Maurya dynasty and the question of caste identity

The entire game is for dominance. The basic objective of historiography has been to prove the relevance or superiority of one group or community by portraying others as inferior and unworthy

The beginnings of savarna-based social discrimination can be traced to the Rigvedic era. The tenth Mandal of the Rigveda mentions four varnas – Shudra, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Brahmin. With the passage of time, the varnas were further divided into castes and sub-castes. We have no say in which caste we are born into and we cannot quit our caste. One can change one’s religion but not one’s caste. That is why, despite all opposition to the caste system, caste continues to be the fundamental unit of one’s identity even in today’s India.

The game of dominance and historiography

Self-confidence is one of the key prerequisites for human growth. If one’s morale is high, one can accomplish even seemingly impossible tasks. That is why, to perpetuate its rule, the ruling class always tries to lower the morale and level of self-confidence of the ruled. For this, it may use historical, geographical or cultural arguments. And these may well be myths. In the modern era, the British did it and in ancient India, the Brahmins. When Jaishankar Prasad uses the motif of Chandragupta Maurya to inculcate a feeling of national pride and self-confidence among the masses and to prepare them for fighting the British, he is eulogized as a freedom-lover and an epochal personality. But when anyone does the same to challenge Brahmins and the castes of Brahmanical origin, he is ridiculed and branded as impudent.

Actually, the entire game is for dominance. The basic objective of historiography has been to prove the relevance or superiority of one group or community by portraying others as inferior and unworthy. It was not surprising that the British historians did it and it is not surprising that Indian historians now are doing the same. Most of the Indian historians and historical researchers belong to the so-called upper castes. They only choose research topics which suit them and if the facts seem to be going against what they want to prove, they twist the facts. Why is it that despite all Buddhist and Jain sources describing Chandragupta Maurya as a Kshatriya, he is considered a Shudra only because the Brahmanical texts insist so? Why is it that every history book declares, “It is said that the Brahmins originated from the mouth of Brahma, the Kshatriyas from his hands, the Vaishyas from his thighs and the Shudras from his feet”, when this “belief” has no scientific or logical basis? The fact is that in the history written by the Brahmins, every caste which was against the Brahmins or was allied with the anti-Brahmin forces was stigmatized. That is why, when the rulers of the Maurya Dynasty began patronizing anti-Brahmin communities like Buddhists, Jains and Ajivaks, the Mauryas were branded as lowly and wretched. The persona and role of Chanakya, who was a Brahmin, was grossly exaggerated – so much so that Chanakya was given all the credit for the establishment of the Maurya Empire. Today, when we have understood the finer nuances of historiography, such formulations not only seem laughable but also generate a sense of rage.

Facts on the ground

This article intends to raise the issue of caste identity through an investigation of the connection between the Maurya dynasty and the Kushwaha caste. This issue has gained relevance because an article has appeared in the e-paper of The Telegraph on 4 December 2014 (|1141210|) virtually ridiculing the claim of the Kushwahas that Mauryas were their ancestors. The article says that famous historian Romila Thapar expressed surprise when told that the Kushwahas believe that they are the descendants of the Mauryas. She says very little is known about the childhood and ancestry of Chandragupta Maurya, and the date of his anointment is also disputed. In the same article, Prof S.S. Singh of Patna University has been quoted as saying that there is no evidence as to the caste of Chandragupta Maurya, that what is only known is that he was born into a low caste.

Chandragupt_maurya_Birla_mandir_6_dec_2009_31_cropped copyThe two historians, it seems, are oblivious to the facts and short on knowledge. Not much research has been done on who the ancestors and the descendants of Chandragupta Maurya were. That needs to be done. If someone has been able to prove through research that the ancestors of the Kushwaha community were the members of the Maurya dynasty, then it should be published. It is the duty of the historians of this caste to conduct research on this issue and put their conclusions, based on evidence, in the public domain. Though I am not a student of history, prima facie, I feel that the Kushwaha community’s claim cannot be summarily rejected. The most accurate and scientific way to prove a hypothesis is field study. If we study the hubs of the Maurya Empire and of the Buddhist era, we will find that even today they have a sizeable population of the Kushwahas. A survey conducted in 1908 revealed that many villages of the Kushwahas (for instance Kumhrar Khas, Sandalpur, Tulsimandi, Ranipur, etc) surround Kumhrar (Patliputra), which was the capital of the Maurya Empire. Sixty to seventy per cent of the residents of these villages are Kushwahas. The population density of the members of this caste is high around all the places which were the capitals of various kingdoms in ancient India. For instance, in Udantpuri (present Bihar Sharif town and villages around it), Kushwahas form the biggest chunk of the population. Similarly, villages around Rajgir (like Rajgir Khaas, Pilki Mahedeva, Sakri, Barnausa, Lodipur, etc) also have a substantial population of Kushwahas. This caste has a sizeable presence in the area that formed the ancient republic of Vaishali. Similarly, Kushwahas inhabit places associated with Buddha such as Kushinagar, Bodhgaya and Sarnath in large numbers. There are many villages of this community like Kapatia, Juaphar, Kapatsari, Badgaon and Mohanbigha around the remains of Nalanda University. It is thus clear that this caste was closely linked with the ruling class and its members lived in the cities. Since their fields were close to the cities, they cultivated mainly vegetables and fruits for the residents. Even today, growing vegetables and fruits is considered the main source of livelihood of the Kushwahas.

How and why the socio-economic status of this community deteriorated is a matter of research. The Rajput and Kayashtha castes are said to have originated around 1000AD. The Rajputs became the ruling class in the medieval times and were accommodated under Kshatriya in the Varnashram hierarchy. But who were the Kshatriyas before the Rajputs emerged, especially before Christ? It is obvious that the present Dalits and OBCs were the Kshatriyas of that age. Any serious student of history will tell you that the ruling class which gave respect to the Brahmins and provided them with material benefits, was given the status of Kshatriyas while the castes that ignored or opposed them were branded as Shudras. Why are the members of the so-called upper castes losing sleep if today these castes are laying claim to Kshatriya status? 

Caste identity and self-esteem

If, in this article, I have tried to prove that OBC or Dalit castes are Kshatriyas, it does not mean I believe in the Varnashram system of Hindu religion or that I want to give “social mileage” to any caste by giving it a higher status. What I want to emphasize is that no caste or varna was Shudra since the time of its origin. With political and economic changes came changes in the social status of different castes. Then, why are we made to feel inferior if we are born into a particular varna or caste? Why is our caste used to crush our self-confidence and self-esteem? And if this is done, we can respond to it in two ways. One way is Sanskritization, ie, trying to link our present with the era when our caste enjoyed a pre-eminent status. And second is by assertion of our present identity. The second method was used with great success by the Chamar caste not only in modern times but also in the medieval era. In Punjab, the bikes of many youngsters of this caste proudly proclaim “Handsome Chamar” or “Chamra Da Puttar”.

In the medieval era, Raidas was not only frank about his caste (“Kah Raidas Khalas Chamara”) but also made it clear that he was proud of being a Chamar.

While trying to analyze the Kushwaha caste’s claim of being the descendants of Mauryas, this article aims to convey the message that no matter to which caste one belongs, one should feel proud of it and should formulate arguments – whether for oneself or for others – to build self-esteem. Caste cannot be changed but perception can be – be it one’s own or society’s.

Published in the August 2015 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine

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