While formally there are four castes in Vedic culture: brahmins, ksatriyas, vaishyas and sudras, the social reality of this structure is very different in certain parts of India. The social rules enjoined by various religions also differ in different regions of Indian subcontinent. In Bengal, much of the development of the first distinct Bengali Hinduism took place during the rule of the sena and barman kings, and is described in the writings of Bhavadeva, Aniruddhabhatta, Vallalasena, Laksmanasena, Gunavinsu, Halayudha, etc., as well as in the Brhaddharma and Brahmavaivarta Puranas.
To a large extent, they codified, formalized and made immutable some of the existing social structure, as well as making it very much more rigid. In fact according to traditional stories, which must be distinguished from history, brahmins originated in Bengal during this time.
The society described therein does not contain (though they still appear in origin myths) any ksatriyas or vaishyas, except when some of the rulers are referred to as kshatriyas. Today, most of the people who call themselves ksatriyas have variations of varman or malla as their surname, and some jewelers claim descent from the vaishyas.
The brahmins were divided geographically into Radhi and Barendri, with a variety of village associations, but according to Aniruddha, they had forgotten their Vedic tradition. The Radhis are divided into Kullnas and Vamshajas, and the Barendras into Kullnas and Kaps. The Kulins are organized into 56 villages and 36 mels and thaks like phule, vallabhi, kharda and sarvanandi.
In addition, there were Vaidika Brahmins who came (according to tradition during Shyamalavarma’s rule) from the north, including Sarasvati region, and from the south, including Utkala, India. According to Halayudha, these were the only brahmins who knew the Vedic tradition. They were organized as a pashcatya and a daksinatya group.
Mention is also found of brahmins from Shakadvipa who, according to tradition, came during Shashagka’s rule. They were called Grahavipra. The latter, according to Brahmavaivarta Puranas, however, are children of devalas, who are true Shakadvvipi brahmins, and vaishya women, who were not respected in society. A subcaste of them called agradani used to perform shraddha ceremony for the shudras. Also found is another group of brahmins not recognized in society: the bhatta brahmins, presumably related to the Bhattacharyas.
According to the rules developed in this period, the respected or shrotriya brahmins could not perform priestly duties for anyone other than the 20 high shudra subcastes. According to Vrhaddharma Purana, these shudra subcastes arose from a mixture of castes forced by King vena. The upper subcastes had parents belonging to unmixed caste, the middle ones had fathers of unmixed caste, and the lowest had both parents of mixed caste.
Those who violate the rule get the subcaste of that person and thus were found, in addition, varna brahmins who could not even serve water to the true brahmins. In additions, certain occupations like teaching sudras, doing priestly duties for them, practicing medicine or astrology, or performing painting or other artistic activities, were forbidden; although certain others like farming and fighting, or working as a minister, go-between, religious leader or general were all allowed.
The rules developed in this period prescribe strict limits on brahmins intermixing with the rest of the society. For example, they were not allowed to eat food cooked by sudras, except for fried items, rice cooked in milk and in time of distress. However, they could not drink even water touched by the untouchables, neither could they be touched by untouchables. Elaborate rituals were needed to clean oneself of violations of these rules.
Similarly, even though intermarriage between upper caste men and lower caste women was allowed, the normal rule was marriage within one’s own caste. Rules made it clear that a wife of a lower caste had less rights than one of the same caste. Marriage rules for brahmins, and possibly upper category of sudras, had to follow the endogamy/exogamy rules of sapinda (exogamy for parts of an extended family), sagotra (exogamy for a group of paternally inherited markers called gotra) and samanapravara (exogamy outside related gotras).
Marriage was also forbidden if it took place according to high ceremony and any of the seven male ancestors along the father’s line and five along the mother’s line coincided. Low marriage ceremony only required exclusion for five and three generations, but pushed one to the sudra caste.
Even the Kayastha Kullna rules are complicated today. The first three sons who married had to obey rules to stay in the caste, whereas the fourth (madhyamsha dvitiya), fifth (kanisthya), and the younger (vamshaja) ones had laxer rules, as they were not considered as high in caste status: they traditionally married elder maulikas.
