The Grand Narrative of Kayasthas

Kayasthas may be broadly categorized by three loosely connected regional communities in India sharing a common source and lay claim to a pan-Indian community affiliation. These three regional communities are Chandraguptvanshi Kayasthas in the Hindi heartland and in southern states, Chandraseniya Kayasthas in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and some parts of undivided Madhya Pradesh, and Chitraseniya Kayasthas in eastern India, comprising Bengal, Assam, Tripura, and Odisha. Culturally, all these three communities have always been different, each speaking a different language, yet they all share a common identity of belonging to a writers’ class and common myths of origin and relations to one another. They also share a common set of regulations governing social intercourse and marriage. They are addressed by various synonyms such as Lala, Kaith, Kact, or Kayatha in the Hindi heartland.

A bird’s eye view reveals that Kayasthas are largely spread across 21 states and one union territory of India. These states are UP, Bihar, MP, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, HP, Delhi, West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Pondichery, AP, Telangana, Tripura, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. The union territory is Chandigarh.

The mythological origin of Kayasthas, especially in India’s nine Hindi speaking states – Bihar, Jharkhand, UP, Uttarakhand, MP, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, HP, and Delhi, and the union territory of Chandigarh, and all the four southern states -- is primarily traceable to the founding deity of the community, Shri Chitragupta, who is also viewed as its arch-ancestor. The Chandraseni Kayastha community sources the mythology of the Chandrasena ruler and Parahuram's avenge story for ancestral as its origin story. Chitrasenis, (classified as such in Chitrarekha Gupta’s book, The Kayasthas - pp 77, see References), do not associate themselves with a specific deity or any narrative centred around an individual. Spread over Bengal, Assam, Tripura, and Odisha as they are in the eastern states of India, their reliance is primarily on the elaborate family tree or Vanshavalis, Kulagranthas, Kulpanjikas, and Kulajis maintained by legacy-conscious families.

Chitraguptavanshiya Kayasthas

In the Hindi speaking states, and a union territory, the grand narrative of Kayasthas revolves around the worship of the dominant caste deity, Shri Chitragupta. Similarly, in the five southern states of India, Kayasthas by the names of Karnam, Karuneeka, Karuneegar, and Mudaliyar have been reported to be worshipping Shri Chitragupta as an ancestral deity and go by the same grand narrative with some minor variations.

These grand narratives are drawn from the wider scriptural context in which Kayasthas often place themselves. The most ancient narrative of Shri Chitragupta can be traced to the story of the evolution of the universe through Dasa Avataar which led to the Creator’s finest culmination in Lord Vishnu. From the lotus navel of Lord Vishnu originated Lord Brahma. As the legend goes, Lord Brahma wanted to look all around and in the process developed four faces which, in modernparlance, gave Lord Brahma a 360 degree view of the universe. In his rudra roop, Lord Brahma gave rise to Lord Shiva. These three gods of the highest order -- Vishnu, Brahma and Mahesh -- formed the Holy Trinity in the Sanatani world-view.

From different parts of Lord Brahma's body emerged four varnas, rishis, and devas. The four varnas came from Lord Brahma’s four limbs: Brahmin from his mouth, Kshatriya from his arms, Vaishya from his thigh, and Shudra from his feet.

The Ten rishis who originated from other parts of Lord Brahma’s body were Marichi, Pulsatya, Vahishth, Kretu, Pulah, Atri, Angira, Daksha, Bhrigu, and Narad. Further, Satrupa emerged out of Lord Brahma's left limb and Swayambhuvmanu from His right limb. From Lord Brahma, also emerged 4 Sanakadi, but they all wished to remain Brahmchari, which irked Lord Brahma from that anger rose roodra roop as Lord Shiva. These are considered celestial births as they have a common source in Lord Brahma’s body. All other subsequent offspring, both manavs and danavs, resulted from intercourses between rishis, devas, manav, and danav. (Kumar, pp. 10 - 27)

Shri Chitagupta is believed to be the 18th creation the whole body of Lord Brahma. Now, let us understand the causation of this creation.

Lord Brahma created Yamlok (Justice department) on the southern gate of swargalok and made the descendant of Rishi Marchi, Yama its incharge. It is believed that Lord Brahma ordained Dharamraj (also called Yamraj, the God of death) to maintain a record of the deeds, both good and evil, of all life forms born or yet to be born on earth, in mrityu or Yama lok or deva lok and in pataal lok. While carrying out the tasks given, Dharmaraj soon earned curse of Mandava Rishi when his agents wrongly took him to be dead during meditation. Overburdened Dharamraj, visualizing the enormity of the task and disturbed by the curse, pleaded before Lord Brahma: ‘Oh Lord, how can I all alone maintain the record of the deeds of beings born into 84 lakh yonis [life forms] in the three worlds?’ In other words, Yama pleaded before Lord Brahma for a superior authority to maintain an account of the deeds of all living beings.

