Caste System Aryanisation of the subcontinent led to the tendency of resolving the varna divisions into a hierarchical order. Theoretically hierarchy was determined on the basis of the order of precedence of the qualities that the components of the different varnas exhibited in their character and actions. For instance, the Brahmans as the custodians of sattva were considered to be the purest of all. In other words, the Brahmans were believed to be the embodiment of sacredness and were regarded as gods on earth. Significantly, the degree of purity declined successively with the qualities as represented by the Ksatriyas and the Vaishyas - namely, raja and tama. The shudras, who occupied the lowest rung of the social order, were believed to have possessed no such quality. In fact, the Purusa Sukta hymn of the Rg Veda, which is considered to be a later interpolation, provided a religio-cultural justification of the hierarchical divisions based on the four-fold varna system.
Aryanisation of the subcontinent led to gradual absorption of outsiders and the cultural transformation of the castes, more particularly of those occupying the lower rungs. The characteristics of the varna system were later elaborated in minute detail in the jati system. Subsequently, the broad-based division of labour as represented by varna found expression in the jati system, thereby resulting in an elaborate system of occupational distinctions and interrelations among various groups.
In Bengal the gradual spread of Aryan culture led to the classification of different groups with particular occupations as distinct jatis. The cultivating, trading, artisan and service castes came to be recognised as Shudras in terms of varna. Indeed, the proliferation of specialised occupational groups led to an increase in the number of jatis, which by far exceeded the number of varnas. Significantly, the bulk of the people covered under the occupational groups of jatis were invested with the responsibilities of meeting the needs of the society. As a consequence the structure of Hindu society came to be understood in terms of jati rather than varna. Thus, slowly varna lost its significance in daily social life. In regions like Bengal where there was no Ksatriya or Vaishya group in the indigenous population, even the Brahmans were known as a jati, although they were also referred to as Varnashrestha, ie, the highest of the Varnas.
But more importantly, by emphasising the connection between jati and occupation, the proponents of the caste system tried to lay the foundations of an absolutely non- competitive arrangement of production and distribution that ensured the livelihood of each individual and guaranteed minimum social security. To the society in general the system guaranteed production and distribution in a smooth manner within the constraints of limited resources and conditions of scarcity and stagnation that prevailed in the localised economy of India since the seventh century AD.
However, variations did prevail in the caste system in different parts of India. Interestingly the impression that one gathers about the caste system, more particularly from the smriti literature, does not fully correspond to the social conditions prevalent in Bengal in ancient times. It needs to be asserted that none of these ancient smritis was composed in Bengal. Therefore attempts to garner reliable information about the hierarchical division of Bengali society based on Varna from the pages of ancient smrti literature would be totally unjustified. As some scholars have argued, prior to the eleventh century hardly any smriti literature composed in Bengal could throw light on the Bengali social scenario. Moreover, on the basis of reliable historical evidence it could only be presumed that from the eleventh century onwards compilers of Bengali social commentaries consciously accepted the very basis of the Brahmanical logic of the hierarchical division of the Hindu social order.
During the Sena-Varman rule several smritis and other literary texts were composed in Bengal. In this context, the works of Bhabadeva Bhatta and jimutavahana deserve special mention. In fact, these literary texts contain reliable information on society and history and could justifiably be utilised by historians for constructing historical narratives on Bengal's past.
Apart from the smritis and other literary texts, Puranic and classical texts such as the brahmavaivarta purana, brihaddharma purana provides important information on Bengali society. At the same time, the genealogical texts also contain some relevant information. Similarly, there are two texts by the name of vallalacharita. One of the texts was supposed to have been composed by Ananda Bhatta at the behest of the Raja of Nabadvip, Buddhimanta Khan. This text was composed around 1510 AD. However, the first and the second volumes were supposed to have been authored by Gopala Bhatta under the directives of vallalasena, roughly around shaka 1300.
The picture that one gets of the caste system in the Brhaddharmapurana is quite different from the one that emerges from the Vallalacharita. In the case of the former, Ksatriyas and Vaishyas are classified differently, and the Shudras have been divided into two broad categories, namely, Sat Shudras (from whom higher castes could accept food and drinks) and Asat Shudras (whose touch was considered to be polluting). At the same time in terms of social ranking Brahmans were said to have been immediately followed by Ambasthas (Vaidya) and Karanas (Kayasthas). Similarly, Shankharis, Modakas, Tantubayis, Das (Peasants), Karmakaras, Suvarnavanikas and various other sub-castes and mixed castes (Sankara castes) also found a place in the narrative of the Brhaddharmapurana.
