Dasa is a Hindu term, used in the Rig Veda, that originally meant "enemy", in the sense of tribes antagonistic to the Aryan tribes. The word dasa or das later acquired respected, or exalted religious connotations. Consequently, the Indian surname Dasa means a "servant of God", "devotee," "votary" or "one who has surrendered to God". Dasa may be a suffix of a given name, in order to indicate "servant" of a particular deity.
The original usage of Dasa (i.e. "enemy") is sometimes identified with peoples conquered by Vedic Indo-Iranian (Aryan) tribes, in the course of the Indo-Aryan migration. Conversely, modern scholars such as Asko Parpola have proposed that the original Dasas were a Indo-European people from the so-called Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), who initially rejected Aryan religious practices, but later merged with them. Given such a geographical location and the phonology of Dasa, the term may also be linked to the Dahae, a people described in ancient European sources as living on the south-eastern shores of the Caspian Sea. Likewise, there are phonological similarities between the name of a Dahae tribe, the Parni and pani, a Vedic term for a kind of demon, which is sometimes a synonym for dasa.
A similar, generic term for enemy people, Dasyu, is also used in the Rig Veda. It is unclear whether the Dasa and Dasyu of the Rig Veda were related. There is no word for "slave" in Sanskritized Hindi, so the word Dāsa is used in its place.
Dasa, Dasyu and Arya
Dasyu is a term that could also be applied to Vedic kings, if their behaviour changed. In the battle of the Ten Kings (Dasarajna) in the Rig Veda the king Sudas calls his enemies "Dasyu" which included Vedic peoples like the Anu, Druhyu, Turvasha, and even Puru. (RV 7.6, 12-14, 18)
A Dasa Balbutha Taruksa is also mentioned in RV 6.45.31, as a patron of a seer, and distinguished by his generosity (RV 8.46.32). There are several hymns in the Rig Veda that refer to the Dasa and Arya as enemies  and to related (jami) and unrelated (ajami) enemies (e.g. 1.111.3, 4.4.5); still, in the battle of the ten kings, there are Dasas and Aryas on both sides of the battlefield and in some Rigvedic verses, the Aryas and Dasas stood united against their enemies.
In the Rig Veda, Dasa, Dasyu and similar terms (e.g. Pani) occur sometimes in conjunction with the terms krsna ("black") or asikni ("black"). This was often the basis for a "racial" interpretation of the Vedic texts. But Sanskrit is a language that uses many metaphors. The word cow for example can mean Mother Earth, sunshine, wealth, language, Aum etc. Words like "black" have similarly many different meanings in Sanskrit, as it is in fact the case in most languages. Thus "black" has many symbolical, mythological, psychological and other uses that are simply unrelated to human appearance. Bhagavan Shri Shanmukha Anantha Natha is the first scholar to define that the 'blackness' of Krishna is not a racial interpretation but refers to the Absolute in its phase of manifestation as denoted by Samkhya philosophy. The Rig Veda does not refer to ethnic terms but philosophical realities. Krishna too is described as an Asura and this does not mean that he is a 'black Indigene' waiting on the banks of the Amshumati river to fight with Indra (RVIII. 85. 13-15) but that the Absolute is in a stage of manifestation allegorically depicted by the 'black drop' in the Rig Veda.
Also Iyengar (1914) commented on such interpretations: "The only other trace of racial reference in the Vedic hymns is the occurrence of two words, one krishna in seven passages and the other asikini in two passages. In all the passages, the words have been interpreted as referring to black clouds, a demon whose name was Krishna, or the powers of darkness." (6-7, Iyengar, Srinivas. 1914.)
The term krsnayonih in RV 2.20.7 has been interpreted by Asko Parpola as meaning "which in their wombs hid the black people". Sethna (1992) writes, referring to a comment by Richard Hartz, that "there is no need to follow Parpola in assuming a further unexpressed word meaning "people" in the middle of the compound krsnayonih", and the better known translation by Griffith, i.e. "who dwelt in darkness" can be considered as essentially correct. Another scholar, Hans Hock (1999), finds Karl Friedrich Geldner's translation of krsnayonih (RV 2.20.7) as "Blacks in their wombs" and of krsnagarbha (RV 1.101.1) as "pregnant with the Blacks" "quite recherché" and thinks that it could refer to the "dark world" of the Dasas.
