Slavery is an institution wherein a person is legally owned by others and forced to work for them. Slaves (dàsa), like other property, can be bought, sold or 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.I,451). We read of a woman severely beating her slave girl for getting up late (M.I,125). This unenviable state is highlighted by the Buddha's description of the sense of relief a slave would have on receiving manumission. `He would think ßBefore I was a slave, not my own master, subject to another, unable to go where I wanted. But now I am my own master, not subject to another, free, emancipated, able to go where I wantû, and he would rejoice and feel happy as a result'.û(D.I,72).
The Buddha said that the buying and selling of human beings is a wrong means of livelihood for lay people (A.III,208) 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 Mahàvastu condemns slavery, saying that those `who enslave beings who are without protection or refuge'will be reborn in purgatory. The Upàsaka÷ãla Såtra (3rd century CE?) says a lay man should neither buy nor sell slaves nor sell his wives and children into slavery, something husbands and fathers 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. The first country with a significant Buddhist culture to abolish slavery was Japan which did so in 1590. When slavery was abolished in most other Buddhist lands it was done by the colonial powers; in Sri Lanka in the 1820s, 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 it continues to exist there and in parts of the Middle East.