On the other hand the Vallalacharita offered a narrative that was much different from those of the Puranic texts. To be precise, it could be argued that during Vallalasena's time, the caste system in Bengal underwent significant changes. For instance, according to the authors of the Vallalacharita, Subarnavanikas had been relegated to the ranks of impure Shudras and Brahmans were forbidden to supervise their religious functions. At the same time, the authors of the Vallalacharita have also stated that in order to withstand the challenge posed by the Vanik (merchant) and Das (Servile peasants), Vallala raised the Kaivartas to the ranks of sat Shudras. Moreover, it has also been averred that Malakaras, Kumbhakaras and Karmakaras too were elevated to the ranks of sat Shudras.
But more importantly, it needs to be stated that though in the Brhaddharmapurana, Tantis, Gandhavanikas, Karmakaras, Taulikas (betelnut traders), Kumaras, Shankharis, Kansaris, Barujibis (Baruis), Modaka and Malakaras had been classified as Uttama-Sankar castes; Subarnavanikas (goldsmiths) were classified with Jal-Achal (from whom Brahmans and other upper castes were forbidden to accept food and water) castes, such as Dhibaras (Fishermen) and Rajakas (washermen). In the Vallalacharita, some reasons have been propounded to explain the phenomenon. It has been argued that such transformations took place for political and social reasons. At the same time, it also needs to be asserted that though the narrative in the Vallalacharita might not be fully acceptable to historians, there is no doubt that it is certainly more reliable than the genealogical texts composed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Some details relating to the lower castes in Bengal can be highlighted. Relevant historical information about the Kaivartas was available for the first time from the documents of the Pala period. Kaivarta chief Divya or Divvok had been a powerful official during the Pala period. He in collusion with several feudal lords revolted against Pala dominance and killed Mahipala II. Following the death of Mahipala II, some parts of Bengal passed into the hands of powerful Kaivarta overlords namely, Divya, Rudoka and Bhima. This historical development might have brought about a change in the social position of the Kaivartas, particularly in North Bengal.
The Pala documents also provide some information about the untouchable castes, which were outside the frontiers of Hindu society. In the list containing the names of the beneficiaries of landgrants in the Pala copperplates, Brahmans, who in turn were followed by various peasant communities, immediately followed high governments officials. In fact, there was no reference either to the Ksatriyas or the Vaishyas. But, beyond such social groupings there were several other groups who were referred to as Medh, Andhra and Chandalas. The Chandalas were considered to be the lowest of all the social groupings. Social commentators like Bhabadeva Bhatta have referred to them as an Antyaja Jati. In several charya songs information about several other low castes such as Doms or Dombs, Chandalas, Shabaras and Kapalikas have also been found. In some medieval texts it has been pointed out that contact of Brahmans with such lower castes was forbidden.
Bhabadeva Bhatta classified lower caste groups such as the Chandals, Pukkashakas and Kapalikas as untouchables. The Kapalikas were regarded as an uncivilised community, who followed bizarre rituals and practices. The Shabaras, who mostly inhabited the mountainous regions, also were regarded as lower castes. However, it could be argued with some certainty that they did occupy a higher social standing than the Doms and Chandals, who were regarded as antyaja jatis.
Antyaja jati or untouchable groups were essentially composed of Badhs/Banars, Kapalikas/ Kols (belonging to the Adivasi grouping), Koncho (who were also referred to as Koche and were generally classified within the Adivasi grouping), Hadis (who were also referred to as Handis), Doms, Bagtits (Bagdis), Sharakas (considered to be a part of the ancient community of Shrabakas), Byalgrahi and Chandals. The majority of the antyaja castes remained outside the varnashrama system. In most cases they were regarded as servants of the society and as such were assigned the lowest social standing. From the charya gitis, one gets an impression about the vocations pursued by the untouchable communities in Bengal. For instance, they were mostly engaged in making objects out of bamboo, felling trees, rowing boats, preparing liquor and hunting. Interestingly many of these Antyaja jatis were also believed to have practiced various forms of black magic.
Significantly, there was hardly any major social movement in Bengal between the tenth and the fifteenth century aimed at the elevation of the Antyaja jatis in the Hindu social scale. In fact, there was hardly any case of social mobility among them, and for the great majority of the population comprising essentially the lower castes, the major sources of social mobility remained inaccessible. Prolonged pursuit of a particular occupation for generations in the absence of alternative job opportunities naturally gave rise to strict social conventions, which in the traditional context were overlaid with rituals. Similarly, if the sources of mobility remained inaccessible to a caste for generations its position in the caste hierarchy sometimes assumed an element of permanence and the duties of the caste, including its occupation, appeared inviolable. In other words, scrupulous observance of caste duties too often resulted in social rigidity, much to the detriment of the interests of the lower or untouchable communities. [Raj Sekhar Basu]
Bibliography Hitesranjan Sanyal, Social Mobility in Bengal, Calcutta, 1981, Niharranjan Ray, Bangalir Itihas: Adi Parba, (1 Edition), Calcutta, 1356 BS.