Dasa (Sanskrit for "servant") is a Hindu term with two primary usages: Originally, "Dasa" denoted enemies of the ancient Aryan peoples described in the Rig Veda. Secondly, the term in later times, acquired the a meaning of "servant" in subordination to a God. Today, many Hindu names incorporate the word "dasa" to indicate their devoted relationship to God, such as the famous "Mohandas Gandhi."
The primary association of the word Dasa, however, is with the controversial Aryan Invasion Theory that connects the Dasa with the darker Dravidian-speaking peoples. Recently, scholars have suggested that the original Dasa were Indo-Iranians, who initially rejected Aryan religious practices but were later merged with them. The identity of the Dasa continues to generate much debate among scholars today.
Central to the idea of Dasa is the concept of "slavery." This concept has been understood both as referring to a historical reality or a metaphysical relationship to divinity, which expresses utter submission to God.
The meaning of the word dāsa, which has been long preserved in the Khotanese dialect, is "man." Two words that contain "dasa" are the Vedic names Divodās (meaning "divine man") and Sudās (meaning "good man"). Dasa is also in Iranian "Daha." "Dah-" means "male, man" in Iranian. The "dahyu-pati" was the head of the tribe. The Greek "des-potes and the English "despot" correspond to this term.
The Iranian term Daha was also known to Graeco-Roman authors as the Dahae (Daai), designating Iranian tribes. The term Daha occurs in a Persepolis inscription of Xerxes. Daha also referred to a dasyu tribe in Margiana. Dahistan (east of the Caspian Sea) derives its name from this tribe. The Greek historians Q. Curtius Rufus (8,3) and Ptolemy (Geography: 6,10,2) located the region of the Dahas on the river Margos (modern Murghab) or in Margiana (Parpola 1988). The Dahas are also mentioned by Pomponius Mela (3,42) and Tacitus (Ann. 11,10).
Strabo wrote about the Dahae the following: "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and Sacae."
Strabo's description places Dahae nomads in the area around modern Turkmenistan. Tacitus, in the Annals, writes of the Parthian king Vardanes I that he subdued "the intermediate tribes as far as the river Sindes, which is the boundary between the Dahae and the Arians."
According to the earliest scriptures of Hinduism, known as the [Rig Veda]], the main difference between the Aryas and the Dasas is their religious beliefs. The Dasas and Dasyus are also described as brahma-dvisah, which Ralph T.H. Griffith translates as "those who hate devotion" or "prayer haters." Rig Veda 10.22.8 also 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 Rig Veda 8.70.11, they are described as a-deva-yu (not regarding Deva ).
Interestingly, the word anasa ("noseless") is used in connection with the Dasyus (Rig Veda 5.29.10). Although there is only one instance in the Rig Veda where this word occurs, this has led to belief that the Dasyus were "flat-nosed" people. 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" (Rig Veda 1854-57:3.276).
Dasyu is also a term that could also be applied to Vedic kings. 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 Anus, Druhyus, Turvashas, and even Purus (Rig Veda 7.6, 12-14, 18).
Symbolical and spiritual interpretations
Religious Hindu 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 (Rig Veda II.14.4), and a Dasa with six eyes and three heads in the Rig Veda.
According to Aurobindo (The Secret of the Veda), Rig Veda 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" (trans. 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") (Rig Veda 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.
According to Koenraad Elst:
When it is said that Agni, the fire, “puts the dark demons to flight,” one should keep in mind that the darkness was thought to be filled with ghosts or ghouls, so that making light frees the atmosphere of their presence. And when Usha, the dawn, is said to chase the "dark skin" or "the black monster" away, it obviously refers to the cover of nightly darkness over the surface of the earth.
The Dasas/Dasyus and krsna or asikni
In the Rig Veda, Dasa, Dasyu and similar terms (for example, 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. However, Sanskrit is a language that uses many metaphors. The word "cow," for example, can mean Mother Earth, sunshine, wealth, language, Aum, and so on. 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.
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."
The term "krsnavonih" in Rig Veda 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 Ralph T.H. Griffith, "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 Rig Veda 4.16.13, Geldner has assumed that "krsna" refers to "sahasra" (thousands). However, 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.
There are three instances in the Rig Veda where the phrase krsna (or ashikni) tvac occurs, literally translating to "black (or swarthy) skin:"
- 1.130.8de "Plaguing the lawless he [Indra] gave up to Manu's seed the dusky skin" (trans. Griffith).
- 9.41.1 "active and bright have they come forth, impetuous in speed like bulls, Driving the black skin far away" (trans. Griffith).
- 9.73.5cd "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. Similary, Michael Witzel (1995b) writes about terms like krsna tvac that "while it would be easy to assume reference to skin color, 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. This interpretation could also be viewed as nothing more than political bias against the suggestion of racism.
The Rig Vedic commentator Sayana explains the word tvacam krsna (RV 1.130.8) as referring to an asura (demon) called Krsna whose skin was torn apart by Indra.
Dasa, in Hinduism
The present day usage of Dasa in Hinduism has respectful connotation and not derogatory. It always means "slave of god." In the past, many saints from all castes added it in their names, signifying their total devotion to god. An example is Mohandas Gandhi. Another example is Surdas, the blind Brahmin poet. "Das" is one of the common surnames of Brahmins, especially in East India. As any other proper word to translate the word "slave" is absent in Sanskritized Hindi, the word Dāsa is used for the same. Furthermore, in bhakti yoga a person can be in a relationship with God called Dasyu-bhakta, meaning being a "slave of God." Initiated male members of ISKCON have the word "dasa" at the end of their initiated names, meaning "servant," and initiated female members of ISKCON have the words "devi dasi," which means "goddess servantess" (dasi is the feminine form of das).
Guru, or Sat guru in various traditions of Hinduism, is given the name Dasa, Servant of God, as, for example, the pure teacher, also called Uda ka Das, meaning "the servant of the one God." The other Sanskrit word meaning of servant, is retained in all Indian languages where monotheistic 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 means that living entities (bhuto) are eternally in the service (dasa) of the Supreme Lord (Vishnu). Thus, designation for Vaishnava followers of svayam bhagavan Krishna was the status title dasa as part of their names as in Hari dasa.
There is also a Dasa Balbutha Taruksa in Rig Veda 6.45.31 who is a patron of a seer and who is distinguished by his generosity (Rig Veda 8.46.32). There are several hymns in the Rigveda that refer to Dasa and Aryan enemies and to related (jami) and unrelated (ajami) enemies (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.
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