If, perchance, you have reached this page trying to find a varna, jati, gan, gotra, veda or rashi match for your son, daughter, brother, sister or yourself, please be warned that I am no matchmaker, nor a believer in such mumbo jumbo. This blog tries to remove your superstitions. Please also note that the comments and discussions below the blog are far more interesting.
(Originally in response to a question on caste in my Schools for Patriotism post; edited not so minimally for conversion to a stand-alone blog.)
I don’t know how you reached this blog site with your question, but, now that you have, here is my considered response. I had said virtually the same things over and over again to many curious Bengalis in Lalit Patil’s excellent blog, Concatenated Bengali Last Names. This is virtually a cut-and-splice version of those. Let me remind you, however, that many language and history scholars have said virtually the same things in different words and forums with much greater authority than I shall ever carry. It’s a pity nobody wants to hear them. Conversely, many more contrary theories have been postulated by people with vested interests for aggrandizement and perpetuation of the caste system or their own familial history; they are not the least bit scholastic but are certainly more voluble and easy to believe if the audience is already inclined to believe through generations of conditioning. These charlatans had gone so far as to forge several kuluji (কুলুজি) granthas—caste and lineage manuscripts—that never withstood scrutiny, invented a king of Bengal called Ādiśura (আদিশূর) whom nobody could trace through history or archaeology, and fabricated tales of how this king had imported five brāhmaņas (and five kāyasthas in some versions) of pure Aryan descent ostensibly from Kānyakubja, as if they were pure-bred Aryans and hence the purest of pure Hindus — as if such animals exist. (The truth is that the many Aryan tribes that had entered India via Khyber Pass in many waves over centuries had never had a name for their idolatory, nor were they pure-bred even as they entered India.)
The net is full of rabidly Hindu propagandists, though, I shall never understand how bigotry would help the cause of Hinduism. What pains me is that it has infected many seemingly educated persons. Prejudice, all said and done, is no respecter of schooling, and schooling does not always confer wisdom.
None of the early societies had surnames to start with; no one on the subcontinent had ever had one till well into the Islamic period.
The Name of Our Land
In fact, there was no unified land called India (or Hindustan or Bhāratavarṣa) then. Scanning Rāmāyaņa and Mahābhārata with a fine-tooth comb you will never come across any single geographical name for the entire region that we now call India. There was no need, for India was not a realm then. Despite Aśoka’s remarkable efforts and Aurangzeb’s expansionist zeal, the entire subcontinent was never a single realm before the British Raj. They called it India after the Greeks. In fact, entire Europe followed Megasthenes. The Greeks got it from ancient Persians (Skt. Sindhu> Pers. Hindhu> Hind). Mughals rechristened it Hindustan: land of the Hind people (Pers. stān is cognate with Skt. sthāna= land). What did the pre-Aryan Indus people call their own land? Meluhha, as recorded in Akkadian cuneiform tablets of king Sargon’s time — last quadrant of the third millennium BCE.
The highly civilised and technology-savvy Indus people also had a good head for international commerce and hence the chance mention in Akkadian trade records. [There are some speculations, unfounded as yet, that the Sanskrit word mlechchha for foreigners was derived from Meluhhā]. Aryan settlers who composed the wonderful verses of Ṛgveda (1200 to 800 BCE) called it Saptasindhava (সপ্তসিন্ধব) — the (land of) seven rivers. Locale of the earliest of the Vedas was unmistakably Pañjāb (পঞ্জাব) (pañcha= five, ap= river), counting two less after recognising tributaries and distributaries for what they actually were. Bharata (ভরত) was one of the early Aryan tribes that had settled in Saptasindhava. Bharata (ভরত) was also a personal name: remember Rāma’s sibling and the son of Śakuntalā of Mahābhārata fame. Bhārata (ভারত) means the son (or progeny) of Bharata. Bhāratavarsha was actually a small region once ruled by the Bharata tribe, with no claim on the entire subcontinent. Meluhhā, Saptasindhava, Bhāratavarṣa or Hind were only segments of the vast subcontinent.
Hinduism: Facts and Myths
It was only during the Mughal rule, perhaps in Akbar’s time, that the name Hindu, was applied to the apparent religion followed by the residents of Hindustan. Apparent — because it was not a single religion then (not by a long chalk): it had no founder like Zoroaster, Moses, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad or Nanak; no uniform theology or cosmogony; had too large a pantheon, akin to those of the Greeks and Romans but larger, with each godhead having his (or her) own following; and there were local variations of each. You had Viṣṇu, Śiva, tribal gods, animal totems, animistic gods, deified heros, each with its followings but no unity of thought even after Śaṁkarāchārya. Even the caste system, not to be confused with vedic varṇāśrama (বর্ণাশ্রম), had far too many regional variations. Varṇāśrama, clearly related to varṇa (skin pigmentation), was perhaps akin to apartheid — tainted by xenophobia, though it had functional divisions of society, with many examples of inter-varṇa mobility and marriage. One must not forget that Śaṁkarāchārya’s sanātana dharma had no semblance whatsoever with the vedic religion: neither in the size and gods of the pantheon, nor in the theology and cosmogony. He invented a central philosophy for the religion which was paid lip-service to without rigid adherence across the diverse country. The current form of Hinduism, for all its conservatism, continues to enrich its pantheon with ersatz, Bollywood godesses like Santoṣī-mā and deified heroes of real and dubious deeds. It actively propagates untenable miracles like Gaņeśa idols drinking milk, allows deification of god-men (Satya Sāi-bābā), and patronises ritualisms like daily pūjās, sacred thread ceremonies, fasts on specific days, vegetarianism, kŗchchhasādhana (কৃচ্ছসাধন) to mourn the death of elders, untouchability, satī (সতী) and other practices that never had much religious content.
