the king to join an ascetic community of the day after having obtained release from servitude, considering himself thus: "I am a man, the same as the king, why shouldn't I be free" -and be greeted by the king with the respect due to a free man (D.i,73f). Such persons were to be found among the Buddha's early disciples. The servant women (dasis) were also not debarred from the Buddhist monastic order. And a number of such women are to be counted among the females who benefited from the intellectual freedom under Buddhism as observed in the Commentary to Article 2. The Therigatha bears testimony to this.
The Discourses of the Buddha (when touching on society) often harp on the need to see to the requirements of servants and other workers. For the purpose of stressing one's obligations towards others, the well-known Sigalovada Sutta of the Dighanikdya, for example, groups servants, workmen and wage-labourers together with one's parents, teachers, wives, children, friends, etc. (D.iii,l88 if.). Slaves or servants, it further says, "should be set up' by arranging their work according to their ability, by giving them food and wages, by attending to their illness, by sharing special enjoyments with them and by releasing them (from work) on time (D. iii 90 f)
The Cornmentaiy on this Sutta says that when they are so treated they will publicly proclaim thus: "Is there an equal to our master? We forget the fact that we are employees and that they are our masters. In such love and esteem do they hold us (DA.iii, 957).
The master has no considerations of greed or limitless profit, and the servant bears no envy or hatred towards him. What prevails here is a sense of mutual love, trust and service, without theories of "exploitation or "surplus value. The Buddhist ideal is a non-exploitative society in which there is a sharing of the product of labour.
After coming under the influence of Buddhism, the Emperor Asoka, in his Rock Edicts VII and VIII, refers to what he calls "benediction of principle , which he says, "is very fruitful , and explains it, among other things, as "right behaviour towards slaves and servants.
Such an attitude, perhaps adopted from still earlier times in North India, seems to have had significant results: Arrian, in his Indica (Chapter X) states that Megasthenes (the Greek Ambassador to the Maurya Court in 300 B.C.) had noted "that all the Indians are free, and that not one of them is a slave.
Even if this be considered an exaggeration, what is important is the fact that this comment comes from a man who knew what real "slavery was, and the times to which he refers are early post-Buddhistic days in India when Buddhist values were perhaps fresh or still lingering in the Indian mind.
In an in-depth study of the Buddhist attitude to slavery, consideration should be given not only to the better known Buddhist doctrines such as "loving kindness (metta), "compassion or sympathy (karunâ) and "non-violence (avihimsa), but also to the unfortunately and up to now lesser known egalitarian teachings of Buddhism spelt out in a number of Suttas. These should also be taken into account. Buddhism would say that all human beings should be considered equal and treated alike on anthropological (D.iii,93 f), biological (Sn. Vv. 600-611), ethical (D.iii,250 f.), legal (M.ii,84 f),moral (M.ii,86), religious (M.ii,128 if. et 147 f) and sociological (At. ii,149) considerations, in addition to all other justifiable grounds that may be adduced. Buddhist social philosophy stands for equality of all human beings and a doctrine in which some are "more equal than others is at total variance with it.