Dasa is a Sanskrit word found in ancient Indian texts such as the Rigveda and Arthasastra. It usually means "enemy" or "servant", however, 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, in order to indicate "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.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Texts
- 3 Post-Vedic use
- 4 Comparative linguistics
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
Karl Heinrich Tzschucke in 1806, in his translations of the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, noted etymological and phonological parallels between dasa and the ethonyms of the Dahae – Persian داها; Sanskrit Dasa; Latin Dahae; Greek Δάοι Daoi, Δάαι, Δᾶαι Daai and Δάσαι Dasai – a people who lived on the south-eastern shores of the Caspian Sea in ancient times (and from whom modern Dehestan/Dehistan takes its name). Likewise Max Muller proposed that dasa referred to indigenous peoples living in South Asia before the arrival of the Aryans. However, such theories have long been controversial and are considered by many scholars as inconsistent with the broader usage of dasa in the Vedas.
Monier Monier-Williams in 1899, stated that the meaning of dasa varies contextually and means "mysterious forces", "savages", "barbarians" or "demons" in the earliest layer of Vedic literature – in other contexts, is a self-effacing way to refer oneself as "worshipper" or "devotee aiming to honor a deity", or a "servant of god". In later Indian literaure, according to Monier-Williams, usage of dasa is used to refer to "a knowing man, or a knower of the universal spirit". In the altter sense, dāsa is masculine, while the feminine equivalent is dāsi. Some early 20th Century translations, such as P. T. Srinivas Iyengar (1912), translate dasa as "slave".
Kangle in 1960, and others suggest 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 refers to enemies and in other contexts, those who had not adopted the Vedic beliefs.
Michael Witzel in his review of Indo-Iranian texts in 1995, translates dasa and das-yu in Vedic literature as "enemy, foreigner", and notes that these could have "apparently become slaves" if captured. Witzel compares the etymological root of dasa to words from other Indo-European languages that imply "enemy, foreigner", including the Avestan dahåka and dŋha, Latin dahi and Greek daai.
Asko Parpola in 2015, has proposed that dasa is related to the ancient Iranian and proto-Saka word daha, which means "man". Parpola sates that Dasa referred only to Central Asian peoples. This is contrasted with arya, the word for "man" used by, and of, Indo-European people from Central Asia. Consequently, a Vedic text that include prayers for the defeat of the Dasa as an "enemy people", according to Parpola, possibly refers to people from the so-called Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), who spoke a different language and opposed Aryan religious practices. Parpola uses archaeological and linguistic arguments to support his theory, but this is controversial.
Dasa in Buddhist texts is typically translated as "servant" or "devotee". It appears in ancient Buddhist literature in various contexts. For example, a Buddha-dasa is a person in the service of Buddha and a king's dasa is a personal servant. In Buddhist contexts, dasa does not refer to a slave or bonded servant and the word kapyari is used instead.
Dasa and related words such as Dasyu are found in the Vedas. The word Dasa or Dasyu in the Rig Veda has 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.
A. A. Macdonell and A. B. Keith in 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."
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.
अकर्मा दस्युरभि नो अमन्तुरन्यव्रतो अमानुषः ।
त्वं तस्यामित्रहन्वधर्दासस्य दम्भय ॥८॥
Around us is the Dasyu, riteless, void of sense, inhuman, keeping alien laws.
Baffle, thou Slayer of the foe, the weapon which this Dasa wields.
– Translated by Ralph Griffith
The Dasyu practising no religious rites, not knowing us thoroughly, following other observances, obeying no human laws,
Baffle, destroyer of enemies [Indra], the weapon of that Dasa.
