Hindu Society—Responses to the Conquest
The advent of Indo-Turkish rule meant an abrupt end to official patronage for those Brahmans who had served the Sena government as ritual priests, astrologers, ministers, advisors, or financial officers. Doubtless, many of these fled into the eastern hinterland along with the Sena household in 1204, or soon thereafter. In time, however, most Brahmans moved from an initial position of disdain for the new political order to one of uneasy accommodation with it. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the predominant view was that government employment was perfectly possible as long as one did not engage in marital relations with Mlecchas (“polluted outsiders”). For, ultimately, the Brahmans and the higher Muslim officers of the sultanate needed each other: the former were historically conditioned to look to a ruling class for patronage and livelihood, while the latter required the administrative talents that Brahmans had traditionally monopolized. Hence, while the period before 1415 witnessed few instances of Brahmans serving the sultanate, the picture changed dramatically after the Raja Ganesh revolution. That chieftain’s own converted son, Sultan Jalal al-Din Muhammad, signaled the change by honoring Brahman poets. By the reign of Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah, many Brahmans had taken service in the court.
Serving the sultanate proved far less traumatic for the Kayasthas, who had been the dominant landholding caste prior to the conquest and who continued in this role under Muslim rule. Indeed, after the conquest, the Kayasthas absorbed remnants of Bengal’s old ruling dynasties—the Sena, Pala, Chandra, Varman, and so on—and in this way became the region’s surrogate Kshatriya or “warrior” class. Judging from the correspondence of Maulana Muzaffar Shams Balkhi, who in 1397 complained bitterly of the power enjoyed by Hindus, it seems that Muslim rulers had from a very early time confirmed the Kayasthas in their ancient role as landholders and political intermediaries.
Looking at Bengal’s Hindu society as a whole, it seems likely that the caste system—far from being the ancient and unchanging essence of Indian civilization as supposed by generations of Orientalists—emerged into something resembling its modern form only in the period 1200–1500. Central to this process, as Ronald Inden has argued, was the collapse of Hindu kingship. Before the Turkish conquest, the Sena king had maintained order by distributing wealth and by judging between socially high and low in the context of his court and its rituals. With the dissolution of Hindu kingship that followed the Turkish conquest, however, these functions appear to have been displaced onto society at large. Hindu social order was now maintained by the enforcing of group endogamy, the regulation of marriage by “caste” councils, and the keeping of genealogies by specialists. In the western delta, one sees the result of these processes in the detailed list of Hindu communities mentioned by the poet Mukundaram, who describes a hierarchy of four tiers of occupationally differentiated endogamous groups (jāti). The first tier included Brahmans, Kayasthas, and Baidyas, or traditional healers. The second included productive classes such as cultivators, herders, iron smiths, potters, weavers, gardeners, barbers, candy makers, spice merchants, brass smiths, gold merchants, and so on. These were followed by a third tier composed of the ritually less pure castes: fishermen, oil pressers, woodcutters, launderers, tailors, molasses makers, carpenters, ferrymen, and beggars. At the very end of the list, compelled to live outside the poet’s imaginary city, were the grass cutters, leatherworkers, prostitutes, and Dom tribals, who were scavengers and sweepers.