Why this book? This seminal question can be addressed by two intertwined answers. First is the generic one related to the need of a book written in this genre, and the second is specific to the untold story of the jati of Kayasthas in encyclopaedic form that we have attempted. Issues of identity and heritage in particular are broached while addressing the first part of the question, and then to address its second part, we have narrated what in general does the book bring to its readers? The last but not least segment offers a personal account of the impressionistic motivations of the authors, which include the choice of methodology too.
First things first. People may ask why do we need a book on a caste based subject like the Kayasthas in the 21st century where science has replaced religion, class has replaced caste, and tradition has been dethroned by reason and logic. The very question of ‘why this book?’, ipso facto, therefore, presupposes that any attempt by educated people to celebrate primordial identities like caste and religion in the current progressive environment is a retrogressive exercise.
Now let us elaborate this point. In the course of life, from birth to death, everyone picks up different identities. All of us are born in a family, in a caste, in a religion, in a village or a city, and learn to communicate in a language that is usually referred to as our 'mother tongue'. We then pursue education in a school, college, university, and so on, and thereafter take up some form of employment. Life is, therefore, synonymous with a ladder of identities that we are either born with (ascribed identity) and those we acquire along the way (achieved identity). These identities ideally ought to coexist peacefully together, with each of them imparting some purpose in our lives. In other words, both sets of identities - the ascribed and the acquired - need not be mutually exclusive or contradictory. Learning to live with both in harmony gives us the necessary confidence and ability to appreciate others’ identities too. In fact, we begin to appreciate variations in identity root of others too from the time we start understanding our roots deep enough.
This point deserves a little more elaboration. The western education that we have been receiving in India over the years clearly had a colonial slant, which gave rise to a binary of secular or modern versus communal or traditional identities in our mind. With that kind of slant, we are encouraged to imbibe the former but advised to stay away from the latter, at least in public sphere, where it is considered socially retrograde. As a result, we have started telling our children to drop their traditional surnames, and in fact, even made them feel uncomfortable in acknowledging that they have traditional identities like caste or religion. It seems that like Nietzsche, who once declared that ‘God is dead,’ we too have buried our God-like identities. The 'Drop God' idea has apparently been adopted over the years by all the elite educational institutions in India and remains the dominant narrative among most of the educators there.
It seems fairly obvious that political changes in the last decade or so have challenged the said binary. Even globally, the focus on traditional identities is currently on the rise, and such identities are seen as essential supplements to modern or secular identities. Thus, traditional identities today are being recast as heritage all around. They lend meaning to the communities that they are associated with. We seek to decipher and address such key issues in this book.
The resultant understanding is that so long as we do not assert our identity at the cost of others, as long as we do not undermine the identities of other community members, as long as we do not become exclusionist in our interactions, why should we feel shy of our traditional identities? It is now widely believed that we will be able to appreciate other people's qualities only if we respect our own. As the book unfolds, you may find clearly that there is never an ‘either-or’ choice between ‘identity’ and ‘heritage’, and both can easily go hand in hand. Shunning a binary approach, the focus of inquiry in the book is on their complementarity in tangible and intangible forms.
Hence, being a Kayastha is not just a question of relating to a particular identity, but is also to be cherished as part of heritage of a larger whole. The Kayastha identity has been built on the foundation of India’s best known Kayastha icons - Vivekanand, Aurobindo, SrimantaSankardev, Yoganand, Ramalinga Swamigal, Lalitaditya, Dharampal, GautamSatkarni, Subhash Chandra Bose, RajendraPrasad, CD Deshmukh, Amitabh Ghosh, Premchand among many others. The grand narratives, common histories, wounds of displacements, ancestral deities, ancient temples, rituals, scripts, cuisines, and the community spread from Maharashtra to Tripura, and from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu are representative pillars of their shared identity and heritage. Undermining these amounts to neglect and denial of the precious Kayastha heritage.
