There is a vast body of scholarship on Hindu-Muslim relations as well as on the question of whether a self-conscious Hindu identity, whether named as such or not, spanning sect and caste, existed in South Asia prior to colonialism. An influential body of scholarship holds that a singular Hindu identity, transcending the divisions of sampraday (loosely, “sect”) and caste, was a product of colonial modernity. This view, however, has been nuanced by a number of interventions that highlight the precolonial lineages of the construction of a “unified” Hindu identity in response to an imagined Muslim other. These historical analyses of “Hindu” self-formation have explored the articulation in literature, philosophy, chronicles, and courtly pronouncements of Hindu identity and its relationship with Muslims and “low”-caste groups.

In tracing the precolonial history of Hindu identity, these scholars either explicitly or implicitly identify the Muslim presence in South Asia as the catalyst for the expression, and subsequent hardening, of Hindu identity. That is, these histories of premodern Hindu-ness are traced in opposition to a Muslim other. Alongside this scholarship, there is also a large and important body of work arguing for shared or hybrid cultures that defy categorisation as “Hindu” or “Muslim” and demonstrating the ubiquity of tolerance, pluralism, and inclusivity in South Asia before colonialism. Among progressive intellectuals who are not specialists in premodern South Asian history, the idea has taken root that the term “Hindu” was not used prior to the colonial era by communities we would today call Hindus to name themselves.

See for instance this claim in an article in the progressive Indian news magazine The Caravan: “Until [the 1850s, “Hindu”] had been a floating descriptive term for colonial ethnographers. The people designated as ‘Hinduʼ neither used the word for themselves, nor did they consider themselves as adherents of one religion. The limited use of the term was without substantial consequences for the life of the natives.” While it is true that there was no singular Hindu religion in premodern times, there is plenty of scholarship on bhakti poetry and court literature in which the term “Hindu” is used in contradistinction to “Muslim” to denote the self.

From this literature, we know of the entanglements between the development of Hindi language and literature and of other cultural markers of a “Hindu India” as it was later imagined in the colonial and postcolonial eras, such as yoga and Hindustani “classical” music, with the history of Islam and Muslims in the region. Reams of scholarship have countered colonial and Hindu nationalist histories that paint Muslim-ruled polities in India as oppressors of non-Muslims that purportedly forced conversions to Islam, starved “Indic” culture and religion of patronage, and destroyed temples to build mosques.

Even as this narrative of the oppression of Hindus continues to be emphasised by certain political forces in modern India and persists in “popular” domains, generations of historians have shown beyond doubt that Muslim rulers in India were generous patrons of non-Muslim religious and cultural life and that they fostered and participated in a pluralistic milieu. What these studies have in common with the scholarship arguing in favour of premodern imaginations of a singular Hindu community is that they too approach “Hindu” and “Muslim” as a conceptually dyadic pair, here to make a case for shared cultures and blurred boundaries.

I argue that premodern histories of Hindu-ness and of Hindu-Muslim relations – the field of social life and the play of power in precolonial South Asia – need to consider caste as a force conditioning both “Hindu” and “Muslim.” Put another way, I argue that caste was a key component of identities, particularly that of the early modern “Hindu,” which in the colonial era became configured as “religious.

Walking around the streets of north India, it is not uncommon to come across a “Shuddh Shakahari Vaishno Dhaba,” or “Pure Vegetarian Vaishnav Food Kiosk.” While these roadside eateries have been around for decades, the ethical pressure across India to be vegetarian appears to have reached a fever pitch only in recent years. The expansion of vegetarian residential complexes, vegetarian cafeterias at workplaces and schools, and government-supported bans on animal slaughter during Jain holy days have generalised the expectation of adherence to a vegetarian diet even to those whose religious and caste codes or personal convictions do not prescribe it. As commentators and scholars of contemporary South Asia have emphasised, vegetarianism in India is loaded with association to caste, that is, to “high” caste. It is also associated with the rise to power of dominant strands within Hindu nationalism. In regions where political Hinduism is dominant, such as Gujarat, with a long and deep history of Jainism and Vaishnavism, meat eating is not only a major component of the radical otherness of Muslims but also a justification for the violence Muslims have suffered during recent pogroms. Vegetarianism is associated with cleanliness; it symbolises “purity” both literal and ritual. Eating meat, conversely, is dirty. How did this come to be?

