H. H. Risley's "Tribes and Castes of Bengal" (1891-92)

Risley's book on Bengali tribes and castes would have been required reading for anyone entering the British civil service, probably right to the end of the Raj. Unfortunately, the descriptions are sketchy and reflect strong biases of the missionaries and the civil servant sycophants. Here are a couple of quotes from that book, under the rubric "Boishtom." [This was a reading from the last section of my course.]

Two endogamous classes are recognized--(1) Jati Baishnab, consisting of those whose conversion to Vaishnavism dates back beyond living memory, and (2) ordinary Baishnabs, called also Bhekdhari or "wearers of the garb", who are supposed to have adopted Vaishnavism at a recent date. The former are men of substance, who have conformed to ordinary Hinduism to such an extent that they are now Baishnabs in little more than name. In the matter of marriage they follow the usages of the Nabasakha; they burn their dead; mourn for thirty days; celebrate sraddh, and employ high caste Brahmans to officiate for them for religious and ceremonial purposes. They do not intermarry or eat with the Baishnavs who have been recently converted. The latter are described by a correspondent as "the scum of the population. Those who are guilty of adultery or incest, and in consequence of which find it inconvenient to live as members of the castes to which they belong, embrace Vaishnavism, first because they can by so doing place themselves beyond the pale of the influence of the headmen of their castes, and secondly, because their conversion removes all obstacle to the continuance of the illicit or incestuous connexions which they have formed." (342-343)
The mendicant members of the Vaishnava community, as distinguished from the Jat Baishnavs or Grihi Baishnabs on the one hand and the governing body of Gosains on the other, are, says Dr. Wise, "of evil repute, their ranks being recruited by those who have no relatives, by widows, by individuals to idle or depraved to lead a steady working life, and by prostitutes. Vaishnavi, or Baishtabi according to the vulgar pronunciation, has come to mean courtesan. A few undoubtedly join from sincere and worthy motives, but their numbers are too small to produce any appreciable effect on the behaviour of their comrades. The habits of these beggars are very unsettled. They wander from village to village, and from one akhra to another, fleecing the frugal and industrious peasantry on the plea of religion, and singing songs in praise of Hari beneath the village tree, or shrine. Mendicants of both sexes smoke Indian hemp (ganja) and although living as brothers and sisters are notorious for licentiousness. There is every reason for suspecting that infanticide is common, as children are never seen. In the course of their wanderings they entice away unmarried girls, widows, and even married women, on the pretext of visiting Sri Kshetra (Jagannath), Brindaban, or Benares, for which reason they are shunned by all respectable natives, who gladly give charity to be rid of them." (p.344)

What a tremendous passage! Infanticide, even ! Though the phrase "singing songs in praise of Hari beneath the village tree, or shrine" is nicely evocative.

Interesting in the above quotes is the process of Sanskritization described for the Jati Boishnabs who were practically "indistinguishable" from the larger Hindu community.

One of the fascinating sections of Prema-vilasa is in the 24th chapter where Nityananda Das goes on at great length about the Kulina brahmin system in Bengal. It is amazing that he, a non-brahmin, would have had such encycopedic knowledge of the history of these customs, from the time of Adishura (9th, 10th centuries?) and Ballal Sen (11th century), to the way they developed and were reformed by a certain Devivara. I learned a lot, and there was a lot that I did not want to be bothered with, including the family trees of many of the brahmin families in Bengal.

The primary question is: Why did Nityananda Das, himself an "ambastha" (as he tells us on several occasions) (One section of the ambasthas are vaidyas) take an interest in this matter? And why, as a Vaishnava, who goes into great detail explaining how Shyamananda and Narottam were authorized by their individual saintliness and personal qualification, to take brahmins form the highest sections of the society (kulina and suddha-srotriya) and make them his disciples, express an interest in these Gothic intricacies?