Yet some of us hide our faces and feel apologetic about our traditional identity as a precondition for being called 'modern'. In this book journey, we realised that India will be able to truly assert its unity and celebrate its diversity only if every community honours the memory of its forgotten heroes and learn to cherish their precious yet fading heritage. So long as we leave the privilege of selecting community icons exclusively to the politician-historians, we will never be able to bring out the community heroes on merit. Only community can filter out the true faces. The classic example of assertion of identity and cherishing one's heritage has, in recent times, been the construction of a PrernaSthal at the NOIDA-Delhi border by the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, who resurrected more than a dozen of dalit icons hitherto unknown to even a majority of India’s top intellectuals. She effectively asserted her community’s right to draw up a list of community icons. In a similar vein, this book is an attempt to revisit our identity, our icons, and our heritage. That perhaps answers the first question, “Why should a book of this genre be written at all today?” Our book journey gives us a feeling that more and more communities would undertake such studies in times to come.
Now we come to the second part of the answer to the question, "what in general does this particular book bring to its readers?”
Even a cursory look at the merely Illustrative images of the Kayastha icons listed on the cover page of this book would give any lay reader an idea about the distinct contributions made by each icon of the community in building the collage called ‘the wonder that was India.’ From spirituality to regality, from governance to statesmanship, from being freedom fighters to builders of the nation, from science and technology to art, culture, and cinema, the Kayastha community has demonstrated an exceptional and unparalleled legacy, excelling as one of the most talented communities in India, which our audience will get to read in the two chapters of the book, viz., ‘Hall of Fame’ and ‘Kayasthas in the Freedom Struggle.’
History without an understanding of the associated narratives is neither evocative nor instructive enough. This book, therefore, documents these narratives at length, in order to add the required depth and details of the historical underpinnings. Of all the regional segments of the Kayasthas, comparatively speaking, the ChitraguptvanshiyaKayasthas of Hindi heartland and southern states have the most visible connections with the larger Hindu civilisations, though the Chandraseniya of Maharashtra, Gujarat, and MP and ChitraseniyaKayasthas of Bengal, Odhisa, Assam, and Tripura also account for a substantial share in the Kayastha community pie.
Put together, the intellectual and spiritual quotient of the community contributed to the enrichment of the social and cultural fabric of India in many ways. Let me explain how? No other community would have single-handedly contributed to the development of four scripts—Devanagari, Kaithi, Kaithili, and Bengali—in India. Of these, the first is the Devanagri script reportedly patronised by an ancient Kayastha king in Kangra, designated as the official script of the Government of India later, and of the other three, Kaithi was the official script of the British administration in Upper India and probably of Magadh Empire too, whereas the Kaithili and Bengla scripts enjoy the status of the lead scripts in Assam and West Bengal. King Dharampala of the Pala dynasty set up a number of universities, including the famed Vikramshila University. Lakshmana Sena of the Sena dynasty in Bengal initiated the public function of Durga Puja, which has come to stay as a crucial identity symbol of the Bengali culture. The major Sun temples in India, including the Martand temple in Kashmir and the Konark temple in Odisha, which represent the major sacred landmarks of Hindu identity today, were constructed by the Kayastha kings. Among the major spiritual and religious sects in India today, some of the widespread ones, including GaudiaSampradaya, RadhaswamiSatsang, Kriya Yoga, Shrottiya movement of SrimantSankardev, Chinmoy Mission, Transcendental Meditation movement, and Anand Marg were originally propounded by great Kayastha Gurus. Similarly, there are several instances of life-sacrifices for the motherland from the Kayastha community, if one were to look at the history of the freedom struggle. The contributions of the community from the past to the present are endless, which the reader will realise in the course of reading the book.
Adaptability being their major community hallmark, we observed the spread of Kayasthas spread across 20 States in India predominantly, and their deep migratory disposition since the beginning was pronounced. Tucked as flowers in the garland adorning India’s historical map, as Swami Vivekanand eloquently made us believe, they have left a deep imprint by their remarkable presence in different ancient epochs, as one moves from Kashmir (the Karkota dynasty of Lalitaditya’s fame), to Punjab (the Hindu Shahi dynasty of west Punjab), to Gujarat (the BallabhiKayastha dynasty), to Karnataka (the Chaulakyas dynasty of Pulkeshin's fame) to Andhra Pradesh (the Satvahana dynasty of GautamSatakarni’s fame) and to Bengal (the Pala and Sena dynasties of Dharampala's and BallalSena's fame), along with their predecessors and successors. Though yet to be established conclusively, the Pallavas, Rastrakutas, Cholas, Vijay Nagar empire and Chandel dynasty rulers shared similar lineage is the community grapevine. Interestingly, it was a Kayastha, no less than Swami Vivekanand, who had to remind the community that they were not only scribes (lekhaks), accountants (ganaks), and teachers (shikshak) but have, over the centuries, contributed in the form of great seers, illustrious rulers, administrators, advisers to kings, and judicial luminaries. It is heartening to see that these royal dots have not dimmed over time; their lesser clones have instead expanded to cover over 20 States and Union Territories of the country today.
