Winner of the 2022 Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences, Merchants of Virtue explores the question of what it meant to be Hindu in precolonial South Asia. Divya Cherian presents a fine-grained study of everyday life and local politics in the kingdom of Marwar in eighteenth-century western India to uncover how merchants enforced their caste ideals of vegetarianism and bodily austerity as universal markers of Hindu identity. Using legal strategies and alliances with elites, these merchants successfully remade the category of “Hindu,” setting it in contrast to “Untouchable” in a process that reconfigured the Muslim in caste terms. In a history pertinent to understanding India today, Cherian establishes the centrality of caste to the early-modern Hindu self and to its imagination of inadmissible others.

Divya Cherian is Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University.

How did you decide to focus on this topic?

The book came out of my education in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where I encountered urgent and impassioned debates about the persistence of caste and the ways caste is swept under the rug. Anti-caste critiques emphasized how the annihilation of caste is always deferred, a goal to be achieved when other more pressing or “fundamental” ends are attained. Turning back from these debates and looking at the curriculum, I noticed a dearth of scholarship on the history of caste in the operation of state and social power in early modern India —in the centuries immediately prior to British colonial conquest.

Rajasthan had the types of rich archives of everyday life and non-elite encounters with state authority that might generate insights into the history of caste in pre-colonial, early modern South Asia. This is how I embarked on a deep dive into the administrative records of Marwar, also known by the name of its capital, Jodhpur. As I worked through the materials I had gathered, I realized that the mercantile communities of the region were playing a much more powerful role in the ordering of social life than I expected.

How did these merchants reshape what it meant to be Hindu in the Kingdom of Marwar?

The mercantile communities of Marwar adopted a range of strategies: acting as a pressure group upon district-level officers as well as officers in the capital by banding together into a collective, sometimes in alliance with brahman or priestly caste neighbors, and submitting petitions; offering financial incentives to extract behavioral change from “low”-caste actors; and raising and spending funds collectively towards meeting their social and political ends. Since the sixteenth century, merchants in the region had become an important part of the state itself, such that the decrees and decisions of officers, district governors, and leading ministers at court, mostly of mercantile castes, can no longer be seen as manifestations of the king’s will alone. Wielding their fiscal, administrative, and social power, the merchants of Marwar pressured the state to introduce new segregations of residential, ritual, and urban space, boundaries in water access, and separations in ritual performances of Vaishnav devotion. They also were a significant factor for why the Marwar court at this time elevated as kingdom-wide law the expectation that no one was to hurt a non-human or take an animal life. The ethic of non-harm, until then integral to particular caste and religious groups, was now imposed as law upon all. Notable among the communities associated with non-harm and vegetarianism coming into this period were the merchants of Marwar and the overlapping Vaishnav and Jain religious paths they overwhelmingly followed.

This new expectation in the latter half of the eighteenth century to adhere to Vaishnav-Jain mercantile ethics was applied on the ground, like the segregations mentioned above, through the force of state power, including fines, arrests, and banishments. State orders, sometimes issued by merchant officers, used the term “Hindu” to denote the “us” who were to be included within the newly carved spaces of religious, social, and ethical practice. And in the starkest expressions of what the pole was against which this eighteenth-century, pre-colonial “Hindu” self was imagined, state orders named the “achhep,” literally, Untouchable.

What does your book add to our understanding of India and the caste system today?

Merchants of Virtue historicizes untouchability in the pre-modern past. It builds on the interventions of the nascent field of Dalit Studies to show that the untouchable was not simply a rung below the castes “above” in a graded hierarchy of the local or regional caste order. Instead, it makes a case for a distinct historicization of the idea of the Untouchable as well as the practice of untouchability. This approach, I argue, is just as important and generative when studying the pre-colonial era as it is for studying the colonial and post-colonial periods. Centering untouchability helps us understand its role in local politics, including enabling pre-colonial state formation on the ground. The book presents a history of the re-definition of untouchability in the early modern period to include the attributes of committing violence upon animals and more significantly, of being Muslim.

In the book, I also look at the role of non-brahman groups —merchants— in building on and working with brahmanical caste ideology to reshape it in ways that exceed brahmanical models. This evidence from Marwar suggests that the activation of merchant ethics in social and political life, rather than only a textually derived and historically unchanging “Brahmanism” alone, could re-shape caste ideology. Merchants of Virtue sheds light on the role played by mercantile communities of western India in fusing Vaishnav-Jain somatic and ethical practices and values on the one hand and brahmanical ones on the other to generate a new vision of elite caste as well as Hindu identity in the pre-colonial, early modern era. An understanding of this history is crucial if we are to grasp contemporary developments in India today, in which prejudice against Muslims and Dalits (“untouchable” caste groups) is being crystallized with the support of a government that leans heavily on discourses of vegetarianism and the protection of animal life.

What is the key insight you hope religion scholars and students take from your book?

Merchants of Virtue makes three central interventions. First, it offers a new perspective on Hindu identity and Hindu-Muslim relations before colonialism. The study of pre-modern Hindu identity, whether arguing for or against pre-colonial Hindu-Muslim boundaries and conflicts, has tended to approach the topic in relation to a Muslim other alone. What my book suggests instead is that a history of Hindu-ness is incomplete without a consideration of untouchability.

Second, the book shows how religion shaped local and regional politics in pre-colonial South Asia. Scholarly insights have demonstrated a slow consolidation of an overarching Hindu identity, legible in philosophy and literature, and of a shift in courtly discourse towards the articulation of a “Hindu kingship.” The book establishes that these changes extended into the administration of everyday social life. In doing so, the book argues against still powerful approaches to the study of states in pre-modern South Asia that write religion out of politics. It also pushes against approaches to the study of pre-modern religion that privilege texts over practice and identify cores as more representative of “traditions” than peripheries.

Finally, Merchants of Virtue historicizes the concept of “purity” in Hindu life to argue that rather than being a timeless virtue enshrined in ancient brahmanical texts, this was an ideal that could be reconstituted through the play of historical forces. It shows how merchant actors were able to mobilize to effect a redefinition of caste purity that came to include vegetarianism and non-harm as its characteristics in ways that were not a given even for brahmin communities in parts of pre-colonial South Asia at this time.

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