The answer, according to Nityananda Das himself, is that Jahnava Ishwari told him to do it. But the context comes in relation to Birbhadra Goswami. Nityananda begins the discussion by saying that Birbhadra became the source of a new term in the world of caste politics, the "birbhadri", which would mean someone who retains brahmin status despite being the offspring of a brahmin who left his sannyas vows. The most familiar term to us is "vantashi" (one who eats his own vomit), but there are other terms for such a person and his descendants. The concern here seems to be the rehabilitation of the Nityananda family as caste brahmins in the hierarchy. This must have been achieved with some success, as Risley says,

The Gosains or "Gentoo bishops" as they were called by Mr. Holwell, have now become the hereditary leaders of the sect. Most of them are prosperous traders and money-lenders, enriched by the gifts of the laity and by the inheritance of all property left by Bairagis. They marry the daughters of Srotriya and Bansaja Brahmins, and give their daughters to Kulins, who, however, deem it a dishonour to marry one of their girls to a Gosain. As a rule, they are tall and well-made men, of light complexion, fair specimens of the Aryan type as found in Bengal. The Advaitananda Gosains admit to the Vaishnava community only brahmins, baidyas and members of those castes from whose hands a brahmin may take water. The Nityananda on the other hand, maintain that any such limitation is opposed to the teaching of Chaitanya, and open the door of fellowship to all sorts and conditions of men, be they Brahmans or Chandals, high caste widows of common prostitutes... The Advaitananda Gosains are highly esteemed by the upper classes of Bengal, and it is very unusual for a Brahman or Baidya to enrol himself in the ranks of the other branch. They are said to be more sincere and open to religious motives than the Nityananda, and they avoid much scandal by refusing to initiate women.

One of the curious things that struck me when I read Ramakanta Chakravarty's book on Bengali Vaishnavism was his statement that the Goswami families lost much of their influence by refusing to initiate broadly, supposedly because the Bhagavata says not to take many disciples. Their motivation was no doubt in part an effort to maintain their position in the caste hierarchy of Bengal.


advaitadas said…
The comments stem from 1891-2, when Bhaktisiddhanta was 17-8. If we look at it in this scope Bhaktisiddhanta was even mild in his judgement. Speaking of mild judgement, the Advaita Gosains are getting pretty much off the hook here, compared to the others.
Jagadananda Das said…
I thought you might enjoy that. Just a note on one passage. The Brahminical hierarchy established by Ballal Sen came about as follows (According to Prema-vilasa):

Receiving complaints that the brahmins in Bengali society were not all up to the mark, the king called an assembly of all brahmins and set the time for 10.30. When the time came a number of brahmins started to trickle in, but the king did not begin the assembly right away. Rather he waited until 1.30 in the afternoon! At that moment he declared that since any brahmin worth his salt took at least 2 1/2 praharas (7 1/2 hours) to complete all his rituals, only those who had come latest were the most highly qualified. These became the Kulina brahmins, and were said to possess all the nine desirable qualities of a Brahmin. Those who had arrived after 12 o'clock were placed on the second rung and were called Suddha Srotriyas. All the rest were classed as Vamsaja.

Nityananda Das tells us that there was a certain amount of friction between the Varendras and Rarhis. In terminology, too, there were certain differences. The Rarhis used the term Kap instead of Vamsaja. kApa = kapaTa.

The basic premise of caste politics centers around purity, which can easily be compromised by certain actions. Nityananda Das says at one point (or quotes someone) that a brahmin's primary duty is protecting his caste status. Lower status brahmins would elevate their status by giving their daughters in marriage to the Kulinas, who would not, however, give their daughters to those of lower status. This inequality led to abuses that became quite pronounced by the 18th century. Certain Kulina brahmins made a profession of getting married numerous times and collecting dowries and annual fees from lower status brahmins who were seeking upward mobility. Often these unscrupulous Kulina brahmins were old and never even took their wives to their own homes, but left them with their fathers where they naturally gravitated to the no-man's land of prostitution, etc. Many of these women, not surprisingly, ended up becoming Boishtamis.
advaitadas said…
That is 'seeking upward mobility' or 'nobility'?
And what is a Boishtom?
Jagadananda Das said…
I guess "upward mobility" and "nobility" might be considered interchangeable. The word "Sanskritization" was coined by the anthropologist Srinivasan in the 1950's and it has been popular amongst observers of Hindu society ever since. The idea is that Brahminical culture imposed itself in a rather different way that other religions. It established a standard of purity of behavior and culture that was associated with social class. The closer to the standard that one conformed, as a group, the higher that the social group was placed on the hierarchy. The standards were in a state of constant flux, and in Bengal, but through material wealth and the internal imposition of caste discipline, it was possible for certain groups to elevate themselves on the social totem pole.