It is also heartening to recount how the haze and uncertainty over the legal status of Kayastha’svarna, brought in by the Calcutta court case of property succession, declaring Kayasthas as Shudras, was subsequently removed by a well-fought out case in the Patna High Court in 1926. It is a tale of a complementary, yet uneasy, relationship between two dominant intellectual communities in India, the Brahmans and the Kayasthas, who were dependent on each other, yet who missed no opportunity to slight or denigrate the other. Competition and conflict culminated in court battles. The book brings out these court battles—their good, bad, and ugly sides—with their legal nuances as well.
The disheartening issue, however, is that Kayastha migration has led to a sort of memory loss among the community members and the development of a silo-like worldview. It is a mystery as to how and why a community, identified as an aboriginal class of writers in history, has hitherto failed to comprehensively document itself. But for some ethnographical accounts, the information on Kayasthas is fragmented and scattered. Unlike the western and Islamic traditions of the kings carrying a posse of accomplished historians when they went on their expeditions, the great Kayastha or Hindu emperors still believed that the smriti and shrutiparampara (oral tradition) was superior to written documentation. Further, these kings were hesitant to indulge in self-glorification, ostensibly in deference to the strong Indian ethos of submitting of self before the collective. The urge among Kayasth kings to be acknowledged as Kshatriya also led to camaflouging of their jati identity. Given this, it is difficult to trace the names of artistes or architects or kings as one moves around visiting ancient Indian temples. Even though hailed as the ‘Alexander of India’ today by Western historians, the reign of Kayasth king, LalitadityaMuktapid was documented by Kalhan only a few centuries later. It may surprise the reader that despite our painstaking research for about a year in the field, spanning archives, libraries, museums, art galleries, and Kayastha households from Kashmir to Bengal and down south, we did not come across any proper illustration or painting of the mightiest ancient Kayastha kings of India, namely, LalitadityaMuktapida, Pulkeshin II, GautamiputraSatkarni, and Dharampala. As a result, we had to recreate their images by engaging one of the national level artistes who resurrected them through what is called “artistes’ impressions".
In the absence of any illustrative accounts, we as researchers were burdened by our curiosity of ‘knowing the unknown’, and of a seminal question: What were the implications of the lack of a knowledge corpus on the Kayastha community? There is no straight answer to this. Yet, after in-depth research undertaken over several months, we concluded that perhaps the biggest implication was that owing to the highly migratory nature of the Kayasthas, their inter-regional migration was never studied or recorded. This led to a complete erosion of the collective memory of the community, and hence of complete ignorance of their evolution over the centuries. Under these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that many of the kulinKayasthas of Bengal today are unaware of their migration from Kannauj. Similarly, the Karns of Bihar do not relate to Karanas of Odisha, Karani in Bengal, or to Karuneeka of Karnataka, or Karuneegar of Tamil Nadu; what Karn sub-caste in Bihar remember is the half-truth of reverse migration from Karnataka to Mithilanchal in Bihar. A similar situation can be seen among the Kayasthas in Assam; most Srivastavas similarly have no memory of Kashmir; hardly any Saxena can relate to his or her historical connection to Kabul; and most Ambashtas do not know that Bihar was not their original homeland, and that they followed a tedious migration trajectory from far flung north-western territory of Indian sub-continent to reach Bihar through Ujjain.