Note that this does not imply that the Bengali society, either before or during the Sena period, was very spartan or puritanical in the modern sense of the word. Though brahmins marrying sudra women was looked down upon, extra-marital relationships between them were overlooked.
Although this structure can clearly be seen in Bengal even today, there is great variation to be found as we move across the different districts of Bengal. For example, the Kayasthas who were the top of the non-brahmin hierarchy are differently rated in places like rural Bakura, Virabhuma, Varddhamana, and MedinipUra, where the farming sadgopas are at the top of the hierarchy.
The advent of Vaisnavism in the middle ages also led essentially to a new caste, which was to be reviled by the traditional society. The cult of Caitanya Mahaprabhu was, at its heart, little interested in the confines of castes. Mahaprabhu welcomed all the fallen conditioned souls, imploring them to put aside concerns of bodily conception and take up the chanting of the Holy Name.
The non-brahmins in Bengal were almost all formally classified as being in from 36 to 41 subcastes of sudras, in three categories. The exact enumeration varies somewhat, but the list in Vrhaddharma Purana is presented here as an example. The top subcaste (from whom the brahmins can drink water, and for whom they can be priests) consist of the following. (Links have been provided to images representing many of these varnas, from the Calcutta Engravings series by Solvyns, c. 1799.)
Record keepers (karana or kayastha). Karana seems to become less prevalent with time, kayastha more, though there are exceptions. Doctors and medicine makers (ambastha or vaidya). Doctors in the early part are being described as karana. In South India, some doctors were also brahmins. In Bihara, one can also find the ambastha kayastha caste, said to be descendants of Citragupta and zobhavati. In Bengal, ambasthas seem to merge into vaidyas, fighters (ugra), envoys and messengers (magadha), weavers (tantuvaya), scent traders (gandhikavanika), barbers (napita), writers (gopa), ironsmiths (karmakara), betelnut traders (taulika), potters (kumbhakara), brass smiths (kamsakara), conch smiths (shagkhika), farmers (dasa), betel leaf farmers (varujivi), sweetmeat makers (modaka), florists (malakara), praise singers (suta), rajaputra, and betel leaf traders (tambuli).
Some of these people, the kayastha/vaidyas (these terms have since taken much broader meanings) often call themselves, in accord with the stories of their origin as found in, for example, Brahmavaivarta Purana, ksatriyas or vaisyas may be closely tied to the origins of the brahmins.
Manu also describes the origins of many of these, as arising out of violation of caste rules. Thus, ambasthas of brahmana father and vaisya mother (two degrees apart is not considered proper), karanas of some ksatriyas who had given up his duties. As a result, some of them consider themselves Vaidya Brahmins (and use both the vaisya indicator gupta and brahmana indicator Sharma. Like the non-sudra castes in ancient texts, they have limited rights to the Veda and sacred thread ceremony.
The Kayasthas divide themseves into the uttararadhis, the daksinaradhis, and the vamgajas. The daksinaradhis include the kullna ghosa, basus, and the mitras and the maulikas, who divide themselves as the upper dey, datta, kar, palit, sena, simha, dasa, and guha, and the lower seventy-two. Among the vavgajas the guha are the only kullnas.
The middle subcaste consisted of engravers (taksana), washermen (rajaka), goldsmiths (svarnakara), gold traders (svarnavanika), milkmen and cowherds (abhira), oil traders (tailakaraka), fish traders (dhivara), alcohol traders (shaundika), actors and magicians (nata), descendants of Buddhist leaders (shekhara), fishermen (jalika; possibly, buffalo keepers arose from these later) and another unidentifiable category, shabaka.
The lowest subcaste (considered untouchables) consist of cleaners (malegrahi), those that cremate the dead (candala), carpenters (taksa), leatherworker (carmakara), boatmen (ghattajivi), chairbearers (dolavahi), wrestlers (malla) and two unidentified groups (varuda and kudava). In addition are desribed the mleccha or foreign groups like pukkasha, pulinda, khasa, thara, kamboja, yavana, sumha, shavara, etc., who were left outside the entire classification.
In contrast, , Brahmavaivarta Purana mentions the top subcaste, exemplified by gopa, napita, bhilla, modaka, kuvara, tambuli, svarnakara (later demoted), and vanika; followed by karana and ambastha.
