An upper class in the Hindu tradition, the Vaisyas are the lowest level of the “twice-born” (dvijas ). They are commoners, but not a servant group. They undergo the sacred thread ceremony (Yajnopavita ), as do the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. But while male Vaisyas “take the thread,” it is made of a fiber different from that of the two castes above them (Brahmins and Kshatriyas). As part of the cosmic order of dharma, they have been assigned the role of merchants and craftspeople.
Vaisyas are described in the Laws of Manu (a Hindu sacred book) as being given at creation the duties to tend cattle, bestow gifts, offer sacrifices, trade, lend money, cultivate land, and study the Vedas. It is sacrilegious for a Vaisya to refuse to keep cattle. In trading it is the duty of Vaisyas to know the value of pearls, coral, metals, and other commodities.
The Laws of Manu charge Vaisyas with acquiring skills in good management of those they employ. They need to know languages, proper wages, and how to operate a business so that goods are properly stored and traded. These tasks are also to be done with exertion so that the wealth of the Vaisyas can increase, but in a righteous manner. It is also a Vaisya duty to give food to all creatures. Additionally, the Laws of Manu includes rules for accepting the testimony of Vaisyas and for their purification or their punishment in cases of adultery, murder, or other crimes.
Within the Vaisya caste there are subcastes of bakers, sheepherders, cowherders, agriculturalists, musicians, metal workers, and as well as traders and businessmen. All are people with a skill, trade, or profession.
In the myth of Purusha the Vaisyas were made from the god’s stomach. The Vaisyas resemble the Platonic people of bronze who are the people of the “belly.” They are the farmers, herders, merchants, and businesspeople who produce and distribute food and other needed goods to society.
The Bhagavad Gita assigned the Vaisyas the duties of farming, protecting the cows of India, and conducting business. Their way of life demands labor, study, sacrifice, and the giving of alms. On special days, giving to the Brahmin is a common practice. According to the Bhagavad Gita, Vaisyas are such an essential element in society that it cannot survive without them.
Vaisyas were expected to be specialists in the trading of jewelry, precious metals, spices, or other goods. They were often vegetarians and very devout practitioners of their religion. Many are devotes of Laksmi, wife of Vishnu and the goddess of wealth.
An important Vaisya subcaste are the Mahuri Vaisyas. They are believed to have emigrated from around the city of Mathura as well as from Vrindavan and Gokul to the Bengal area during the time of the Mughal Empire (1526–1827). They also comprise a religious community worshipping Mata Mathurashani Devi, an incarnation of the goddess Shakti.
Some of the Mahuri claim that they originated from the creative work of Krishna who made them as gopas and gopis (cowherders), but then gave them the task of earning their living from trading. Their surnames are derived from the names of the forest villages where they were originally placed. These surnames include Athaghara, Badgaway, Barahapuriya, Bhadani, Charanpahari, Ekghara, Gowardhan, Kandhaway, Kapasimey, Krishan-kunda, Kutariyaar, Lohani, Pawanchaudaha, Seth, Tarway, and Vaishakhiyar. Each clan has legendary stories that tell of their origins in remote areas where in some cases there are still temples dedicated to cows. Besides folklore, however, there is little that can be substantiated about them that is more than four hundred years old.
Around 1750, many Vaisyas migrated to the Chota Nagpur Plateau where they still maintain villages. Others are now located in western Bengal and Orissa. Many are also traders in New Delhi, Chennai, and Mumbai (Bombay). Small numbers are located around the world.
Modern Vaisyas practice business and agriculture but with ethical practices in keeping with the modern global society. They practice environmentally sound agriculture that entails protecting the environment rather than exploiting it. This is an application of their role as cow protectors.
SEE ALSO Brahmins; Business; Caste; Caste, Anthropology of; Dalits; Hierarchy; Hinduism; Kshatriyas; Sudras
Das, Abinas Chandra. 1903. The Vaisya Caste. Calcutta: A. K. Roy.
Gupta, K. C. 1988. Vaishyas in India. Hyderabad: All India Vaish Samai.
Mullick, Promatha Nath. 1985. History of the Vaisyas of Bengal. New Delhi: Usha. (Orig. pub. 1902.)
Andrew J. Waskey
The Vaisyas are the third-highest of the four varnas or categories into which Hindu society is traditionally divided, ranking above the Sudras. Vaisya includes a large number of distinct castes of similar ranking, traditionally traders, moneylenders, or farmers. They are entitled to wear a sacred thread. It is distinctly less common to encounter castes claiming Vaisya status in Sri Lanka and south India than in the north.
The category is certainly a very ancient one, for it is referred to in the Rig Veda (c. twelfth century b.c.). Vaisyas are clearly referred to in other early hymns as being Aryas, the Indo-European invaders, rather than Dasas, the Dravidian and other Aborigines of the subcontinent. According to the Zend Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, there was in ancient Persia a social category called "Vastrya," who ranked third in society below the Atharvas and Rethaesvas and bore a name that is cognate with the Sanskrit "Vaisya." The classical Indian lawgiver Manu (c. second century a.d.) spells out the duties of the Vaisya: "to keep herds of cattle, to bestow largesses, to sacrifice, to read the scripture, to carry on trade, to lend at interest, and to cultivate land." The economy depended on them, and the description of Manu still holds true
See also Bania; Castes, Hindu
Hutton, John H. (1963). Caste In India. 4th ed. London: Oxford University Press.