As we researched deeper into these disconcerting gaps, we came across new insights. We discovered that besides a lack of conscious effort to build an institutional memory of the community, with documentation being a top-down led initiative, the use of titles such as Singh, Pandey, Chaudhary, and Rai Bahadur by the minor and major Kayastha kings also seriously clouded their identification. As a result, among the major Kayastha kings, we have clearly referenced identities of only two major kings - LalitadityaMuktapida and the Pala kings - while the identification of the rest is, at best, derivative. While identifying the faded footprints of the community members, however, we have succeeded in establishing the organic interconnections between the Kayasthas in North with those in the East, South, and West of India, especially through caste associations in the States of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. We also hope that this study will offer new and ‘forgotten’ perspectives on our past and on our social history, and would galvanise research on a pan-India basis to unravel more ‘untold’ and unknown sociological and historical facts about the ‘faded’ heritage of the Kayastha community in Indian society, leaving a rich legacy of facts and figures for prospective generations to learn from. The next generation needed to know micro-details about our heritage, culture, and practices; this realisation dawned on us only when the young Kayastha children started arguing that ‘the devil lies in the details', and expressed an yearning to acquire more and more information using which they could both defend and conserve as their shared heritage.
That brings you to the last but not the least segment of the introduction. The following paragraphs offer you a personal account of the impressionistic journey of the authors, including their choice of methodology. What inspired or prompted them to undertake the challenge is the key question here and in turn it also answers what prompted them to opt for a particular methodological route.
The first drive was personal. Moving beyond the physiological and security needs of life, as the lead author of the book I, Uday Sahay, felt a strong urge to explore the next stage of Maslow’s need hierarchy and ask the basic existential questions, such as: Who am I? Where have I come from? Who were our ancestors? What role did they play in shaping our wider society? Attempting to write the KayasthaEncyclopaedia thus was my way of finding answers to these existential questions. Simultaneously as I moved on, it became a kind of endeavour to give back to the community that endowed me with a unique identity and a rich heritage. The more I dipped deeper, the more I realised that the identity quest among modern Kayasthas remains unquenched because they have limited knowledge of their heritage.
The drive for the co-author, Poonam Bala was rather personal. She recounted thus: "In April 2019, when I received an invitation to be part of this new and exciting venture of collaborating as a co-author of the Kayastha Encyclopedia, my initial exhilaration and enthusiasm to accept this unique opportunity was promptly overshadowed by the pain I was going through every single moment, seeing my ailing mother gradually sink into permanent silence. Yet fond memories of her blessings and encouragement in my all academic pursuits, especially after the demise of my father during my early student days, loomed large in my mind. And I saw this unique opportunity of co-authorship as a step towards deciphering a new chapter about our community which my mother would certainly have been very proud of. So I promptly called back Uday Sahay on 12 April 2019, acknowledging and accepting his kind invitation. But as fate had it, the news of this grand venture on Kayasthas could never reach my mother as she breathed her last in my arms barely five days later. Much like her lingering memories, the momentous success of the KayasthaEncyclopaedia for the cause and unity of our community will never fall short of her blessings, I am certain!"
Secondly, both of us felt confident of our credentials to attempt the project for reasons more than one. Both of us remained archetypal migrants, and have been in the charvaite-charvaite (constantly on the move) mode since early in our careers, the former moving primarily within the country and the other across continents. One of us - Uday Sahay - was brought up in Calcutta and Patna initially and Delhi subsequently, who then travelled to more than 400 districts out of the 739-odd in India by road, rail, and air by virtue of being part of an All India Service, whereas the other one - Poonam Bala - has not only travelled abroad extensively for higher education and teaching, but also has experienced different cultures and in-depth intense interactions with academics and students in Europe, US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India. Though raising of a grand literature from the debris of little or unorganised ones, scattered in the nook and corners of the country, seemed daunting, yet we felt adequately prepared to undertake the daunting task in view of having authored more than half a dozen of books each in varied subjects, with the best of publishers in India and abroad.
Thirdly, besides our initial academic training in Sociology at Delhi School of Economics (Uday Sahay), and Jawaharlal Nehru University (Poonam Bala) respectively, we both shared a common community identity as Kayasthas, which helped us in forming a common sense of purpose and nuanced understanding. The Kayastha identity has been passed on to us by our parents. More than a caste ascribed to us at birth, it was a heritage transfer. We did know something about Kayasthas in our family setting but this knowledge was mostly drawn sub-consciously from the kalam-dawat puja rituals at the annual Shri Chitragupta puja and the gobardhan puja held on the same day back home. Those days there was no culture of questioning parents, but today we realise that silent acquiescence is not enough. Our next generation demanded detailing, and the identity bond gave us a team spirit to churn that out.