Then of the nine sons of Vishvakarma by a sudra: maiakara, karmahara, shagkhakara, kuvindaka, kumbhakara, and kamsakara are explained as being high, while sutradhara and citrakara were also demoted. Suvarnavanika is also demoted because of association with svarnakara.
After this there is a long list of fallen subcastes, including attalikakara, kotaka, tivara, tailakara, leta, malla, carmakara, shundi, paundraka, mamsaccheda, rajaputra, kaivarta, rajaka, kauall, gaggaputra, and yuggi. The really low subcastes included vyadha, bhada, kola, kojca, haddi, doma, jola, vagatata, vyalagrahi, and candala.
Traditional stories try to explain the bizarre patterns found in these variously shifting castes. For example, the goldsmiths claimed they were vaishyas who were insulted by Vallalasena, who invited and placed them with the satsudras at dinner, and who furthermore borrowed a lot of money by force. When they tried to revolt against him, he lowered their status; and he further disallowed wearing of the sacred thread by traders. Overall, however, the low position of the artisan class fit well with the agrarian turn at the beginning of the Pala period.
In the following passage, excerpted from the book, “The Caste System of the Hindus”, by Rajah Comm (Varanasi, 1963), we find an interesting description of how the line of brahmans was regenerated in Bengal around 940 or 990 A.D. Having degenerated significantly in preceding years, the Kings of that time attempted to orchestrate a revival of the brahmans by importing more purified and qualified personalities into the local societies to serve the people. Navadvipa was one such town. Unfortunately, Bengal was not spared from suffering under a further deterioration into caste Brahmanism, which Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu later denounced.
“During the reign of Adisura, a Vaidya King of Bengal, the celebration of a yajna (sacrifice) became necessary owing to a drought, but there having been at that time no Brahmana so learned as to perform it, Adisura requested Virsinha, the King of Kanya Kubjya (Cononj), to send him some brahmanas versed in the Veda and competent to perform the intended yajna. Five Brahmanas were accordingly sent:
1. Bhattanarayana [from whom the Tagore family sprung], who was said to be of Sandilya Gotra, being descended from the sage Sandilya; 2. Sriharsha of Bharadwaja Gotra, from the sage Bharadwaja; 3. Vedagarva of Sawarna Gotra, from the sage Sawarna; 4. Chhandara of Vatsya Gotra, from the sage Vatsya; and 5. Daksha of Kasyapa Gotra from the sage Kasypa.
These five Brahmans brought five Kayastha servants with them, viz.: 1. Makaranda Ghosh; 2. Kali Dasa Mitra; 3. Dasaratha Guha; 4. Dasartha Basu and 5. Purushottama Datta. These five Brahmanas as well as their servants, the five Kayasthas, were afterwards honored as the Kulina. Of these, those who lived in the Barendra land of North Bengal were called the Barendra Brahmanas and those who lived in West Bengal were called Rarhi Barhmanas.
Those who are not Kulinas among the Rarhis were called Banysagas, and among the Barendras are called Kafs. Although the Barendra and the Rarhis have sprung from the same origin, still owing to their living in different localities, they cannot socially mix with each other, e.g. marriage cannot take place between a Barendra and a Rarhi; a Rarhi does not take food cooked by a Barendra, and so forth.
Shyamal Varma, a Kshatriya King, also brought five Brahmanas from Konouj, viz: 1. Sanaka; 2. Bhardwaja; 3. Savarna; 4. Sandilya; 5. Vasistha; many years after Adisura. Five villages, viz: 1. Samahtasar in Furreedpur; 2. Navadwip in Nuddea; 3. Chandradwip in Backergunj; 4. Kotaliparah in Furreedpur; and 5. Joyari in Rajshahi; were granted to the five above-mentioned Brahmanas respectively. The descendants of these Brahmanas are called the Vaidik Brahmanas. They are divdided into two classes, viz: 1. Paschtya, i.e., those who lived in West Bengal; and 2. Dakshinatya, i.e., those who lived in South Bengal. Those two classes of the Vaidiks cannot socially mix with each other. There is no system of Kulinism among the Vaidiks.
