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Who are they?
The Kayasth people are a well-known community of traditional scribes or writers and village accountants. Their name is also spelled Kayastha or Kayashtha. The Kayasth are usually addressed by a number of synonyms like Lala, Lalli, Lal, Kaith, Kact or Kayath.
Totaling a population of around 10 million in number and having 237 segments, they are spread across forty districts of the country in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab and Chandigarh
The Kayasth community in North India and the Deccan have sought to establish a pan-Indian identity for themselves by linking up with the Chitragupta Kayasth of North India, the Prabhu Kayasth of Maharashtra and the Bengal Kayasth of West Bengal, despite being different communities and located in distinctly different cultural environments (K.L. Leonard, 1978).
Literally, the Kayasth is described as one who is an inhabitant of Kaayadesh, the region between the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers of north India. In Sanskrit the word Kayasth means, “one who resides in the body” (Rose, 1919). A different meaning has been suggested by Crooke, from the Sanskrit Kaya- santitch which means staying at home (Crooke, 1896).
As far as the mythological origins of their community are concerned the Kayasth believe that they originated from Chitragupta. They hold the view that Chitragupta was himself created by Brahma from his body. Brahma is believed to be the Creator in the Hindu trinity. The newly-produced Chitragupta was entrusted to Yama, the Hindu god of death to record the good and evil actions of all humans and produce the net results when they arrived after death. From Chitragupta’s two wives, Eravati and Nandini, were descended the twelve main endogamous subdivisions of the Kayasth people, namely, Mathur, Bhatnagar, Saxena and Srivastava from the first wife, and Gaur, Nigam, Asthana, Surajdwaj, Awastha, Karan, Kulshrestha, and Balmiki from the second.
The Varna or class status of the Kayasth has been a matter of controversy and they have been classified as Brahmin (highest Hindu priestly caste), Kshatriya (2nd highest warrior caste of rulers) and even Sudra (4th and lowest class of peasants and serfs). Despite their own high self-perception, the common view is that they belong to the Vaisya, or 3rd highest caste of traders.
They speak the languages of the regions they live in. In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Hindi is their mother tongue and they use the Devanagari script to write it. In Bihar the Indo-Aryan language Magahi is their first language, Bengali is spoken in West Bengal and Assamese in Assam. In Punjab and Chandigarh the mother tongue is Punjabi and in Andhra Pradesh it is the Telugu language. In spite of these perceived barriers to communication, throughout each of these states the Kayasth communities are conversant with Hindi as well.
The Kayasth have a good social interaction with other communities and exchange food and water with most of them. It is said that during Mughal times, they had free interaction with the Muslims.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The customary occupation of the Kayasth has always been government or private service, traditionally as village clerks or accountants. Even during the pre-colonial times they were employed in the Mughal and other royal courts. Today they are mainly engaged in various levels of government and private service. There also work as teachers, defense personnel, doctors, engineers, lawyers, academicians and other professionals. In the desert state of Rajasthan some Kayasth have opened factories. The Hare Krishna Movement came out of this group, as did Transcendental Meditation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi), Integral yoga (Sri Aurobindo), Kriya Yoga (Paramahansa Yogananda of ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ fame) and Vedanta (Swami Vivekananda).
The Kayasth usually do not involve themselves in business or agriculture, although some who live in villages own land and cultivate it. However, agriculture is the traditional occupation of most in Kayasth in Assam and Himachal Pradesh, as well as small-scale industries.
Education is valued by this community and their literacy levels are very high. Their sons and daughters reach high school graduation and post-graduation levels. They also enter professional varsities in sizeable numbers. Modern family planning methods and medicine are accepted by the Kayasth. They enjoy all the benefits of various official developmental programmes to improve their socio-economic conditions.
The Kayasth restrict marriage to their community and often it is limited to the subgroup level too. However, subgroup endogamy is not rigidly enforced any longer, and even inter-caste marriages have made their occasional appearance as a recent phenomenon. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh the Kayasth are divided into twelve subgroups among which they may not intermarry as well as various exogamous clans.
Marriages are arranged through negotiations between family members on both sides. Polygamy is very rare and is usually resorted to only for the sake of offspring. Vermilion (sindur), a dot on the forehead (bindi), toe-rings, earrings, nose stud, necklace and bangles of glass, gold or conch-shell are the symbols of marriage for women. Adult marriages are prevalent and dowry is paid in cash and kind, except in Assam. Remarriage of widowers, widows is only prohibited in Andhra Pradesh. The remarriage of divorcees, as well as junior levirate and junior sororate are also allowed. However, divorce is not socially permissible among some Kayasth like those of West Bengal.
Among the Kayasth there has been a rise in the number of nuclear families in the recent past. All the sons inherit the ancestral property equally and the eldest son succeeds to the father’s authority. Daughters traditionally do not receive any share of the inheritance. Though the Kayasth women have lower status than men they definitely enjoy higher status than women of most other communities. They contribute to the family income and control family expenditure, as well as participate in social functions, rituals and religious affairs.
Art and creativity among the women of this people group can be seen in Assam where they are expert weavers. In West Bengal they are skilled in modeling, drawing, floor-painting with intricate designs, cloth embroidery and knitting as well as making toys from cane and bamboo and in Himachal Pradesh they are known for their beautiful graphics, painting and drawing using colourful vegetable dyes. An indispensable part of Kayasth rituals are the oral traditions in the form of folklores and folksongs which belong to the women.
The Kayasth have their own traditional caste associations at various places like the Kayasth Mahasabha (Great Assembly) at Chandigarh which even has its own publication known as the Kayasth Samachar. Similarly in Andhra Pradesh there is a Kayasth Sabha which looks after the welfare of the community. Other such bodies exist in most states at various levels. Political consciousness has emerged at local and regional levels.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kayasth profess Hinduism and worship all gods and goddesses. However, it is the god Chitragupta who comes in for special reverence as their divine progenitor and community deity. Twice a year they worship the pen and inkpot, which are Chitragupta’s tools, as well as the symbols of their profession, to which they owe their great material success.
Some Kayasth, as those of Himachal Pradesh, belong to the Shaivite sect. They regard Shiva as the supreme deity; while many other, like those of West Bengal to the Vaishnava sect, i.e. they regard Vishnu as the most powerful. In West Bengal and Rajasthan many Kayasth belong to the Shakti cult, the worship of the Mother Goddess as an active, creating, maintaining and destroying entity. The manifestations of this goddess are Kali and Durga.
The Kayasth celebrate all major Hindu festivals and hire the services of the Brahmin priest to perform their lifecycle rituals like birth, marriage and death. The dead are cremated and the ashes immersed in a river, preferably the Ganges River at Haridwar which is considered to be holy. Both birth and death pollutions for specific periods are observed. There is a belief in evil spirits and at times exorcism is resorted to. Ancestor worship is prevalent.
What Are Their Needs?
Kayasth are a highly significant community; they are among the key intellectual and influential groups of India. Literate and urbanized, a dominate force in the national bureaucracy, who hold land and positions of influence in various spheres of daily life,