An important but neglected part of the answer to this question lies in the early modern past. Values and ethical cultures of the body emerged in parts of early modern South Asia, such as the kingdom of Marwar, in western India, in the eighteenth century, as central axes for the formulation of an elite caste, Hindu identity, and for the expression of its distinction from the Untouchable. The virtues associated with some – nonharm and vegetarianism along with chastity, temperance, and purity – were elevated to the status of laws applicable to all across the Rathor kingdom. In Marwar by the 18th century, it was merchants and to a lesser extent brahmans who, as a caste, combined regional political authority with sub-continental fiscal power to muscle their way into the top of the region’s social order. Some brahman communities in Marwar such as the Palliwals and Nandwana Bohras were successful traders and moneylenders.

Brahmans in Marwar had occupied an ambivalent social location. Their own claims to high social rank found ample justification in brahmanical textual tradition as well as claims grounded in ritual, priestly, and scholarly functions. Yet, brahmans in north India, including Marwar, had not acquired the kind of political and economic standing that brahmans in peninsular India had achieved through their command of landed temple estates. Brahmans’ literacy facilitated their absorption into the expanding Rathor state as administrators. This, along with their leadership of Vaishnav sects whose presence and power in Rajasthan increased during the 18th century, improved the political position of brahmans. At the same time, brahmans had nowhere near the command over money and administrative offices that the merchant castes enjoyed.

This was indeed a novel situation, for rajputs had until then exercised blood- and land-based claims to the pinnacle of political and social orders. The rajputs continued to retain strong hereditary claims and rights in land and in a share of the land revenue, even if this was in return for the expectation of loyalty and service to the king. In reality, many rajputs derived their rights in land from their own military conquest and organisation of particular parcels of land; or their hold over those parcels of land was through their own mobilisation of military and agrarian labour. They were not entirely dependent on the king for their hold over land and claims to land revenue.

The many different castes associated with trade and moneylending had consolidated in Rajasthan by the 18th century into an umbrella caste category called “mahajan.” The term “mahajan” was also used to denote moneylenders in other parts of 18th-century South Asia, such as the neighbouring kingdoms of Jaipur and Kota as well as much further afield, in Bengal. In Bengal, the trade of moneylending was called “mahajani”. This could well be a reflection of the dominance of western-Indian merchants (mahajans) in the moneylending business. Mahajans, with much of their power rooted in the indebtedness of others and in the circulation of money, could not draw upon existing cultural resources to justify their claims upon high social rank. Instead, they justified their rise to inclusion among the region’s most elite through a turn to virtue. They adopted a righteous stance, expressed through the protection of nonhuman life, an adherence to an ascetic code of bodily restraint, and the valorisation of these caste codes through their elevation into law. Rather than merely living by such ethical codes, they used their influence upon the region’s state to impose this moral order upon all in the kingdom of Marwar.

Could it be that in this moment of transition globally from the old regime to one in which status derived not from land but from money, moral reform was a necessary component of efforts to challenge the status quo? In particular, the arrogation of the voice of the “voiceless” – whether the distant slave in a North American plantation in the case of English abolitionists or the nonhuman animal in the case of the Vaishnav-Jain merchants of Marwar – appears to have been the preferred mode of making a moral intervention in the politics of the day. The 18th century was a time also in Europe of the rise of early humanitarianism, which included a growing concern for preserving animal life or at least minimising “needless” animal suffering. In the case of Marwar, the pursuit of this righteous agenda underwrote the rise of a new elite that derived its status not from land but from capital.

In the process, the Rathor state in Marwar emerges as one that intervened widely in the lives of its subjects, particularly its upwardly mobile and aspirant elite ones, in order to produce ethical subjects. Bans on injury to nonhuman beings, and by extension on eating meat, on abortion, gambling, and drinking, as well as the enforcement of chastity and efforts to separate “high” from “low” and “Hindu” from “Untouchable,” are reminiscent in part of the picture we have of the Peshwa state in the Deccan. But the Peshwa state can easily be explained as an aberration – its policies attributed to brahmans being rulers and therefore putting into practice brahmanical ideals. Marwar, however, continued to be ruled by an active and capable rajput king with the aid of a merchant-dominated administration.

Brahmans too took on the role of administrators but they remained in a minority when compared with merchants. Like Marwar and the Deccan, Jaipur too was witness to the emergence of a similarly active state, governing the moral lives of its subjects. It appears then that the 18th century, with the rapid collapse of the Mughal state, generated a new state form, one that drew in a wider ambit of participants as bureaucrats and petitioners but which extended the remit of state power into the moral lives of its subjects. In Marwar, this process entailed the discursive reconstitution of what it meant to be “high” caste or “Hindu” alongside a heightened rhetoric around the “Untouchable.” The Rathor state, with a Vaishnav king at its helm, carried this imagination into practice, deploying its punitive and surveillance capabilities toward normalising the newly imagined Hindu body.

Excerpted with permission from Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century India, Divya Cherian, Navayana.