Lord Brahma meditated over this request and its solution with closed eyes for thousans of years and, it is believed that, when Lord Brahma opened his eyes, a dark-complexioned radiant figure appeared before him. Thus was born an all powerful and omnipotent Shri Chitragupta with four hands as a fully grown up being, bypassing childhood, and intended to survive to the end of the universe.

Shri Chitragupta, in this celestial form, is found to be blessing with one hand signifying peace, holding a quill pen in the other, symbolizing literacy, holding the Veda in a third hand, representing knowledge, and wielding sword in a fourth hand, signifying justice. These four symbols are considered the four pillars of Kayastha heritage and tradition. Thus was born an all powerful celestial being who lived within the body (kaya) of Lord Brahma in secrecy before its birth and whose offsprings on earth were called Kayastha (a body sourced to Brahma's kaya or whole existence). Thus Shri Chitragupta was charged with an increased responsibility of superintendence for birth, death, and pralay of the universe and its 84 lac yonis, including Yamaraj. After his creation from Lord Brahma’s whole body (kaya), Shri Chitragupta sought blessings and guidance from his creator. Lord Brahma blessed him and asked him to formulate vidhi and vidhan of running the universe and get them implemented effectively with assistance of Yamaraj and also to procreate to carry on his family tradition.

Shri Chitragupta thereafter descended upon earth, with two hands, in the ancient Kayatha village near Ujjain (Avanti or Unnatipur). This happened in chaitra purnima day, which is the beginning of the Hindi calender. This auspicious event is celebrated as Prakatotsav in chait shukla paksha dwitiya (March-April), and is called Prakat Divas. The month Chitramas is named after Shri Chitragupta as the event is believed to have taken place on the day of Chitra Purnima or Chitragupta Purnima. A month-long celebration is held in some parts of the country such as Tamil Nadu, where the month is called Chitrai. It is also believed that in Kaitha village Shri Chitragupta undertook penance for hundreds of years and propounded the vidhi and vidhan (laws of governance of the universe) to effectively perform his role.

Further, in several parts of the country, especially in Hindi heartland, an annual puja of Dawaat Puja is performed in Kartik shukla paksha dwitiya, that is, on the second day after Deepawali in the month of Kartik (October - November). Kalam-Dawat puja is held by the literate Kayastha devotees. But this day in scriptures is actually called Yama Dwitia (Bhaia Duj), when Yama took meal in his sister's (Yamuna) house. Before the meal, she performed a puja in honour of Shri Chitragupta and her brother (both residents of Yama Lok) and that became a customary annual event.

Shri Chitragupta’s primordial tasks were fivefold: to perform the role of a scribe (lekhak), of an accountant (ganak), of a judge of deeds (nyayadhikari), and to suitably reward (puruskardata), and to punish (dandadhikari). Broadly speaking, going to heaven was considered a reward and to hell as punishment, and as laid down in the shastras, those who led a virtuous life were rewarded and those who violated the rules of dharma were punished. In accordance with the five duties cited above, Shri Chitragupta was invested with five types of power which he could exercise not only over manav or human beings, but also over danav or demons, rishis, or sages, devas or deities, and all other living beings, except the holy trinity - Vishnu, Brahma, Mahesh and their immediate families. The extraordinary powers of award and punishment that Shri Chitragupta possessed, is precisely the ground which makes the Kayasth Sanskrit scholars of Gorakhpur feel that Kayasthas are the Gaud Brahmins and superior to all varnas, including rest of the Brahmins.

After performing austere penance and partaking of the offerings to the sacrificial fire or yagna at Avanti (Ujjain) for long number of years, Shri Chitragupta codified and mastered vidhi and vidhan (universal laws of governance) to accomplish the tasks entrusted to him.

Some consider Shri Chitragupta to be the soul of the Sun (surya), and that his 12 sons represent 12 signs of zodiac. This hypothesis is based on the Rigveda, in which Aditya (the Sun) was the offspring of Aditi and Rishi Kashyap. Aditya had 12 manifestations, as did Chitragupta. It is no coincidence therefore that of the 22 remaining temples (of the original 84) in Khajuraho, one is a Chitragupta temple housing a five foot statue of Lord Surya (sun). Research also reveals that all the three major sun temples in Kashmir, Odisha, and Gujarat were constructed by Kayastha rulers.

If you look carefully at the classical image of Shri Chitragupta, you find images of both Durga (energy or power) and the Sun on the chariot (consciousness) placed behind his image. The sun has twelve spokes, representing twelve forms of Aditya (Sun or Surya).