In RV 4.16.13, Geldner has assumed that "krsna" refers to "sahasra" (thousands). But this would be grammatically incorrect. If krsna would refer to "sahasra", it should be written as krsnan (acc. pl. masc.). Hans Hock (1999) suggests that "krsna" refers to "puro" (forts) in this verse.
- 1.130.8de mánave śâsad avratân tvácaṃ kṛṣṇâm arandhayat
- — "Plaguing the lawless he [Indra] gave up to Manu's seed the dusky skin" (trans. Griffith)
- 9.41.1 prá yé gâvo ná bhûrṇayas / tveṣâ ayâso ákramuḥ / ghnántaḥ kṛṣṇâm ápa tvácam
- — "(Praising the Soma-juices) which descend like streams of water, swift, brilliant, rapid driving off the black covered (Rakshasa who are darkness)"
- 9.73.5cd índradviṣṭām ápa dhamanti māyáyā tvácam ásiknīm bhûmano divás pári
- — "Blowing away with supernatural might from earth and from the heavens the swarthy skin which Indra hates." (trans. Griffith)
Tvac "skin" does, however, also take a secondary, more general meaning of "surface, cover" in the Rigveda, in particular referring to the Earth's surface. For this reason, there can be debate on whether instances of krsna tvac should be taken to refer literally to a "black skinned people". Maria Schetelich (1990) considers it a symbolic expression for darkness. Similarly, Michael Witzel (1995b) writes about terms like krsna tvac that "while it would be easy to assume reference to skin colour, this would go against the spirit of the hymns: for Vedic poets, black always signifies evil, and any other meaning would be secondary in these contexts". Hans Hock argues along similar lines 
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In RV 5.29.10, the word anasa is in connection with the Dasyus. Some scholars have translated anasa as "noseless". But the classical commentator Sayana translated anasa as "without mouth or face" (anas = an "negative" + as "mouth"). Sayana's translation is supported by the occurrence of the word mrdhravacah in the same verse. Sayana explains the word mrdhravacah as "having defective organs of speech" (Rg Veda 1854-57:3.276 n.). The description of Dasas as "nose-less" and "mouth-less" is method of associating the demonic Dasa as disfigured beings, who are covered by ignorance (black).
Religion of the Dasas/Dasyus
The main difference between the Aryas and the Dasas in the Rig Veda is a difference of religion. Already A. A. Macdonell and A. B. Keith (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." The Dasas and Dasyus are also described as brahma-dvisah in the Rig Veda, which Ralph T.H. Griffith translates as "those who hate devotion" or "prayer haters". Thus Dasa has also been interpreted as meaning the people that don't follow the same religion as the Aryans. Rig Veda 10.22.8 describes the Dasa-Dasyus as a-karman (non-performers of Aryan sacrifices), anya-vrata (observers of other rites) and in Rig Veda 10.105.8 they are described as anrc (non-singer of laudatory hymns). In RV 8.70.11 they are described as a-deva-yu (not regarding Deva ).
Use of religious "devotees"
A guru or sat guru in various traditions of Hinduism is given the name Das or servant of God in order to designate the guru as a pure teacher. The guru may also be called uda ka das, meaning the servant of the one God. The other Sanskrit meaning of servant is retained in all Indian languages in which devotion to personal God is practiced. In Tamil tontai, dasa, servant, or slave, commonly used to refer to devotees of Vishnu or Krishna. According to 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
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The present day usage of Dasa or Das in Hinduism has a respectful connotation and is not considered derogatory. It always means "votary," "servant of God," or "slave 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 saints of all castes added it in their names signifying their total devotion or surrender to God. Das is one of the common surnames of Brahmins, both in Northern and Northeastern India.
Furthermore in the bhakti yoga tradition, a person can be in a relationship with God in any of the 5 principal ways. One of the relationships is called Dasya-bhakti, meaning being a "slave of God." All initiated male members of ISKCON have the word "Das" or "Dasa" at the end of their initiated names, meaning servant of Krsna. All initiated female members of ISKCON have the words "Devi Dasi," which means servantess of the goddess or Radha. Dasi is the feminine form of Das. Example: Urmila Devi Dasi. The first part of their names is a name for something connected with divinity; often a name of Radha Krishna or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
There is no word for "slave" in Sanskritized Hindi, so the word Dāsa is used in its place.
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.