The five above mentioned Kulin families lived in 56 different villages. They were therefore called Chhappanna Grami (i.e. of 56 village). The word Grami has since been corrupted into Gai. The Kulins may again be distinguished into four Thaks (orders), viz: Phule, Vallabhi, Kharda and Sarvanandi. Any of these can take food prepared by any other, but no marriage can take place between them.
This pernicious system of Kulinism is prevalent only in Bengal. No trace of it whatever can be found in any other country of India. Kulinism has produced immense evil in this country. Owing to this system, a Kulin Brahmana is often obliged to keep his daughter a maid forever, for want of a bridegroom of the same rank of Kulins as he himself is. Sometimes one Kulin Brahmana marries some 300 wives, or else those poor girls would not have been married, for there might not be another person of the same social position among the Kulins as their fathers were. The result is that the country is being filled with horrible crimes.
Those Brahmanas who did not follow up their Brahminical duties, e.g. who acted as spiritual guides or as priests of the lowest classes, such as Suvarna vanika, Chandala, etc., were called Patita (degenerated or fallen) Brahmanas.
Kshatriyas in Bengal
The Kshatriya caste is rare in Bengal. Those Kshatriyas who live here cannot socially mix with those in the northwestern provinces, for the former on account of their long residence in the lower provinces have adopted to a great measure the habits, manners, and customs of the Bengalis, among whom they live. The Kshatriyas generally take the surnames of Barman and Mal.
No original Vaisyas can be found in Bengal; in fact, unmixed Vaisyas are very rare. The jeweller class of Bengal, called the Jaharis, most likely have sprung from the Vaisyas. Almost all the Jaharis have embraced Jainism. They cannot socially mix with any other caste in Bengal. The Sudras are not of Aryan descent.
Among the castes found in Bengal, besides Brahmana, the highest is the Kayastha. This caste is said to have sprung from the Kshatriya caste. The story about the origin of the Kayastha runs thus: While Parusurama, one of the ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu, was engaged in extirpating the Kshatriyas, a Kshatriya king named Bhandrasena and his wife, big with child, took refuge in the hermitage of the sage Talavya. Parasurama went thither to kill them, but the sage informed him that he would on no account allow Parasurama to kill the king and the queen, for they were the sage’s guests. An agreement was then entered into by which the king was not to allow his child, if male, to take up the profession of a Kshatriya, but the son should leave the sword and have recourse to the pen for his livelihood. A son was born to the king and his descendants were afterwards called the Kayasthas.
The Kayasthas were divided into the Uttara Rarhis, the Dakshina Rarhis and the Bangajas; the last being the original Kayastha inhabitants of Bengal, who now chiefly live in East Bengal. The Dakshina Rarhis at present have largely spread over this part of Bengal, They are subdivided into two classes, viz: The Kulins and the Mauliks. The Ghoshes, the Basus and the Mitras (three surnames of the Kayasthas) are the Kulins; all the rest being the Mauliks.
The Mauliks again are divided into two classes: the Deys, the Dutts, the Kars, the Palits, the Sens, the Sinhas, the Dasses and the Guhas are of the first class, the rest (which number 72) being of the 2nd class, The Guhas of the Bangaja Kayasthas are Kulins. It is said that the Dattas not acknowledging the brahmanas as their masters and themselves as servants of the Brahmanas were not honoured as Kulins.
The Uttara Rarhis, the Dakshina Rarhis and the Bangajas may take food cooked by one another, but no marriage takes place between them.
The Kayasthas have, like the Brahmanas, Gotras of their own; the Gotras of the Ghoshes, the Basus and Mitras are Saukalina, Goutama and Visva Mitra respectively. In the districts of Bankura, Beerdhoom, Burdwan and Midnapore, Kayasthas are very rare. There the Sadgopas are the chief of all the lower castes. They mostly depend upon agriculture.
Many castes, besides those before mentioned, have sprung up in course of time, by their intermixture, such as the Bagdi, the Poda, the Dule, etc.
Another caste, more properly a religious sect, has sprung up since the time of Lord Chaitanya, the caste people being known by the name of the Vaishnavas. Persons of all castes are permitted to become Vaishnavas, among whom there is no distinction of castes.
