Yajnavalkya-smriti (Vyavaharadhyaya)—Critical study

by Kalita Nabanita | 2017 | 87,413 words

This page relates ‘Slavery in India’ of the study on the Vyavaharadhyaya of the Yajnavalkya-smriti: one of the most prominent Smritis dealing with Dharmashastra (ancient Indian science of law), dating to the 1st century B.C. The Yajnavalkyasmriti scientifically arranges its contents in three sections: Acara (proper conduct), Vyavahara (proper law) and Prayashcitta (expiation). Vyavahara deals with judicial procedure and legal system such as substantive law and procedural law.

The institution of slavery has been in practice, throughout history in some or other form in all nations. In some of the nations such as England, United States of America, etc., around the globe humankind have witnessed the unprecedented strictures on slavery. A slave is a human being, who is owned by another person through the physical, economic or intellectual power and enjoys the right to decide his or her living, work, etc. It is a socio-economic problem of serious concern, which has been outlawed in all recognised countries nowadays. The existence of slavery in India may be identified with the term dāsa, which is used in the sense of slave in some of the passages of the Ṛgveda.[1]

The Smṛtis provide an account of slavery existing in that time of India. It is pertinent here to find out in the light of the Vyavahārādhyāya the conditions of slavery, attitude of contemporary society and the change introduced by the lawmaker on the previously existing state of slavery.

The law on slavery, ordained by the Manusmṛti, suggests the status of the slaves prior to the Yājñavalkyasmṛti. Manu enjoins that slavery is the eternal destiny of the Śūdras. They may be compelled to do servile work for the Brāhmaṇas specially, no matter whether he is bought or not. Moreover, Manu declares that Śūdras must not be released from servitude since it is inherent in him.[2] A slave is strictly prohibited from owning any property under the law of the Manusmṛti.129 On the other hand, twice-borns are exempted from forceful slavery. The Brāhmaṇas are directed not to cause a twice born to work as a slave and violation of it leads to heavy penalty of six hundred paṇas.[3]

The Vyavahārādhyāya reveals a number of changes that has taken place in the institution of slavery. Important of them is that slavery is not considered as exclusively confined to the members of the Śūdra varṇa. Yājñavalkya prescribes the rule that slavery is to be followed according to the natural order of varṇas but not in reverse order.[4] It means the varṇas inferior to a Brāhmaṇa may be slaves to him. A Kṣatriya is entitled to keep a slave either from Vaiśya or Śūdra but not the vice versa. A Vaiśya cannot be a slave to a Śūdra, but a Śūdra can become a slave to a Vaiśya. As against Manu’s forcible enforcement of slavery upon Śūdra, the Vyavahārādhyāya shows a progressive principle asserting the release of a forcible slave which advocates that without consent nobody should be reduced to slavery.[5]

Yājñavalkya provides various ways for manumission of slaves, which are discussed in the fifth chapter. The Vyavahārādhyāya throws light on the dark sides of the slavery that slaves are considered chattel, and as a result, both male slaves and female slaves have been bought and sold like commercial commodities. In one instance, the time for inspection and return of the female servants and male servants are laid down along with some other commodities, if the purchaser repents for it.[6] It appears that a number of women slaves have existed for working as maidservants. Their masters might have subjected them to sexual exploitations. Therefore, the author is compelled to make a rule to safeguard the interest of those unfortunate women. Destroying the embryo of female servant is regarded as an offence under sāhasa and a fine of one hundred paṇas is prescribed to the offender.[7]

Yājñavalkya refers to the share of a son of a Śūdra by a dāsī, i.e. a female slave as-

jāto’pi dāsyāṃ śūdreṇa kāmatoṃśaharo bhavet/[8]

It may suggest that even some of the Śūdras kept slaves. Commenting upon the relevant context, the Mitākṣarā commentary states that the mention of the word śūdra in the text implies that the son of a twice-born by a female slave is not entitled to a share even by father’s desire, nor even half but he will receive maintenance if he is obedient.[9]

Thus, the rules of Vyavahārādhyāya reflect the signs of softer attitude to the slaves, which thereby indicate the improvement of the condition of slaves than before. Slavery is not confined to Śūdras and women in general. It seems that slavery in India existed on a considerable scale in comparison to the inhuman, cruel and harsh treatment known to be meted out to the slaves of some of the ancient western countries. In this context, the view of Apurba Chandra Barthakuria is worth quoting who observes, “In India, the slave-owners probably did not maltreat the slaves or slave-maidens. It may be noted in this context that African slaves became the victims of worst torture in America after the notorious slave-trade was introduced by European slave-traders in that continent, and the Russian slaves under Czarist rule in Russia, till the slaves were fully liberated.”[10]

Footnotes and references:


cf., Ṛgveda, 8.56.3, 7.19,36, 8.5.38, etc.


sūdraṃ tu kārayeddāsyaṃ krītamakrī tameva vā// dāsyāyaiva hi sṛṣṭo’sau brāhmaṇasya svayaṃbhuvā// na svāminā nisṛṣṭo’pi sūdro dāsyādvimucyate// nisargajaṃ hi tattasya kartasmāttadapohati// Manusmṛti, 8.413-414129 bharyā putraśca dāsaśca trayaevādhanāḥ smṛtāḥ// yatte samadhigacchanti yasya te tasya taddhanam// Ibid., 8.416


Ibid., 9.412


varṇānāmānulomyena dāsyaṃ na pratilomataḥ// Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.183


balāddāsīkṛtaścaurairvikrītaścāpi mucyate/ Ibid., 2.182


daśaikapañcasaptāhamāsartyahārdhamāsikam/ bījāyovāhyaratnastrīdohyapuṃsāṃ parīkṣaṇam// Ibid., 2.177


… dāsīgarbha vināśakṛt… ca śatadaṇḍabhāk// Ibid., 2.236


Ibid., 2.133


atra ca sūdragrahaṇāddvijātinādāsyāmutpannaḥ pituricchayāpyaṃśaṃ na labhate nāpyardhaṃ dūrata eva kṛtsvam/ kiṃtvanukūlaścejjīvanamātraṃlabhate/ Mitākṣarā,Ibid.


Vide, Barthakuria, A.C., The Mahābhārata: An Encyclopedia of Indian Wisdom, Thoughts and Culture, page 217

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