Vaishyas

Third in the caste system (see Varna), Vaishyas supposedly evolved from Brahma's thighs. The Vaishya's duty was to ensure the community's prosperity through agriculture, cattle rearing and trade. Later, the Shudras took over agriculture and cattle rearing while the Vaishyas became traders and merchants.

Brahmabhojan

From the end of the 4th century BC, as the country became politically stable, trade routes to previously uncharted areas developed. The merchant community was the first to benefit. Artisans formed guilds and co-operatives in the urban areas and guild leaders became important figures in society. Guilds also provided technical education, though formal education remained the monopoly of the Brahmins. As their economic power increased, they were expected to give alms to Brahmins, throw feasts for them, and donate generously towards the building of temples and shrines.

However, though they were "twice-born" (see Upanayanam) and economically strong because they controlled commerce, Vaishyas were denied a high social status, for which they resented the upper castes. One expression of this resentment was their support of the anti-Brahminical sects that developed around the 6th century BC, like Buddhism and Jainism. Later, however, many influential Vaishyas were honored with titles like 'Nagar Seth' (chief merchant of the town) and 'Tazimi Seth' (privileged to wear an anklet in the king's presence and in royal durbars) Members of trading communities originate mostly from the West Coast and from Sind (in present-day Pakistan).

 

They are commonly known as banias, a distortion of the Sanskrit word vanik meaning "trader". In southern India, the Chettiars and Mudaliars are prominent Vaishya communities, who have contributed to society by building hospitals, endowing universities and developing industries. While the fortunes of the other castes have fluctuated with politics and invasions, the Vaishyas alone have preserved their social and financial stability down the ages. Many of them have funded wars and political movements, notably Seth Amirchand Daga of Bikaner (Rajasthan), who is believed to have financed the British in the Crimean War. In the last century, some of the most prominent Vaishya merchants and philanthropists came from the region of Marwar (Jodhpur), Gujarat and Sindh. Many of them funded Mahatma Gandhi's freedom movement and then evolved into modern India's leading industrialists.

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