Many examples can be given. The Boishtams are the "Jati Vaishnavas," i.e., those Hindus who lost their caste in some way and then gravitated to a nascent Vaishnava caste. This included, as Risley cites his informant, people who had misbehaved in various ways, but might have included genuine converts as well as Subuddhi Ray types, whose caste status had been subverted as a result of politics or other trivialities.

Joseph O'Connell wrote a good article on this subject a few years ago. The Jati Vaishnavas reacted to a census report that undertook to classify the Bengali jati system. The classifications included "asprishya", "jalachala", "apankteya", etc. The Jati Vaishnavas were very near the bottom of the scale. They organized themselves and tried to elevate that status, pointing to various elements of sadachara that they claimed were universally observed in their group.

In recent years, there have been similar efforts by Jugis and Vaidyas to have their social status reassessed. One of the characteristics of this effort is the wearing of Brahmin threads by members of both these groups.

This is how Sanskritization often works: individuals who observed the standards claim genuine brahminhood ("the internal poita"), while those brahmins who do not are considered fallen ("kap"). But the difficulty arises in society-wide changes; dislodging Brahmins from their priviledged position is quasi-impossible, even now.

Sanskritization is both effective and insidious in its imposition of social standards. Vaishnavism itself might be looked on as a reaction to Brahminical domination. The subsequent mechanics in the Vaishnava world could be illustrated by the distinction between Advaita vamshis and Nityananda vamshis as described in the Risley passage. But that is a discussion I haven't got time for right now.
Jagadananda Das said…
Zur Nabasakha - Gruppe gehörten in Bengalen, wo sie 1901 16,4 % der Bevölkerung ausmachte, ursprünglich (und machen noch jetzt 84 % ihres Bestandes aus) folgende Kasten : 3 Bauernkasten (die Baruis, Malakan und Sadgop), die Schmiede und verwandte Metallarbeiter (Kamar); Töpfer (Kumhar), Barbiere (Napit), Konfektmacher (Mayra), Weber (Tanti), Oelpresser (Teli). Die Stellung der Weber und Oelpresser ist meist, die der Töpfer oft wesentlich niedriger.
advaitadas said…
(I think that perhaps my last comment was lost so here again)

"but through material wealth and the internal imposition of caste discipline, it was possible for certain groups to elevate themselves on the social totem pole."

That means what, one could BUY or BRIBE one's way up the caste system? What about having to show a Vamsh Pranali or Gotra?

And, how accurate are Risley's accounts? English are also guilty of the Aryan-invasion hoax and other false propaganda to make themselves seem morally or racially superior to the Hindus.
Or perhaps envious shudras and/or Muslims may have slandered babajis and caste brahmins (you know how that goes in Bengal....)
Jagadananda Das said…
I don't doubt for an instant that Risley is representing a biased viewpoint.

The question about gotra is an interesting one. Of course, this, like guru pranalis, is fairly easily falsifiable. What happened was that the gotras were associated with the Kulina, Srotriya or Vamsaja categories. But there was always the danger of being demoted or ostracized--such as the example of Birabhadra Goswami itself shows. In fact, the later distinction Risley describes between the Advaita and Nityananda lines reflects to some extent the differences between Advaita and Nityananda that are recognizable already in the biographies of Mahaprabhu.

But the kind of manoeuvring that is going on on the level of the Brahmin community is reflected to an extent amongst the other jatis. There is a kind of constant jockeying for position.

Now the Vaishnavas community could be divided into two, so Risley is not far off here. There were those who assimilated into the greater Hindu samaj and bought into this game, and those who rejected it, saying that Varnashram is irrelevant to spiritual life. The latter group, however, got blackened by the implication that being outside varnashram automatically implied some kind of "fallen" status. This was in part the result of Sahajiyas and other offshoots participating in the groupings, also the fact that fallen sannyasis and bairagis would automatically belong to this grouping, but was especially furthered by the fact that the Vaishnavas were open to accepting the rejects of other castes who were not welcome in any other grouping, which by nature were closed.

Only the lowest castes could afford to be open to admitting people from other castes; that is the very nature of the system.