Sri 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. The terms Dasyus and Asuras as negativity personified in the Rg Veda (RVIII. 85.9) (RV. VIII. 66.3), and especially personified by Vrtra, the slayer of Indra, positivity personified, was first put forward by Bhagavan Shri Shanmukha Anantha Natha in his work Divine Initiation (Singapore, Shri Kali Publications, 2001), 19. This concept, as he outlines it, is similar to the Yin-Yang concept of the East Asians. The Aryans are also personifications and this idea is also put forward by Anantha Natha in the above work.
- (e.g. 6.22.10, 6.33.3, 6.60.6), Ambedkar 1946, Who were the Shudras
- RV 6.33.3, 7.83.1, 8.51.9, 10.102.3; Ambedkar, 1946, Who were the Shudras?
- Sethna 1992:337-338
- note the sāhvâṃso dásyum avratám "vanquishing the rite less Dasyu" in the following verse.
- "Rig Veda Samhita". Srivaishnava.org. Retrieved 2015-02-22.
- again note the context of saṃdáhantaḥ avratân "burning up riteless men" in pada b.
- Hock (1999). Hock also remarked that in RV 1.65.8, a similar metaphor is used. In this verse, "roma prthivyah" refers to the "body-hair of the earth", i.e. to the plants.
- R. C. Majumdar and A. D. Pusalker (editors): The history and culture of the Indian people. Volume I, The Vedic age. Bombay : Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan 1951, p.253. Keith and Macdonell 1922, ISBN 978-8172764401
- (e.g. RV 5.42.9; 8.45.23; 10.36.9; 10.160.4; 10.182.3)
- e.g. Sethna 1992, Ambedkar 1946 Who were the Shudras
- Essays And Lectures On The Religions Of The Hindus: Religious Sects of the Hindus V1. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2006. p. 353. ISBN 1-4286-1308-0.
- Steven P. Hopkins (2007). An ornament for jewels: love poems for the Lord of Gods. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 160. ISBN 0-19-532639-3.
- Bhaktivedanta Swami, A. C. (1972). The Bhagavad-gita As It Is, second edition. New York: Macmillan.
- Talbot, Cynthia (2001). Precolonial India in practice: society, region, and identity in medieval Andhra. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 81. ISBN 0-19-513661-6.
- Parpola 1988, Sethna 1992:329
- Sethna 1992:114 and 340, Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, p. 220-21
- Sethna 1992:114 and 340
- Sethna 1992:114-115 and 348-349
- Which is translated by Griffith thus: Agni shone bright when born, with light killing the Dasyus and the dark He found the Kine, the Floods, the Sun. (trans. Griffith)
- e.g., Asko Parpola (1988), Mayrhofer (1986-1996), Benveniste (1973), Lecoq (1990), Windfuhr (1999)
- Bhagavan Shri Shanmukha Anantha Natha and Shri Ma Kristina Baird for the correct, nonracial meaning of the terms Dasyus and Asuras in their work "Divine Initiation" (ISBN 0-9582324-0-7) by Shri Kali Publications
- Ambedkar, B.R. (1946) Who were the Shudras?
- Aurobindo, Sri. 1971. The Secret of the Veda. Pondicherry: Shri Aurobindo Ashram.
- Bryant, Edwin: The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture. 2001. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513777-9
- J. Bronkhorst and M.M. Deshpande. 1999. Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Hock, Hans. 1999b, Through a Glass Darkly: Modern "Racial" Interpretations vs. Textual and General Prehistoric Evidence on Arya and Dasa/Dasyu in Vedic Indo-Aryan Society." in Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia.
- Iyengar, Srinivas. 1914. "Did the Dravidians of India Obtain Their Culture from Aran Immigrant [sic]." Anthropos 1-15.
- Macdonell, A.A. and Keith, A.B. 1912. The Vedic Index of Names and Subjects.
- Parpola, Asko: 1988, The Coming of the Aryans to Iran and India and the Cultural and Ethnic Identity of the Dasas; The problem of the Aryans and the Soma.
- Rg Veda 1854-57. Rig-Veda Samhita. tr. H.H. Wilson. London: H.Allen and Co.
- Schetelich, Maria. 1990, "The problem ot the "Dark Skin" (Krsna Tvac) in the Rgveda." Visva Bharati Annals 3:244-249.
- Sethna, K.D. 1992. The Problem of Aryan Origins. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
- Trautmann, Thomas R. 1997, Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Witzel, Michael. 1995b, 325, fn, "Rgvedic History" in The Indo-Aryans of South Asia.