ETHNONYMS: Agarwal, Agarwala, Agarwal Marwadi, Aggarwal, Agrawal, Bani, Banik, Banikar, Baniya, Banjig, Barnik, Mahajan, Marwadi Bania, Marwari, Oswal, Sahukar, Sarnabanik, Seth, Sonarbania, Sowcar, Subarnabanik, Vani, Vania
"Bania" is a functional term applied to bankers, moneylenders, and dealers in grain, ghee, groceries, and spices. The name vania (or bania ) is derived from the Sanskrit word vanij, "a merchant." An interesting aspect of this group is that some of them are Hindus by religion while a substantial number are Jains.
Bania are found all over India, in towns and villages, with large concentrations in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh. An extremely large group, Banias are distinguished by their well-defined traditional occupation and a distinctive social status. More Banias adhere to their traditional occupation in modern India than any other caste or group. They are considered to be Vaisyas, the third great division of the Aryan twice-born groups. They wear the sacred thread and are strict observers of the taboo against eating meat. They are divided into several endogamous subcastes. The important ones, like the Oswals and Agarwals, are of Rajput or Kshatriya stock and come from Rajputana, Bundelkhand, or Gujarat. Others migrated centuries ago to different parts of the country, where they have become endogamous and have taken on a new local name. Because of their need to keep accounts, Banias have long been a literate group, and they are credited with special mental and moral characteristics by other castes. Like all mercantile classes, they display energy, shrewdness, and intelligence. Consequently they have been employed by Rajput princes as counselors and high officers of the state. From early childhood Bania boys are trained to keep accounts and are taught to view profit as the only creditable outcome of any transaction. To this end, they receive training in mental arithmetic, including fractional tables, interest tables, and other complex calculations. For petty accounts Banias traditionally used the rekha system, which is based on fourths, tied to the old currency in which 12 paise = 1 anna and 16 annas = 1 rupee. They are capitalists par excellence, and even at the beginning of their trading careers they are able to turn over their inventory at a very high rate by dint of hard work. Their career is reflected in such proverbs as, "He comes with a lota (water pot) and goes back with a lakh (100,000)," and "If a Bania gets a rupee, he will have an income of 8 rupees a month."
The Banias' relationship with members of other castes is tinged with envy. As moneylenders they provide an essential function, especially for cultivators; but they are seen as ruthless usurers. The cultivators, usually illiterate, rarely get fair treatment from the Banias. They do not understand figures or the result of paying compound interest at 25 or 50 percent. They must have money at planting time and to live on while their crops are growing. The result is that frequently the land, if salable, passes to the Bania, and the borrower declines from landowner to tenant or tenant to day laborer. There are many proverbs, in most Indian languages, warning against the Banias and their cunning. Nevertheless without them the traditional farming economy would be impossible. The Banias are willing to lend on security that is unacceptable to banks, and frequently on none at all. They are willing to wait indefinitely for the repayment of principal, especially if the interest is paid. This means that debts can be postponed in a bad year and repayment accelerated in a good one.
The introduction of cash as the basis of all transactions and the changes in the laws governing the proprietary and transferable rights in land have added tremendously to the Banias' prosperity and to their clients' perception of their rapacity. But in their defense it must be said that although the interest they charge is exorbitant by modern banking Standards, it is merely a carryover from earlier peasant agrarian conditions when the entire transaction was made in grain. A 25-50 percent rate of return in grain does not yield more than a reasonable profit to the lender. But when in recent times cash has been substituted for grain, interest may far outstrip any income that the investment has generated for the borrower. Furthermore, whereas in earlier times a loan of seed was essentially for planting, most of the loans today are consumer loans taken for expenses like dowries and marriage expenses.
Like any commercial class, the Banias had to have a high standard of probity. It was not unusual for people to place their money in a rich Bania's hands for safekeeping. Bankruptcy was considered disgraceful and punished. The duty of paying ancestral debts is taken seriously, since Banias believe that their condition in the next life depends on the discharge of all claims in this one. The Banias are well known for keeping caste funds to which all of them contribute to enable any impoverished member to start afresh. Today the Marwaris are extremely generous in their subscriptions for the maintenance of educational institutions and temples.
The marriage rules vary among the local groups; but on the whole the subcastes are endogamous, and they in turn are Divided into exogamous units that are sometimes called gotras. Widow remarriage and divorce are not allowed. Although it is not customary to pay dowry or bride-price, a marriage requires the youth's father to make ritual prestations to the girl. Bania weddings involve great expense, and feasting may last eight days.
All Banias are Jains or Vaishnava Hindus, and both follow the life-cycle rituals prescribed by Hinduism. One of the gods they specifically worship is Ganapati, the lord of wealth and prosperity. They also revere all life and are loath to kill any animal. Their diet reflects this strict taboo, and most of them abstain from all kinds of meat and alcoholic drink. Many of them, especially the Jains among them, will also eschew onions, garlic, and other tubers, since this involves taking the life of a plant. Most of the animal asylums in India (panjarapol ) are supported by donations from Jain Banias. Gauri, the mother of Ganapati (or Ganesh), is worshiped by a bridal couple. In Rajasthan Gauri is worshiped as the corn goddess about the time of the vernal equinox, especially by women. At Divali, in addition to Ganapati, the Banias worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. She is considered to be the deified cow, and as such is the other main source of wealth both as the mother of the bull, which is the tiller of the soil, and the giver of milk from which ghee is made. Divali is also the Beginning of the accounting year, and a ceremony venerating the new account books and invoking Lakshmi is conducted. The other important festival is Holi, when Marwaris make an image out of mud of Nathu Ram, who was supposed to be a great Marwari. The image is mocked and beaten with shoes; after two or three days it is broken up and thrown away. Mock contests between men and women and the throwing of colored powder are universal features of Holi. Banias both Jain and Hindu usually begin the day with a visit to the local temple.
The dead are as a rule cremated, and the ashes thrown into a sacred river or stream. A period of mourning is observed for an odd number of days. Professional mourners may be employed. The mourning period is followed by a feast given to local members of the caste.
See also Jain; Vaisya
Enthoven, Reginald E. (1922). "Vanias." In The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, edited by Reginald E. Enthoven. Vol. 3, 412-442. Bombay: Government Central Press. Reprint. 1975. Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Risley, Herbert Hope (1891). "Subarnabanik." In The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, edited by Herbert Hope Risley. Vol. 2, 261-266. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press. Reprint. 1981. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay.
Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal (1916). "Bania." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, by R. V. Russell and Hira Lal. Vol. 2, 111-161. London: Macmillan. Reprint. 1969. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.
W. D. MERCHANT