Further, at an age where we both turned salt and pepper, having gone through rich and varied experiences in our respective careers, we started appreciating the pan-India character and spread of our community across more than 20 States – from Srinagar to Kanchipuram and from Ahmedabad to Agartala - and also how the heritage of this community was spread all over, yet hopelessly undocumented. Besides highlighting the rich diversity - in terms of climate, language, speech, food, dress, grand narrative, and the dominant culture - that the Kayasthas represent by virtue of their spread in these States, we started cherishing the underlying unity of their histories, migrations, temples, associations, legal turbulence, cultural practices, and cuisines, while attempting to stitch these scattered pieces into a whole.
Along the way we grappled with the choice among array of methodologies for study.
We soon realised that the book is a one of its kind study of an Indian community, undertaken by insiders. In other words, the book attempts an ‘emic’ approach, wherein community insiders attempt to study the Kayastha community over a period of time in order to understand its historical evolution.
The reason why an erudite community like the Kayasthas was scantily researched, as we gradually understood, was that community study in India, as a discipline of sociology and social anthropology, arrived rather late. Even when it came, the thrust was not on an ‘emic’ approach (study of a community from within by insiders over a period of time); instead the ‘etic’ approach (study of a community by outsiders at a particular point of time) became the predominant trend. The discipline of history was itself conservative then, focusing primarily on documenting chronologies of kings and emperors. The ‘history from below’ perspective, or ‘people’s history’ that emerged subsequently, also focused on social and economic forces, but ignored the micro-history of communities. In post-Independence India, a mega project on community studies was undertaken by the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI), led by someone belonging to a fast disappearing category of academically inclined administrators, Kumar Suresh Singh, who, as Director General of ASI, engaged more than 4000 sociologists and social anthropologists for field studies. The exercise resulted in 25 volumes titled as 'People of India' project. However, here again, the communities were largely studied through an ‘etic’ perspective. The study focused on each community as if it was a frozen entity at a particular point of time, and that too carried out substantially by the outsiders.
Going back in history, we get a quick reference to a desire for advocating ‘people’s history’ amongst the nationalist-minded intelligentsia, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Not surprisingly, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay expressed the need for documenting jatiyaitihas (the history of the jati) and not the history of political rulers in Bengal. Nagendra NathBasu’s book on the history of Bengali kulinKayasthas was a prelude.
As researchers in social science, we have attempted to address and bridge these ostensibly disconcerting gaps through a method that can at best be called exploratory. It merely touches upon the contours of a community study that was scantily studied in the modern period. By definition, in such an exploratory research there is always a scope of birth of critical leads which may give rise to need for further follow up research.
This book is the outcome of two years of exploratory research, as explained earlier, and built on the foundation of primary, secondary, and derivative data. These data have been collected meticulously collected from various archaeological and literary sources (inscriptions, coins, stone-scripts, plays, photographs, and illustrations, temple and community literature, and review of past research).
Our research thus began two years ago and our journey took us to the awe-inspiring archives, museums, and traditional Kayastha households carrying some mysterious aura about them. We went from the blue skies of Kashmir in the north, embodied in the imposing structure of Martand temple built by Lalitaditya at Anantnag, to the citadel of classical Hindu culture in the south at Kanchipuram that houses an unimpaired Shri Chitragupta temple constructed in the Dravidian style by the Chola kings (around the ninth century). It further took us to the Shri ChitraguptaAdi temple on the Patna’s bank of the holy Ganga, at what was earlier known as Patliputra, to the Chitragupta temples in Ayodhya, Khajuraho, and the Kayatha village in Ujjain, and finally to the seat of the then mighty Pala Empire. From the dusty alluvial land of West Bengal in the Maldah and Nadia districts, we travelled to experience the ruins of what may have been the erstwhile imposing architectural feats under the great Kayastha kings - the Pala and Sena. These journeys left us with mesmerising memories for they were not just representations of the physical structures of the Kayastha acclaim of yesteryears, but held a great symbolic and cultural meaning.
This work by no means lay any claim to be an exhaustive study, nor does it claim to be the last word on Kayastha appellation. It is, at best, an illustrative account that attempts to understand the complexities of the history and contemporary details of theKayastha community. Drawing upon the various sociological and historical clues we have provided here, we hope that this work will elicit further interest and inspire other scholars to undertake research and address the remaining gaps.