Caste Before Colonialism


Review of Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables in Eighteenth Century South Asia, by Divya Cherian

Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2022


There is a new benchmark in the historiography of Hinduism and caste.  

In recent decades, the argument that caste is best understood as “a modern phenomenon…the product of an historical encounter between India and Western colonial rule” has exerted considerable influence. Indeed, the transformations wrought on South Asian social institutions by British colonial governance and modes of knowledge production have dominated explanatory paradigms since the 1990s to the extent that, in some scholarly circles at least, a reluctance to assert anything about caste or Hinduism prior to the nineteenth century has taken root. The abandonment of precolonial caste to a conceptual shadowland (of an earlier “fluidity” or similarly nebulous condition) has been as advantageous to Hindu nationalists—who find the field cleared for the unchecked projection of majoritarian myths—as it has been frustrating for those students of South Asian history who seek empirically grounded knowledge of the shape of social life before European dominance.  

With the publication of Merchants of Virtue, all of this changes. In this book, historian Divya Cherian throws open precolonial archives to examine the governance of caste, untouchability, and “virtue” alongside the coalescence of a Hindu political community in the early modern rajput kingdom of Marwar. The evidence considered is voluminous: half a century of petitions received and orders issued by the Marwar crown in the reign of Vijai Singh (1752-1793) and Bhim Singh (1793-1803), composed in Old Marwari and inscribed in bahīs (ledgers) preserved in royal chanceries. Cherian’s methodical analysis of this archive delivers findings that are, by any measure, astonishing. Not only did this precolonial kingdom enforce untouchability and define Hindus with some precision—there’s nothing nebulous about the social distinctions upheld by this state—but it also, as part of the same overarching Vaishnava ethical project embraced by Vijai Singh and his merchant-dominated bureaucracy, banned abortion, prohibited alcohol, criminalized meat-eating, dispossessed Muslims of livestock, and expelled entire nomadic castes from its territory.

Cherian argues that the merchant caste officers of eighteenth century Marwar, in crafting state policy to advance an ethical project of abstemiousness and nonharm (toward animals) that reflected their own Vaishnava and Jain sensibilities and provided them moral capital with which to justify their wealth and political ascendance, played a decisive role in generating the new elite identity of “the Hindu.” The opposite of this emergent category—the collectivity against which the Hindu was defined in the documents of the rajput state—was “the Untouchable.” Many a modern reader will find this startling, as it contradicts two widely held assumptions: that the Hindu-Muslim distinction has been the defining social cleavage in South Asia for a millennium, and that Untouchables of the past understood themselves or were understood by others as Hindu.  

But the rajput state, as Cherian tracks in edict after edict, is all too clear: hinduvāṁ and achhep (“Hindu” and “Untouchable” in Old Marwari) are antipodal categories. The Untouchable in these documents is ascribed both a permanent state of pollution as well as an innate propensity for violence (again, toward animals), and is accordingly subject by the state to segregation, dispossession, and expulsion. Muslims, moreover, are a subset of Untouchables in this classificatory scheme, enumerated alongside Chamars, Bhangis, and nomadic castes. “This history of untouchability tells us that there are limits to the fluidity, mobility, and fuzziness attributed by some to precolonial caste,” Cherian explains. “These limits were etched upon the Untouchable body—which was the material, tangible, and physical manifestation of that against which the Hindu social defined itself” (59-60). 

Cherian’s central argument is elegantly reflected in the structure of the book. The first half charts the construction of the Untouchable other of the normative subject of this eighteenth century kingdom, the second half the construction of the Hindu self. The two halves are divided into three chapters each, whose titles wink at the history of caste studies even as they signal the particular domain of the royal archive considered in each chapter. After the introductory “Power” (chapter 1), Part I (“Other”) moves from “Purity” to “Hierarchy” to “Discipline,” while Part II (“Self”) traverses “Nonharm,” “Austerity,” and “Chastity,” followed by an epilogue.

The adduced evidence casts a number of received narratives in a new light. Among other interventions, the book enables a revaluation of arguments for colonial rupture. The oft-told story of the implementation of the census in the late nineteenth century—when British officials selected caste as a paramount classificatory principle for governance, weighed the competing status claims that caste groups brought before the administration, and endowed the ensuing representations of social order with the authority of the state—is sometimes presented as an example of the unprecedented depth and transformative effect of the colonial state’s involvement in social life. 