Saffron-brand Hindus have also imitated many traits of other religions, despite their collective turned up noses. Buddhists were much given to tonsure or muņḍan (মুণ্ডন); do we see its remnant — context conveniently forgotten — in the practice of present-day Biharis (modern Bihar was an important Buddhist centre) when they shave off the head whenever someone dies in his village, related or not? The custom of wearing saffron clothes by sannyāsīs began patently in imitation of Buddhist monks’ kaṣāya (কষায়) dress. Shivaji’s flag was saffron; it is uncertain if his choice was deliberate or not. Bal Thackeray’s saffron jalebiya (alkhalla আলখাল্লা in Bengali could, perhaps, be a variation once used by the Libyan tribe of the same name) is Arabic-Islamic in origin and commemorates Shivaji. The purdah (پرده) system of hiding women from public eye was in imitation of Islamic practice. The bhakti cult of the medieval sants (Kabir, Dadoo, Mirabai, Chaitanya etc) was strongly influenced by sufiism.
Assimilation is not condemnable; denial of obligation is.
All these, somehow, got included in the religious fold now loosely called Hinduism. Can their origins be traced? Does anybody claim responsibility for starting such practices?
Origin of Surnames
Coming back to the point of surnames, there were in ancient times patronymic (father‘s name) or metronymic (mother’s name) identities, rarely used, such as Dāśarathī Rāma, Pāshupata Droņa, Satyakāma Jābālī, Kaunteya Karṇa. To distinguish two persons of the same name, geonymic (place name) identities were also used: Droņa of Hastināpura, Surya of Bandyo-grāma; the latter, a Bengali geonymic surname for some Brahmins, was later upgraded to Bandojjhā (ojhā <upādhyāya, teacher)>Bañdujje, whence the logically anglicised Bannerji. Bandyo-pādhyāya is a fairly recent Sanskritisation .
None of these special identities were surnames before the Islamic period in India. The Dravidian-speaking people in the southern states of India continue to use a combination of patronyms and geonyms. A friend of mine is called Tirunelvelli Viśvanāthan Rāmachandran Iyer; the first handle of his name is his place of birth, the second his father’s given name, the third his personal name, and the fourth identifies the god his family owes allegiance to. His wife calls him Rām and so do we. The famous Srilankan art critic and author was called Ānand Kentishtown Kumāra-swāmī: here the christian name was placed first, followed by the place of birth, and finally the patronym. It shows that the southerners don’t have surnames till this day.
Bengalis, you must realize, have much more ādivāsī (aboriginal Austro-Asiatics: santhal, kol, bhil, munda, ho etc) blood flowing in their veins than Aryan. Most of us have physical features to prove it (with my dark skin, thick lips, flat nose and crinkly hair, at least I do). We speak with non-Aryan accents (our vowels are quite unlike those in the Hindi belt—absent short ‘a’, which is sometimes ‘o’ and ‘au’ as in audience at others, but often silent; the absence of long vowels; diphthongs ‘ai’ and ‘au’ of different values etc) and we continue to count partly in ādivāsī terms (upto āthero 18, unish 19, in IE but then we say kudi 20—not bis (from Skt. viṁśati) like most of our compatriots north of river Godavari. A large share of the words in our lexicon is of Austro-Asiatic origin.
It is quite obvious from literary and linguistic studies that in very ancient times a handful of Aryans (people who spoke Indo-European dialects) had entered the eastern part of India. Grierson called them outer Aryans to distinguish them from the inner (vedic). The dialects they spoke and the religious or socio-cultural practices they subscribed to were different. Those who came to Bengal very early in their eastward journey did not have the poetic gift of the vedics. A handful of migrants, with very few, if any, of their own females, couldn’t have populated the vast land without serious blood dilution. The same is also true for India at large and even the fabled Aryabhūmī of Saptasindhava. They had not much to offer to the local tribals except seeds of their loin: no attributes of physical civilisation except a vastly superior language, no technology, no agricultural techniques or architecture or magic medicines. How can the people of later Bengal, mixed progeny of a few Aryans and many rank ādivāsī wombs, have a caste then in the orthodox sense?
