vaiśya वैश्य

Definition: Denotes a man, not so much of the people, as of the subject class, distinct from the ruling noble (Kṣatriya) and the Brāhmaṇa, the higher strata of the Aryan community on the one side, and from the aboriginal śūdra on the other. The name is first found in the Puruṣa-sūkta (‘ hymn of man ’) in the Rigveda, and then frequently from the Atharvaveda onwards, sometimes in the form of Viśya. The Vaiśya plays singularly little part in Vedic literature, which has much to say of Kṣatriya and Brahmin. His characteristics are admirably summed up in the Aitareya Brāh¬maṇa in the adjectives anyasya bali-krt, ‘tributary to another’; anyasyādya, ‘to be lived upon by another’; and yathakāma- jyeyafr, ‘to be oppressed at will.’ He was unquestionably taxed by the king (Rājan), who no doubt assigned to his retinue the right of support by the people, so that the Kṣatriyas grew more and more to depend on the services rendered to them by the Vaiśyas. But the Vaiśya was not a slave: he could not be killed by the king or anyone else without the slayer incurring risk and the payment of a wergeld (Vaira), which even in the Brahmin books extends to 100 cows for a Vaiśya. Moreover, though the Vaiśya could be expelled by the king at pleasure, he cannot be said to have been without property in his land. Hopkins® thinks it is absurd to suppose that he could really be a landowner when he was subject to removal at will, but this is to ignore the fact that normally the king could not remove the landowner, and that kings were ultimately dependent on the people, as the tales of exiled kings show. On the other hand, Hopkins is clearly right in holding that the Vaiśya was really an agriculturist, and that Vedic society was not merely a landholding aristocracy, superimposed upon an agricultural aboriginal stock, as Baden Powell8 urged. Without ignoring the possibility that the Dravidians were agriculturists, there is no reason to deny that the Aryans were so likewise, and the goad of the plougher was the mark of a Vaiśya in life and in death. It would be absurd to suppose that the Aryan Vaiśyas 'did not engage in industry and com¬merce (cf. Paṇi, Vaṇij), but pastoral pursuits and agriculture must have been their normal occupations. In war the Vaiśyas must have formed the bulk of the force under the Kṣatriya leaders (see Kçatriya). But like the Homeric commoners, the Vaiśyas may well have done little of the serious fighting, being probably ill-provided with either body armour or offensive weapons. That the Vaiśyas were engaged in the intellectual life of the day is unlikely; nor is there any tradition, corresponding to that regarding the Kṣatriyas, of their having taken part in the evolution of the doctrine of Brahman, the great philosophic achievement of the age. The aim of the Vaiśya's ambition was, according to the Taittirīya Samhitā, to become a Grāmariī, or village headman, a post probably conferred by the king on wealthy Vaiśyas, of whom no doubt there were many. It is impossible to say if in Vedic times a Vaiśya could attain to nobility or become a Brahmin. No instance can safely be quoted in support of such a view, though such changes of status may have taken place (see Kṣatriya and Varṇa). It is denied by Fick that the Vaiśyas were ever a caste, and the denial is certainly based on good grounds if it is held that a caste means a body within which marriage is essential, and which follows a hereditary occupation (cf. Varṇa). But it would be wrong to suppose that the term Vaiśya was merely applied by theorists to the people who were not nobles or priests. It must have been an early appellation of a definite class which was separate from the other classes, and properly to be compared with them. Moreover, though there were differences among Vaiśyas, there were equally differences among Kṣatriyas and Brāhmaṇas, and it is impossible to deny the Vaiśyas’ claim to be reckoned a class or caste if the other two are such, though at the present day things are different.

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