– Translated by HH Wilson—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,
स इद्दासं तुवीरवं पतिर्दन्षळक्षं त्रिशीर्षाणं दमन्यत् ।
अस्य त्रितो न्वोजसा वृधानो विपा वराहमयोअग्रया हन् ॥६॥
The sovereign Indra attacking him overcame the loud shouting, six eyed, three headed Dasa,
Trita invigorated by his strength, smote the cloud with his iron-tipped finger.—Rigveda 10.99.6, 
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. For example, in verse 10.62.10 of Rigveda,
उत दासा परिविषे स्मद्दिष्टी गोपरीणसा । यदुस्तुर्वश्च मामहे ॥१०॥
Yadu and Indra speaking auspiciously, and possessed of numerous cattle, gave them like servants, for the enjoyment.
– Translated by HH Wilson—Rigveda 10.62.10, 
Dasa, Dasyu and Asura
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.
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, each in a different manner. Shamasastry's translation of 1915 maps dasa as slave, while Kangle leaves the words as dasa and karmakara. Kangle suggests that the context and rights granted to dasa by Kautilya implies that the word had a different meaning than the modern word slave, as well as the meaning of the word slave in Greek or other ancient and medieval civilizations.
According to Arthasastra, anyone who had been found guilty of nishpatitah (Sanskrit: निष्पातित, ruined, bankrupt, a minor crime) may mortgage oneself to become dasa for someone willing to pay his or her bail and employ the dasa for money and privileges.
Shamasastry's 1915 translation of Arthasastra describes the rights of dasa, confirming Kangle's contention that they were quite different than slaves in other ancient and medieval civilizations. For example, 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.
Employing a slave (dasa) to carry the dead or to sweep ordure, urine or the leavings of food; keeping a slave naked; 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 shall at once earn their liberty for them.
When a master has connection (sex) with a pledged female slave (dasa) against her will, he shall be punished. When a man commits or helps another to commit rape with a female slave pledged to him, he shall not only forfeit the purchase value, but also pay a certain amount of money to her and a fine of twice the amount to the government.
A slave (dasa) 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.
Use of religious "devotees"
In 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
Dasa or Das is also a surname found among Sikhs and Hindus, typically north, eastern and western India, where it literally means "votary, devotee, servant 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 sants of bhakti movement tradition added it in their names signifying their total devotion or surrender to God.
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.
Asko Parpola states the original Dasa is related to the old-Persian, proto-Saka word Daha which also means "Man", but the regional population of Persian region. Parpola contrasts Daha with Arya, the latter also referred to "Man" but the Indo-European people from Central Asia and Uralic region (Eastern Europe). The Vedic text that include prayers to help defeat "Dasa as enemy people", states Parpola, may refer to the wars between ancient Indo-Europeans with Vedic beliefs and ancient Persians from the so-called Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC). The latter spoke a different language and opposed Aryan religious practices. Parpola uses archaeological and linguistic arguments to support his theory, but his theory is controversial.
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- Barbara West (2008), Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania, ISBN 978-0816071098, page 182
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- Wash Edward Hale (1999), Ásura- in Early Vedic Religion, Motilal Barnarsidass, ISBN 978-8120800618, pages 159-169
- See, for example: Pomponius Melo (transl. and ed. by Karl Henrich Tzschucke) De sitv orbis libri tres: ad plvrimos codices mostos vel denvo vel primvm consvltos aliorvmqve editiones recensiticvm notis criticis et exegeticis vel integris vel selectis Hermolai Barbari [et al] conlectis praeterea et adpositis doctorvm virorvm animadversionibvs additis svis a Carolo Henrico Tzschvckio, Vol. II, Pt 1 (1806), p. 95 and; Pomponius Mela (transl. and ed. by Karl Henrich Tzschucke) Pomponii Melae de situ orbis: libri tres, ad plurimos codices msstos vel denvo vel primum consultos aliorumque editiones recensiti, Vol. II, Pt 3 (1806), p. 136.
- Wash Edward Hale (1999), Ásura- in Early Vedic Religion, Motilal Barnarsidass, ISBN 978-8120800618, pages 162-165
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- 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)
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