Kayastha (also referred to as Kayasth or Kayeth) is a caste or community of Hindus originating in India. Kayasthas are considered to be members of the literate scribe caste, and have traditionally acted as keepers of records and public accounts, writers, and administrators of the state.
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, "who was born from the body of Brahma", and is 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 forming 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 eastern India, Bengali Kayasthas are believed to have evolved from a class of officials into a caste between the 5th/6th centuries and 11th/12th centuries, its component elements being putative Kshatriyas and mostly Brahmins, and likely obtained the aspect of a caste under the Sena dynasty. 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. 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 (between Brahmins and Khatris). Some Kayasthas have claimed Brahmin status, though this has been challenged by other Brahmin groups.
In Bengal, Kayasthas, alongside Brahmins, are regarded as the "highest Hindu castes" that comprise the "upper layer of Hindu society." After the Muslim conquest of India, Kayasthas absorbed remnants of Bengal's old Hindu ruling dynasties - including the Sena, Pala, Chandra, and Varman - and, in this way, became the region's surrogate Kshatriya or "warrior" class.
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. They may also have been described as Karanas, since the two groups performed similar functions.
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.
After the Muslim conquest of India, Kayasthas mastered Persian, which became the official language of the Mughal courts. Some converted to Islam and formed the Muslim Kayasth community in northern India.
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 had been the dominant landholding caste prior to the Muslim conquest, and continued this role under Muslim rule. Indeed, Muslim rulers had from a very early time confirmed the Kayasthas in their ancient role as landholders and political intermediaries.
Bengali 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.
The Kayastha are found mostly in central, eastern and northern India, and particularly in Bengal. Today, there are an estimated 800,000 Kayasthas in India. 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 allotted 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
- Subhas Chandra Bose, popularly known as Netaji ("Respected Leader")
- Swami Vivekananda, born Narendra Nath Datta
- Sonu Nigam
- Rajendra Prasad
- Ravi Shankar Prasad
- Lal Bahadur Shastri
- Shatrughan Sinha
- Premchand, born Dhanpat Rai Srivastav
- Mahadevi Varma
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