Kayastha (also referred to as Kayasth or Kayeth) is a caste or community of Hindus originating in India. Kayasthas are considered as the literate scribe caste, the caste's traditional role being record-keepers, writers and administrators of the state, and are mentioned in the Smritis as royal officials engaged in writing state documents, maintaining public accounts and entrusted with highly responsible official roles. Kayasthas have historically occupied the highest government offices, serving as ministers and advisors during early medieval Indian kingdoms and the Mughal Empire, and holding important administrative positions during the British Raj.
In modern times, Kayasthas have attained success in politics, as well as in the arts and various professional fields.
According to the Hindu scriptures known as the Puranas, Kayasthas are descended from Chitragupta Maharaj, the deity responsible for recording the deeds of humanity, upholding the rule of law, and judging whether human beings go to heaven or hell upon death.
Brahmanical religious texts refer to them as a caste of scribes, recruited in the beginning from the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya castes, but eventually formed distinct subcastes in northern and western India. Kayasthas have therefore also been mentioned as a "mixed caste", combining Brahman-Sudra (lower caste) and sometimes Kshatriya as well.
In parallel, in eastern India, Bengali Kayasthas are believed to have similarly evolved from a class of officials into a caste between the 5th/6th century AD and 11th/12th century AD, thought to be originally composed of putative Kshatriyas and mostly Brahmins, the missing trait being well-developed subcaste communities. According to Tej Ram Sharma, an Indian historian, the Kayasthas of Bengal had not yet developed into a distinct caste during the reign of the Gupta Empire, although the office of the Kayasthas (scribes) had been instituted before the beginning of the period, as evidenced from the contemporary Smritis. Mr. Sharma further states:
"Noticing brahmanic names with a large number of modern Bengali Kayastha cognomens in several early epigraphs discovered in Bengal, some scholars have suggested that there is a considerable brahmana element in the present day Kayastha community of Bengal. Originally the professions of Kayastha (scribe) and Vaidya (physician) were not restricted and could be followed by people of different varnas including the brahmanas. So there is every probability that a number of brahmana families were mixed up with members of other varnas in forming the present Kayastha and Vaidya communities of Bengal."
The exact varna status of Kayasthas has been a subject of debate. According to multiple accounts, they are a literate and educated class of Kshatriyas, and have been referred to as a twice-born caste "whose claims to Kshatriya status need not be caviled at." Other sources rank Kayasthas higher than Kshatriyas (but below Brahmins). Some Kayasthas have claimed Brahmin status, though this has been challenged by other Brahmin groups.
During the British Raj, British courts classified Kayasthas as Shudras, based largely upon the theories of Herbert Hope Risley. However, the Kayasthas of Bengal, Bombay and the United Provinces repeatedly challenged this classification, producing a flood of books, pamphlets, family histories and journals to support their position of holding Kshatriya status.
Brahmanical religious texts refer to Kayasthas as a caste responsible for writing secular documents and maintaining records from the 7th century AD onward.
According to the historical chronicle known as the Rajatarangini ("River of Kings"), written by Kalhana in the 12th century AD, Kayasthas served as prime ministers and treasury officials under several Kashmiri kings.
Prior to the 13th century AD, during the rule of Hindu kings, Kayasthas dominated public service and had a near-monopoly on appointments to government positions.
In Bengal, during the reign of the Gupta Empire beginning in the 4th century AD, when systematic and large-scale colonization by Aryan Kayasthas and Brahmins first took place, Kayasthas were brought over by the Guptas to help manage the affairs of state.
One of the most notable Kayasthas of the Mughal period was Raja Todar Mal, Emperor Akbar's finance minister and one of the court's nine Navaratnas, who is credited with establishing the Mughal revenue system. He also translated the Bhagavata Purana from Sanskrit into Persian.
In Bengal, Kayasthas served as governors, prime ministers and treasury officials under Mughal rule.
During the British Raj, Kayasthas continued to proliferate in public administration, qualifying for the highest executive and judicial offices open to Indians.
Bengali Kayasthas took on the role occupied by merchant castes in other parts of India and profited from business contacts with the British. In 1911, for example, Kayasthas and Brahmins owned 40% of all the Indian-owned mills, mines and factories in Bengal.
Some of the significant figures of the Indian independence movement were Kayasthas, including the spiritual leaders Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, and the revolutionary leader Subhas Chandra Bose.
Today, there are an estimated 800,000 Kayasthas in India, mostly engaged in professional fields such as law, business, engineering and medicine. Kayasthas that have risen to prominence since independence include the country's first president, Rajendra Prasad, and its second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Kayasthas are considered a Forward Caste, as they do not qualify for any of the reservation benefits alloted to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes that are administered by the Government of India.
Some noteworthy people of the Kayastha caste of India
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