Kayastha (also referred to as Kayasth or Kayeth) is a group consisting of a cluster of several different castes (or sub-groups) of different origin in India. Kayasthas have traditionally acted as scribes, keepers of public records and accounts, and administrators of the state.
Since as early as the dawn of Medieval India, Kayasthas have occupied the highest government offices, serving as ministers and advisors of the middle kingdoms of India and the Mughal Empire, and holding important administrative positions during the British Raj.
In modern times, Kayasthas have attained success in politics, as well as in the arts and various professional fields.
Kayasthas are not a cohesive, uniform group. They have different varna origins based on the region and consequently different social and ritual status. Even in the same region, such as parts of north and western India, different groups have different ritual status. There are several groups of Kayasthas - a larger group of northern India who claim descent from the sons of Chitragupta. Bengali Kayasthas are considered an offshoot of the former group, claiming lineage from migrants to Bengal from the ancient city of Kannauj who came at the request of Sena Dynasty kings in the 10th century. They are called 'Chitraguptavanshi' as they claim descent from Chitragupta. A smaller group found in Maharashtra claims descent from a Kshatriya warrior named Chandra Sen and this is not considered part of the Chitragupta group. There are also other groups like Bhimani and Panchob.
According to the ancient Indian texts known as the Puranas, Chitraguptavanshi Kayasthas are descended from the Hindu god Chitragupta, who is responsible for recording the deeds of humanity, upholding the rule of law, and judging whether human beings go to heaven or hell upon death. From Chitragupta, 12 subcastes of the north Indian chitragupta kayasthas were formed: Srivastava, Gaur, Saxena, Mathur, Karan , Nigam , Bhatnagar, Ambashtha, Asthana, Kulshreshtha, Valmiki Kayastha and Surajdhwaj Kayastha. There are several theories of their origin. According to an article in India Today, Brahmanical religious texts refer to these chitraguptavanshi Kayasthas as a caste of scribes, recruited in the beginning from the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya castes, but eventually forming distinct subcastes in northern and western India. They have therefore also been mentioned as a "mixed caste", combining Brahman-Shudra (lower caste) and sometimes Kshatriya as well.
In eastern India, Bengali Kayasthas are believed to have evolved from a class of officials into a caste between the 5th/6th centuries and 11th/12th centuries, its component elements being putative Kshatriyas and mostly Brahmins, and likely obtained the aspect of a caste under the Sena dynasty. According to Tej Ram Sharma, an Indian historian, the Kayasthas of Bengal had not yet developed into a distinct caste during the reign of the Gupta Empire, although the office of the Kayastha (scribe) had been instituted before the beginning of the period, as evidenced from the contemporary Smritis. Sharma further states:
"Noticing brahmanic names with a large number of modern Bengali Kayastha cognomens in several early epigraphs discovered in Bengal, some scholars have suggested that there is a considerable brahmana element in the present day Kayastha community of Bengal. Originally the professions of Kayastha (scribe) and Vaidya (physician) were not restricted and could be followed by people of different varnas including the brahmanas. So there is every probability that a number of brahmana families were mixed up with members of other varnas in forming the present Kayastha and Vaidya communities of Bengal."
In Maharashtra, the tiny community of Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (or CKP) claim descent from the warrior Chandrasen. As per Brahminical opinions and texts, they arose solely from the Kshatriya varna.[a] Historically, they produced prominent warriors and also held positions such as Deshpandes and Gadkaris (fort holder, an office similar to that of a castellan). However, they also studied the Vedas and performed Vedic rituals i.e. 'vedokta'(in marathi). Brahmanical texts i.e. shastras refer to them as "Chandraseniya Kshatriyas". This as well as their 'vedokta' has been formally ratified by the verdicts of the Brahmin councils of Pune and Varanasi, by Bajirao II and finally the Shankaracharya himself.[b][c] They are considered socially proximate to the Marathi Brahmin community.
Brahmanical religious texts refer to the Chitraguptavanshi Kayasthas as a caste responsible for writing secular documents and maintaining records from the 7th century onward.