There is a vast literature in Bengal, called kulaj or kulasastra dealing with the history and genealogy of the Brahmins and other important castes. The kulaji of Radhiya Brahmins hold them descendants of five families brought in the 8th or 9th century by an unidentified King Adisura. The kulaji of Varendra hold King Ballalsen (1158-79 A.D.) responsible for founding the Kulin system. The reason this system was started is described here:
“… after the reign of the Pala kings of Bengal, who were patrons of Buddhism, a revival of Hinduism followed during the reign of Sena kings, from the 12th century onwards. There was need for reorganizing the social structure of Hinduism based on the caste system, and some rigid rules were formulated to maintain the purity of the higher castes, particularly the Brahmins.” [Benoy Ghose, Ibid. p.111]
This system, if it deserves such a term as ‘system’, unfortunately led to hypergamy, where the bridegroom must be from a higher caste or subcaste, thus resulting in a surplus of unmarried girls. As sastras ordained that the daughters must be married off before puberty, and there were pronounced curses on defaulters, one man married a large number of brides who were never supported economically by the husband.
It must be remembered that all these sufferings were caused by the Brahmins to their own kith and kin, their own women folk, with only one intention, that is to keep the supremacy of their own caste, which was in danger due to Buddhist ideals in the society during the Buddhist kings’ rule.
Reestablishing Brahmin Supremacy
King Ballalsen was a learned person. After the fall of Buddhist kingdom of Palas, with an aim of establishing a Brahmin religion from a fresh start, Ballalasen took many new steps, including oppression of Buddhists. He divided the country into four areas, with the purpose of establishing the kulin system. These areas were:
“Radha” – western area, the present Vardhaman Division;
“Varendra” – northern area;
“Vagadi” – forest lands around the sea in the south; and
“Vangal” – eastern Bengal
The Brahmins in these areas are called Radhi, Varendra, Vangal, etc.
Chatterji observes, it was the work of the same king, who created four types of Bengalis in Bengal. For this purpose, he did the same thing as every other Hindu king used to do after winning a new territory, to keep his own caste ‘pure’ or make it so. That is, he called from some famous Brahmin centres like Mithila, Kashi, Prayag or Kanauj a few Brahmin families and settled them in his kingdom. This is similar to the bull-studs of Shiva, left by today’s pious Hindu devotees to impregnate the cows.
So that these people should do their work properly and not interfere in one another’s area of interest, he divided the country into four areas as above and settled in each one of them one batch of these ‘pure’ Brahmins, and relegated the work of increasing the population of ‘Arya vamsha’ in the three Hindu castes (perhaps meaning – Brahmin, Baidyas and Kayasthas). These people had been doing this work for about eight hundred years without any hindrance.”
The famous Varendra families are Sanyal, Bagchi, Ghoshal, Mohotra etc. Among Radhis, five families are famous. They call themselves Kanyakubja, i.e. from Kanauj and are called after titles given by the Sena kings, as Upadhyaya acharya, etc. These names are now corrupted to Chatterji, Mukherji, Banarji, Ganguli and Bhattachari due to English pronunciation in British times.
Chaterji states: “As is well known, to curb the Buddhist practice of becoming a bhikkhu and renounce the worldly affairs in young age, it is enjoined by the Brahmanic sastras that out of four ashramas, the grahasta ashram is the most important, and here one has to repay the four debts. One of them is to have a progeny, when man becomes free from the father’s debt. But this Kulin system was quite different from method of repaying the ‘father’s debt’.”
The child’s caste was decided by the mother’s caste. But sometimes the progeny of so-called low caste Brahmins could also get higher caste because of wealth. Many Kayasthas became rich and adored themselves with yadnopavita and became the dwijas, calling themselves as Kshatriyas.” In that way, the place of Kayasthas in Bengal’s varna system is among the Sudras, says Chaterji.
These hundreds of wives of the Brahmins used to reside with their parents. Their husbands used to wander from place to place doing bhajan, etc., and would visit them may be once or twice a year. This was enough for procreation and propagation of the race. Thus within a few generations, a vast corps of Brahmin progeny was created, which became the main support of the modern Brahmin religion, making them quite distinct from the original inhabitants of Bengal.