The word Kshatriya (from the Sanskrit kşatra, meaning “power”) refers to the military and administrative subdivisions of South Asian society that arose by the first millennium BCE and those who claim descent from them. It is the second of four varņa s (commonly known as castes ) in an idealized Hindu social order. Despite shifting political configurations under and after colonialism, the designation Kshatriya remains potent as a status marker in the Indian Subcontinent and, to a lesser degree, Southeast Asia due to its prestigious ritual entitlements and literary associations.
Although the word itself is not used, the earliest reference to Kshatriyas as a ruling class appears in the Rig Veda (c. 1000 BCE), a sacred text whose codification was roughly contemporaneous with the ostensively occupational stratification of society in what is now Pakistan and northern India. Shortly thereafter, Vedic commentaries assigned differing sacrificial obligations, food prohibitions, greetings, funeral practices, and so on to each of the four varņa s. Kshatriyas were, for example, polygamous and allowed meat and alcohol. However, recorded instances of intermarriage and occasional upward mobility between Brahmans and Kshatriyas of this period illustrate an early fluidity, as well as a tendency to group these two higher varnas s together in relation to everyone else (Anand 1985).
Endogamy and Commensality prohibitions had probably taken hold by around the sixth century BCE, when Brahmans and Kshatriyas began to share competing claims to the top of the status hierarchy. The frame-stories of the philosophical Upanishads feature Brahmans at the feet of Kshatriya gurus, while the scriptures of the Kshatriya-founded Buddhist and Jain faiths contain references to and arguments for Kshatriya supremacy.
Brahmanical rejoinders appear in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and in treatises on law and statecraft compiled in the early centuries of the Common Era. The literary record balances valorization of archetypical Kshatriyas such as Rama, the ideal king, with insistence on the superiority of Brahmans and the traditional separation of powers. Much of the conflict in the latter of the two epics, the Mahabharata, stems from the reluctance of Kshatriya characters to fulfill their royal or martial duties. This is explicitly argued in the Bhagavad Gita, where the god Krishna, himself a Kshatriya, teaches that “heroism, fiery energy, resolve, skill, refusal to retreat in battle, charity, and majesty in conduct” are qualities intrinsic to Kshatriyas, who either act accordingly or incur sin (Miller 1986, p.149). Furthermore, the epics narrate tensions between Brahmans and Kshatriyas in the story of the semidivine axe-wielding Brahman Parashurama’s extermination of the world’s Kshatriyas. This myth enabled claims, particularly in south India, that true Kshatriyas no longer exist.
A textual tradition that took shape around the same time as the epics concerned itself with the science of dharma (law, duty). In addition to a battery of distinctive ritual prescriptions and provisions for succession and alternate sources of income (trading, farming, or banking) under extenuating circumstances, the sustained reflections on the Kshatriya varņa found in these sources interrogate the relationship between the Kshatriya varņa and kingship. An impetus for this debate, which continued into the seventeenth century, was the rise of non-Kshatriyas to political sovereignty. A variety of positions emerged in response, with “only Kshatriyas are rightfully kings” on one end of the spectrum and “whoever rules is king” on the other (Pollock 2005). In practice, further slippage seems to have occurred such that even Muslim rulers could be considered Kshatriyas through matrimonial alliances (Alam 2004).
Varna was the primary category employed in the early censuses of the British Raj, which showed marked regional variation in the distribution and social position of the numerous subcastes (jāti ) anachronistically labeled Kshatriyas and Allied Castes. While well represented in the north and northwest, Kshatriyas were fewer, poorer, and less educated in eastern and especially southern India, where some Kshatriya subcastes are now considered “backward” and eligible for quotas in the public sector under the Indian constitution (Dirks 2001). Nonetheless, numerous clerical, merchant, and agriculturalist groups around the country, viewing the census reports as opportunities to bolster their reputation, representation, and local rights, formed caste associations to lobby the state for recognition as Kshatriyas. The claims of groups that allowed widow-remarriage or dined with their purported inferiors were denied, but their desire to become known as Kshatriyas and the later use of the Kshatriya ideal to inspire bravery and patriotism by Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950) and other Indian nationalist leaders highlights the category’s cultural capital (Varma 1904).
In 2003 American scholar James Laine’s biographical study Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India provoked heated and at points violent controversy in part by questioning the Kshatriya pedigree of the seventeenth-century hero. Although Oxford University Press withdrew the book from publication in Indian and issued an apology, activists in Pune, Maharastra, assaulted local scholars known to have assisted Lane and severely vandalized the Bhandarkar Oriental Research, where Laine conducted much of his research. Soon thereafter, the state of Maharashtra banned the book and filed slander charges against Laine; all of which indicates that the Kshatriya varņa remains extremely powerful, at least as an idea.
SEE ALSO Brahmins; Buddhism; Caste; Caste, Anthropology of; Dalits; Hierarchy; Hinduism; Jainism; Stratification; Sudras; Vaisyas
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Anand, Shanta. 1985. Kşhatriyas in Ancient India: A Socioeconomic and Religious Study. Delhi: Atma Ram.
Davis, Richard. 2004. Review: Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72 (4): 1045–1050.
Dirks, Nicholas B. 2001. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dumont, Louis. 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Rev. English ed. Trans. Mark Sainsbury, Louis Dumont, and Basia Gulati. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hopkins, Edward Washburn. 1889. The Social and Military Position of the Ruling Caste in Ancient India, as Represented by the Sanskrit Epic. Journal of the American Oriental Society 13: 57–376.
Karashima, Noboru, ed. 1999. Kingship in Indian History. New Delhi: Manohar.
Miller, Barbara Stoler, trans. 1986. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam Books.
Pollock, Sheldon. 2005. The Ends of Man at the End of Premodernity. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Richards, John F., ed. 1998. Kingship and Authority in South Asia. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press.
Shah, Ghanshyam. 1975. Caste Association and Political Process in Gujarat: A Study of Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.
Somjee A. H. 1981. Social Cohesion and Political Clientilism among the Kshatriyas of Gujarat. Asian Survey 21 (9): 1000–1010.
Varma, Kumar Cheda Singh. 1904. Kshatriyas and Would-Be Kshatriyas: A Consideration of the Claims of Certain Hindu Castes to Rank with the Rajputs, the Descendants of the Ancient Kshatriyas. Allahabad, India: Pioneer Press.