Legend has it that after the attainment of the requisite knowledge and skill, Shri Chitragupta was offered the hands of Irawati (or Shobhavati), the daughter of Vaivaswatmanu (grandson of Kashyap Rishi), as his wife.

It is believed that Shri Chitragupta was also married to a woman named Nandini, (nee Surya Dakshina), daughter of Shradhdev Muni.

Both these marriages were solemnized in the presence of, and were presided over by Brihaspati and Shukracharya, the priests of the devas and danavs, respectively. As father, Lord Brahma was present throughout the marriage and the auspicious occasion was also blessed by Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.

Shri Chitragupta’s two wives bore twelve sons, who eventually formed the Kayastha sub-castes. Iravati (or Shobhavati) was blessed with eight sons: Charu (Mathur), Sucharu (Gaudh), Chitrakhya (Bhatnagar), Matibhan (Saxena), Himvana (Ambashth), Chitracharu (Nigam), Chitracharana (Karana), Charuna (Kulshreshtha), while Nandini or Surya Dakshina was blessed with four sons, namely, Bhanu (Srivastava), Vibhanu (Suryadhwaja), Vishvabhanu (Valmiki), and Viryavanu (Ashthana). They were assigned to different rishis for their formal education. Lord Brahma facilitated the upbringing and education of these sons at the hands of the best of gurus of the time: They were Mandavya, Gautam, Sriharsh, Harit, Valmiki, Vashishtha, Sauvari, Dalabhya, Hans, Bhatt, Saurabh, and Mathur.

After completing their education, Shri Chitragupta sent his twelve sons in different directions to settle, procreate, multiply their family, perform religious duties (dharma), and worship Mahishasur Mardini or Shakti (Goddess Durga) and Sun (God Surya).

‘Kartavyam hi prayatnen loktryahitay vai, He Putra! Swargkamaya pujya mahishmardini.’

The kalam (quill or pen) has remained the occupational tool of Kayasthas since then but at the same time Kayasthas were always inspired to worship Mahishamardini or Shakti and Surya, or the Sun God and wield sword.

Interestingly, many among Kayasthas believe that all these twelve sons over a period were married to Nag Kanyas and, therefore, the Nagvansh is considered to be Nanihaal (mother’s original abode) for all Kayasthas. To this day, in all traditional Kayastha families, it is deemed obligatory to perform nag puja during the Nag Panchami festival when snakes are fed with milk; because of this reverence for snakes, traditional Kayastha families do not kill snakes. However, some believe that all the twelve sons were married to Nagar Brahmins, not Nag Kanyas.

Shri Chitragupta is also considered the presiding deity of the planet Ketu and in the ancient Chitragupta temples, Sarp Dosha or the ill effects of the planet Ketu are resolved through special rituals.

Another view, held by the Sanatan Dharam Trust of Gorakhpur, accepts Nandini as the daughter of a Nagar Brahman. Drawing on scriptural sources, this view holds that Shri Chitragupta was married to four daughters of Vaivaswatmanu and eight daughters of Nagar Brahmans. This view does not however coincide with what we found during our visits to all the major ancient temples, and while we studied the literature, and popular oral history across India. Every temple we visited in the Hindi heartland and southern India and every illustration of the Shri Chitragupta family we saw, and all the images and traces we researched or chanced upon indicated that Shri Chitragupta had only two wives.

Coming to the major mythological references to Shri Chitragupta, we need to piece together the references in the shrutis, smritis, Vedas, purana, and other scriptural literature. In addition to the Rigveda and the Yajurveda, the following major puranas throw light on the Chitragupta narrative: Vishnupurana, Brahmapurana, Shivapurana, Padmapurana, Varahpurana, Skandapurana, Lingapurana, Vrihnnardiyapurana, Naradpurana, Matsyapurana, Garudapurana, Markendeyapurana, Vishnudharmottarpurana, Kalkipurana, and Puranparishilana. Besides, other important scriptural sources include Manusmriti, Mantramaharnava, Mantramahodadhi, Ssrimadvalmikiramayan, Brahmanotpattimartand, Jatibhaskar, Gangabhatt’s Kayasthpaddhati, Nityakram Puja Prakash, Durgasaptasati, Merutantra, Kamakhyatantra, Kali Siddhi, Kakaradikalisahastranamavali, Gaud Vansh Sandipika, Aine-i-Akbari, Rajatarangini, Epigraphia Indica, Yajnavalkya, Yama Samhita, and the Mahabharata.