However, in our modern, democratic way of thinking, as well as in the charitable spirit shown by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself, it may well be reasonable to assume that the social spirit shown by the Vaishnavas was actually superior to the closed and elitist spirit of the Brahmins, which often was based on an artificial standard of ritual purity.
Jagadananda Das said…
Too bad one cannot edit these comments. That last post won't win any prizes for elegance of prose.
advaitadas said…
"it may well be reasonable to assume that the social spirit shown by the Vaishnavas was actually superior to the closed and elitist spirit of the Brahmins, which often was based on an artificial standard of ritual purity."

I dont agree with this. In practical life that rarely happens amongst non-brahmins either though. Remember how exclusive a Rotary club the Babajis (who are mostly low-caste) were and still are. Inpenetrable......
Jagadananda Das said…
Excellent point. I once wrote that the orthodox babajis traded off sex for social status. This is somewhat typical of the very phenomenon I am describing. You get individuals of often very low caste who become fanatically sad-achari and ten times more exclusive than brahmins precisely because of the insecurity of their position. They receive a certain amount of respect from the Goswami community, with whom they act in collusion, for as long as they remain celibate. As soon as they cross that barrier, which I hold is an artificial one, they enter a kind of no-man's land. This no-man's land used to be called "Boishtom."
Jagadananda Das said…
I should immediately add the caveat that there are brahmins also who become babajis, but they are certainly a minority.

I am not saying that social status is THE reason ALL these people become babajis. That would be totally unjust to people like Kunja Bihari Dasji, Advaita Das Pandit Baba, Ananta Das Pandit Baba, Ramakrishna Das Pandit Baba, Kripasindhu Das Baba, Madan Mohan Dasji, Manohar Das Baba, Haridas Das Baba, Haridas Shastri and so many others, brahmins and non-brahmins, who were/are sincere, learned, and vastly superior to me in every respect.

I have often said (in keeping with the shastra) that even a kapata Vaishnava deserves credit for even choosing to imitate a Vaishnava. Nevertheless, labha, puja and pratishtha lurk under the surface of every sadhaka's practice, waiting for an opportunity to sneak through the cracks of one's bhajan. This is one of the forms it takes.
Jagadananda Das said…
Just to carry on in this vein a little longer. Narottam and Shyamananda, who were not brahmins, did NOT get married. Srinivas Acharya, who was a brahmin, DID. This is, without being explicitly stated, de facto evidence for my point.

There are some exceptions: e.g. the Vaidya Thakur vamsa in Srikhanda, but generally speaking, non-brahmin guru vamsas have low status, i.e., they only initiate people of low caste. This means that their position in society overall is looked down upon, no matter what their sad-achar standards happen to be. Nevertheless, it is true that the Bauls, Sahajiyas and other so-called "apasampradayas" are generally made up principally of non-brahmin clientele.

The Gaudiya Math can be looked upon in this light as a Sanskritizing movement. Bhaktivinoda and his family belonged to what are sometimes called the bhadraloka castes: kayasthas, vaidyas, etc., i.e., non-Brahmins who were generally educated, often landowners, traditionally influential civil servants, etc.

The Daiva Varnashram system was meant to rationalize caste attribution, but the principle was roughly the same as that held traditionally: sexual abstinence is the mark of spiritual purity, grihastha or sannyasi.

My proposition is that all this tends to be an influence of jnana marga and distracts us from the principle of love. When the principles of "dadati, pratigrihnati, guhyam akhyati, pricchati, bhunkte, bhojayate" are ignored or violated, then there is an interruption in the flow of priti. Where there is an interruption in the flow of priti, there is an interruption in the flow of karuna.
advaitadas said…
"Too bad one cannot edit these comments. That last post won't win any prizes for elegance of prose. "

If its on your own blog and it is the latest comment, then log in, copy the wrong text, delete it on the comments page (click on the trashbin), paste it into the new comment-box, edit it and post it again. voila.
Jagadananda Das said…
Of course. Thank you.
Unknown said…
I am new to this blog. Accidentally struck - kind of. Words like Brahmin (Brahmana), Vaishnava, and Harijan to a layman like me would mean "God's people" ... why then talk about diversifications - differences - etc. and their history. Can we not create one man - one world by telling them all that is common among them, and not all that is diverse? Does not devotion to Krishna alone, leave out those who call God by other names? I, for instance call my father "Baba", and my sister "Babuji" ... he is the same person by all means.

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