Yet the Marwar state, as Cherian details, was neck deep in the adjudication of caste status and representation of caste order a full century before British census officials took on this role. Arbitrating between goldsmiths asserting parity with mahajans and mahajans denying the same, ratifying one faction of Shrimali brahmans’ claim to have ritually subordinated another, and systematically documenting the state’s rulings on caste disputes and prescriptions of proper caste relations—Marwar officials gave ample priority to caste in the eighteenth century. Moreover, the Marwar archive supplies testimony of subjects refashioning themselves and their social relations in response to the priorities of an interventionist state—people taking up or newly emphasizing their vegetarianism, for example, or castes heightening their internal policing of sexuality to make novel claims to high rank—suggesting that the colonial census was not the first catalyst of politically consequential collective self-objectification of this kind.  

The point here is not to deny or underplay that colonial governance and forms of knowledge reconfigured representations of caste and altered the conditions of its practice in significant ways, but rather to hold narratives of these processes accountable to precolonial archives, and thus to achieve a more refined analysis of what, precisely, changed. In concert with the findings of historians like Norbert Peabody and Sumit Guha, Cherian’s study makes clear that it was not the state’s investment in the category of caste, or the high stakes for people’s lives that this investment entailed, that the colonial moment introduced.

That Marwar state documents register a preoccupation with ritual purity is another revelation of Cherian’s book likely to shift the ground of scholarly debate. Purity and power have long served as metonyms for competing theories of caste, with Louis Dumont’s identification of the purity-pollution opposition as the caste system’s animating principle provoking four decades of counterargument that political power is the social order’s true engine. What does it mean, then, that the Marwar state took great pains to secure the purity of its Hindu subjects?  “How does one’s dharma remain intact after taking ghee from an Untouchable’s vessel?” asked a state functionary upon learning that a tax officer, for a bribe, had accepted for future sale ghee produced by a leatherworker. As Cherian explains, what “horrified” the functionary was the prospect of a buyer unknowingly consuming Untouchable-produced ghee—and that, too, with the state’s complicity (57). 

Chapter Two contains an extensive catalog of cases in which the state, petitioned by merchant and brahman subjects, took action to protect petitioners from potential pollution by the achhep. The state evicted Untouchables whose dwellings were proximate to those of the petitioners; segregated wells, tanks and other water sources by caste; created separate prisons for Untouchables and elites; prohibited Untouchables from contacting ritual offerings or watering flowers intended for temple use; and restricted Untouchable and other “lowly” caste access to public spaces in which “mixing” was likely. “The maintenance of the purity of the elite social body demanded insulation from the Untouchable,” writes Cherian (52). That pollution fears are not just given lip service in Marwari royal archives but routinely guide the state’s exercise of force makes plain the necessity of moving beyond the impasse presented by Foucauldian critiques of Dumontian structuralism—that is, beyond accounts of caste that treat brahmanical ideology (“purity”) and kingly realpolitik (“power”) as necessarily distinguishable and opposed. 

In other ways, as well, Merchants of Virtue puts forward findings certain to alter the course of historical enquiry. The chapter on the Marwar crown’s efforts to police nonmarital sex and abortion—especially when brahman, rajput, and merchant caste women are involved—throws new light on the relation of state power to caste patriarchy in early modernity. In another chapter, Cherian’s findings on the state’s surveillance and ascription of criminality to hunting castes of “thoris and bavris provide a prehistory for the development in colonial hands of the ‘criminal tribe’ concept” (94). 

In the epilogue Cherian gestures to the vital role of Marwari capital, publishing, and personnel in the nineteenth century movements in support of Hindi language, cow protection, and sanātan dharma, suggesting ways in which the merchant-centered, eighteenth century conception of the Hindu that she has tracked goes on to inform the later development of Hindu nationalism.  

Perhaps most surprising are the two central chapters on the Marwar crown’s campaign to eradicate meat-eating. Investigating the state’s “quest for a vegetarian body politic”—which, again, involved criminalizing Untouchable and Muslim diets, lifeways, and in many cases livelihoods, while arrogating to itself the virtue of nonharm—Cherian (86) assembles elements of a deep genealogy of what anthropologist Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi calls “hyperbolic vegetarianism,” an ethic of disgust toward meat-eating invoked in popular justifications of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Here and elsewhere in the book, one finds troubling and unexpected resonances with the politics of the present.

As generative of new questions as it is scrupulously anchored in the archive, Merchants of Virtue is a new milestone in South Asian history. This is essential reading for anyone interested in caste, Hinduism, merchants, and the early modern state. 




Posted on 16 November 2023

JOEL LEE is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Williams College. He is the author of Deceptive Majority: Dalits, Hinduism and Underground Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2021).