Grand Narrative of Chandraseniya

The Skanda Purana attributes the origin of the Chandraseniya Kayastha Mahaprabhus to Parasuram’s story of revenge. Going beyond this, the mythological narratives associated with Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu suggest that Chandrasena, son of the great Sahastraarjun, was killed by Parasuram (the sage - warrior, in order to fulfil his wish to kill every Kshatriya on earth to avenge his father’s murder). Chandrasena’s pregnant wife Ganga (Kamala) took asylum with Dalabhya Muni to save her life. Searching for Chandrasena’s wife, Parasuram traced her whereabouts in Dalabhya Muni’s hermitage. Parasuram was accorded a very warm welcome with a lavish feast which pleased him, but shortly thereafter, he demanded that the sage hand over Ganga; the sage requested Parasuram to spare the pregnant woman’s life. Parasuram agreed on condition that the child born to her would have to live with the aid of a sword and ink (asijivi/ masijivi), as his father’s kingdom had been destroyed; he further required that the child born from her kaya to be called Kayastha.

Concerning the worship of the community deity, Chandraseniya Kayasth Prabhus have been traditionally followers of Shiva and Shakti, known by various names in different regions. Wherever they settled, they adopted local deities for daily worship. One of the major ones they adopted was Ekvira Devi, whose temple is located in Vehargaon near Lonavala in Pune district. Other deities are Saptshringi Mata in Nasik, Renuka Mata in Mehargarh, Bhavani Mata in Tuljapur, and Amba Mata in Kolhapur. Normally, members of a gotra are settled together in one territory and they revered the local deity as their kul-devata. Vijhai Devi, Kalikai Devi, and Bhagwati Devi are few examples. Shiva worship was similarly followed. Kandoba or Mallhari are the principal forms of Shiva in Maharashtra; both the Shiva and Shakti forms are worshipped together in the same temple premises. Village deities or gram-devta were worshipped as part of their loyalty to their place of abode and are largely different manifestations of Shiva, including Bhairav Nath, Kaal Bhairav, and Bhairo Baba. In some places, however, Shakti, in the form of gram devi - such as Vyagreshwari, Ambejogai, Jogeshwari - is worshipped.

In Maharashtra, different gram-devtas have different symbols, called tak in Marathi. The kul-devtas, or family deities, are inscribed on hexagonal leaves of silver or copper. The annual method of worship is called ‘Kulachaar’ and is marked by variety of rituals: Shatchandi, Kunkumarchan, Gauri Pujan, and Kumari Mata Pujan. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian prasad are prepared for puja. The two most auspicious and celebratory months for Chandrseniya Kayastha Prabhus are the months of Chaitramas and Ashvin during which different forms of festivities take place; in some places even liquor is offered as prasad.

Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus are considered ‘dwij’ or twice-born, with Kshatriya varna status; this status accorded to them is believed to be certified by Adi Shakaracharya. Although small in number, they have been successful in retaining their cultural identity, following their Asidhara (sword-wielder) and Masidhara (pen-wielder) traditions.

The above lead us to conclude that the descendant of King Chandrasen was a Kshatriya king, the son of Sahastrararjun of the Haiyaya lineage.

Narrative in South India

Two narratives prevail in south India about the birth of Shri Chitragupta. According to the first, Shri Chitragupta is believed to have emerged from a painting and was established by Brahma as the accountant of good and evil deeds of human beings. According to temple mythology (Kanchipuram), the divine couple, Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi, had a discussion about appointing a person who would closely watch the actions of people on the earth and maintain an account of their good and evil deeds. Lord Shiva then asked Goddess Parvathi for a golden slate on which Lord Shiva drew a picture . Goddess Parvathi was impressed by this and added additional details to the already beautiful sketch. Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi blessed the picture, gave it life,, and transformed it into a deity. They also bestowed the new deity with intelligence, in order to correctly judge all the deeds of humans on earth. The deity was named Chitragupta because of his emergence from the picture (Chitra= picture+ gupta= accountant) and he was appointed as the new accountant of Lord Yama, the God of Death.

The second narrative about the birth of Shri Chitragupta has it that Shri Chitragupta was brought up by Sachi, the wife of Lord Indra. As the story goes, Shiva’s wife, Uma or Parvati, had cursed all the goddesses that they would never become mothers.

Sachi, however longed for a child and underwent rigorous penance. Uma, pleased with her devotion, agreed to give her the pleasure of a child. She therefore conceived the idea of a child and asked Kamdhenu, the holy cow, to hold the child in her womb before birth, as Sachi was unable to do so because of the curse. The story however goes that Sachi went through the pain of childbirth with the birth and rearing of Chitragupta . Chitragupta is therefore considered to be the son of Sachi, according the legend attached to the temple in Kanchipuram.