The Aryan varņāśrama labelled all non-Aryans as outsiders — rightly so. Those with mixed blood — children of anuloma marriage (Aryan daddy and ādivāsī mom) were śudras; children of pratiloma marriage (reverse parentage) were the lowliest of low outsiders, sometimes called chandālas, without a place in society. Even in proto-Bengali Charyāpada, a collection of motely Buddhist mystic songs composed roughly between 800 and 1000 years ago, the domni’s (dom is one of the outcastes in Bengal, outsiders-turned-outcastes; domni is the feminine form) hut is outside the town but is frequented by Brahmins and Buddhist monks, obviously for immoral reasons. [Please note that the operating word is outsider, not outcaste in earlier times. Later, with social degeneration, the two words had somehow merged in the general Indian psyche. That’s why foreigners still can’t be converted to Hinduism, though, in the past, when Hinduism was nameless, it had welcomed all with open arms without ceremony. No baptism was necessary.]
In that sense, all non-brahmin Bengalis are either śudras or outcaste chandālas. How, then, all that brouhaha over six castes and thirty six subcastes (ছয় জাতি, ছত্রিশ উপজাতি)?
One more argument: Buddhism that arose in Magadha (modern Bihar) was virtually the universal faith of the eastern parts of India, Bengal inclusive, for several unbroken centuries before Śaśāṁka. Was Buddhism too contaminated with casteism right from its inception? How else would the man on the street know what his original caste was when Hinduism replaced it eventually many centuries later!
[I personally knew of a kāyastha primary school teacher, a widower with two small children, originally from Maimansingha, now in Bangladesh, with the surname Rāy, who had migrated to Hooghly in the wake of the partition and registered himself as a brahmin without changing his surname. He invented a modest and plausible genealogy for his family. His younger son went to college with me; he refused to taint — by his own admission — another brahmin family by marrying into it. The third generation is blissfully ignorant of their caste history and has embraced the worst bigotry of the current model of Hinduism through their religio-political allegiance. On the other side of the same coin, we see a veritable beeline to the affidavit courts to get enlisted in the scheduled caste roll, thanks to the reservation policy of the government of India.]
The question of gotra is even more contentious. Go is cognate with cow (cattle). And gotra is a signature mark of an owner that was imprinted on his cattle, usually branded with hot metal behind one ear or on one rump. The early Aryans, despite the beauty of their verses, were decidedly pre-literate. [Asokan edicts on stone and iron, in Brāhmī and Kharoshthī, of the third century BCE are the earliest preserved Aryan scripts found till date in and around the subcontinent. Scholars estimate that Aryan scripts came into being around 800 BCE or later, though the early examples, presumably written on perishable materials such as palm or birch leaves, animal hides or textiles, have never been unearthed.] Brahmins, we learn from surviving oral traditions, were then the wealthiest varņa, and their wealth was measured in the number of cattle they owned. The gotra marks were very necessary to avoid commotion and quarrel over ownership at the end of the day when the cattle had to be taken back from the common pasture. The gotras, let us assume that they were like the signs ‘x‘, ‘y‘ and ‘z‘ , were called by the name of the founding brahmins of the owning family: x stands for Śāņdilya, y for Śaktŗ, and z Bharadvāja. Now, the cowherd, or the washerman, or the weaver, or the charlady, or the valet of the brahmin, each claimed identity by the same gotra — irrespective of their own varņa or caste. It was like saying Madhav Biswas, assistant engineer, ore-beneficiation department, TISCO; or Moumita Das, history teacher in Bandel Don Bosco School. Do you think who was the employer of our ancestor three thousand years ago is relevant still? I would promptly ask you how your family had preserved the gotra memory for 120 generations and what for!
Sen (<Sena) was not a surname at all. The son of Taraņisena may have been called Bhīmasena, and his son Vasantasena … obviously for pleasing alliteration that linked generations of a family. When, in the Islamic period, surnames became necessary, this family may have had detached the last part of their given names, sena, and registered that as their surname. I am a Sen myself and grew up listening to many wishful tales – within the family – of how we were vaidya-brāhamaṇas (there is no such caste in the very few authentic lists that have come down to us from the pre-Islamic past that had no surnames) once, and possessed the gupta (secret) vidyā (knowledge) of medicine and anatomy, and, hence, also had that handle as well (Sengupta, a concatenation). Patriarchs in our family used to sign letters of invitation to weddings, first-rice and śrāddha ceremonies as Sena-śarmanah, the second half of this concatenation actually reserved for brāhamaņas. The few authentic kula panjikas do not list a caste called vaidya. In the Hindi belt vaids are barbers, far lower in social hierarchy. Physicians and medical practitioners, if non-Brahmin, presumably belonged to a long vanished caste — ambaṣtha. Some Sens went so far as to claim lineage from the Sena dynasty (Ballāla, Lakṣmaņa etc). At that rate I can claim descent from Sun Yat-sen and, why not, Ali Hussen or Amundsen!
There never was any truth in such arbitrary and unsubstantiated claims.
Sens can also be kayasthas, benes, tilis or kaivartas; I know at least a dozen Sens of these castes.
So, please don’t lose any sleep over the caste issue; it will never lead you anywhere.