According to the historical chronicle known as the Rajatarangini ("River of Kings"), written by Kalhana in the 12th century, Kashmiri Kayasthas served as prime ministers and treasury officials under several Kashmiri kings.
Prior to the 13th century, during the rule of Hindu kings, Bengali Kayasthas dominated public service and had a near-monopoly on appointments to government positions.
In Bengal, during the reign of the Gupta Empire beginning in the 4th century, when systematic and large-scale colonization by Indo-Aryan Kayasthas and Brahmins first took place, Kayasthas were brought over by the Guptas to help manage the affairs of state.
After the Muslim conquest of India, they mastered Persian, which became the official language of the Mughal courts. Some converted to Islam and formed the Muslim Kayasth community in northern India.
One of the most notable north-Indian Kayasthas of the Mughal period was Raja Todar Mal, Emperor Akbar's finance minister and one of the court's nine Navaratnas, who is credited with establishing the Mughal revenue system. He also translated the Bhagavata Purana from Sanskrit into Persian.
Bengali Kayasthas had been the dominant landholding caste prior to the Muslim conquest, and continued this role under Muslim rule. Indeed, Muslim rulers had from a very early time confirmed the Kayasthas in their ancient role as landholders and political intermediaries.
Bengali Kayasthas served as governors, prime ministers and treasury officials under Mughal rule.
During the British Raj, Kayasthas continued to proliferate in public administration, qualifying for the highest executive and judicial offices open to Indians.
Bengali Kayasthas took on the role occupied by merchant castes in other parts of India and profited from business contacts with the British. In 1911, for example, Bengali Kayasthas and Bengali Brahmins owned 40% of all the Indian-owned mills, mines and factories in Bengal.
Some of the significant figures of the Indian independence movement were Bengali Kayasthas, including the spiritual leaders Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, and the revolutionary leader Subhas Chandra Bose.
They are found mostly in central, eastern, northern India, and particularly in Bengal. Today, there are an estimated 800,000 Chitraguptavanshi Kayasthas in India. North Indian Kayasthas that rose to prominence since independence, include the country's first president, Rajendra Prasad, and its second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri .
Kayasthas are considered a Forward Caste, as they do not qualify for any of the reservation benefits allotted to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes that are administered by the Government of India. These Chitraguptavanshi Kayasthas of United Provinces, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal and Orissa have been mobilizing through their respective organizations as they feel isolated and feel they are losing opportunities to the backward castes. In this effort, they are aligning themselves with different political parties to gain political and economical advantages and are now demanding 33 percent reservation in Government jobs.
The exact varna status of Chitraguptavanshi Kayasthas has been a subject of debate. According to some accounts, they are a literate and educated class of Kshatriyas, and they have been referred to as a twice-born caste.
In Bengal, Bengali Kayastha, alongside Brahmins, have been described as the "highest Hindu castes". After the Muslim conquest of India, Bengali Kayasthas absorbed remnants of Bengal's old Hindu ruling dynasties - including the Sena, Pala, Chandra, and Varman - and, in this way, became the region's surrogate Kshatriya or "warrior" class. During the British rule, the Bengali Kayasthas, along with the Bengali Brahmins and Baidyas, were considered as Bhadralok, a term coined in Bengal for the 'Gentry' or 'respectable people'- based on refined culture, prestige, education etc.
The factual accuracy of part of this article is disputed. The dispute is about British era law courts. (February 2018) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The last census of the British Raj in India (1931) classified them as an 'upper caste' i.e. Dwija and the final British Raj law case involving their varna in 1926 placed them into the Kashtriya varna.
According to W.Rowe's account (that later scholars disagreed with), during the British Raj era, certain law cases led to courts classifying Kayasthas as shudras, based largely upon the theories of Herbert Hope Risley who had conducted extensive studies on castes and tribes of the Bengal Presidency. According to Rowe, the Kayasthas of Bengal, Bombay and the United Provinces repeatedly challenged this classification by producing a flood of books, pamphlets, family histories and journals to pressurize the government for recognizing them as Kshatriya and to reform the caste practices in the directions of sanskritisation and westernisation. However, scholars from the University of Berkeley as well as the University of Cambridge have disagreed with Rowe's research by pinpointing 'factual and interpretative errors' in his study as well as criticizing his study for making 'unquestioned assumptions' about the kayastha movement of sanskritisation and westernisation.
