KAYASTHS The Kayasth caste has been historically important in all three of its regional incarnations, in North India, Maharashtra, and Bengal. The Chitragupta Kayasths of North India, the Prabhu Kayasths of Maharashtra, and the Bengal Kayasths of Bengal, with mother tongues of Hindi, Marathi, and Bengali, respectively, fulfilled similar roles in their regional political systems. All three were "writing castes," traditionally serving the ruling powers as administrators and record keepers. Although there is a modern tendency to see the three regional divisions as part of a single caste, they did not historically intermarry, and when Kayasth is used alone, it usually means the North Indian or Chitragupta community.
Members of all three communities were noted for their adaptability. Their linguistic and administrative abilities gained them key places in service to various rulers, and the Chitragupta and Bengal communities in particular were noted for their early movement into service with the incoming Muslim rulers of North India. They learned Persian, Urdu, and even Arabic, and many Chitragupta Kayasths accompanied the Mughals to Rajputana and the Deccan, becoming significant intermediaries in these new regional administrative systems as well. One theory about the historical origin of the Kayasths postulates that the caste arose only in medieval times, formed by those who adapted themselves earliest to service with the new rulers. In fact, this Kayasth caste is hard to place in the Brahmanical varn
. a system, the four caste categories elaborated in post-Vedic Sanskrit literature. The men participated fully in the various Muslim and Mughal court cultures developing throughout India since medieval times. They typically learned Arabic, Persian, or Urdu from Muslim clerics and began their education with a bismillah ceremony, like Muslims in those days. Sometimes the men's names reflected their competence and membership in India's medieval bicultural synthesis: Iqbal Chand, Jehangir Pershad, or Mahbub Karan. However, in their domestic life the Kayasths subscribed to high caste Hindu regulations governing social intercourse and life-cycle rituals. Their marriage and death customs followed high caste Hindu models, and they maintained hereditary relations with specific Hindu service castes, Brahmans and barbers, for example.
Historical sources fail to link many medieval and modern castes to the Brahmanical four-varṇa system, yet attempts have been made, by Kayasths themselves or by the British Indian legal system at various times and places, to place Kayasths in one of the four varṇas. The Kayasths have been considered either Brahmans because of their literacy and learning, Kshatriyas because they were closely linked to rulers (and, at least in the Deccan, often to military service as well), or Sudras because they deviated significantly from the orthodox practices enjoined upon the first three varṇas (this last in a legal decision in British Bengal, but elsewhere as well, where Kayasths ate meat and drank wine).
The most common Kayasth myth of origin avoided this problem of varṇa classification by cleverly postulating the creation of a fifth varṇa, the Kayasths, to keep records concerning the other four. Brahma, they say, after creating the four varṇas, created the first Kayasth, pen and inkpot in hand. This was Chitragupta, and his chief employment was for Yama, the god of death, recording the good and bad activities of all men. Chitragupta then had twelve sons by two wives, and the subcastes or endogamous divisions among the North Indian Kayasths are traced to these sons. The subcastes have patron deities, home areas, and nominal gotras (exogamous divisions within the endogamous subcaste, a feature of Brahman caste organization); in reality, family distinctions, or als, played important roles in marriage arrangements.
Members of an urban literate caste wherever they appear in India, the Kayasths seem to have always reflected a close association with the ruling power. This was true under the Mughals, when a number of outstanding Kayasths attained very high rank in the Mughal empire, and true under the British in British India, when Kayasths were among the first to learn English and continue their administrative service. It is true today in independent India's modern democracy; Lal Bahadur Shastri, prime minister of India from 1964 to 1966, was a Chitragupta Kayasth, and there have been other distinguished Kayasths in government service. In the past, Kayasths have sometimes been criticized for this adaptability, most often in connection with their service to the Mughals (it is said that they are like a cat on a wall, they can fall to either side), but Kayasths are not the only caste or caste cluster notable for its adaptability to ruling powers, and sometimes men said to be Kayasth are actually Khatri or Brahmo-Khatri, castes with similar names and traditions. In fact, Kayasths, like many other upwardly mobile individuals or castes in Indian history, exemplify flexibility and adaptability. They continue today to use their administrative and now professional capacities to integrate India's diverse communities.
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Prasad, Munshi Kali. The Kayastha Ethnology. Lucknow, 1877.
Shastri, Pandit Raghuvara Mitthulal Shastri. "A Comprehensive Study into the Origin and Status of the Kayasthas." Man in India 11, no. 2 (1931): 116–159.
Varma, Gopi Nath Sinha. A Peep into the Origin, Status and History of the Kayasthas. 2 vols. Bareilly, 1929, 1935.