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Slavery is an institution wherein a person is legally owned by others and forced to work for them. Slaves (dāsa), like other property, can be bought, sold and mortgaged. There were five types of slaves in ancient India; those born to enslaved mothers, those purchased, those who voluntarily became slaves, e.g. to escape starvation during times of famine, those who became slaves out of fear and those captured in raids (Ja.VI,285; Vin.IV,224). The lot of slaves was a hard one; for the smallest mistake they could be flogged, put in chains, branded or fed scraps (Ja.I451). We read of a woman severely beating her slave girl for getting up late (M.I,125).
The Buddha said that the buying and selling of human beings is a wrong means of livelihood for lay people (A.III,207) and he forbade monks and nuns to accept gifts of slaves or to own them (D.I,5). These teachings seem to be the oldest known prohibition against slavery. Some centuries later, the Mahāvastu condemned slavery, saying that those ‘who enslave beings who are without protection or refuge’will be reborn in purgatory. The Upāsakaśīla Sūtra (3rd cent. CE?) says a lay man should neither buy nor sell slaves nor sell  his wives and children into slavery, something husbands sometimes did when in debt or during hard times.
Despite such teachings, slavery has existed in all Buddhist countries, as it has everywhere else in the world. When it was abolished in Buddhist lands, this was done by the colonial powers – in Sri Lanka in the 1820’s and in Burma, Laos and Cambodia at the end of the 19th century – and in Thailand due to pressure from Western governments in 1905. The last Buddhist country to abolish slavery was Bhutan in 1962. The last country in the world to abolish it was Mauritania in 1980, although in reality slavery continues to exist there and in parts of the Middle East.

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