H.Bellenoit gives the details of the individual British Raj era law cases and concludes that since the kayasthas are a non-cohesive group and not a single caste, their varna was resolved in the cases that came up by taking into account regional differences and customs followed by that particular caste. Bellenoit also disagrees with W.Rowe by showing that Herbert Hope Risley's theories were in fact used to ultimately classify them as Kshatriyas by the British courts. The first case began in 1860 in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh with a property dispute where the plaintiff was considered an 'illegitimate child' by the defendants, a north-Indian Kayastha family. The British court denied inheritance to the child, citing that Kayasthas are Dvija, "twice-born" or "upper-caste" and that the illegitimate children of Dwijas have no rights to inheritance. In the next case in 1875 in the Allahabad High Court, a north Indian Kayastha widow was denied adoption rights as she was an upper-caste i.e. Dwija woman. However, in an 1884 adoption case as well as a 1916 property dispute, Calcutta High Court argued that Bengali kayasthas have started using names like 'Das' and classified the Bengali Kayasthas as shudras - although the court did acknowledge their Kshatriya origin. The Allahabad High Court ruled in 1890 that Kayasthas were Kshatriyas. Finally, in a property dispute case in Patna in 1926, the Patna court characterized both the 1884 and 1916 Calcutta courts rulings as inconclusive and ultimately ruled that the kayasthas were of Kshatriya origin and hence twice born or dwija. The Patna court cited smritis and Puranas, several colonial ethnologists, such as William Crooke and Herbert Hope Risley, and used their qualified endorsements on the dwija origins of Kayasthas. The British census of 1931 also lists Kayasthas as one of the upper (twice-born) castes.
Some noteworthy people of the Kayastha caste of India
- Jagadish Chandra Bose, Bengali Scientist
- Lalitaditya Muktapida Emperor of Kashmir
- Subhas Chandra Bose, popularly known as Netaji ("Respected Leader")
- Swami Vivekananda (b. Narendranath Datta)
- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (b. Mahesh Prasad Varma) popularly known for his Transcendental Meditation techniques
- Harivansh Rai Bachchan (b. Harivansh Rai Srivastav)
- Bhagvati Charan Varma
- Jayaprakash Narayan (1902 -1979) - Freedom fighter, Social reformer and anti-corruption campaigner
- Rajendra Prasad (1889-1963) - First president of republic of India
- Ravi Shankar Prasad
- Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904-1966) - Prime minister of India 
- Premchand (1880 - 1936) - Author in Hindi language. Born Dhanpat Rai Srivastav
- Mahadevi Varma
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The [Chandraseniya] Kayastha Prabhus, though small in number, were another caste of importance in Maharashtra. They formed one of the elite castes of Maharashtra. They also held the position of Deshpandes and Gadkaris and produced some of the best warriors in the Maratha history
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... CKPs. They represent a small but literate and ritually high caste.
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Within the circle of "available" non-Brahman elite groups one might also count the tiny community of CKP's Chandrasenya Kayastha Prabhu numbering...A community which claimed status equal to Brahmans-a claim which the Brahmans always stridently rejected...
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- quote on page 147: That the "pure Kshatriya"(shuddha kshatria) status of the CKP was fully backed up by the actual shastras, was the unofficial verdict of Gangadharshastri Dikshit who was appointed arbiter to resolve the dispute. The famous jurist Ramshastri Prabhune was also in favor of the CKP's vedokta
- quote on page 173:Rajvadyanchi Gagabhatti appendix 4, pp-1-21. The Shankaracharya's letter contains three documents which he produces verbatim, two from Banares Brahmins (1779, 1801) proving the CKPs vedokta and one from Pune Brahmins award Ratified by Bajirav II in 1796.
- quote on page 170: The Shankaracharya in his 1827 and November 1830 letter cites the sastric support for the kshatriyahood of the ckps:[names of many religious scriptures]. His trump card is the [name/section names of religious scriptures] where the CKP are explicitly referred to as 'Chandraseniya Kshatriyas'
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